Second Chances Rarely Apply to Texas Death Row Inmates

Photo by Christopher
We're a state of second chances, but rarely when you end up here.
"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?

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John Carpenter
John Carpenter

Meh, it's almost election season. Now he can point out his compassion.

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