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TEXAS: Just-the-facts index of executions offers disturbing view of death penalty

“Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era”

In the state where everything is bigger, the death penalty is practically supersized.

Four of every 10 people executed in the United States since 1976 have been put to death in Texas.

More people – 102 – have been executed for crimes committed in a single Texas county – Harris, the home of Houston – than any other state during that time.

The last execution in the United States before the nation’s current de facto moratorium was in Texas on Sept. 25, 2007, when a judge refused to keep her court open to hear a late appeal.

Total Texas executions to date: 405. Total across the country: 1,099.

Crawford, an Austin, Texas-based writer, set out to document the state’s prodigious death penalty data in book form. Tapping state records and working with officials at the prison system’s Huntsville unit, he’s compiled a 400-page plus volume that gives one page to every inmate executed since the state resumed executions in 1982.

The result is a cross between the neutral facts of an encyclopedia and the compelling tidbits of a true crime expose.

“Convicted of capital murder in connection with the stabbing-bludgeoning slayings of three people in a Houston townhome in November 1985,” reads the beginning of the entry for Richard Drinkard, executed May 19, 1997.

“The victim’s daughter confronted Hernandez as he attempted to flee the scene and managed to wrestle the bat from him and strike him with it,” reads the entry for Adolph Gil Hernandez, executed Feb. 8, 2001.

On page after page, we encounter coldly documented details.

Many inmates order T-bone steak for their last meal. Many ask for cigarettes, which are denied because of prison policy. A few fast before execution.

Several, like Charles Bass, executed March 12, 1986, apologize for their crimes.

“I deserve this,” Bass said as he prepared to die for killing a Houston city marshal in 1979. “Tell everyone I said goodbye.”

Several others, like Leonel Torres Herrera, executed May 12, 1993, say the state has made a mistake.

“I am innocent, innocent, innocent,” Herrera said before dying for the 1981 shooting death of a Los Fresnos, Texas, police officer. “Make no mistake about this, I owe society nothing.”

It’s hard to figure out who the book’s audience will be. At first glance, it appears to be a gold mine for those who oppose capital punishment. What better argument against the death penalty than a chilling compilation of the victims of state-sponsored killing?

Not very many pages into the book, however, the details of horrible crime after horrible crime start to take their toll. Sympathy for the condemned killers fades as their body count grows.

Crawford’s accomplishment is remarkable, yet substantially flawed in at least one way: The book lacks any context for the information it contains. Such a collection cries out for an essay of some sort that would explain the history of capital punishment in Texas, however briefly, and how the
state came to lead the country in executions.

That kind of information would be useful whether you support or oppose capital punishment. Yet all we get is this single paragraph of explanation in a one-page introduction:

“In the past few years the debate over the death penalty has increased in volume and vehemence. It is our hope that the information presented in this book will assist readers in framing informed opinions about the execution process.”

It’s clear Crawford tried to be neutral. But a little extra information would have made an important if disturbing book all the more relevant.

(source: Associated Press)