The Death Penalty

Bill Neinast

Texas leads the nation in a number of areas.  Some of those leads, however, do not carry bragging rights.

One category in which the state is first in the nation comes with mixed blessings.  This honor, if it can be called that, is celebrated by some but questioned by others.

The state has the sad honor of leading the nation in the number of executions or premeditated murders by states. Texans just seem more enamored with the death penalty than the rest of the country.

Of the 35 states that stubbornly hang on to the death penalty, Texas is number one. Since the death penalty was reauthorized in 1976, 472 humans have been executed in Texas.  That is more than four times the 198 executions in Virginia, the number two killer state.

Those statistics can be fodder for all types of argument.  One element not subject to debate, however, is the death penalty does not deter the commission of capital offenses.  If it did, the murder rate in Texas should be on a steep decline and the rate in the 15 states without the death penalty should be sky rocketing.  Neither is occurring.

There is also more than just a moral element in whether to seek the death penalty in capital cases.  That is whether hearing that “the sorry SOB got what he deserved” is worth the costs levied on the taxpayers.

There are a number of unique requirements in both the trials and appeals of a capital criminal case.  Not the least of these costly steps is the requirement for specially trained and certified defense counsel and the need for expensive expert witnesses on both sides.

The American Law and Economics Association reports that “cases receiving a death notice are approximately $517,000 more costly during the trial phase, $147,000 more costly during the penalty phase, and $201,000 more costly during the appellate phase than a capital eligible case where no death notice was filed…. On average, a death notice adds about $1,000,000 in costs over the duration of a case.”

Those million dollar costs are compressed into a relatively short period of time.  The costs of confining an individual for life without parole would cost no more than that and would be spread over the years he was forced to remain or languish in an unpleasant place.

Why, then, is Texas and, to a certain extent, the rest of the Bible Belt states so wedded to the death penalty?  It is more than the eye for an eye of biblical lore.

According to three professors, it is a cultural thing. (The Rope, the Chair, and the Needle: Capital Punishment in Texas, 1923-1990, by James W. Marquart, Professor of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, and Jonathan R. Sorensen, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas, Pan American.)

The authors believe that the South has a cultural tradition of dehumanizing certain groups of people, which has made it easier for Southerners to separate themselves from those who do not adhere to the normal social (and in this case, legal) code. This cultural tendency accounts for the fact that, in 1992, "the states in the former Confederacy accounted for approximately 90 percent of the total executions in the first two decades following the reintroduction of the death penalty." They claim that Texas provides the clearest case study to help explain this larger Southern phenomenon.

So here’s the perspective.

More than half of the earth’s countries have abolished the death penalty.  The United States is among the 42 nations that still sponsor public executions.

Whatever the reason, the prevalent view in Texas is that it just feels good to stick the needle in the arm of anyone who may have committed a heinous crime.  Anyone who does not get a rush from reading that another human has been executed in Huntsville is just too soft on crime.

Unfortunately, state prosecutors are elected officials in Texas.  So the requirement to seek election or reelection every four years is a factor in every decision on how to proceed in felony prosecutions. 

Regardless of the provable facts of a case not considered in the sensational news coverage of an incident, the costs and burdens of a capital prosecution, and the personal beliefs of the prosecutor, the public’s thirst for blood has to be considered in deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

Until that thirst for blood is satiated, decisions to proceed with the death penalty will be more political than legal or practical.


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