Sunday, June 23, 2013

Texas' grim death penalty milestone

Holding cells at Huntsville Prison where death-row
inmates spend their last hours. The execution
chamber is located at the far end of the corridor.
Owing to its size and inclinations, Texas registers prodigious statistics, but none so bleak as what comes from the state's pre-Civil War red-brick prison in Huntsville that houses the nation's busiest execution chamber.

There, on Wednesday, Texas' 500th execution since national reinstatement is set to be carried out. The life scheduled for termination belongs to Kimberly McCarthy, whose grisly murder of elderly neighbor Dorothy Booth of Lancaster brings the state to this grim milestone.

It's one that no other state may ever touch. Virginia, 2nd in terms of executions, is barely a 5th of the way there, and the pace of capital punishment has slowed nationwide, even in Texas.

Part of that has to do with a collective shudder at the realities of a fallible criminal-justice system. Part of it has to do with a growing list of states - now at 18 - that have abolished the death penalty. Part of it has to do with a willingness to pause and take an unflinching look at the system and why it singles out some killers to die and others to live.

In Ohio, the 8th-ranking capital-punishment state, a special commission appointed by the state Supreme Court is now doing that self-examination. It was galvanized by a report that showed the likelihood of being executed depended on where a killer committed his crime and who he killed. Defendants paid a disproportionately higher price in Cincinnati, for example, as opposed to Cleveland and other major cities. Killers of whites were far likelier to face execution than killers of blacks.

Unevenness in capital punishment is also a blemish on the Texas record. Again, geography and race count - among the reasons that this newspaper opposes capital punishment.

Of Texas' 254 counties, only 22 have sent killers to death row in the previous 5 years, and only 11 have done so in the previous 2, according to an analysis from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A death case is too time-consuming and expensive for many counties to take on.

Studies indicate that the race of the victim and murderer likely produce different outcomes in Texas, from decisions made by jurors to convict and by prosecutors to bring charges. Of the 46 death verdicts in the past 5 years, 21 defendants were black.

It's time, in Texas, for our own unflinching self-exam on the system of sending people to the death chamber.

That's especially important for Dallas County, which is suddenly notable as Texas' leading county for new death sentences, with 8 in the previous 5 years.

The McCarthy case, the potential 500th execution, dredges up this county's sketchy history of racially discriminatory jury selection. New briefs in the case cite findings by this newspaper that, as recently as 2005 - 3 years after the McCarthy trial - Dallas County prosecutors excluded eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate they rejected eligible whites.

McCarthy is not a sympathetic character, and her culpability in a brutal murder is not at issue. Still, in the grim business of seeking an eye for an eye, Texas must insist on a fair, dispassionate, even-handed, colorblind justice system. It's not the one we have today.

LEADING DEATH-PENALTY STATES

Executions since national resumption in 1976:

Texas: 499

Virginia: 110

Oklahoma: 104

Florida :77

Missouri: 68

Alabama :55

Georgia: 53

Ohio :51

North Carolina: 43

South Carolina: 43

Source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News, June 21, 2013


It's time to halt executions in Texas

The figure 500 is sobering, particularly when it is applied to people and their deaths.

On Wednesday evening, barring intervention by a court or the governor, Texas will carry out its 500th death sentence since capital punishment was reinstated in 1974.

Between 1924 (when the state took charge of executions from its counties) and 1964, the start of a decade-long moratorium, the Lone Star State performed 361 killings by electrocution.

Texas has the bragging rights for its frequency of ultimate punishment, leading the nation even though other states have more inmates on death row.

These large numbers represent people, individuals with names who, although convicted of horrible crimes and deserving punishment, should not have their deaths determined by flawed human beings acting in the name of the state.

Kimberly McCarthy, if her sentence is carried out shortly after 6 p.m. Wednesday, will have the distinction of being that 500th person (and only the 4th woman) to be executed in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated.

It is time - in fact, long past - for Texas to get out of the killing business.

A character in an 1889 short story, The Bet by Anton Chekhov, makes a compelling argument during a dinner party debate on capital punishment. He boldly states, "The State is not God. It has no right to take away that which it cannot give back, if it should so desire."

Precisely.

On moral grounds alone, Texas should abolish capital punishment as six other states have done in the last 6 years. Maryland become the most recent in May.

Just as the Supreme Court declared in 1972, the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, and its application continues to be arbitrary and capricious.

Whether a killer receives a death sentence can vary according to many factors, including the county where the crime occurs. The costs of prosecuting such cases and providing court-appointed lawyers are too high for some counties to absorb. Poor rural counties are less likely than large urban ones to seek the death penalty.

Death row tends to be occupied by the poor, as rich people seldom are sent there. And minorities are over-represented. Of the 283 people on Texas's death row, 39.2 % are black, 29.7 % are Hispanic and 29.7 % are white, state figures show.

Although no one is certain that an innocent person has ever been executed, Texas has an embarrassing record of wrongful conviction, as evidenced by the number of recent prisoner exonerations.

Progress has been made on limiting executions in certain cases, and in reducing the overall number of capital cases and death sentences. For example, recent Supreme Court rulings prohibit the execution of the mentally ill and people who were under age 18 when the crime was committed. After 2005, when Texas began allowing prison sentences of life without parole in capital cases, jurors have been more inclined to hand down that sentence instead of death.

Although a Gallup poll shows 63 % of Americans still favor capital punishment, the number of executions has dropped by more than 1/2 in the past 15 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Texas executed 15 people last year, compared to 40 in 2000. McCarthy, convicted of robbing and murdering a 70-year-old Dallas woman, would become the 8th person to die by lethal injection this year. 7 other executions are scheduled through November.

Proponents of the death penalty argue that it is the appropriate punishment for people who take a life, often in the most heinous way.

The victims, they say, deserve justice, and killing their killers is the best way to mete it out.

Abolishing capital punishment would neither demean the memory of victims nor deny any of them justice. Instead, it would make our society as a whole more just, more morally consistent and certainly more humane.

Texas retired "Old Sparky," its electric chair, in 1977.

It is time to permanently close our infamous death chamber.

Source: Editorial, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 21, 2013