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Capital Punishment Clinic Wins New Penalty Trial for Client

In the latest in a series of decisions striking down Texas death sentences imposed before 1991, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion on Wednesday, April 28, 2010, vacating the death sentence of Roy G. Smith. Smith was represented in his appeal by University of Texas School of Law Professors Rob Owen and Jordan Steiker, assisted by the students of the Law School’s Capital Punishment Clinic.

In an opinion by Judge Paul Womack, the Court unanimously declared that the instructions given to the Harris County jury that condemned Smith in 1990 improperly foreclosed jurors from imposing a life sentence based on mitigating circumstances about Smith’s troubled background. Those jury instructions were abandoned in 1991, when the Texas Legislature revised the statute under which Smith was sentenced to give capital jurors more discretion in sentencing.

Praising the ruling, Owen, a co-director of the Capital Punishment Center, said, “This decision vindicates the bedrock Eighth Amendment principle that in a capital case, the jury’s sentencing verdict must truly reflect its view of the defendant’s moral culpability. The Court rightly concluded that Mr. Smith should be re-sentenced by a jury that is not precluded from considering whether the painful facts of his troubled upbringing call for mercy.”

Steiker likewise commended the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision for its perceptive reading of several recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions—all in cases handled by the Capital Punishment Clinic—that have mandated new sentencing trials for Texas capital defendants condemned under the pre-1991 scheme.

“The CCA did an exceptional job of looking past the erroneous decision in Mr. Smith’s case by the federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and getting to the heart of the matter—the manifest unfairness of his trial—as the Supreme Court’s decisions require,” said Steiker, also a co-director of the Center, which oversees the clinic.

Smith will be returned to Harris County, where he may face a new sentencing trial before a new and properly instructed jury. Steiker declined to speculate about how soon such a hearing might take place. “It is too early to predict what will happen in the trial court,” Steiker said.

“There are severe economic pressures on the criminal justice system, and Mr. Smith has shown since 1990 that he poses no threat of violence in prison,” Owen added. “Given those facts, the public interest would be served by avoiding the vast expense and years of uncertainty that a new capital sentencing proceeding would inevitably entail.”

Both Steiker and Owen expressed their gratitude to the students of the Capital Punishment Clinic for their work on Smith’s case.

“In addition to their fine work on the legal issues in Mr. Smith’s case, our students have performed investigation that will be critically important to Mr. Smith’s defense if a re-sentencing trial in fact becomes necessary,” Owen said.

Media contact: Laura Castro, UT Law Communications Office, 512-232-1229, lcastro@law.utexas.edu.

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