Adding to death penalty debate
Scott Stroud The death penalty is widely considered a settled question in
Texas, but the arguments both for and against have rarely been more valid
than now. And yet there are lessons for us here.
Gov. Rick Perry's September decision to replace members of the Texas
Forensic Science Commission left many thinking he was trying to soften the
impact of a potentially embarrassing investigation into what may have been
a wrongful execution or delay it until after the March primary.
This month, on the other hand, 2 fresh challenges emerged for the
anti-death penalty crowd.
In Virginia, John Muhammad was put to death for one of 10 fatal shootings
he committed in the Washington area in 2002. And just last week, an Army
psychiatrist named Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort
Hood that left 13 people dead, according to numerous witnesses.
In each case, the perpetrator seemed obvious and the crime heinous. Both
nudge the argument for execution closer to the hypothetical gold standard,
Osama bin Laden.
Still, they didn't convince Kristin Houl, executive director of the Texas
Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In fact, she said, "to me those
cases illustrate the fallacy of the argument that the death penalty is a
Houl said Texas death sentences have dropped 60 percent in the last 5
years, in part because life without parole is now available but also out
of growing fear of wrongful executions. Former Gov. Mark White, who signed
off on 20 death warrants, said last month that Texas should reassess its
position because of that risk.
The chance of a mistake offers the best argument against executions, and
Texas has left room for doubt. Legislative efforts to shore up standards
of evidence to reduce mistakes have mostly failed.
5 years ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tried to reinstate the
death penalty there. His proposal was full of qualifiers and hedges to
make it palatable in that liberal state, but one requirement he proposed
had merit. He wanted juries to sign a statement at sentencing in capital
cases that there is "no doubt" as to the defendant's guilt, according to
Robert Owen, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who
heads up UT's Capital Punishment Clinic.
It's a small thing, perhaps, but it might split the difference between
Muhammad's case and that of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man
executed in 2004 on what most arson experts now regard as junk science.
In death penalty cases, we need to be sure.
Owen cautioned that Romney's solution might help but wouldn't solve all of
our capital case problems. He said having resources for hiring good
lawyers and making sure they investigate murder cases thoroughly at trial
is the best way to prevent wrongful executions and the cost of being sure
we punish the guilty.
When I suggested that asking for more tax dollars would prompt a lot of
eye-rolling in Texas, Owen had a ready response.
I think people who would roll their eyes at that have never been
incarcerated for something they didn't do, he said.
(source: Column, Scott Stroud, San Antonio Express-News)
Texas death row chaplain opposes capital punishment
Kerry Max Cook served over 20 years in a Texas prison most of them on
death row. But as DNA evidence would show in 1999, he was innocent. That
year, Mr. Cook was released from prison with the help of Princeton-based
Centurion Ministries, a secular non-profit that works for the release of
"He was a nice guy. I never felt he was guilty," said Rev. Carroll
Pickett, a former death-house chaplain at the Huntsville prison in Texas,
who spoke at Princeton Theological Seminary last week.Addressing an
audience of about 30 activists and seminarians, Rev. Pickett called Mr.
Cook "a victim of Texas justice" but then added: "Throw that outtheres no
such thing as Texas justice."
Rev. Pickett, himself a Texan and a former Presbyterian pastor who
ministered 95 men before their executions, has become an outspoken critic
of the death penalty and a prominent voice in the battle over capital
punishment. In 2008, he was featured in the award-winning documentary At
the Death House Door, which was screened at Princeton University last
Tuesday. The next night, at PTS, he encouraged Christians to play a more
active role in fighting the death penalty.
"As a Christian, I cannot support the death penalty," Rev. Pickett said.
"I used to be in favor of the death penalty because my grandfather was
murdered and nothing was done about it. My father taught me, you gotta
hang 'em fast, hang 'em high. That's Texas," he said, in a slow drawl.
"But then I went to work at the prison."
His 1st day was April 1, 1980. 6 inmates came to chapel, out of a prison
population of 2200. Frustrated, Rev. Pickett tried to find ways to reach
out to the men, who he said had, on average, a 7th grade education. The
answer was music. Among other programs, he started several choirs, which
drew the inmates to chapel. As he described it, being a prison chaplain
was "full time ministry."
Rev. Pickett had intended to work at the prison for only a year. He stayed
Life in prison ministry was hard, and not only because he was constantly
on call. What were called "spiritual" tasks from informing inmates of
terminal medical diagnoses to dealing with prison suicides fell to Rev.
Pickett. Frustrated by his hectic hours, he said, his first wife left him.
And he was "only stabbed twice," a fact that he stated matter-of-factly
and only in passing.
As the death-house chaplain, he spent much time with inmates who were
hours away from execution, helping them prepare their last words and, he
said, getting to know them as people.
"Sometimes they have family, but often, you're all they've got," Rev.
Pickett explained. "Nobody should die alone and without a friend. My
God-given calling was to be their last friend."
1 inmate, 27-year-old Carlos De Luca, had an especially strong impact on
the chaplain. Mr. De Luca maintained his innocence up to his execution in
1989, the 33rd execution that Pickett saw. His case was featured in At the
Death House Door, with evidence from a Chicago Tribune investigation
suggesting that he was indeed innocent. Rev. Pickett had grown especially
close to Mr. De Luca, who called him "Daddy" in his last hours, and
maintains that Mr. De Luca was innocent.
"I wanted to quit at execution 33," Pickett said. "He was just a little
boyI can still see those big brown eyes. And when he called me 'Daddy,' it
got to me, because I had a son that same age."
After he retired in 1995, Rev. Pickett became an outspoken anti-death
penalty activist, traveling around America to speak to legislators, and
eventually, he said, convincing the Alaska state legislator to decide
against the death penalty. He argued that Christians should encourage
restorative justice, and reforming inmates, over the death penaltys "eye
for an eye" justice.
"80 % of the inmates in our prisons are candidates for restoration. They
just need guidance," Rev. Pickett said. "Out of the 95 men I was with, who
were executed, I'm confident that 60 of them, I would take home with me."
Rev. Pickett pointed out problems in the capital punishment system in
Texas, where most of the United States' executions take place. The
stateand Texas Gov. Rick Perry have faced harsh criticism from anti-death
penalty groups, especially after a recent New Yorker magazine article
raised concerns about the quality of evidence leading to the 2004
execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who maintained his innocence.
Among the issues Rev. Pickett discussed is the Law of Parties, under which
a person facing felony charges can be charged with a 2nd felony committed
by an accomplice because he or she "should have anticipated" that it might
"Out of 95 that I was with, 15 were convicted on crimes under a law called
Law of Parties," he said, adding that one was a mentally disabled young
man. "They were just there. Someone else pulled the triggerbut they were
Rev. Pickett told his Princeton audience that his goal had always been to
change "just one" mind about capital punishment, and that it was
gratifying to know when he had done so.