As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Don't Mess With Texas

The death penalty statistics cited in this article are skewed because of a de facto moratorium while everyone waits for a Supreme Court ruling on the Constitutionality of lethal injections. Still, this is a telling statistic:

This year’s death penalty bombshells — a de facto national moratorium, a state abolition and the smallest number of executions in more than a decade — have masked what may be the most significant and lasting development. For the first time in the modern history of the death penalty, more than 60 percent of all American executions took place in Texas.

Over the past three decades, the proportion of executions nationwide performed in Texas has held relatively steady, averaging 37 percent. Only once before, in 1986, has the state accounted for even a slight majority of the executions, and that was in a year with 18 executions nationwide.

But enthusiasm for executions outside of Texas has dropped sharply. Of the 42 executions in the last year, 26 were in Texas. The remaining 16 were spread across nine other states, none of which executed more than three people. Many legal experts say the trend will probably continue.

Indeed, said David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented death-row inmates, the day is not far off when essentially all executions in the United States will take place in Texas.

“The reason that Texas will end up monopolizing executions,” he said, “is because every other state will eliminate it de jure, as New Jersey did, or de facto, as other states have.”

I don't know about that; all it takes is one trigger-happy governor who mocks inmates by saying "Please, don't kill me," and that doesn't necessarily have to confine itself to one state (Brother Jeb did his share of killing in Florida). In addition, Texas has followed the nationwide trend of far fewer death sentences, suggesting that people may approve of the death penalty in polls but not when they have to face it up close. But what does come through in this article is the swift and brutal prosecution of the practice in the Lone Star State.

The rate at which Texas sentences people to death is not especially high given its murder rate. But once a death sentence is imposed there, said Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, prosecutors, state and federal courts, the pardon board and the governor are united in moving the process along. “There’s almost an aggressiveness about carrying out executions,” said Mr. Dieter, whose organization opposes capital punishment [...]

“Execution dates here, uniquely, are set by individual district attorneys,” Professor Dow said. “In no other state would the fact that a district attorney strongly supports the death penalty immediately translate into more executions.”

Texas courts, moreover, speed the process along, said Jordan M. Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas who has represented death-row inmates.

“It’s not coincidental that the debate over lethal injections had traction in other jurisdictions but not in Texas,” Professor Steiker said. “The courts in Texas have generally not been very solicitous of constitutional claims.”

Maybe the wheels of justice in Texas are greased so nobody will notice the brutal inequities in the system, which include defense attorneys falling asleep during trials, elected judges with an interest in appearing tough on crime ignoring the law to ensure quick executions, the lack of a public defender system (the judges appoint the defense lawyers, and most of them are incompetent), and a spectacularly failed appeals process.

The prison crisis and how it cuts against the poor is one of the great untold stories in America right now. But in Texas, people are being killed to pump up judges' political track records. That's out of step with the prevailing trend of the nation.

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