Guarding Death's Door

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WYATT MCSPADDEN FOR TIME

Texas District Attorney Ronald Earle supports the death penalty, but has doubts

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The members met to consider the Delamora case several months before the trial, which was held last July. The death committee struggled with this question: Did Delamora know he was firing at a cop? Getting a capital-murder conviction would require proving he did. Meyer, the trial-division director, explains the reservations in the room this way: "The defendant was at home with his wife and children, and it was dark, and they were in the bedroom watching TV, and there was this loud banging on the side of their mobile home. The defendant felt there was evidence that these were people trying to break into his trailer and steal his dope and harm his family."

In the end, though, most members sided with the cops. Other police officers at Delamora's trailer that night said they had clearly and repeatedly made their presence known. Barrera, the devout Catholic, voted against seeking death, as she usually does, but she was in the minority. Most people in the room went with their prosecutorial gut: "It's really difficult for prosecutors to be fully objective about cop killers," says assistant D.A. Case. "Some of us had doubts, and we knew Ronnie would have to make an effort at resolving them in that particular case... I don't know everything that he was thinking when he made that one. I do know it was very hard."

It's likely that Earle went with his gut too. If he has any doubts, he doesn't seek death. He decided that the state would go ahead with its capital-murder case, relying on the jury to determine whether Delamora knew he was shooting at a police officer. But Earle knew jurors could never be dead sure about that, and he took death off the table. "We believe we have to look at it that they are guilty to a moral certainty, almost beyond any doubt whatsoever," says Case. "That's not the legal standard, but it's ours."

At the trial, the jury found Delamora guilty of capital murder, and because death wasn't an option, he automatically received what Texas law calls a "life" sentence in prison — no possibility of parole for 40 years. That wasn't enough for many Texans, who were furious: Ruiz's widow Bernadette and his boss, the county sheriff, were both quoted in the American-Statesman as criticizing the decision not to seek death. Texas attorney general John Cornyn, who was in the midst of a successful campaign to become a U.S. Senator, publicly attacked Earle. Nor was Delamora pleased; he is appealing.

In most other jurisdictions that enforce the death penalty, Delamora would be appealing from death row. And maybe that's not such a terrible thing. After all, at least since 1976, the creaky contraption that is the U.S. death-penalty system has worked, in the most narrow sense: it hasn't executed anyone who later turned out conclusively — through DNA evidence — to be innocent (although it should be noted that states haven't allowed DNA testing in all disputed executions).

Reformers like Earle hope that the capital system can promise something greater than merely preventing death at the last minute. It took someone like Earle to keep Delamora off death row — someone willing to ignore a grieving widow, the local sheriff and his own staff. Which makes Earle both courageous and freakish. It's one thing to understand that the vengeful emotions that accompany the death penalty can trump the factual certainties required to mete it out fairly. It's quite another to intellectualize the issue when a woman has lost her husband.

But Earle has always been a little weird. A close observer of Texas politics e-mailed this description of him: "Thoughtful. Conspiratorial. Crusader. Half-whacked. Smart. Insightful. Wise. Nuts." Well, not nuts. But most of it has a kernel of truth. Earle's reputation as conspiratorial derives largely from the workings of his office's public-integrity unit, a watchdog office that prosecutes those (including elected officials) who commit crimes in the course of their dealings with the state. Earle's job, in other words, is to root out conspiracies.

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