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Death row inmate protests new Texas cocktail, saga of the tree canopy bill continues, digital billboards exempt from local control, and Texas sued over foster-care nightmares


Death row inmate gets chance to protest new Texas cocktail

Unless a retributive God pokes a finger through the temporal screen and stops the heart of death row inmate Cleve Foster Hisownself, the man that would have been the first to be put to death with a killer new state cocktail last night will live on — at least for now. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday morning to reconsider Foster’s appeal, and though the high court’s decision wasn’t tied to questions over the state’s new death drug protocol, Foster’s lawyers have argued for the past week that the new drugs were procured illegally by the state and may not be adequate to control pain. The lawyers are also hoping to push back the execution of fellow death-row inmate Humberto Leal, set to die in July.

In a full-court press to stop Texas from using its new three-chemical death penalty cocktail for the first time this week, lawyers with the ACLU, the ACLU of Texas, and the Center for International Human Rights issued a bluntly titled report, “Regulating Death in the Lone Star State: Texas Law Protects Lizards From Needless Suffering, But Not Human Beings.”

In it, the group argues the drugs haven’t been thoroughly assessed or studied and “could lead to an excruciatingly painful death.” (Insert collective talk-radio host gargles of incredulity here and pass the hydrocodone.) Lawyers for Foster and Leal sued the state last week saying the Texas Department of Criminal Justice violated state transparency laws by secretly securing the new execution drug rather than submit them to public testing requirements.

Lawyers for Foster, who was convicted in the 2002 killing of a Sudanese woman in Fort Worth, have claimed his innocence and said he had poor legal aid during his trial and early appeals — a claim the high court has agreed to rehear. Leal, a Mexican citizen convicted of a 1994 Bexar County murder, has also maintained his innocence and has sued the county for failing to give up DNA evidence his lawyers say would exonerate him.

Texas and other death-penalty states were forced to find a substitute for sodium thiopental, the anesthetic in the three-drug execution cocktail, when the drug’s only American producer stopped making it back in January. Last month, The TDCJ announced it would switch to pentobarbital, a sedative used to euthanize animals.

Texas law strictly regulates who can administer drugs and at what dosage when euthanizing dogs, cats, and even reptiles, the report says. When it comes to humans, the report says, the law only stipulates that it be carried out by IV injection lethal enough to cause death. “It’s no exaggeration to say that Texas regulates the euthanasia of reptiles more strictly than the execution of human beings,” the report says.

TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons defended the use of the drug. “`Pentobarbital` has been used in medical procedures for some time, and this particular mixture of drugs does not appear to cause pain,” she said. The drug is currently used in both Ohio and Oklahoma for executions, and is even used in physician-assisted suicides in Oregon, Lyons said.


Texas bill gutting tree protections clears --committee

Anti-regulatory, pro-business forces in Texas have been scoring points. Last week, the five-member Senate Intergovernmental Relations committee was busily approving what’s being referred to in SA as simply “the clearcut bill” (SB 732). Texas state Senator Jeff Wentworth stuck by his promise to oppose the effort to dismantle San Antonio’s ability to enforce tree-canopy ordinances in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. In the end, however, it hardly mattered. Dallas Democrat (and committee chair) Royce West sided with the developers, Houston Democrat Mario Gallegos Jr. was a no-show, and the bill’s author Robert Nichols won the day, moving the bill a step closer to the full Senate, where chances for killing it grow far less likely. “I’m not optimistic,” said Citizens Tree Coalition Director Richard Alles.

As we reported two weeks back, SB 732 would negate findings by both the state Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming San Antonio has the right to protect the 315,000 acres of tree canopy in the ETJ. Of course the best way to beat the law is to change it, which is what East Texas plastics engineer Nichols is on his way to doing (as a favor to Houston developer Michael Pappert, whose Milestone Potranco LLC fought SA for years in court, perhaps?). It was an impressive victory, if not a surprising one, triumphing the interests of groups like the Texas Logging Council, Cattle Raisers Association, Hill County Home Builders, Greater San Antonio Builders Association and other miscreants who spoke in favor. Those lined up in opposition included current and former SA Mayors Julián Castro and Phil Hardberger, SA Councilmember Reed Williams, an environmental attorney for U.S. Army bases in Greater SA, Alles, and a couple of homeowner reps.

The clearcut bill would not only jeopardize the mission at Camp Bullis, according to Jim Cannizzo, environmental attorney for Camp Bullis and surrounding Army operations, but threatens also to increase the cost to Bexar County for flood control.

“A recent study determined that the tree canopy in the ETJ provides $1,649,506,467 of stormwater management infrastructure,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff wrote the committee on March 21. “This stormwater management service is especially crucial to the welfare of our city, which is one of the most flood-prone in the nation.”

Committee response? Go screw.


Big Brother billboards would be exempt from local control

Two bills filed in the Legislature would create a new “emergency public service messaging network” across the state (read: hundreds of new digital billboards), despite the fact that the state just spent more than $100 million putting up several hundred electronic messaging signs along our highways (you may have noticed those Amber Alerts and notices about SA’s texting ban, DWI warnings, etc.).

The bills would give contractors the freedom to override city ordinances and set up a virtually unlimited number of digital billboards along metropolitan highways as long as they carry emergency messages when needed — which is estimated to be about 1 percent of the time by groups like Scenic San Antonio, who are fighting the effort.

Bills filed by State Senator Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and State Representative Sid Miller, R-Erath, both read: “Notwithstanding other law, the location and erection of a digital display authorized under this section is governed only by federal law and this section.”

A rep of the Texas Emergency Network, a for-profit advertising company created to help pass the bill in order to then bid on the contract, testified recently that the contract could be worth up to $20 million per year in advertising revenue.

Both bills would require at least 50 new digital displays be built by June 2012 — though neither bill has a cap on how many would be built, said June Kachtik, the former chairperson for Scenic San Antonio, which helped freeze a local digital billboard pilot program a couple years back, translating into the 13 such billboards we now enjoy across the city.

Apart from the obvious giveaway to business interests — and the lack of demonstrated need for another round of so-called emergency signage foisted upon local governments — are they dangerously distracting to drivers? The ad world says definitively not, but a federal study that was to be released in January is still pending, Kachtik said.


Group sues Texas after documenting foster-care nightmares

Child advocacy group Children’s Rights has filed a civil rights suit against the state, claiming Texas has consigned thousands of children to a long-term foster care system rife with neglect and abuse.

The class-action suit filed in a Corpus Christi federal court last week charges, among other things, that children in long-term foster care with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services are forced to stay in state custody for years while a resource-strapped system struggles to place, monitor, and care for them. Thousands of children, the group argues, are uprooted from their communities and shuffled around to numerous placements where they often face abuse.

Children’s Rights, in conjunction with Texas law firms Haynes and Boone, Yetter Coleman, and Canales & Simonson, also argues that DFPS and the state have violated children’s constitutional rights by keeping them in foster care for over a year without finding them adoptive homes.

DFPS caseworkers have up to 18 months to return children to their families or to find them permanent homes before they’re placed in Permanent Managing Conservatorship, or long-term state foster care.

In 2009, over 6,000 children had been in foster care in Texas for more than three years. As of May 2010, about 500 children had been in state custody for more than 10 years.

Texas isn’t the first state Children’s Rights has sued, hoping to reform the child welfare system, and the group has roughly a dozen active and ongoing cases around the country.

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