By Nimrah Siddiqui
ACLU of Texas Volunteer
Americans expect that they will not be found guilty without a fair trial. A similar principle applies to sentencing of individuals found guilty of a capital offense which, according to our laws, includes the opportunity to provide evidence that the death penalty is too harsh in the circumstances of their case. On August 22, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of John Balentine for precisely this reason. The cancellation came just one hour before his execution was set to take place.
Balentine’s lawyer, Lydia Brandt, has argued that extenuating conditions in his childhood, such as violence and delayed emotional development, were not considered when the district court of Potter County handed him the death penalty. According to Brandt, Balentine’s lawyers in his original trial and early appeals failed to present evidence that could have persuaded jurors to give him a life sentence. Brandt cited a recent court ruling from Arizona regarding the issue of ineffective counsel, Martinez v. Ryan, to request a review of his case.
There are two phases in the death penalty trial. First, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, then the jury decides the punishment. This is called the sentencing phase. In the sentencing phase, attorneys can present mitigating evidence to prove that the defendant should not have to face the death penalty. The majority of death penalty cases involve defendants who have experienced extraordinary circumstances, such as traumatic life experiences or intellectual disabilities, that sometimes convince jurors the death penalty isn’t deserved.
While the system allows for the presentation and consideration of mitigating evidence, the system is also plagued by “randomness” and wantonness, according to a 2011 report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The report looks at how capital cases are arbitrarily assessed and reveals how factors other than the severity of the crime or the guilt of the criminal can influence the decision to use the death penalty.
Ineffective legal representation often plays a role in death penalty cases, as well. In many cases, defendants who are unable to pay are represented by inexperienced or over-burdened attorneys. The DPIC has compiled a long list of cases in which the competency of the lawyer or the right to an attorney is at issue.
The Texas Defender Service is an organization that works toward access to competent defense and ensuring a fair criminal justice system in Texas. There current cases of interest include Duane Buck, Marcus Druery, Yokamon Hearn, Ricky Kerr, and Scott Panetti.
John Balentine was the fifth prisoner on Texas’ death row to receive a stay of execution in 2012. There are nine more executions scheduled this year, with two scheduled in September. Robert Harris is scheduled to be executed September 20th, and Cleve Foster is scheduled for execution September 25th.