Commentary: Time for Texas to end the death penalty

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 16, 2012 

Two events -- one in the Connecticut Senate chamber, the other in a Dallas courtroom -- helped once again to focus attention on two of the nation's most glaring flaws: wrongful convictions and capital punishment.

In Dallas, three more men were exonerated for crimes they did not commit, bringing to 30 the total number of exonerations in Dallas County since 2001. One of the men had been sentenced to 99 years in prison for a 1994 violent purse snatching involving a 79-year-old woman.

About 1,600 miles away in Hartford, the Connecticut Senate voted 20-16 to repeal the death penalty based partly on the growing evidence of wrongful convictions and the possibility that an innocent person could be executed. The state's House of Representatives is likely to approve the measure soon, and the governor has vowed to sign it into law.

If the measure is enacted, Connecticut will join a growing number of states (the fifth in five years) to abolish capital punishment. California voters will weigh in on the subject in a ballot initiative in November.

After the Dallas defendants were officially cleared in court, both District Attorney Craig Watkins and District Judge Lena Levario declared that it was time to have a discussion about race and justice, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Actually we need a discussion about much more than that in America.

The latest Dallas case again revealed that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense and that police, during their initial investigation, subjected the suspects to prejudicial identification tactics. These kinds of injustices cry out for discussion.

How many innocent people are behind bars based on overzealous police work, unethical prosecution or just honest mistakes? How many might be on Death Row?

When it comes to executions, there are signs that the nation's thirst for blood is waning, bringing some hope to those of us who have been fighting against capital punishment for so long.

Even in Texas, which has the busiest death chamber in the country, the numbers are decreasing. Texas juries are sentencing fewer people to death, and the population on Death Row is declining.

Texas executed 13 people last year, the lowest number since 1996 when three people were killed by lethal injection. In 2000, a record 40 executions occurred in the state.

Four people have been put to death this year in Huntsville, bringing the total to 481 since 1982, when Texas resumed executions after the Supreme Court had declared capital punishment "cruel and unusual" in 1972.

Today 298 people are on Texas' Death Row, including nine women. The ethnic breakdown is 29.2 percent Anglo, 40.6 percent black, 28.5 percent Hispanic and 1.7 percent other. At the end of fiscal 2001, the Death Row population was 446.

Those are all good signs, but not good enough.

If more states continue to lead the way, maybe the Lone Star State will eventually follow. New York, New Jersey, Illinois and New Mexico recently repealed capital punishment, and The Associated Press reports that Kansas and Kentucky are considering it.

Many people acknowledge that we have a flawed justice system, and that's understandable with any structure that depends on human judgment and actions.

But it is because of the fallibility of humans that we mortals should not be charged with deciding to take a life -- the one thing we can never give back in case of a mistake -- in the name of the state.

The progress toward abolishment of the death penalty has been steady, but slow. It's now time to pick up the momentum.

I'm ready to see the movement gather steam, wage an all-out legal assault and awareness campaign to change these barbaric laws one state legislature at a time.

We are a nation that should be better than this. Let's vow to end capital punishment in this country, now and forever.

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