Report highlights ‘broken’ death penalty appeals process

FILE - In this May 27, 2008 file photo, the gurney in Huntsville, Texas, where Texas' condemned are strapped down to receive a lethal dose of drugs. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)
FILE - In this May 27, 2008 file photo, the gurney in Huntsville, Texas, where Texas' condemned are strapped down to receive a lethal dose of drugs. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new report is raising concerns about an appeals system for death penalty cases in Texas.

The analysis from the non-profit law firm Texas Defender Service found issues with the legal representation for defendants sentenced to death and who cannot afford attorneys. The report concludes that the mandatory appeals process in Texas death penalty cases called “direct appeal” is failing.

“We have attorneys that submit briefs that reuse the same losing arguments over and over again,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service.

The report states that some attorneys have skipped oral arguments or taken on case loads big enough for three or more attorneys to handle.

“These deficiencies reflect systemic problems with the state’s indigent defense apparatus and not merely isolated failures by a handful of attorneys,” the report notes.

Anthony Graves spent more than 18 years in prison. He was sentenced to die for multiple murders in Somerville, Texas — murders he did not commit.

“I lost the opportunity to see my kids grow up,” Graves said in a Skype interview with KXAN.

Graves says he looked at the report from Texas Defender Service. Graves also did not succeed in his direct appeal.

“At the end of the day it’s a rubber stamp system,” Graves said.

“The easy fix is to establish a statewide office responsible for representing death sentenced inmates,” said Jordan Steiker, co-director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law.

Now, it will up to the legislature to decide whether to establish such an office. A member of Texas Defender Service estimated the office would likely need a budget of around $500,000 per year.

Austin lawyer Ariel Payan, who has defended clients in death penalty cases, says he agreed with the findings he was able to examine in the report. He believes the system needs changes. However, he questions how a centralized office for direct appeals would work.

KXAN also reached out to staff at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and Travis County District Attorney’s Office, but did not immediately hear back.

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