By Nick Braune
Mid Valley Town Crier
Among the people I spoke with at the recent May Day labor rally in McAllen was Father John Lasseigne, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in San Juan. I usually move our conversations to capital punishment, because I know the pastor is concerned about the issue, has a law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans, and over the years has made friends with two people on death row. Of course, I asked for an interview.
Nick Braune: Executions have been stalled in Texas since last summer, as authorities were waiting for the nation’s Supreme Court to rule on execution practices in Kentucky. But just three weeks ago, the court issued its decision. Could you tell my readers about that decision?
Fr. John Lasseigne: Yes. In the April case of Baze v. Rees, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection method. The method calls for three drugs: one to produce unconsciousness, a second to paralyze muscles, and a third to cause cardiac arrest. Some thirty states use this same drug combination.
A pair of Kentucky death row inmates challenged this procedure, presenting scientific evidence that the first drug sometimes fails to produce complete unconsciousness. The third drug would then cause excruciating pain before eventually killing the convict. The inmates called for execution by a single, massive dose of barbiturates — the same method used to euthanize animals.
But the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the constitution does not require Kentucky to change its execution method. I fully expected this outcome. Given the conservative bent of this Supreme Court, I did not think the justices would sympathize much with an argument that murderers deserve a less risky or less painful way to die.
The case, however, did produce one surprise. Justice John Paul Stevens announced that he had finally come to the conclusion that the death penalty is always unconstitutional. By his declaration Stevens joins a very small group of justices who in Supreme Court history have shared that view.
Braune: I expect executions will start up soon again in Texas. Why do we have so many more people on death row than other states?
Fr. John: Here are some reasons. For years, Texas jury instructions set a low bar for death sentences. After finding the accused to be guilty, Texas juries had only to answer two additional questions: did the defendant act deliberately and was there a reasonable chance of him/her being dangerous in the future.
After the jury answered yes to those two questions, the judge automatically imposed a death sentence. Neither judge nor jury ever answered the deeper question of whether the accused actually deserved to die. Mitigating evidence such as mental retardation had no relevance to the death decision.
In the 1989 case of Penry v. Lynaugh, the Supreme Court found Texas’ death penalty sentencing guidelines to be unconstitutional — but only after many hundreds of Texans had been sentenced under the flawed rule. The ruling in Penry was not retroactive. Even after Penry, Texas juries in capital cases still were given only two sentencing options: death or life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. Although poll after poll showed that juries wanted the option of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, that option became available only in 2005. Before then some juries felt compelled to give death sentences against their best instincts.
There is another reason for so many people on death row: virtually all judges in Texas are elected. The last thing an elected judge wants is for a criminal who has appeared before his or her court to return to the streets and commit a well-publicized murder. Favoring the prosecution is an easy way for an elected judge to prevent that misfortune from happening.
Braune: In presentations you have made on capital punishment, you spoke about eyewitness testimony and false confessions. Could you go over that again?
Fr. John: Lawyers and psychologists know that eyewitness testimony is frequently unreliable. At times of emotional distress such as a crime, people’s capacity to see accurately plummets. The passage of time takes another toll on their ability to remember. Eyewitnesses tend to use freely composed bits of “memory” to fill in the gaps.
And as for confessions, defendants confess to crimes they did not commit for several reasons. They are subjected to brutal interrogations. The police feed them details of the crime to make their confessions believable. The defendants are told that if they confess they will make life easier for their loved ones who also may be facing serious charges. And the interrogations are not video-taped or even tape-recorded in most states, so the defense has little evidence to prove that the confession was coerced.
Braune: Thank you, Father John Lasseigne, for your comments.