Second Chances Rarely Apply to Texas Death Row Inmates
"America is a country of second chances" Rick Perry said in a recent television interview.
His declaration was very statesmanlike, but he was referring to himself and his possible repeat performance as a presidential candidate. If he truly believed in the concept of second chances, things might be different in Texas.
So, what about second chances for condemned prisoners in Texas? That's a valid question.
Given the events of the horribly botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett and the last minute stay of execution for Texas inmate Robert Campbell, in Texas second chances are very selective.
Statistics show that second chances in Texas are reserved mainly for those who are white, male, wealthy, and well-connected.
Contrary to what the Governor says, there are almost no second chances for condemned prisoners in Texas. Even though the death penalty in America is at the lowest rate in forty years, Texas accounts for 38 percent of all executions and it comes from only 2 percent of its counties. Harris County tops the list, having executed more criminals than any other U.S. county, according to a study from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Los Angeles may put more prisoners on death row, but in Houston, we follow through to the bitter end.
Worst of all, a 2011 study about race and the death penalty from the Houston Chronicle found that of the last 13 men sentenced to die in Harris County, 12 were black. Evidently, the death penalty in Houston has a racial bias. Who can forget the tenure of Chuck Rosenthal, who resigned as district attorney in 2008 over sexually-charged and racially-tinged emails? One included a photo of a black man, lying on the ground surrounded by watermelon and a bucket of chicken. The picture was labeled "fatal overdose."
In a 2009 study, Brent Newton, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, attempted to find reasons for Texas' high numbers of death penalty cases. He discovered two explanations: One, Texas appeals court judges are elected, and they must appear as a "tough on crime" judge in order to be re-elected. Two, until 2001, Texas had no public defender system. It relied on outsourced lawyers who weren't familiar with capital cases.
Newton's study and the cautionary tale of Rosenthal should illuminate the fact that the decision by a single prosecutor can affect the death penalty more than the collective decisions in an entire state. So much of a prisoner's fate is dependent upon the practices, policies, habits and political milieu of local prosecutors, jurors and judges. All of it is fraught with human error and unconscious bias.
As always, with human error and unconscious bias, mistakes are made. The top 2 percent of counties for executions also constitute 52 percent of death penalty exonerations; case after case of mistakes made by investigators, court psychologists, prosecutors, defenders and juries that reduce a death penalty to life in prison. Even with exoneration through DNA testing, there are no second chances after the execution is done.
Putting our feelings aside, we must ask: Exactly what purpose does the death penalty serve?
It doesn't save money, because killing a prisoner is three times more expensive than lifetime incarceration. Statistics show that it doesn't deter crime. It doesn't bring back the dead. It doesn't bring closure to either family. Certainly, it doesn't rehabilitate the offender because death will deny the possibility of personal redemption in the future.
It's excruciating to read about the victims of crime in these death penalty cases; the victims' horrible tortuous last minutes of life and the manner in which death was inflicted upon them. Revisiting those scenarios cultivates emotions of vengeance and angry justice that cries out for equal measure. That emotion is the cost of being human, but we shouldn't surrender to it.
We recently celebrated a holiday that symbolizes redemption and resurrection, but in practice, our justice system continues to cling to the Code of Hammurabi, the eye-for-eye-philosophy that makes the whole world blind.
People in other states are beginning to view the death penalty as incongruous with the humanity of their states' citizens. On the other hand, our Governor speaks of second chances and the sanctity of life, yet in Texas, we rarely practice it.
Texas needs a second chance much more than you do, Governor Perry.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.