Death penalty USA – News from Texas; the Rodrigo Hernandez case

Written by Mike Farrell in collaboration with Juliette Frangos.

This week on Thursday 26th January after 6 p.m. the state of Texas is scheduled to execute Rodrigo Hernandez by lethal injection, the first execution in Texas this year that looks likely to go ahead pending last minute appeal.

Case Background
Hernandez was convicted in 2004 of the 1994 kidnap, rape and murder of Susan Verstegen, an act following which he attempted to conceal the victims body in a 50 gallon drum.

Unfortunately during the original investigation a lack of evidence meant that the case went cold, remaining in limbo for 8 years. However when Hernandez was later imprisoned in Michigan for an unconnected offence, and on release in 2002 legally compelled to give a DNA sample for the national DNA database, his sample was matched with unidentified DNA samples recovered from the Verstegen case also on the database. Hernandez was then arrested and charged with murder.
On questioning he gave a detailed confession to the murder claiming to have been under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time. He was subsequently found guilty on trial in Bexar County, Texas, and sentenced to death in April 2004, allegedly showing no remorse. He has been on death row since.

In light of the confession, DNA and the absence of any evidence that the trial was flawed, there is nothing suggesting the conviction was unsafe, and it is therefore not in question, Hernandez deserves to be punished. Only the capital sentence is in question here.

Since conviction, Hernandez has made numerous appeals against sentence, including applying for a writ of habeus corpus to the Texas State Criminal Appeals Court and the Supreme Court, all of which have been rejected. Appeals continued this month up until the 23rd January, again without success (A full procedural history is here).

Therefore pending any further appeals or last minute stays between now and Thursday night, sentence is on course to be carried out..

Capital punishment – Texas
Texas is far and away the most prolific proponent of capital punishment in the USA (see also here), averaging more than one execution per month, more than twice the rate of any other state. Texas has also conducted 477 executions since 1976, more than 4 times that of the next most prolific states, Virginia and Oklahoma.

These are extraordinary figures, especially considered against other states such as California which has a much larger death row population, and yet has undertaken only 13 executions since 1976.

The high number of executions in Texas may of course largely be explained by the republican / conservative background of that state, a political outlook which traditionally leans to capital punishment. There may be other reasons some of which can be considered here which relate to the history and constitutional makeup of the state with regard to elected appellate judicial office. Whatever the reason, the figures appear excessive, and regardless of public or political support capital punishment is rightly becoming more unacceptable as indicated by the recent positive moratorium on capital punishment issued by the Governor of The state of Oregon. In addition, Texas is not the only republican state in the USA, so something or someone else may be responsible.

The Governor
In the ten years that he has held office, Rick Perry as Governor of Texas has authorised and overseen the largest number of executions in the history of the USA for a single Governor, more than 230 executions in the last decade, almost half the number of executions that have occurred over the last 35 years in Texas, indicating a marked and certainly questionable acceleration of capital punishment over a decade. He is known for radical views on capital punishment, gun ownership, same sex relationships and religion and has in the past vetoed a ban on the death penalty for mentally retarded inmates.

He recently launched a presidential campaign, but withdrew in January 2012 following widespread criticism of a homophobic video that he released to ‘support’ his campaign.

With regards to capital punishment, Mr Perry claims not to lose much sleep over it, has stated that he has no problem authorising capital sentences to be carried out, and has never worried that Texas may ever have executed any innocent persons. This in itself is quite disturbing given the reported case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for the alleged murder of his three daughters in what was claimed at the time to have been an act of arson on his own home. Following Willingham’s execution however it was discovered and reported that in fact there was no evidence of arson at all, bringing the entire trial, conviction and sentence sharply into question.

An investigation was carried out, but just prior to it reporting, the chair of the committee undertaking it was replaced by Perry, an act which effectively cancelled the inquest, and swept the entire affair under the carpet.

The question however remains; was an innocent man executed, and if so, wouldn’t this case have raised an irrefutable argument against continuing capital punishment in Texas? The possibility that it may well have been is argument enough to support an end to capital punishment in Texas and elsewhere. Instead however it appears that the Governor would rather bury the case in favour of his own personal political stance.

The Texan method
Texas like many other capital states of the USA currently advocates lethal injection as its preferred method of supposed humane executions of death row inmates. Please see link above for the full procedure, which in brief involves the following:

* Hernandez will be transported from his death row facility to the execution unit at Huntsville.
* He will undergo a strip and cavity search, before being confined in a holding cell.
* He may be allowed family visits during the morning.
* He will be offered a last meal but will have no choice in what is offered.
* After 6 p.m. he will be led to the execution chamber, prepared and secured to a gurney.
* Intravenous catheters shall be inserted into a suitable vein in his arm or elsewhere in his body.
* Witnesses will be brought in including victim witnesses, his own family if attending, and select
media representatives.
* The execution will be authorised to proceed.
* Hernandez will be allowed a brief final statement.
* The drug team will be instructed then to administer the sentence, with drugs being administered in sequence.
* The condemned would be expected to be confirmed as medically dead in about 7 minutes from the beginning of the injections.

This method of execution has long been considered humane by some, however it has generated much controversy, including:

– A scandal throughout the European Union where it was found that capital states having exhausted their own supplies of the death drugs used for capital sentences were illicitly importing large quantities from Europe, a practice the EU is now apparently seeking to prevent. Some companies took it upon themselves not to supply their products while they were being used for capital purposes.

– The fact that medical practitioners are barred from administering the drugs under the Hippocratic oath as well as showing a true hypocrisy regarding the ‘justice’ of the procedure, means that administering the sentence falls into the hands of prison employees. There have been alleged stories of incorrect dosages being used, and other instances where the convict has suffered greatly during the procedure. Consider for example the botched34 minute torture ofAngel Nieves Diaz in Florida, 2006.

– The ongoing search for a more humane form of execution in itself proves that deep down inside, we all know that killing another person is wrong. Someone will always have to have blood on their hands regardless of the method or justification, legal or otherwise.

Written by Mike Farrell in collaboration with Juliette Frango and reproduced here by kind permission of both authors.

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4 thoughts on “Death penalty USA – News from Texas; the Rodrigo Hernandez case

  1. Linda says:

    Thanks for posting this Mike – I knew there were executions in the US but I hadn’t realised just how many and I am shocked.

  2. mike farrell says:

    Hi Linda, thanks for reading. I wish I could say it had been a pleasure to write, but it was a difficult article for both of us, and a difficult day on Thursday, especially having to defend myself against a flamer on twitter who accused me of being a leftie bleeding heart who wants to release murders, rapists and other types onto the streets of Britain simply because I oppose capital punishment. Nothing could of course be further from the truth, as I think is clear from the article, I don’t want people like Hernandez released, far from it. As far as I am concerned, he should have spent the remainder of his life behind bars, but instead was killed with a cocktail of drugs by someone he didn’t know and who didn’t know him, and who wasn’t even connected with those who imposed the sentence other than by being a state employee, and by quirk of being a state employee, that person is capable of carrying out a killing with intent that otherwise they would be imprisoned for. In addition to that, there is the possibility that Hernandez may have been involved with another murder, but will not now stand trial for it which is in my mind wrong.
    Anyhow, the fight goes on. Thanks again for reading, and thanks to Legal Verdict for re-publishing the article for us.

  3. pastelt says:

    Thank you for writing, and what a sad day! I am so against the Death Penalty, and like you, that doesnt mean I want murderers, rapists, and others on the streets as well, but more than this( which I get a lot of flack for), regardless of the crime, these “people” DO have feelings, thoughts, they hurt, they cry, etc..Yes I know so did the families of the victims, I get that, and I feel everyone involved is a victim, anyway, I just wanted to thank you.

    R.I.P. Rodrigo, I’m going to miss your friendship deeply! Shine on 😉

  4. Without tremendous advances in medical/bio technology (aka StarTrek style) we do NOT have the ability to narrow down DNA profiling to better than 1 in 10million. Be mindful that we can discount 99% of our DNA as its identical to a bono chimp. So from the remaing 1% that makes us human, there are other base pairs to discount. Now think of all of the possible combinations (GCAT) that are capable of being recombined. In other words GC may combine in a location as GC or CG but not with either of the other elements of the base pairs. In that case there are only 2 and no more than 2 possible permutations at that particular location in the DNA Molecule. So for us laymen, think of the principle as a finite number of telephone numbers (base pair combintion) with some ex directory numbers that cannot be used (fixed pair combinations). As soon as you dial or get to the last possible number, you have to cycle all through it again or select a random number (DNA combination) that has ALREADY BEEN USED.

    In other words, its nowhere as unique as Lawmen / Labs / Commentators (who have a vested intrest in selling its unique properties to us) would have us believe.

    As a reference I now point you to an article by distinguished mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy.

    “‘That’s why you have to be careful with DNA tests. Most juries would be happy to convict someone if they were told it was “a million to one” chance against DNA at the scene of the crime being from another person. But in a country the size of Britain, those odds mean the DNA could belong to 60 people.’”

    So DNA is a tool, just as fingerprinting is not an exact science but an opinion.

    Are you happy to convict now?

    Article link:-
    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2052688/Why-picking-consecutive-numbers-increases-chance-Lottery-jackpot.html#ixzz1bh5y92xj

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