It is somewhat ironic that Texas slogans developed for perfectly good purposes, can be seen in another light, given the state's record of justice. The Office of the Governor, Economic Development and Tourism division has a slogan, "Texas, It's like a whole other country", and the anti-litter campaign, "Don't mess with Texas" take on another meaning when compared with the state's dismal record of executions and its system of indigent representation in the courts.
I have long been troubled by the sheer number of people put to death by the criminal justice system in the Lone Star State. Texas leads the nation in executions, and not by just a small amount. Take a look at this table, taken from www.deathpenaltyinfo.org, listing the number of executions in the U.S. since 1976, by state:
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It doesn't take a mathematician to see that Texas is putting its citizens to death at a rate much higher than any other. It is also readily apparent that the south as a whole performs most executions in this country. Is it a coincidence that this is also the region known as the "Bible Belt"?
Now one could say that perhaps the fact that Texas has a huge population compared to other states. Well, so does New York, which doesn't even appear on the table. There is obviously something else going on here. In reading up on the issue, I have found there are several things happening that drive the number of executions up
Yesterday, my son was telling me about the fact that Texas doesn't have a state system of public defenders. In most Texas counties, it turns out that judges appoint whatever attorney they want to defend indigent defendants. This leads to a couple of problems. One is that judges end up appointing attorneys they like, leading to a system based on patronization rather than justice. Even more troubling is the fact that ANY attorney can be appointed. So for example, an indigent person charged with a capital crime can have an attorney appointed to defend him who has absolutely zero experience in criminal cases. A person accused of murder could end up with an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant disputes, or perhaps in child custody cases. How effective a defense do you think such an attorney could mount?
A second issue that drives executions in Texas is that the state's appellate judges are elected, which means to keep their jobs, they have to show the voters that they are tough on criminals.
Third, Texas lies in the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has historically been more conservative and aggressively pro-death penalty than other circuit courts.
Fourth, is that Texas' criminal justice system places most of the power of clemency in the hands of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, rather than the Governor. Unless the board votes to grant clemency, the Governor has no power to act. Of course, when Texas elects a governor like George W. Bush, it wouldn't matter much anyway. As Governor, Bush mocked the first woman put to death by Texas since the American Civil War, Carla Faye Tucker. In a 1999 interview with Tucker Carlson for Talk Magazine, Bush made fun of the condemned woman:
In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, a number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker. "Did you meet with any of them?" I ask. Bush whips around and stares at me. "No, I didn't meet with any of them", he snaps, as though I've just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. "I didn't meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, 'What would you say to Governor Bush?'" "What was her answer?" I wonder. "'Please,'" Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "'don't kill me.'" I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.
So much for that famous "compassionate conservatism".
In any case, the time is long overdue for Texas, along with other states, to reform the way they handle capital cases. The ideal would be to eliminate the death penalty altogether. DNA evidence has proven that many innocent people have been condemned to die at the hand of the state. Even barring that, by fixing the problems I have outlined here, Texas could right terrible injustices, much as it did when it finally let mitigating circumstances, like mental retardation, be considered by juries.
It is also imperative that states be required to make it mandatory for DNA evidence to be considered. With this technology, we can improve the accuracy of our justice system. No innocent person should be facing execution, nor even wasting their life away in prison, if modern science can prove they did not commit the crime. The time for reform is now!
Like a whole other country? Indeed!