No Pain, No Gain

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

Sure, there’s a big moratorium movement on the West Coast. The moratorium movement here in Texas, on the other hand, has a Web site but, perhaps in a tacit acknowledgement that it wields all the political clout of the Flat Earth Society, it also has a spokesperson who doesn’t return media calls.

California remains the Big Threat. States like Ohio and Virginia are killing their inmates as fast as they can, but neither reached double figures in 2004. If they unblock the pipeline in California, media center of the non-New York world, watch out.

Which is why we, as a state, need to call on our native son Alberto Gonzales.

Sure, the world knows Gonzales as Mr. Torture, but that’s just because of the liberal media. There’s another side to Alberto, a sensitive side. Sensitive, that is, to the needs of making sure the courts aren’t tied up forever hearing boring death penalty appeals.

Capital murder cases are expensive. Harris County criminal district courts cost about $12,000 a day to run, says court administrator Jack Thompson, and death penalty cases go on at great length, what with all the extra time spent extensively quizzing potential jurors individually instead of in groups. The state also is required to pay for the defense’s expert witnesses in most cases, for crying out loud.

(It’s not all negative, though. Death penalty advocate Sharp notes that the prospect of death can convince a defendant to plead guilty without trial in exchange for a life sentence. Not to mention that killing folks means you don’t have to pay when they get sick — “Geriatric care in prison can cost up to $69,000 a year for just one person,” he says.

As chief legal counsel to Bush when he was governor, Gonzales did his best to make sure no time was wasted on death penalty stuff. Think of it as triage for society — a chief legal counsel, not to mention a governor, has a whole slew of issues to deal with, so why devote time to the doomed?

The Atlantic Monthly magazine probably thought it was eviscerating Gonzales when it ran an exhaustive study in 2003 of his style of briefing Bush on pending executions. “Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the case at hand,” the article said, such as “ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence.” Sounds like a whole bunch of lawyer talk to us, though. If Texas wanted effective counsel on death penalty cases, why would it say it’s okay that a lawyer slept through a trial?

The magazine trotted out the case of Terry Washington, executed in 1997. Gonzales wrote three entire pages for Bush to review, an avalanche of paper that somehow failed to impress The Atlantic Monthly. One of the pages was devoted to details of Washington’s grisly murder of a restaurant manager; this unfortunately did not leave room for Gonzales to mention such things as Washington’s undisputed “limited mental condition” or that as youths he and his nine siblings “were regularly beaten with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers and fan belts.” Space also precluded Gonzales from telling Bush that the jury that condemned Washington to death never heard about his mental deficiencies or history of beatings even though prosecutors — and Washington’s attorney — knew about them.

But it’s details like that, Gonzales knows, that gum up the works. And if Texas is ever to keep hold of its cherished place on top of the death-penalty hierarchy, we need to un-gum those works.

You may think it doesn’t get much less un-gummed than a content-free, three-page pre-execution memo, but you’re just not thinking Gonzales-style. There are tons of ways to move things along:

1) Pass state House Bill 268, which allows former prosecutors with no experience as defense attorneys to represent capital murder clients. (The bill does not specifically address whether the inexperienced defense attorneys need to be awake during trial.) HB 268 has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. We eagerly await the legislature’s upcoming moves to waive experience as a qualification for other specialized life-and-death jobs. Who says a chiropractor can’t perform open-heart surgery?

2) Post-conviction writs should be filed by instant messaging. “B4 U decide, RU going to C my evidence? No? OK. CUL8R!!”

3) Offer prosecutors the option of next-day service on all opinions. Why take months to decide after an appeal is argued? Did Roger Ebert take months to give Gigli a thumbs-down?

4) No more elaborate last meals. Why should the state spend tax dollars and employee time trying to run down every last example of redneck cooking? Slap a Slim-Fast can on the IV before you put in the lethal injection. That oughta hold the guy long enough. (If you’re going to get in a dither about being inhumane, also offer Campbell’s Soup To Go!)

Still, it’s obvious that speeding up the process is going to take things only so far. And that’s where the real talent of Alberto Gonzales comes in.

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