Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why choose life? Exploring possible reasons for the Quintero verdict

By all accounts the late Rodney Johnson was one of Houston's finest police officers, and a jury yesterday gave his murderer life without parole, leaving many in Houston wondering why the death penalty wasn't imposed in the wake of the tragedy.

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:

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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.

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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

Hey good job Grits you just found the solution to prison overcrowding! We can just ask for death penalty volunteers from among those spending life in prison. You know there will be plenty of volunteers since everyone dies and because being locked in a cage is so bad.

Pinkycatcher said...

"I felt like he has potential"

To do what? reflect in his cell for 50-60 some odd years? I'm all for doubting the death penalty because of the uncertainty of convictions, but if he actually did it (it seems to me he really did) then by all means kill him. It really uses up a lot of resources to keep someone locked up in jail that long, they can't get out, they can't correct their behavior or become productive members of society. I personally despise LWOP, what's the point? But that's just me.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Texas does get "volunteers" for the death penalty, 4:53. More than a few. See e.g. this example.

You can also make the case that some in-prison suicides are making the same choice, volunteering for death rather than spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

And to Pinkycathcher, it takes FAR more resources to implement the death penalty than to lock someone up for life. Your cost argument is just incorrect. There may be other reasons to dislike LWOP, but it uses up far fewer resources than capital punishment.

Pinkycatcher said...

Makes sense with all their appeals, but it still opens a spot in the over crowded jails, which is just a drop in the bucket. But it also sends the message if you kill someone (with aggravated circumstances of course) we will kill you back. I think that's a good message to send back.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's exactly it, pinky, it's the appeals that rack up the extra costs. Lawyers cost a lot more than jailers. OTOH, without the extra appeals you wouldn't catch the innocents sent to death row, so it's sort of a catch-22.

Anonymous said...

Those volunteers want to stop appealing so executing them will still save money.

What we really need is some sort of incentive program for death penalty volunteers.

Please choose your DeathBonus:
a) $25,000 donated in your name to any person or organization
b) King-size granite headstone with any inscription, uncensored
c) Your choice of lethal injection, heroin and cocaine available

Anonymous said...

I used to sit on the fence regarding the death penalty. Now that I work at a maximum facility prison (as a counselor), and yes, I have truly seen serious evil and those you think would best be put to death, I don't believe that's the answer.

And that comes from my Christian faith. I don't believe anyone is irredeemable. I believe the longer a person lives, the longer his/her opportunity to find change and redemption.

I also know that living in "the cage" is horrible, and many would rather die than live in prison for life. The only thing that keeps many prisoners going is the hope of getting out. Those who are there for life or extremely long sentences are the most lost and hopeless. (They also have the ability to perhaps cause the most trouble in a prison setting because they "don't care" what happens.) I know that seems to contradict my favor of life in prison, but ... it's reality.

Life in prison is more than enough punishment.

Redemption is the best answer for all of us. IMHO.

Big Tex said...

If it were me, and I had the choice between life without parole in an American prison and the death sentence, I'd take death in a heartbeat.

The solution to prison overcrowding is to (1) stop locking up innocent people, which Craig Watkins has shown is a huge problem in this state, (2) do a better job addressing the poverty and other social factors that lead people to become criminals, and (3) stop locking people up for victimless crimes like marijuana possession.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 4:53 - To add a little more evidence that some in prison would rather die than live there for their entire lives, consider this. When I worked with the innocence network, I worked with several death row inmates. Most of the time, the work we did was not for people who were "factually innocence," meaning, the person probably did the crime but didn't deserve death. Because of this, if we were successful, the inmate would only face another sentencing trial. That meant they could be sentenced to death again or get life. When we started the process, we had to explain this to them and then ask if they wanted us to proceed. We had to ask because some of them didn't want to spend life in prison - they'd rather die by execution than have a life sentence.

Anonymous said...

Correction - that should read "factually innocent."