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State House Panel Looks At Death Penalty Bills

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The Texas death chamber in Huntsville. (credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

The Texas death chamber in Huntsville. (credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

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AUSTIN (AP) – A Texas lawmaker wants to suspend executions in the nation’s most active death penalty state and create a commission to study whether the process needs to be fixed.

A state House committee heard testimony Tuesday on a bill by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, that would create the Texas Capital Punishment Commission and establish a two-year moratorium on executions while the commission completes its study.

The nine-member commission would propose legislation to fix any inequities in state capital punishment procedures based on the study’s findings.

Advocates of the bill say that Texas has long needed to thoroughly vet its use of the penalty. At least 12 Texans have been exonerated from death row, and supporters say the state must carefully scrutinize the statute to erase any doubt about whether death row inmates are actually guilty.

“That’s a flaw in our system that I think deserves some attention from this Legislature,” Dutton said. “And we ought to stop the system from executing people while we fix it.”

Scott Cobb, president of Texas Moratorium Network, likened the penalty to a plane that has crashed and needs examination.

“After a plane crash, we look to see what the problem was,” he said. “The death penalty is a flawed system, but one we haven’t looked at in a comprehensive way to see if we can improve the system to protect people who are innocent.”

Dutton’s bill was just one of several bills the committee left pending to change the state death penalty and alter procedures in capital felony cases.

Dutton and Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, are working to amend a state law that has prompted nationwide criticism.

A Texas statute known as the law of parties allows a person to be held liable for a murder as a co-conspirator and possibly face the death penalty even if they didn’t physically commit the crime.

The bills would allow co-defendants to have separate trials in death penalty cases. Dutton’s bill would prohibit death sentences in such cases.

Family members and friends of Texans convicted under the law testified before the committee, pleading with lawmakers to fundamentally change the statute that unfairly sent their loved ones to death row.

The statute caught lawmakers’ attention in 2007 when the case of Kenneth Foster spurred national outrage and a massive grassroots effort to prove his innocence.

Foster was the driver of getaway car in a 1996 robbery-turned-shooting. Foster was tried with the murderer, and the jury invoked the law of parties to determine that Foster should have anticipated that the robberies could end in murder.

“Everything that applied to one, applied to the other,” Foster’s father, Kenneth Foster, Sr., said of the trial. “It was unfair for each one because the negative weight took a toll on both throughout the entire trial.”

After spending 10 years on death row, Foster was hours away from being executed as an accomplice to murder when Gov. Rick Perry spared his life.

Following the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommendation that Perry grant Foster a death row reprieve, the governor expressed concern about defendants being tried at the same time and urged lawmakers to re-examine the practice.

“Foster’s story is a perfect example of why this needs to be changed,” Miles said. “To sentence a man to death who has not committed murder himself is inhumane, cruel and fundamentally unjust.”

Those advocating for reform say the law is based in unrealistic expectations akin to mind-reading.

“This law cries out for change,” said attorney Mary Phelps. “It’s so broadly written that it actually could involve people who had no connection to the eventual crime.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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