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Accomplice and cellmate testimony questioned in Texas

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Texas has a reputation for being harsh on anyone who faces a criminal charge. Prosecutors and lawmakers take criminal acts seriously, imposing substantial consequences on particular violations of the law. The death penalty specifically however is one type of penalty that many believe is a bit too harsh in some cases. While a strong criminal defense will work to avoid such a serious penalty at all costs, this kind of harsh sentence might sometimes be unavoidable due to false or misleading testimony by accomplices or cellmates.

In 1994, one Texas man was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. This criminal conviction was due mainly to the testimony of an alleged accomplice in the act. However, the accomplice later retracted his allegation while on the execution gurney, admitting he acted alone. The Texas man was later released. At least three others were also convicted and sentenced to the death penalty based largely on testimony from accomplices or cellmates. These convictions were also later overturned.

One Texas lawmaker is working to prevent such improper convictions from occurring in the future. His concern is that these alleged witnesses have lied to preserve their own interests. They are offered immunity and other incentives to make a statement. For many, the exchange of one's freedom for another's is all too tempting.

According to one study conducted by Northwestern University in 2004, informants were a major factor in over 45 percent of overturned convictions that resulted in death sentences. For many, including the Texas lawmaker, this is a huge problem. The lawmaker has proposed a bill that would prohibit the admission of accomplice or cellmate testimony in death penalty cases when an incentive is involved. If passed, Texas would be one of the first states to prohibit such testimony.

Source: The Texas Tribune, "Bill Would Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Cases," Brandi Grissom, Nov. 28, 2012

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