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Texas Judge puts the American death penalty on trial

American Death Chamber

A Houston judge on Monday began a hearing on the legality of the death penalty in Texas, which executes more convicts than any other U.S. state, and will render a high-profile judgment that could influence the national debate on capital punishment.

During roughly two weeks of testimony, state District Judge Kevin Fine will hear arguments from prominent death penalty opponents, who will shine a spotlight on the legal processes and evidentiary support used in Texas’ capital punishment trials, which critics say are error-prone.

“This will be an authoritative statement on the death penalty in Texas,” said James Liebman, a law professor at Columbia Law School. The case could impact other states like Illinois, where there is a legislative effort to repeal the punishment, Liebman said.

County prosecutors said they will “stand mute” during the hearing, after citing 19 reasons why it should not proceed. Prosecutor Alan Curry told Judge Fine he would “respectfully refuse to participate” in the hearing. Fine later told Curry, “I expect your participation.”

John Green, 25, is awaiting trial after being charged with murdering a woman during a robbery in Houston in 2008. He says he is innocent.

His lawyers have challenged the constitutionality of Texas’ death penalty, claiming that there is a high probability of wrongful convictions and executions under current trial rules. Their effort is predicated on Texas rules that allow defendants to challenge the legality of potential punishments even before trial begins.

Fine evoked the ire of Texas Governor Rick Perry in March when he granted a request by Green’s lawyers to declare the state’s death penalty as unconstitutional, a common request in capital murder cases that Texas judges routinely deny.

Fine rescinded the ruling after pointing to evidence that “we execute innocent people,” and called for the hearing.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 138 U.S. prisoners sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1973, and 12 of those cases have been in Texas.

Exonerations show that state prosecutors sometimes make mistakes during capital murder trials and “there certainly is the risk of executing the innocent and that risk still exists today,” said Richard Dieter, the death center’s executive director. Current Texas law carries “a nightmare proportion” of risk for the accused to be wrongfully convicted of capital murder and sentenced to the death penalty.

Fine is a Democrat who presides in Harris County, which has sentenced more prisoners to death than any other Texas county.

Texas is a predominantly Republican state where support for the death penalty runs high. The state has executed 464 inmates over the last three decades — far more than any other U.S. state.

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The following are some facts and figures about capital punishment in Texas.

* Texas has executed 464 convicted criminals since 1982. This is over a third of the national total of 1,233 executions that have been carried out in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a temporary ban on the practice in 1976.

* Not one of these executions has ever been declared wrongful by a judge. But several legal experts and judicial activists believe that Texas may have wrongfully executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 for the arson murders of his three young children and Claude Jones in 2000 for a murder robbery committed in 1989. In Willingham’s case, doubts have been raised by the forensic methods that the findings of arson were based on; in Jones’ case, subsequent DNA testing has raised questions about his conviction.

* Twelve people who have been sentenced to death in Texas in the modern era have been exonerated. Since 1973, there have been a total of 138 exonerations in 26 states nationwide. Only 12 of those cases have been in Texas.

* The death penalty in Texas is carried out by lethal injection.

* There are 317 offenders on death row in Texas.

* In the modern era, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who assumed office in December 2000, has overseen 224 executions, far more than any of his peers. This is partly because the Texas governor’s powers of pardon are more constrained than they are in some other states but also because the state’s judicial system and cowboy culture bring far more offenders to the execution chamber.

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