In Harris County, Texas, The Death Penalty Is Applied With A Judicial Rubber Stamp
from the they're-just-convicts.-why-try-harder? dept
When life is literally on the line, Texas judges are slouching their way towards another paycheck.
In these cases, Harris County post-conviction prosecutors have authored and proposed 21,275 separate findings of fact and conclusions of law and the Harris County courts have adopted 20,261 of the prosecutors’ proposed findings verbatim: an adoption rate of 95%. In fact, judges in Harris County have adopted all of the prosecutors’ findings verbatim in 183 out of 191 sets of findings, or 96%. In the vast majority (167) of those cases, the judges simply signed the state’s proposed document without changing the heading.
The research conducted by Jordan Stelker, James Marcus, and Thea Posel — a review of 199 capital post-conviction cases that flowed through Harris County’s (TX) massive broken court system — also notes that eight Harris County courts never rejected the state’s conclusions, even when the findings were “plainly contradicted by the record.”
The full report [PDF] contains details of handful of cases where the rubber stamp was applied by judges with genuine indifference to the people they were sentencing to death. In many of these cases, no consideration was given for convicts’ mental health problems, traumatic childhoods, good behavior while incarcerated, or anything else that may have proved mitigating.
[T]he findings of fact and conclusions of law in Dexter Johnson’s case suggest that the problem of one-sided rubber-stamping may be more prevalent than a review of document headings would indicate. Instead of a signed copy of the prosecutor’s proposed findings summarily adopted as the findings and conclusions of the trial judge, the findings of fact and conclusions of law document in Johnson’s case is captioned “The Trial Court’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Order of the Court.” However, a line-by-line comparison against the state’s proposed findings and conclusions indicates that the two documents are entirely identical in substance, with the exception that the court’s findings do not bear the prosecutor’s signature block or certificate of service and the spacing has been rearranged to make up for the extra room left at the bottom of the last page by the omission of the signature block. The prosecutor’s proposed findings and the trial court’s adopted findings are written in the same distinctive font and share the same mistake in numbering in the final set of conclusions of law. Both sets are file-stamped on February 24, 2010, and Judge Denise Collins signed the document captioned “The Trial Court’s Findings” on the same day.
Not even a copy-paste job. Just some mild alteration to transpose the judicial approval over the prosecution’s signatures. Taking the state’s version verbatim meant ignoring all of this:
The issues in Johnson’s case were not boilerplate—he had a history of low IQ scores, schizophrenia, brain damage, and learning difficulties, and the claims raised in his habeas application attack both the voluntariness of his statements to police and the effectiveness of his appellate counsel.
And the date on the rubber-stamped document means something shady happened in that judge’s court.
However, circumstances indicate that the trial judge either signed the findings authored by the state the very same day they were filed (changing the heading herself), received an ex parte copy of the state’s proposed findings to consider before they were filed with the court, or was provided with a clean and revised copy of the state’s proposed findings by the prosecutor to further streamline the rubber-stamping process.
As the report points out, several factors have contributed to same-day service from Harris County judges and their rubber stamps. First, an inordinate amount of capital cases are routed through these courts as the result of jurisdiction allocation. A well-intentioned effort to keep capital reviews close to the courts of conviction was supposed to allow judges already familiar with these cases to make decisions on post-conviction habeas corpus reviews. Instead, it has just created a backlog of cases in courts already stymied by the lack of clerks.
But the biggest reason for Harris County rubber-stamping is this: zero accountability.
The CCA (Court of Criminal Appeals) is no doubt aware of the ubiquity of rubber-stamping and yet affords deference to such findings in the same manner as those produced after more extensive, independent proceedings (evidentiary hearings followed by independent court-drafted orders). Similarly, federal courts within the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit routinely defer to fact findings contained in rubber-stamped state-proposed orders, insisting such deference is mandated by the federal habeas statute. So long as rubberstamping continues to receive the imprimatur of the CCA and the federal courts, state post-conviction judges have little incentive to abandon the practice.
It’s not a justice system. It’s a rigged game where the prosecution runs the table nearly 100% of the time. And it’s happening in a state that has always taken time to brag about how many criminals it puts to death. The state’s courts are complicit in the removal of anything adversarial from a supposedly adversarial process. The system in Harris County appears to be broken at every level, starting with the routine jailing of the presumptively innocent (thanks to absurdly-high bail amounts and an adamant refusal to release arrestees on their own recognizance) and running all the way up to the rubber-stamping of prosecutors’ paperwork in death penalty cases.