Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Futures Past: Institutionalizing the Re-Examination of Future Dangerousness in Texas Prior to Execution

Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Futures Past: Institutionalizing the Re-Examination of Future Dangerousness in Texas Prior to Execution

Article excerpt

"I am sorry. I really am. You, Brian's sister, thanks for your love - it meant a lot. Shone - I hope he finds peace. I am sorry I destroyed you all's life. Thank you for forgiving me. To the moon and back. I love you all." - Last Words of James Vernon Allridge, II1

I. INTRODUCTION

On August 26, 2004 the State of Texas put James Vernon Allridge, III to death for the murder of Brian Clenbennen.2 Although James was found a "continuing threat to society" by his jury, during his tenure on death row, he became a prolific artist, respected member of the prison community, and a mentor to younger inmates.3 Former prison guard Jacoby Garmon had the following to say about James:

James was always respectful and never in trouble. ... I would consider James a role model prisoner. ... He never did get into any trouble and everyone seemed to like him. . . James was the kind of prisoner that made everybody's life easier as far as being able to work around the death row inmates. ... I can never imagine James posing any kind of threat to any other inmates or correctional officers. . . . James probably saved a lot of correctional officers' lives and they didn't even know it, just by calming the situation.4

The execution of such an individual appears counterintuitive to the promotion of order and a disincentive for good behavior on the part of other inmates. If taken off death row, would James have continued to behave this way in the general population? Probably so.

When asked to evaluate James' prison records, Sherrel Odis Woods, the former Chairman of the State Classification Committee said:

My prediction is that there's no need for maximum custody status. He represents no immediate threat to escape, he's not assaultive to the staff or other inmates, he's not in need of protection and there's really no reason not to place him in general population.

[T]here is no evidence that he represents a threat to staffer employees by his past conduct.5

Even a one-time prison official responsible for the determination of inmate placement found that James would function safely and appropriately among the general prison population.

In his petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, James' lawyers argued that u[t]he legitimate aims of capital punishment are undermined by executing a rehabilitated, model prisoner only because 17 years ago, he was erroneously deemed a future danger."6 A man who was found to be a future danger during his trial now appeared to be a stabilizing force. However, this argument persuaded neither the Supreme Court of the United States, nor the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which unanimously rejected James' petition.7

In sentencing defendants to death, Texas law requires juries to evaluate the future dangerousness of the person on trial, an inquiry inevitably based on speculation.8 While often cited as a demonstration of the inhumanity of the death penalty,9 the lengthy terms of incarceration served by death row inmates tipped in James Allridge's favor. Without his seventeen year imprisonment on and off death row, James would never have had the opportunity to do what he ultimately did: prove his jury wrong.

The jury is one of the fundamental safeguards of our justice system, intended to protect defendants from unfair trials and reflect the social norms of the surrounding community. However, juries are far from infallible. While the possibility for jury error exists in all judicial proceedings, mistakes in capital cases have fatal implications. An incorrect jury finding that results in a death sentence may have devastating implications on not just the defendant slated for execution, but on the jurors responsible for making that choice. One such juror, Laury Robertson, served in James' case.

When 21-year-old Laury Robertson joined her 11 fellows [sic] jurors to decide what punishment James Vernon Allridge should receive for killing a young convenience store clerk during a robbery in February 1985, she voted for the death penalty without hesitation. …

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