Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Killing in the name of... what, exactly?

(International Herald Tribune) Dec. 26 - The U.S. death penalty bombshells this year - a de facto national moratorium, a state abolition and the smallest number of executions in more than a decade - have masked what may be the most significant and lasting development. For the first time in the modern history of the death penalty, more than 60 percent of all American executions took place in Texas.

Over the past three decades, the proportion of executions nationwide performed in Texas has held relatively steady, averaging 37 percent. Only once before, in 1986, has the state accounted for even a slight majority of the executions, and that was in a year with 18 executions nationwide.

But this year, enthusiasm for executions outside of Texas dropped sharply. Of the 42 executions this year, 26 were in Texas. The remaining 16 were spread across nine other states, none of which executed more than three people. Many legal experts say the trend will probably continue.

David Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented death-row inmates, said the day was not far off when essentially all executions in the United States would take place in Texas. “The reason that Texas will end up monopolizing executions,” he said, “is because every other state will eliminate it de jure, as New Jersey did, or de facto, as other states have.”

Charles Rosenthal Jr., the district attorney of Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston and has accounted for 100 executions since 1976, said the Texas capital justice system was working properly.

The pace of executions in Texas, he said, “has to do with how many people are in the pipeline when certain rulings come down.”

The rate at which Texas sentences people to death is not especially high given its murder rate. But once a death sentence is issued there, prosecutors, state and U.S. courts, the pardon board and the governor are united in moving the process along, said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

There’s almost an aggressiveness about carrying out executions,” said Dieter, whose organization opposes capital punishment. [Outraged emphasis mine.]

Here’s the rest. So maybe one of our visitors from Texas could explain this to me. I understand that capital punishment can be more of a political issue than a “justice” issue, that we’re talking more about accumulating votes than we are about solving the problems relating to crime, at least in many places in America that still use the death penalty. But what is it about Texas? Why are Texans so willing to have their state on the same list as China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia (amongst others) as being amongst the worst abusers of human rights on the planet, at least in terms of state-sponsored murder?

In 2006, there were 1,384 murders in the state of Texas. That IS down from a high of 2,652 in 1991. So, we can assume that supporters of the death penalty will say that the use of executions is having a “deterrent effect” on crime. Okay. So how to explain the fact that there were STILL 1,384 murders there in 2006?

Then there’s this: New Jersey has no death penalty. We just abolished it here. We hadn’t executed anyone here in who can remember how long. In 2006, we had 428 murders.

Go figure.

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