Magazine article Editor & Publisher

No More Secret Death Penalty in Texas

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

No More Secret Death Penalty in Texas

Article excerpt

In Texas, town councils cannot hold their meetings in secret. Neither can county commissions or school boards or commissioner courts. Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, even wastewater treatment commissions must conduct their business in public.

Yet the Texas state board that decides whether a death row inmate lives or dies always meets in secret. That's not entirely accurate: In the last three decades the 18-person Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has never once actually met in the same room. It has, however, been busy.

In the past four years alone, it managed to decide the fate of 57 inmates -- refusing to stop the execution of 56 of them, incidentally. Commissioners contact each other by phone or simply fax in their votes. No hearings are held, no minutes or transcripts are taken of members' telephone tag -- and the board never issues a written explanation of its decisions.

This extraordinarily cavalier approach is all the more shocking given the board's enormous power. The last chance Texas capital crime convicts have to avoid execution is to throw themselves on the mercy of the pardons board. For unlike many other states, Texas does not give its governor absolute power to grant clemency. The governor can stop an execution only if that's what the pardons board recommends. And so like an ancient Roman emperor at the Coliseum, the pardons board can seal a prisoner's fate with the turn of a thumb. There is one difference, to be fair: At least the emperor showed up in person to render his veto. …

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