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October 20 2009 | UNITED STATES

Texas/USA

Texas former Governor Mark White regrets: away with death penalty

 
printable version

Chron

Review death penalty law, ex-governor urges

White worries about execution of the innocent

By R.G. RATCLIFFE

AUSTIN — Former Gov. Mark White, who was involved in the executions of 20 condemned criminals, says it may be time for Texas to do away with the death penalty.

The death penalty is no longer a deterrent to murder, and long stays for the condemned on death row shows justice is not swift, White said.

More than anything, he said, he has grown concerned that the system is not administered fairly and that there are too many risks of executing innocent people.

White said the state needs to take a serious look at replacing the death penalty with life without parole.

“There is a very strong case to be made for a review of our death penalty statutes and even look at the possibility of having life without parole so we don't look up one day and determined that we as the state of Texas have executed someone who is in fact innocent,” said White.

Perry controversy

Current Gov. Rick Perry is facing national criticism for not granting a 30-day stay in 2004 to Cameron Todd Willingham after an arson expert raised questions about the house fire that killed his three children.

Perry ignited the controversy recently by replacing members of the Texas Forensics Commission that were looking into the science behind the arson investigation in the Willingham case.

Perry responded by calling Willingham a “monster” and saying he has no doubt of his guilt.

Noting that he does not know all the facts in the Willingham case, White said it shows how forensic science is evolving. White said there also has been at least one case of a death row inmate being cleared by modern DNA testing. That was the case of Michael Blair, a child sex offender who was convicted of killing Ashley Estell after a playground abduction, but exonerated when DNA testing indicated someone else likely was involved.

“That's two examples of why I think the system is so unreliable it creates an unnecessary possibility that an innocent person would be executed in Texas. And I don't think anybody in Texas wants that to happen,” White said.

Keller case

The former Democratic governor also said he was upset by the incident in 2007 when the Court of Criminal Appeals was closed to an inmate's efforts to file a last-minute appeal based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that came down earlier in the day of his execution. That case has resulted in a State Judicial Conduct Commission investigation of Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

“That was a horrible procedural error,” White said.

White, as attorney general in 1982, represented the state in the first execution after the death penalty was reinstated. As governor from 1983 to 1987, he oversaw 19 executions.

White said during his tenure as governor, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox was in Huntsville and he remained by the telephone in case an execution needed to be halted at the last minute. White said none of the cases he handled involved claims of innocence.

White said he is not critical of Perry's handling of the Willingham case and would not second guess him.

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