The following is Bobby Cervantes’s piece for the Daily Texan Editorial Board.
When Judge Kevin Fine, a state judge in Houston, ruled last week that the death penalty in Texas was unconstitutional, the blowback from the state’s conservative brass was swift.
Statements from Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbot and a slew of other high-profile pro-capital punishment activists decried the judge’s ruling as “an act of unabashed judicial activism,” promising that the ruling would fail an appeal in a higher court.
In his opinion, Fine cited the vaunted Innocence Project, a nationwide effort out of Yeshiva University in New York that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted. While the project has freed some 251 people so far, perhaps its most important role — especially in Texas — is to bring to light the careless and illegal missteps that have led to years-long miscarriages of justice.
“Based on the moratorium [on the death penalty] in Illinois, the Innocence Project and more than 200 people being exonerated nationwide, it can only be concluded that innocent people have been executed,” Fine wrote. “It’s safe to assume we execute innocent people.”
For a judge who showed such clarity and backbone last week, we do not recognize the Judge Fine who yesterday rescinded his previous ruling. He now says that he wants more information on whether or not Texas is executing innocent people, which would make, in his eyes, the death penalty unconstitutional.
While we must make it clear that no concrete evidence has surfaced to definitely accuse the state of executing an innocent person, Judge Fine needs to look no further than the work of the UT Law students whose work last year exonerated two Dallas men, both convicted of capital murder.
The Actual Innocence Clinic at the UT School of Law, in conjunction with the UT Arlington and the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, proved its case without DNA evidence, making the exoneration that much more extraordinary.
Even the Cameron Todd Willingham case, which galvanized the entire nation last year, proves the obvious point that Texas’ criminal justice system is, at times, careless. The state convicted Willingham for the murder of his three children (he was accused of burning his East Texas home with his three children inside) and then executed him in 2004.
That kind of carelessness all too often breeds distrust — leading to the numerous questions that continue to surround the Willingham case to this day. Current evidence indicates that Willingham should have been exonerated.
We are reminded today of the life and work of Judge William Wayne Justice, who ruled time and again in the 1970s and ‘80s in favor of integrating East Texas schools, educating the children of illegal immigrants and bringing humanity to the state’s prison system.
They were controversial issues at the time, and they garnered Wayne a considerable amount of hate mail. But as liberal columnist Molly Ivins said of Wayne, “He brought the United States Constitution to Texas.”
That business remains unfinished. We hope Judge Fine is ready to get back to work.