House hears testimony against death penalty

Ex-inmate: Executions 'grown out of control'


AUSTIN -- Two former Texas death-row inmates, with trembling hands and emotionally choked voices, told a House committee Monday the state has executed innocent people.

Randall Dale Adams and Kerry Max Cook urged the House State Affairs Committee to approve a two-year moratorium on executions in Texas to allow for a thorough study of the state's criminal-justice system.

"I understand victims," Adams said. "I understand the hurt and the pain and the hits that they've taken, but we are killing innocent people."

Adams and Cook were among 24 witnesses scheduled to appear before the committee in favor of a bill by state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, that would establish an execution moratorium while a special commission studied the death penalty for ways to make certain the innocent are not executed.

"Our system is broken. We shouldn't execute people while we study the problem," Dutton said.

Adams spent more than a dozen years in prison after being wrongly convicted for the murder of a Dallas police officer. He said he was given a one-month desk calendar to count down the days to his execution -- a fate he was separated from by a mere 12 hours.

"We have to stop this madness. Give it six months. Give it a year. Just cease this railroad train we've got rolling down the tracks," Adams said. "The death penalty in Texas has grown out of control."

Cook, who lived on death row for 22 years before his release from prison, said he watched innocent inmates such as Adams and Clarence Brandley walk out of prison. Proclaiming his own innocence, Cook often wondered at that time whether he would obtain his freedom.

"I wondered if that would ever happen to me. Sure, it would. We don't execute the innocent in Texas," Cook said, his voice dropping to a somber tone. "But we do."

The Texas death penalty got national attention last year because of then-Gov. George W. Bush's successful run for president. Bush maintained no innocent person had been executed in the state.

The issue was highlighted when Gov. James Ryan of Illinois put a moratorium on executions in his state because of a fear that innocent men were being put to death.

Crime-victims advocate William Rusty Hubbarth of Justice for All argued against Dutton's moratorium proposal.

"You would be denying closure and solace to the victims. You would be denying the belief in due process. And you would be denying the application of a mandated justice," Hubbarth said.

Under questioning from committee members, Hubbarth said an innocent person who was executed could be considered a crime victim. But he said the legal process prevents that from happening.

"I defy anyone in this room to give me the name and TDC number of an executed innocent person in the state of Texas," Hubbarth said.

"I can give you some," Cook said, standing up in the audience.

"Give us one. Give us the name," Hubbarth fired back.

Cook said James Lee Beathard ended up on death row because of the testimony of his "fall partner." But he said Beathard and his co-defendant, Gene Hathorn Jr., convinced him Beathard was not guilty of the crime.

"Mr. Beathard, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, was innocent," Cook said.

Beathard was executed in December 1999.

Beathard had been convicted on Hathorn's testimony that he participated in the murder of Hathorn's family.

Beathard admitted being at the trailer the night of the murder but said he was outside when the killings happened and thought it was a drug deal gone bad. Hathorn later recanted his testimony and said Beathard was innocent.

In Cook's case, he was tried three times for the 1977 killing of a Tyler woman and sentenced to death twice.

After he won a new trial in 1999, he pleaded no contest to be released from prison for time served. Several months later, DNA evidence proved that semen found on the dead woman belonged to her married lover, not Cook.

Adams did not give the committee any names of innocent people who had been executed. But he provided a list of 95 inmates nationally who have been released from death row since 1971 after being exonerated of their crimes. Seven, including Adams, were from Texas.

"There are people on death row I don't want to see walking the streets with my family. Hell, I used to live next to them," Adams said. "But I've also lived next door to people I thought were innocent who are no longer there. They're in the (Capt.) Joe Byrd Cemetery without a name."

The House committee also heard from Jeanette Popp, the mother of a 20-year-old woman killed at an Austin Pizza Hut in 1988.

Police used the threat of the death penalty to get Christopher Ochoa to confess to the crime even though he was innocent. Ochoa was freed through DNA evidence in January.

Popp said Achim Joseph Marino, a Texas inmate who confessed to the crime in 1996, may now face execution in her daughter's death. Popp said she opposes the death penalty.

"I beg you, please, in the loving memory of my daughter, stop the killing," she said.


Source: Houston Chronicle (3/19/2001)