April 15, 2007
A death penalty slowdown, but not in Texas
MICHAEL HOGUE, Dallas Morning News
The nation is slowly moving down a faintly familiar path - the one that
leads away from widespread use of the death penalty.
Unfortunately, Texas appears headed in the wrong direction.
Fifty years ago, America lost its appetite for executions. We were a nation
that had endured two world wars and the Great Depression in less than 30
years. Newfound peace and prosperity nurtured enlightened thinking about
civil rights and justice. The Supreme Court introduced the concept of an
"evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing
The public was developing a growing distaste for government-sanction
killing, and courts increasingly challenged the procedures and rationale in
imposing the ultimate penalty. States began sending fewer people to their
death chambers. Even in Texas.
But it wasn't judicial fiat that spawned the growing distaste for
began abandoning the death penalty in the middle of the 20th century. Even
A brief reprieve across the nation
The annual number of executions nationwide nationally plummeted from more
than 150 in 1947, to less fewer than 100 in 1951, to less fewer than 50 by
1961. By 1968, - the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were
assassinated, all of - of the nation's death chambers were idle. Even in
Texas. Nationally, public support for the death penalty had reached an
all-time low, 48 42 percent.
In 1972, after five years without any executions in the U.S., the Supreme
Court struck down death penalty laws on the books, and a court-imposed
hiatus began. That stirred the nation in a strange way. Public opinion polls
quickly reflected a newfound enthusiasm for capital punishment, and support
shot up, quickly passing 60 percent and eventually reaching a high of 80
percent in 1994.
Under political pressure, states rewrote their death penalty laws to comply
with the court's requirement for clearer, more consistent standards, and a
new era of capital punishment began. The Lone Star State, for some
inexplicable reason, emerged from the death penalty hiatus particularly
- Whereas Texas accounted for roughly one of every 10 U.S. executions
through the 1950s, it has accounted for better more than one of every three
executions since resumption in 1976.
- The state's rate of executions per capita execution rate has doubled since
the 1950sincreased by more than 25 percent since the 1950s.
- Of the 123 executions nationwide so far this year, 11 12 have been in
The grim figures have earned Texas a deserved worldwide reputation for
Attempts to interpret Texas' liberal use of the death chamber invariably
touch on our frontier roots and Confederacy past. But that doesn't explain
why the state's execution rate per capita has been higher than all other
former slave-holding states - and at least double that of South Carolina,
North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.
As for the frontier mentality, rapid demographic changes in Texas would
suggest a trend for less - not more - state-sanctioned killing. The rural
Texas of the 1950s has rapidly morphed into a mostly urban state, partly
from the arrival of millions of educated career people from across the
nationU.S. . Ironically, as Texas has evolved from its rough-hewn past, it
has become a less humane society, by national and global standards.
Public support of the death penalty in Texas has consistently tracked above
national support in opinion surveys, typically by aboutby as much as 10
percentage points. Surveys indicate that Texans are comfortable with the
death penalty even with all its ghastly and tragic imperfections. More than
55 70 percent of those polled statewide by the Houston Chronicle the Texas
Poll three years ago said they believed that the state had executed innocent
people. That same poll showed 69 75 percent support for the death penalty.
A second decline - elsewhere - but not everywhere
Nationally, at least, recent polls have shown a slight slide in support, and
the number of executions has fallen as well in the past 10 years as well.
While many states have begun serious soul-searching about killing criminals,
no significant effort has begun in Texas.
The response has been markedly different in state capitals nationally, as
DNA exonerations chalked up by justice projects approach the 200 mark. Two
states - New Jersey and Illinois - have imposed moratoriums. New York's
capital punishment law has been declared unconstitutional by the state's
highest court. Maryland's governor and his predecessor have urged repeal.
Several state legislatures - including those in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska,
New Mexico and North Carolina - have created death penalty study commissions
or advanced abolition measures.
In Texas, state lawmakers are moving in the opposite direction, proposing a
law of dubious constitutionality that would open up death row to people
convicted of sex crimes with children - a major departure from the modern
standard of reserving execution only for killers.
Some signs of change in Texas
Outside of the state Capitol, though, there might be the inkling of movement
away from capital punishment - the number of convicts sent to death row.
Last year, juries sent 11 men to death row. That is less than half the
annual average over the previous 10 years.
Experts believe Texas prosecutors have become more selective in taking
capital punishment cases to trial because of greater judicial scrutiny and
the great expense. Some estimates peg the cost of capital prosecution - from
trial through years of appeals - at more than $2 million per case.
Further, because of the "CSI effect," jurors increasingly want air-tight
forensic evidence before condemning someone to death. Prosecutors without a
strong hand are now likelier more likely to fold it rather than play it.
Legal observers expect that the most significant impact on the death penalty
in Texas is yet to come, after the relatively new law that allows the option
of life sentences without parole.
Still, despite the slowdown in capital convictions, the state's death
chamber itself has been a busy place, averaging 27 executions over each of
the past 10 years. The 24 prisoners put to death last year constituted 45 40
percent of the national total. The national count was down by seven last
year; Texas' was up by five.
The death chamber awaits 377 375 offenders on the men's death row in
Livingston and 10 offenders on the women's death row in Gatesville.
Strapping them to the gurney and delivering lethal drugs into their veins is
not, according to the law of the land, cruel and unusual punishment.,
according to the law of the land.
The ultimate punishment, though, is getting less usual across the nation.
But, shamefully, not in Texas.
Source : Dallas Morning News,