Texas’ highest criminal court has not often been receptive to the arguments of criminal defense attorneys that their clients should be spared the death penalty in the past.
But six reprieves handed down by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in recent weeks have led commentators to ask if the court is taking a new approach to execution appeals.
The Sioux City Journal reported how six reprieves since the early summer have resulted in a five-month hiatus in executions in the state that uses the death penalty more than any other. The court stopped two executions in June, three in August and one in September.
It’s the longest pause in deaths by lethal injection in Texas for nine years and can be seen in the context of a decline in executions nationwide. Use of the death penalty is set to reach a 25-year low in 2016.
Although the Court of Criminal Appeals has handed down half a dozen reprieves this summer, there is little evidence of an ideological shift among the judges.
Four inmates are slated to be executed by the end of the year in Texas. The state has carried out 537 executions since 1982, which is considerably more than any other state.
Judge Lawrence Meyers, who has served on the Court of Criminal Appeals for 24 years, said a lot of new defenses are being used and lawyers are being more inventive.
Reasons for the reprieves included a false testimony claim, a challenge of the use of hypnosis for a witness, questions over the DNA evidence in other case, and a false testimony claim in another. Many of are likely to be returned to the trial courts for review.
Inmates granted a stay of execution included Jeffrey Wood, an accomplice who didn’t kill anyone. Wood was a driver who was outside a gas station when his friend killed a clerk during a robbery.
One of the claims by his defense team argued “false and misleading testimony” was presented by a psychiatrist for the prosecution at the original trial, and it was in violation of due process. Defense attorneys claimed the judgment also violated due process because it was based on false scientific evidence.
Wood was sentenced to death after controversial evidence from forensic psychiatrist James Grigson, who is dubbed “Dr. Death” because of the amount of defendants his testimony helped put on death row. Grigson testified that Wood would “most certainly” commit a violent crime again, even though he never examined Wood.