Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Indonesia strives to avoid media frenzy over drug executions

Indonesian Police Officers
While Indonesia prepares to execute 15 prisoners convicted of drug offences, it seems the government is keen to avoid the media attention that surrounded executions last year. 5 Indonesians, 1 Pakistani, 4 Chinese, 2 Senegalese, 2 Nigerians and 1 Zimbabwean are due to face a firing squad this month, according to local media.

Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe, Indonesian lawyer Ricky Gunawan, who represented one of the convicts executed last year, said the death sentences were likely to be carried out soon.

"Lots of government officials have said that they want to avoid the hysteria and media frenzy and spotlight on Indonesia," Gunawan added.

Indonesia's chief security minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, appeared to confirm this when he recently told journalists that "the executions can take place any time, but there will not be a 'soap opera' about it this time".

14 prisoners were executed in 2015, all but 2 of them foreign nationals. They included Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, members of the so-called Bali 9, and Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte. Philippine national Mary Jane Veloso was given a last-minute reprieve but remains on death row. All these cases were followed closely in their home countries and further afield. Notably, of this year's batch of 10 foreigners, 7 are from countries that also employ the death penalty.

Last week, the Anti-Death Penalty Civil Society Coalition, a group of 16 Indonesian NGOs, held a press conference to decry the executions, saying they were not the solution to address drug crime in their country.

The head of the Indonesian Drug Victim Advocacy Brotherhood (PKNI), Totok Yulianto, said the number of drug convicts has been rising, despite two rounds of executions last year. 6 people were executed in January and 8 more in April 2015.

According to PKNI, nearly 62,000 prisoners were incarcerated for drug-related crimes in October 2014, and by February this year the number stood at 69,662. This meant that almost 40% of all prisoners were in jail for narcotics offences.

"Even though the government had carried out executions in January and April. This shows that the death penalty does not create a deterrent effect. This is data from the directorate general of corrections," the Jakarta Post reported Yulianto as saying last week.

In April, the UN's General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the global drug problem. Indonesia delivered a statement in defence of retaining the death penalty, on behalf of a coalition comprising China, Singapore and Malaysia, among others.

A statement released by PKNI on Monday said that the lack of fair trials in Indonesia is another reason why the use of death penalty should be reviewed. They pointed to the use of torture to extract confessions and a lack of adequate legal representation for those without the resources.

Source: Southeast Asia Globe, May 18, 2016

A year on, Indonesia gears up for executions again

Only a year after the execution of Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Indonesia is gearing up for another round of executions. Determined to keep it low profile, Indonesian authorities are remaining tight-lipped about the condemned.

If Indonesia has learnt anything from the diplomatic fiasco ignited by last year's execution of 14 death-row inmates, it seems to be this: if you're going to kill drug offenders, and particularly foreign nationals, keep it low profile. Or better still, assemble a line-up from countries that are less likely to remonstrate. Not the lesson, perhaps, that the international community might have hoped for.

As Indonesia gears up for another round of executions, it's becoming depressingly clear that after the intense media coverage of 2015 - the political posturing, the desperate pleas and impassioned headlines - this year's condemned will go to their deaths in the forests of central Java with barely a murmur of protest. The final wishes of executed Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan - for an end to the death penalty - will not be granted. Or not yet.

Indonesian lawmakers are remaining tight-lipped about the condemned - who they are, and how many - but there are rumoured to be up to 15 drug offenders, largely non-Western foreign nationals of retentionist countries, who could be executed as early as this week. "There is only the choosing of the specific date. That's what I haven't been able to decide," announced Attorney-General H.M. Prasetyo, as though pondering when to hold a luncheon rather than when he will usher the next desperate band of convicts onto the killing fields of Nusakambangan.

If the public pronouncements from senior figures are distasteful, though - desultory remarks about sprucing up the execution site, drilling the shooters, or preparing facilities to accommodate the bodies of the not-yet-dead - that's not exactly unique to Indonesia. The recent debate in Virginia on the merits of the lethal injection cocktail versus 1800 volts of electricity reminds us that there's no nice way to talk about state-sanctioned murder.

Authorities are resolved to avoid any "drama" this time around, as though the macabre theatre of last year - the armoured Barracuda carriers and brigades of masked security personnel - was not scripted by Indonesia itself. "There won't be a soap opera like the last time", according to Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan "because I think that wasn't pretty". No indeed.

Of course, the less said about these executions, the harder it is to scrutinise the mechanics of Indonesia's capital punishment apparatus or the narratives of those that are caught within it. Like Zulfiqar Ali, for instance, sentenced to death for possession of 300g heroin: except that Ali wasn't in possession of the drug at all, and the individual who was - and who fingered Ali as his supplier - has since retracted his testimony.

police armored personnel carrier
The police armored personnel carrier used to transfer Myuran Sukumaran and
and Andrew Chan from Kerobokan prison to Bali's airport.
This bleak situation may not come as any surprise to legal experts or anyone else who witnessed, with dismay and disbelief, the events of 2015. Young Filipina Mary Jane Veloso came within minutes of an encounter with the firing squad before new evidence - suggesting Veloso wasn't, in fact, a drug trafficker but a trafficked person - was finally conceded. And in this, too, Indonesia is not alone.

Research from the United States reveals that, conservatively, about 4 % of those sentenced to death are innocent. That's around 8000 men and women in the US that have been placed, falsely, on death row since the 1970s - and only a fraction of these will ever be exonerated. The rash of forced confessions that undermines the integrity of capital sentencing in Indonesia appears to be part of an epidemic that spans the Middle East and even the United States. The death penalty, it turns out, is not the ultimate way for the community to mete out justice, but injustice.

In some respects, the tide is turning. In April, an Indonesian delegate at the United Nations general assembly special session on drugs was booed for defending the use of the death penalty for drug crime - and there's no doubt its use in this context is deeply troubling. But it's not clear why such public demonstrations of scorn are reserved for Indonesia alone, and why the conversation around capital punishment is perennially hijacked by a focus on the crime, rather than the punishment. The number of offenders allegedly on Indonesia's hit list is almost identical to the number put to death in the United States this year so far; similar to that executed by state of Texas in 2015 alone.

Whether or not the death penalty should be applied to drug crime or only reserved for more serious crimes like murder is missing the point. Worse, this type of thinking lures us into a dangerous moral calculus that leaves us at the mercy of our greatest fears and our deepest prejudice: terrorism but never murder; murder but never drugs; drugs but never apostasy. Because here's the thing - the fatal flaws in the death penalty are the same regardless of crime.

The question of who is sentenced to death and who is ultimately executed - and when - has nothing to do with judicial impartiality and, in some cases, precious little even to do with the penal code. The lottery of a system that can arbitrarily hand death to one individual and a 10-year sentence to another for the same crime is chilling, as is the unnerving correlation between politics and executions - evident from Iran, to Indonesia, to the cynical timing of Afghanistan's executions of Taliban prisoners a fortnight ago. Research on US state elections reveal an even more dismal statistic: executions are 25 percent more likely in election years than other years, and elections increase this risk by an even larger amount if the defendant is African-American. God bless America.

Capital punishment - no matter where or how it's used - targets the disadvantaged with a savage specificity. The key predictors of a death sentence in the US are not the severity of the crime but victim race and geography, and in the same way that capital punishment takes aim at blacks and Hispanics in the US, in Asia it is largely reserved for 'the poor, and the poorly connected'. Corruption may be rife in many Asian judicial systems - prompting some academics to tacitly advocate the bribery of public officials - but in the US, too, capital sentences are simply not handed to those that can afford good legal representation, according to Supreme Court justices. Indeed, the litany of incompetence, including unethical and even criminal conduct, from attorneys in capital cases is no less stunning in Dallas than it is in Denpasar.

And if that's so, what difference does it make whether a death sentence is handed to a drug smuggler in Bali or a murderer in Oklahoma? It's time we realised there's no such thing as a justice system that's infallible, and dispensed with the collective delusion that a death sentence - in Texas or Tehran or Tangerang - is reserved for those most deserving of this ultimate measure of justice. And while we're at it, it's time we abandoned the notion that capital punishment has anything to do with justice in the first place.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Commentary, May 18, 2016. Sarah Gill is an Age columnist who has worked as a writer and a policy analyst. She is undertaking postgraduate legal studies at the University of Western Australia.

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