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State's clemency process draws international condemnation

Editorial, The Dallas Morning News, 06/08/99

Amnesty International's most recent report on the Texas death penalty contained no surprises. The human rights group called the state's executive clemency process "an empty gesture" that fails "to comply with reasonable concepts of fairness."
Amnesty International is correct. When condemned prisoners appeal for clemency in Texas, their plea receives an arbitrary, secretive and cursory review. Only once in 17 years has the Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted a death sentence at the inmate's request. Clemency reviews are the bleakest form of Russian roulette - one empty chamber and the rest filled with bullets.
The Amnesty report summarizes the deficiencies in the state's process:

The 18-member parole board has no guidelines on what to look for in a clemency application or what a prisoner should submit.
Board members do not meet to discuss applications.
The board does not routinely explain its decisions.
Board members do little or no independent investigation into an inmate's application, even when there is new evidence of innocence.

Board members have slightly revised the clemency process in the past few months. They have required prisoners to submit clemency petitions earlier.
Condemned inmates may soon be allowed to request an interview with one or more parole board members; the inmates' attorneys would not be present.
The form on which board members vote for or against commutation or reprieve has been revised to allow them to explain their decision - but there is no requirement that members do so.
These changes, while real, are of limited value. They don't significantly improve the basic unfairness and secrecy of the clemency process.
Some death penalty supporters have dismissed the Amnesty International report, saying that the group's abolitionist stance makes its work biased and suspect. That is a cheap way to duck sober criticisms offered by a respected human rights organization. Plus, many citizens and groups that support capital punishment have blasted the way Texas implements it.
The clemency process needs an overhaul, not refinements at the margin. It is no honor for Texas to be known as "a state without mercy."