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Growing introspection in death-penalty capital

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Before each execution in Texas, lawyers plead with the courts to keep their clients alive. Some claim innocence, others a flawed case. But ever since 280 boxes of uncatalogued evidence were found disintegrating in a Houston Police Department warehouse in August, those arguments have taken on greater meaning in Harris County, long known as the death-penalty capital of the world.

The dusty boxes - mislabeled and improperly stored - contain biological, ballistic, and other evidence from 8,000 county cases, mostly murders, of the past quarter century. So far, officials have not heeded calls to halt executions until the evidence is sorted through. Meanwhile, a second Houston man has been released from prison for a rape he did not commit.

These are the latest developments in the saga of the disgraced Houston Police Department (HPD) crime lab, which was shut down two years ago following reports of shoddy scientific practices.

And while executions occur here routinely, the crime-lab scandal, and the cries of bungled evidence that precede each scheduled execution, have sown new hesitation and doubt among Texans who had come to see DNA evidence as foolproof.

Whether it will have any lasting impact on attitudes about the death penalty here is yet to be seen, but opponents of capital punishment are hopeful. While a new poll shows that 75 percent of Texans still support the death penalty, a growing majority, 70 percent, also believe innocent people have been put to death.

"This is a deeply entrenched issue and it takes a long time to generate movement," says David Dow, a University of Houston law professor and director of the Texas Innocence Project. "But we are getting people to hesitate who would not ordinarily hesitate."

Among those with misgivings are Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt and John Whitmire, chairman of the state Senate Committee on Criminal Justice and a strong death-penalty supporter, who have called for a moratorium on executions in Harris County until the 280 boxes are sifted through.

In a letter calling for a moratorium, Senator Whitmire told Gov. Rick Perry that he believes Harris County's criminal-justice system is "broken." He sees halting executions not only as the moral thing to do, but also as a matter of credibility for the state.

"I think the state is being harmed when you have the police chief of your largest metropolitan city recommending a suspension of executions," says Whitmire. "I can only imagine what people in the rest of the country think about that."

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