Executing the Innocent

By Jay Goodman

Every state seems to want to be known for their toughness on crime, and naturally, Texas is no exception to this rule. In fact, Texas takes pride in leading the country in its number of uses of the death penalty,leading the nations  for many years in the annual count of executions. Yep. Every thing is bigger in Texas. And in this case, they do a hell  of a job of beating out all the competition, but at what cost?

Before anyone jumps in and says something like, “What  if someone killed YOUR child, Jay?” my answer to that is,  of course, I would be angry like any other human being. When someone we love is hurt by someone else, our natural reaction is to be angry, to hate. But remember, that is  our natural reaction. We are not thinking, we are just reacting to the emotions. I have discovered in my own life that whenever I react to these emotions and lash out with anger or hate, it has always been the wrong thing to doit’s always led to the wrong decision.

I have seen, like you, reports on the news of murders  that greatly upset me, ones that have hurt my heart. We read about senseless killings in the newspapers, and I’ve thought, My God, what were these people thinking? In prison, there are times when other prisoners sitting next to me would even express their anger or disbelief. For most people, seeing someone get killed is painful, even if they don’t personally love or even know that person. But if it IS someone that we love, it changes our lives forever. In my own personal life, I’ve not only known the deep pain of losing my own son to natural illness, but I’ve also known the pain of seeing someone I love lose their life to criminal activity. I want the people reading this who’ve lost a family member or a friend to murder to know how truly sorry I am for the loss you’ve experienced, and this is not some half-cocked defense of murderers. Nevertheless, there are things about the death penalty that need to be part of the national conversation. I pray these words will open your eyes to the realization that the death penalty is deeply flawed. 

Let me start by asking those who have lost a loved one, Do you want justice? I’m sure the answer to that question  is, Yes.” Now the next question: Do you want the right person convicted and punished for committing this crime? Naturally, naturally, the answer here is “yes” again, but think about it carefully, because if you think for one minute that everything about sending a man to his death is black and white like some old episode of Perry Mason, you are in for a rude awakening.

Our American justice system was set up by the founding fathers that you were innocent until proven guilty by a jury of your peers. A famous quote from one of them was  that it would be better for one hundred guilty men to go  free than for one innocent man to go to prison. Well, let  me assure you that those days are behind us. The paradigm now is, “Guilty until proven innocent.” And most prosecutors seem determined to make sure that the guilty man damn well better go to jail, even if one hundred innocent men hang with him. And to prove my point, I’ve included a USA Today article by Kevin Johnson.

From 2001 until 2011 here in Texas, it was discovered that there had been 30… THIRTY!!!… wrongful convictions in Dallas County alone. And looking at the numbers in Houston during that same span of time, it’s almost as bad. Together, that’s over 50 wrongful convictions in only two cities.

As I read this article, I was so relieved to see that  one of the nation’s most widely distributed newspapers was finally looking into and exposing this problem. At the same time, I was frustrated that nobody in the article asked  the million-dollar question. If these two cities combined have over 50 wrongful convictions in a short ten-year span, then just how many innocent men are sitting in Texas prisons right this very second? Remember this, because it’s very important. These are only the ones they’ve been able to prove beyond any doubt. So, with Texas annually executing more people than any other state in the U.S., and the U.S. executing more people than any other Western nation, and ALMOST as many as the Chinese with their 3-4 billion people population, just how many people have we killed that were actually innocent of their crime? One is too many, but the actual number of innocent people Texas has executed is probably unbelievable. Am I exagerating? Remember, 50+ wrongful convictions in only ten years in just two cities! It truly grieves my heart to think of all the men and women who we in Texas have murdered at the hands of the state, and they were innocent of any wrongdoing.

Now, this article is several years old. Since the day I saw it published, I’ve been watching, waiting and hoping for the day when Texas’s elected officials would see these same numbers and think, innocent people are dying here by  our own hands! We have to do something! You would have thought that our state senators and representatives, all the judges and prosecutors, and especially our governor with his unique power to stay executions and single-handedly stop this madness would have done something, ANYthing, to change the way the death penalty works in our state.

Sadly, this did not happen. After reading the article I’ve included, why do you think Texas would do nothing in the face of no less than 50 proven wrongful convictions? Why? It’s because if Texas ever finally opens that door and admits the possibility they killed an innocent man or woman, all hell would break loose starting with the loved ones of all those who’ve died in those straps. So, instead of facing the music and coming together in leadership and making the right decision to stop these executions as long as there is a chance that one, single innocent person is murdered, they do nothing at all. I wonder sometimes if they even think about these things nd justify their own actions in their minds by saying, Well, I’m sure they must have been guilty of SOMEthing. 

And, I’m sure, all the judges and prosecutors will say,  Well, the JURY found them guilty, and the law says that  this type of crime carries the death penalty, so there’s  no blood on my hands. Not to put too fine a point on it,  this is just bullshit. We all know the judge has the power, regardless of jury verdict or sentencing, to disregard that finding and issue a lesser sentence of life imprisonment. Especially if he sees some sort of discrepancy or too much  of a dependency on circumstantial evidence, he has great power to intervene and stop a killing. He doesn’t have to throw the case out, mind you, but he can issue a sentence of life in prison instead of death. At least this provides the possibility that the state can make some measure of restitution if it should later be shown that this convict was actually innocent.

I think you’d be shocked to know the number of persons  in prison who were actually convicted on nothing more than circumstantial evidence instead of hard evidence. To prove what I’m saying, just read that article again. There CAN’T  be any hard evidence in a case where an innocent man goes  to jail, unless someone is trying to make the absurd assertion that all these people were somehow framed up for—their crimes. You’ll also see in the article that former Texas governor  Mark White says he continues to support the death penalty  “only in a select number of cases”, but believes a national reassesment is now warranted in light of the stream of exonerations recently seen. YOU THINK?! Let me speculate on what would happen if this “national reassesment” ever came about…

NOTHING! The same thing that almost always happens when  a bunch of Texas politicians sit around and “reassess”.  And when White talks about “a select number of cases”,  he’s straddling the fence, because it seems there’s no way to know for certain which of these cases involve the innocent man or woman who might later be exonerated. Either there’s a death penalty or there’s not, because once the law is passed, if a crime falls under the statute, you can rest assured those bulldog Texas prosecutors are going to go for it. 

Here is an example of how a law will be used and abused by the Texas justice system. When the ankle monitor was first introduced to Texas law enforcement, a lot of people were unsure about giving so much power to policing agencies in our state. So, the public had to be sold on the idea,  and to do the selling, we were told that these “Big Brother” devices would only be used on the most serious cases of child molesters, and they were needed to make sure we could keep tabs on these predators and make sure they didn’t go anywhere they weren’t supposed to go. It worked. The public was (too) easily persuaded in the face of this example of its intended use, and they started strapping the monitor onto a bunch of sex offenders.

As time passed, however, the use of these devices became more and more widespread until it became at first, molesters, then murderers, then anyone with aggravated charges, and now, practically anyone with so much a jaywalking charge can get stuck with an ankle monitor, EVEN BEFORE THEY’RE CONVICTED! This is crazy stuff. The death penalty is the same way. As long as it  is available to Texas prosecutors, they will seek to use  it in more and more cases with less and less justification. Then there’s the “public defenders”. Prisoners call them “public pretenders”, because it’s often our experience that if you don’t pay for your attorney up front, your lawyer is only going to go through the motions. You won’t get a good defense. There’s a lawyer in Houston named Jerome Godinich. I read about him some years back. The article showed how he made over $1 million as a public defender. But what really caught my eye was the fact that it was found that a man on death row that he was representing had never had ANY paperwork filed for his appeal. Godinich didn’t even make any last-minute attempts to get this man’s life spared. Looking into his caseload, the authorities found he had dozens more cases than he was allowed to have by law. Of course, he got into trouble with the State Bar, but do you think that mattered the least little bit to the guy with the poison needle in his arm? Hell no! The poor S.O.B. never even got his due process. And if you think this is an isolated incident, think again. Remember the 30 wrongful convictions in Dallas?

This is such a terrible game to play with people’s lives, because if an innocent man or woman dies in the death chamber of a prison, it’s not just a mistake, it’s a state-condoned murder.

Finally, it goes without saying that the people who are most adversely affected by the death penalty are the poor. These people usually cannot afford a good defense team.  If we are going to kill criminals, we better know beyond a shadow of a doubt they are guilty, and I think it’s been shown that isn’t feasible right now. And if one person out of that hundred is an innocent man or woman, guess what that makes you and me? That’s right. A murderer.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez