No Pain, No Gain

Our solution for saving Texas's claim to capital punishment fame

Texas death row inmates have gone out in style before — some have used their last words to thank the Dallas Cowboys for years of pleasure — but on April 20 Douglas Roberts joined the Kings of Style pantheon.

“Yes sir, warden,” he said when asked if he had any final thoughts before heading to the great beyond. “Okay — I’ve been hanging around this Popsicle stand way too long. Before I leave, I want to tell you all: When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head, and rock-and-roll me when I’m dead.”

“Freebird,” dude!

Beyond being inspiring, rockin’ Roberts was a model of efficiency, getting his exit from this Popsicle stand less than nine years after he killed a San Antonio man in a carjacking. In nationwide death penalty terms, that’s an express trip.

And what was the result of all this — a warp-speed execution and a good sound bite?

Not much. The San Antonio media gave it a brief mention, papers across the state ran a few paragraphs, the national media yawned. Only the usual desultory handful of forlorn protesters showed up to be heard the evening of the execution. It was just another night in Huntsville. And if you want to describe “uneventful,” the phrase “just another night in Huntsville” works pretty darn well.

The death penalty in Texas, it seems, clearly is not what it used to be.

What happened to the halcyon days of the 1980s, when hundreds of protesters would flock to the Walls Unit on execution night? Or even the energy of 2000, when George W. Bush, known among death penalty foes as “the Texecutioner,” was signing off on 40 lethal injections in a single year? When Texas — and especially Harris County — was famous worldwide as the bloodthirsty center of state-sponsored killing?

For decades now, Texas has partly defined itself by that busy needle in Huntsville. And now the cachet is slowly wearing off, because of: a) overfamiliarity (hey, even serial killings get boring without the whodunit angle); b) competition from other states trying to out-macho us; and 3) namby-pamby politically correct politicians wailing about complicated stuff like “exonerating DNA evidence,” whatever the hell that means.

Not to mention that there are potential disasters lying in wait. California has a death row population almost 50 percent larger than Texas’s 444. Florida is catching up to us. And — most ominous of all — the federal government is eagerly looking to get into the game. Give those guys a Patriot Act and conservative control of the judiciary, and pretty soon Texas is a downtown mom-and-pop store and the feds are Wal-Mart.

Let’s face it — after 23 years, executions in Texas have lost their buzz. We need to dedicate ourselves once again to the job of appalling the conscience of the world. Fortunately, we have the solution: torture.

Don’t get your liberal panties in a twist — this would all be federally approved stuff. And we’d go to a Texan for the final word: Rice University’s own Alberto Gonzales, the current U.S. attorney general and probable future Supreme Court nominee.

Still, it’s a big step, so first let’s convince you it’s needed.

Don’t think Texas’s killing ways are under attack? Your sad naïveté would be charming if it weren’t so harmful to the statewide self-esteem that comes from offing people.

Texas — and especially our dear old Harris County — has long led the way in the death-row assembly line. Since 1976, there have been 964 executions in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Even though Texas didn’t get in the business until 1982, it leads the way, with 342 killings. The next-best state, Virginia, doesn’t even break 100, coming up with a measly 94.

We largely have Harris County to thank for the state’s prominent position. Of the 342 inmates Texas has killed, 77 were convicted by Harris County juries. Of the people currently on death row in Texas, 145 — about one-third — came from Harris County. (If Harris County were a state, it would rank third in executions since 1976.)

So in Texas, and in Houston, we’ve clearly been doing our best to fulfill the killing-machine cliché.

Slowly but surely, however, judicial activists have been chiseling away at the best weapons Texas has at its disposal. Killing the mentally retarded? Forget about that now. Killing juveniles? Also gone, thank you very much, liberal-socialist U.S. Supreme Court.

Even W himself has signed off on reviewing the death row sentences of some Mexican nationals just because there might have been a paperwork foul-up. Is that the Texecutioner we knew and loved? Reviewing cases? This from the man who gave us hilarious imitations of Karla Faye Tucker pleading for mercy? From the man who specialized in the ten-minute speed-reading of death row appeals? Ah, Texecutioner — you’ve changed, man.

Even death penalty advocates feel the ominous chill in the air. The number of capital-murder sentences given out across the nation is at an all-time low in the modern era, according to the DPIC. Only 125 people were sentenced to death in 2004, down from a high of 320 in 1996. (Sure, Texas led the way last year with 23 sentences, but that was just barely twice as much as the next-biggest sentencer, California.)

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