The Austin Chronicle

Capital Convictions

By Amy Smith, October 6, 2000, News

If elected district attorney, Shane Phelps vows to seek more death penalties in capital murder cases. Is that a winnable proposition in Travis County? Incumbent Ronnie Earle doesn't think so. Earle's reputation for being "squeamish" on the death penalty is a reflection of the community, he says. "I try to take as my model Travis County juries -- the people whose community has taught me a very valuable lesson about the death penalty. The people -- speaking through juries -- have said 'do not seek it without cause ... use it only to protect.' And we don't usually seek it without indications that a person is likely to do it again."

Unlike most counties, the Travis County D.A.'s office has a capital murder case committee made up of about 10 staff people who make recommendations on whether to seek the death penalty. First Assistant Rosemary Lehmberg explains: "The committee reviews cases, first of all, for the purpose of legal sufficiency, to take input from the family of the victim, and to review what evidence is available -- and because [the committee] is a diverse group we hope to approach the case from all angles." The final decision, however, rests with Earle.

Last month, prosecutors sought the death penalty for Martin Gonzalez. But the jury said no. "Sometimes juries disagree with us and sometimes we disagree with them," says Earle. "We disagreed strongly with the jury in that case."

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