Texas’ 500th Execution Highlights Need for Change

The Wynne Unit in Huntsville, one of the seven prison units in Walker County, Texas. Texas is preparing to execute its 500 convict since the death penalty was restored in 1976, a record in a country where capital punishment is elsewhere in decline. (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/GettyImages).

The Wynne Unit in Huntsville, one of the seven prison units in Walker County, Texas. Texas is preparing to execute its 500 convict since the death penalty was restored in 1976, a record in a country where capital punishment is elsewhere in decline. (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/GettyImages).

By MbaLuka Michael Mutinda, Youth Activist and AIUSA Ladis Kristof Fellow.

On Wednesday, Kimberly McCarthy may eat her last meal. Barring a last-minute stay, she will be led down the hallways of Huntsville Penitentiary, make a last statement, and be given a lethal injection that will stop first her breathing and then her heart. She will be Texas’ 500th execution.

The death penalty is emblematic of the many problems still prevalent, not only in the American justice system, but in society as a whole. Capital punishment is racially and economically biased. It places more value on some victims over others. Since 1976, 260 black defendants have been executed for murdering white victims, but only 20 white defendants have received the same sentence for murdering black victims. Death sentences also depend more on geography than the severity of a crime.

And yet, death sentences can be wrong. In the last 40 years, 142 death row inmates have had their innocence proven. This margin of error alone should awaken us to the deep flaws in the system. You cannot have absolute punishment without absolute certainty.

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Harmful Errors: Texas Approaches Its 500th Execution

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an "X" or the word "Executed" indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an “X” or the word “Executed” indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

On July 30, 1964, the state of Texas executed Joseph Johnson Jr. He was one of the 21 African-Americans put to death in the Lone Star State in the 1960s, out of 29 executions overall. But his was also to be the last execution in Texas for 18 years.

In the late 1960s, executions in the United States dwindled and in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all U.S. death penalty laws. New death penalty laws were permitted in 1976 and executions resumed the next year. However, it was not until late 1982, more than 18 years after Johnson’s execution, that Texas would restart its machinery of death.

Since then, Texas has been responsible for, by far, more executions than any other state. On June 26, Texas is scheduled to put Kimberly McCarthy to death – in the process carrying out its 500th execution since reinstatement.

The continued high use of the death penalty in Texas (though at a lower rate than in the so-called “zero tolerance” (1990s), flies in the face of the overall U.S. trend, which has seen death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment dropping steadily. Texas itself is not immune from that trend, as death sentences in the Lone Star State are now at historic lows.

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Colorado Gov.: Should We As A State Be Taking Lives?

Colorado's Governor granted an indefinite stay for Nathan Dunlap, who was set to be executed in August. In doing so the Gov. questioned the death penalty itself (Photo Credit: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images).

Colorado’s Governor granted an indefinite stay for Nathan Dunlap, who was set to be executed in August. In doing so the Gov. questioned the death penalty itself (Photo Credit: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images).

Governor John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado did something rather extraordinary on Wednesday, when he prevented (by granting an indefinite reprieve) the execution of Nathan Dunlap. Dunlap was scheduled to be put to death during the week of August 18 for a horrible crime, the 1993 murder of four people – three teenagers and a mother of two – in an Aurora, Colorado, Chuck E. Cheese.

Hickenlooper’s reprieve was not based on anything having to do with Dunlap’s case, but was based on problems with the death penalty itself. As Hickenlooper writes:

“It is a legitimate question whether we as a state should be taking lives.”

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Turning Away From Celebrating Death

Despite the recent filibuster in Nebraska, support for death penalty abolition is once again on the rise (Photo Credit: Allen Hailey).

Despite the recent filibuster in Nebraska, support for death penalty abolition is once again on the rise (Photo Credit: Allen Hailey).

LB 543, Nebraska’s death penalty repeal bill, was successfully filibustered this week by a minority of the state’s senators. During the course of two days of debate and occasional voting, it became clear that the votes to pass the bill might have been there, but the two-thirds majority needed to break a filibuster was not.

Nebraska’s death penalty, like capital punishment elsewhere, suffers from arbitrariness, unfairness, and general uselessness, facts that are dawning on a lot of legislators in a lot of states. The defense of the death penalty in the Nebraska debate was not passionate, and relied on the citing of discredited deterrence studies and a vague sense the executions somehow equal justice.

Nebraska’s embarrassing attempts to acquire lethal injection drugs may have been partially responsible for the sheepishness with which the pro-death penalty arguments seemed to be infused. But more likely it’s just that the days of cheering for executions and celebrating the death penalty are over.

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Lethal Injection: 30 Years of Hypocrisy

lethal injection

TEXAS CODE OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, Art. 43.24. TREATMENT OF CONDEMNEDNo torture, or ill treatment, or unnecessary pain, shall be inflicted upon a prisoner to be executed under the sentence of the law.

Hypocrisy: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially: the false assumption of an appearance of virtue.

30 years ago, just after midnight, Dec. 7, 1982, Texas executed Charlie Brooks with a lethal cocktail of three drugs.  Texas had been execution-free for 18 years, since 1964. The first African American executed in the U.S. since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Brooks’ final words were an Islamic prayer (“There is no God but Allah. Verily do we belong and verily unto Him do we return.”) followed by a “stay strong” to his girlfriend.

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10 Reasons Death Penalty Abolition is Coming

Today is the 10th World Day Against the Death Penalty, an annual October 10 event created by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty of which Amnesty International is a founding member. Since that first World Day on Oct. 10, 2003, executions are on the wane both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Here are 10 reasons to celebrate 10 years of progress this World Day:

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Is Reggie Clemons the Next Troy Davis? 10 Facts that Will Make Your Blood Boil

As we approach the first anniversary of the execution of Troy Davis, another man on death row urgently needs our help.  If Reggie Clemons’ hearing on September 17th goes poorly, then Missouri could join Georgia by executing a man convicted amid a great cloud of doubt.

Check out the shocking similarities and facts about the two cases below and then take action to stop the execution of Reggie Clemons.

Reggie Clemons Troy Davis Graphic

Will Pennsylvania Execute A Victim Of Child Sexual Abuse?

Terrance Williams is facing execution in Pennsylvania on October 3.  Repeatedly sexually abused by older boys and men as a youth (starting when he was six years old), he was sent to death row for killing Amos Norwood – one of his abusers, according to the clemency petition – three months after his 18th birthday.

What Terrance Williams did was, indeed, criminal.  Killing is never an appropriate response, even to the most heinous of abuses.

But maybe that’s the point.

Wouldn’t killingTerrance Williams now, in retaliation for his crime, be just as wrong as the crime Williams committed in response to the abuse he suffered?  Lots of people think so.

Five of the trial jurors, the widow of the victim, and 30 child advocates and experts on child abuse have called on Pennsylvania to commute the death sentence in this case. So have 18 former prosecutors, 8 retired judges, and 47 mental health professionals.

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Who Deserved To Die This Week?

witness viewing room death penalty

Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

On Tuesday, Jared Loughner, who murdered 6 people and wounded a Member of Congress and a dozen others in an Arizona shooting spree, accepted a plea bargain that will result in multiple sentences of life without parole.

That same evening, Texas put to death Marvin Wilson, a man with a 61 IQ and the mind of a 7 year old.

On Wednesday, Arizona executed Daniel Cook, a man who endured horrific physical and sexual childhood abuse practically from the day he was born. The man who prosecuted Cook argued for clemency, but no one listened.

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Warren Hill Gets A Stay Of Execution

warren hill

Warren Hill

Georgia will not be able to execute Warren Hill on Monday.  He has been granted a temporary stay so the state of Georgia can sort out whether the sudden switch to a one-drug lethal injection protocol last week violated state laws guaranteeing public input on important administrative procedures (like killing people).

This is good news, in that Hill will not immediately be put to death, but there is no question that Georgia fully intends to execute a man with an IQ of 70 whom state judges have declared to be “mentally retarded” by all legal standards except the “beyond a reasonable doubt” bar used only by Georgia.

That the stay was granted on the lethal injection question allows the state of Georgia to evade further scrutiny of the way it handles capital punishment for the mentally disabled.  For now, the Supreme Court, which banned executions of those with intellectual disabilities ten years ago, will not be reviewing Warren Hill’s case or the unique Georgia law upon which the state bases its right to kill him.