Elsewhere in the United States and even in Texas, death sentences are becoming increasingly rare, but they're still handed down with enough frequency in Houston for the media and local court watchers to express shock (and in some cases, dismay) that a jury gave copkiller Juan Quntero life without parole instead of a death sentence. The Houston Chronicle reported that:
Said Johnson's sister to the jury after the verdict in her moving victim impact statement (see the video online here), "You had another man's life in your hands, as he did. He chose to take it, you chose to spare it. That's being human."
It sounded like a foolproof recipe for a death sentence: an admired and respected police officer shot in the back by an illegal immigrant whose history included criminal convictions for drunken driving and indecency with a child as well as deportation.
But a Harris County jury decided otherwise, shocking most people who paid even the slightest attention to a trial in which the shooting itself was never an issue and the defendant's character offered little to praise.
Danalynn Recer, one of the attorneys for Juan Quintero, said the lesson to take from the jury's decision to give him life without parole instead of death is that the people of Harris County are far from the bloodthirsty yahoos of national caricature.
Johnson's wife, though, didn't see it that way: "My husband's life meant nothing — that's what I felt," Joslyn Johnson, also an HPD officer, said of the verdict.
Personally I'm not sure where this idea comes from that the death penalty is a harsher punishment than life without parole. Everyone dies, but not everybody spends their whole life locked up in a cage.
The Chronicle published an article this morning by Mike Tolson, "Quintero verdict baffling to many," interrogating the question of why a death-qualified jury sentenced Quintero to life without parole (LWOP). One theory is that the LWOP option makes it less likely the death penalty is imposed. Reported Tolson:
Texas added the life-without-parole measure in September 2005. Over the past three years, juries in the state have returned death sentences in 14, 11 and 15 cases, respectively. The yearly average over the previous decade was 34, and the lowest previous total was 23.Another possibility, wrote Tolson, is that the public generally supports capital punishment less, writing that, "death sentences in the United States are in decline. The total has dropped steadily from 326 in 1995 to just over 100 in 2007. Abolitionists claim the public taste for capital punishment has diminished because of exonerations and other well-publicized shortcomings of the criminal justice system." (Like those quoted in the story, though, I seriously doubt that's the reason.)
University of Houston law professor David Dow credited top-notch lawyering by defense counsel for the verdict, citing an approach the educated the jury throughout the process on mitigating factors aimed at the sentencing phase of the trial:
"I think the lesson in this case is that the lawyering matters a lot. The defense strategy of front-loading all the evidence about his mental problems in the guilt/innocence stage (of the trial) was a brilliant legal tactic. It had the jury thinking from the first stage of the case that there is something wrong with this person. And even in Harris County, the death penalty capital of the world, when the jury thinks there is something wrong with a person that interferes with his judgment, they will be willing to not impose the death penalty."Another theory is that the case was won at jury selection, or else that this particular jury was "quirky" or different from most:
death penalty expert Adam Gershowitz of the South Texas College of Law also was unwilling to make too much of the verdict other than it was unexpected.But all these possibilities ignore our only direct source about why the jury did what they did, the jurors themselves: "I believe he has value," said juror Letty Burkholder, of Houston. "He's loved by many of his family and friends, and that was number one. I felt like he has potential." Nine other jurors agreed. Perhaps that's reason enough to temper justice for Quintero with mercy.
"It's very surprising," Gershowitz said. "I find it hard to believe that this case is the result of that trend (of fewer death cases). I think it has to be the result of this particular jury. If they seated another jury tomorrow, it could come to a different conclusion."
Whatever the reason for the verdict, unlike if the jury had gone with the death penalty, the family will not have to endure years of habeas appeals and on-again, off-again execution dates commonly associated with death row cases. Juan Quintero is locked up for good, and now, with luck and God's grace, his family, friends and the community can begin to heal and move on.
RELATED: For prosecution and defense blog perspectives, respectively, see The Quintero Verdict, from Life at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, and Life for Quintero at Defending People. See also a good discussion at Capital Defense Weekly.
MORE: From the Chronicle, even Quintero was surprised by the verdict. Legendary Houston defense lawyer Richard "Racehorse" Haynes credited the results, as have many others in recent days, to top-flight lawyering by Quintero's attorney Danalynn Recer, who in the interest of full disclosure is a former client and a classmate of mine and my wife's from our college days at UT.