death penalty news—-TEXAS

May 24


Texas increasingly out of step on death penalty

Barring unexpected events, in the next few weeks Gov. Rick Perry of Texas
will oversee his 200th execution since taking office in 2000. Perry has
already allowed more executions than any other U.S. governor in modern
history, far exceeding the 152 while George W. Bush was governor and the
50 overseen by Bushs immediate predecessor, Ann Richards.

The United States is a global pariah for its continued embrace of the
death penalty. In 2008 it was the worlds fourth-leading executioner,
surpassed only by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since executions resumed
in 1977, after a hiatus of several years, more than 1,161 U.S. prisoners
have been shot, hanged, electrocuted, gassed or put to death by lethal

Yet it is somewhat misleading to attribute this appalling record to "the
United States." Unlike in most other countries, criminal justice in the
United States is largely a matter of state law and policy. Only three
executions since 1977 have been carried out by the federal government; the
rest have been carried out by the states, and the vast majority by a mere
handful of states.

Texas alone, with 438 executions since 1977, accounts for more than 1/3 of
the total. Just 3 states Texas, Virginia (103) and Oklahoma (89)
together account for well over half of all U.S. executions in the modern
era. At the other end of the spectrum, 15 states and the District of
Columbia do not permit the death penalty. Of the 35 states whose laws
authorize capital punishment, 2 have carried out no executions since 1977,
and 5 have carried out only 1 apiece. There is a strong regional cast to
the death penalty in the United States, with 960 executions in the South
since 1977, compared with four in the Northeast.

The reasons for these state and regional variations are no doubt multiple
and complex. The important point is that they show there is nothing
necessary or unavoidable about the death penalty, nothing inherent in the
American character that demands it.

Indeed, there are signs that Americans are turning against the death
penalty. Just in the last 18 months, the citizens of 2 states New Jersey
and New Mexico have, through their elected representatives, abolished
capital punishment. The number of new death sentences imposed by juries
has dropped dramatically in recent years, to about 1/3 the number imposed
annually in the mid-1990s.

What might account for this change? First and probably foremost is the
question of innocence. Since 1973, 131 persons have been released from
U.S. death rows after they were shown to be innocent of the crimes for
which they had been sentenced to die. Some had come within days of
execution. These exonerations have fundamentally shifted the debate on the
death penalty, forcing even supporters to concede that innocent people
have been sentenced to death, and that 1 or more may have been executed.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because
of its inherent cruelty and finality; the possibility that a person will
be executed for a crime he or she did not commit is a risk no society
should tolerate.

There is also increasing awareness of the significant racial disparities
in capital sentencing in the United States. Evidence continues to
accumulate that those who kill white victims are far more likely to be
sentenced to death than those who kill African-Americans or other people
of color. A 2007 study of eight death penalty states by the American Bar
Association concluded that "every state studied appears to have
significant racial disparities in its capital system," but that "little,
if anything, has been done to rectify the problem."

Finally, as state and local governments face yawning budget deficits and
are forced to slash education, health and other vital services, the
tremendous cost of the death penalty has become more salient. Studies in
various states have concluded that the decision to seek the death penalty
increases the cost of a murder prosecution by 38 % to 70 %. Last year a
California state commission estimated that maintaining the death penalty
costs the state $126 million more each year than would abolishing capital
punishment and replacing it with life in prison without possibility of

Texas will probably not abolish capital punishment anytime soon. But the
good news is that more and more Americans seem to be getting the message
that the death penalty is not necessary or inevitable. It's a choice and
it's a bad one.

(source: Editorial; David Fathi is director of the U.S. program at Human
Rights Watch)