Guarding Death's Door

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

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Earle is often suspected of bringing partisan cases on behalf of fellow Democrats. And while he has prosecuted 12 Democrats and only three Republicans, his biggest embarrassment came in 1994, after U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a prominent Republican, was indicted for allegedly using state employees to do political tasks. Earle amassed thousands of documents as evidence, and many thought the new Senator could lose her job. But at a pretrial hearing, the judge and Earle clashed over the admissibility of the documents; fearing he would lose, Earle declined to present a case. Hutchison was quickly acquitted, and Earle was portrayed as a fool. Republicans have never quite forgiven him.

Like most other prosecutors, Earle often sees himself as an advocate — for his constituents, for the state, for crime victims. Because of their role, prosecutors tend to be portrayed in popular culture as modern-day knights. But Earle has come to prefer another metaphor. "I'm the gatekeeper," he says. "I don't dare ask my boss, the public, to sit in judgment of somebody that I don't think deserves to die. That's why they elect me, to exercise that judgment and not bother them." Buried in that philosophy is something radical — the notion that the jury system, as it's currently constructed, can't be trusted to send only the guilty to death row. Most prosecutors wouldn't embrace that philosophy, which is why it may take an Earle, not a knight, to slay the demon of error.

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