What’s up with the State of Texas?
During a September 2011, Republican presidential debate featuring Texas governor Rick Perry (and other candidates vying for the party’s 2012 nomination), the audience cheered loudly (and perhaps even high-fived their seatmates during a few off-camera shots) in response to Perry’s position on capital punishment. Even though the governor’s stance is pretty much a “known,” it was quite astounding to hear such vociferous affirmations coming from the assembled crowd. A casual observer just tuning in to the televised debate might have viewed the yelps, yahoos, and foot-stomping madness as the governor’s response to an inquiry regarding, say, his preference for apple pie as opposed to pineapple upside down cake.
But the crowd’s jubilance wasn’t in response to the governor’s culinary preferences.
The crowd’s unabashed, thumbs-up deportment was the verbal, behavioral, and unvarnished reaction to a much larger truth: their belief in the righteousness of the governor of the state of Texas. Take it straight from the crowd: Apple pie and pineapple upside down cake can’t compare to the gratifying exhilaration of lethal injections. While the former might have the capability of satisfying one’s temporary need for a pleasurable sweet-fix, the latter has the unequivocal effect of putting its subject to sleep. Forever. End of Story.
Fast forward to the case of Michael Morton.
On October 3, 2011, Michael Morton walked out of a Williamson County (Texas) courtroom a free man after having spent the past 25 years behind bars for killing his wife. DNA evidence pointed to another man as the responsible party, but not before Morton had been severely victimized by the state’s judicial system. Abhorrent, unconscionable behavior by the State, including the dismissal of a judge’s order for a review of the case, greatly contributed to Morton’s quarter century incarceration. “Stunning” is the word a Senior Staff Attorney used to describe prosecutors’ conduct in the case.
Recent developments in Morton’s case, however, indicate that the State is reviewing legal documents related to his conviction and has launched an investigation into actions engaged by trial lawyers in the case. And while it might be a bit too premature to pop the champagne cork and ready the long-stems in celebration of a positive outcome, it is a post-commencement to a case which ended horribly.
Whatever the outcome in the investigation, 25 years of Michael Morton’s life are gone. Like the wind. Never to return. Or be returned.
Now, too, comes the case of Anthony Melendez, the only living defendant in the 1982 case of three teenagers slain in Lake Waco, Texas. At the time of Melendez’s conviction, there was no DNA testing available. But now, in an effort to exonerate Melendez through DNA evidence, Attorney Walter M. Reaves has filed a motion asking for the testing, which involves DNA evidence present on shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims.
While Melendez has always maintained his innocence, he confessed to his involvement in the crime on the advice of his defense team who convinced him that if a jury found him guilty he would, in all likelihood, be sentenced to death. When you’re young, scared, and presented with few options in such a case–and are listening to authority figures who presumably have your best interests at heart– a life sentence might not sound like such a bad idea, given the alternative.
But Melendez’s case is in the Lone Star State, where guilt and innocence are oftentimes secondary to truth and justice.
The McLennan County (Waco) District Attorney’s Office is fighting tooth and nail in an oppositional effort regarding any such exertions related to post-conviction DNA. The jury has spoken, the DA’s Office has asserted, and any such testing, if permitted, will “override” the jury’s decision.
“Override the jury’s decision”?
Let me be clear on this: The District Attorney’s Office would rather maintain a guilty verdict–in light of compelling evidence which can prove a man’s innocence–in an effort to “maintain” a jury’s decision, no matter if the jury’s decision was reached in error? What this suggests to me is that the DA’s Office is more concerned with winning (and obviously at all costs) than it is with obtaining the truth and moving that truth forward. Justice, it seems to me the DA’s Office is saying, has no (or very little) place in this effort of review. And while the State Attorney’s Office might be in the “routine” business of prosecuting cases against individuals it deems guilty of having committed various crimes in Texas, I suggest that it is also a state where truth and justice might not be the most significant item on a random docket.
From a potential presidential nominee who favors state-sanctioned revenge killings, to acts of prosecutorial misconduct, to maintaining questionable jury decisions, Texas offers the nation’s citizens a grand perspective of its judicial viewpoints and operations that leave much to be desired.
While the Lone Star State is certainly not a state alone in its stance on capital punishment, victims’ claims of innocence, and judicial reviews of former cases, I see it as a State of Juxtaposition, where apple pie and pineapple upside down cake are as welcomed as lethal injections, judicial misconduct, and questionable decisions from those whose jobs are to seek the truth.