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How Texas celebrates human rights

As we look forward to Christmas, it’s easier not to be confronted by ugly dilemmas such as Stanley Faulder, on death row in Texas for the murder of Inez Phillips in 1975. If everything goes according to plan, Faulder will be executed by lethal injection Dec. 10, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Faulder may well be guilty. Or he may not. And his guilt may be relevant or it may not. We know that dozens of people have been released from death row since DNA testing became acceptable. We also know that many murderers are free today, having paid lesser dues to our dreadfully inconsistent system. Some, however, for various crazy reasons, pay the ultimate price. We ought to pray that they’re the genuinely guilty ones, for starters.

Nowhere do miscreants pay that ultimate price more diligently than in Texas, a big state with a small heart and a jittery nervous system, which, according to Amnesty International, executed 37 people in 1997. As raw revenge this works well, but ultimately it is likely to confirm the view, obviously already rampant, that human life is more trivial than sacred.

No two cases are the same, even in Texas, but Faulder’s may be as typical as they get. He’s 61 now, has been under sentence of death for 21 years -- anyone feeling stressed by the prospect of Christmas should contemplate a year in his shoes.

The prosecution said Faulder, along with a former prostitute named Linda McCann, beat and stabbed Phillips in the course of burglarizing her home.

This account, not surprisingly, gets murky at once. For one thing, no physical evidence was ever found. There’s another wrinkle: Faulder is a Canadian national, but no one bothered to tell him he could seek legal and other assistance from the Canadian consulate, a right ratified by international convention. Furthermore, his requests for an attorney were ignored until, after four days of interrogation, he signed a confession. This may be a true confession, but after four days of questions people have been known to sign all kinds of stuff.

The trial was speedy and the sentence death. In 1979, however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals commuted the sentence on grounds that the confession was illegally obtained. But the son of the murdered woman -- the Phillips are a rich oil family -- took justice more or less in his own hands. He hired two private prosecutors. These offered McCann immunity, as well as money -- the money ($15,000 plus) was the Phillips’ own but the immunity wasn’t really theirs to offer -- for testifying against Faulder. Being already an admitted participant in the crime, such testimony by McCann was illegal, but not to worry, this is Texas.

It gets more sticky, though. Even Texas law needed corroboration. So the Phillips family paid McCann’s husband $2,000 for testimony -- all he had to say was that his wife told him the same as she had told the court. Not until a month before the new trial did the district attorney appoint a lawyer to give the appearance of propriety. Faulder’s court-appointed attorney called no witnesses. The state called one, James Grigson, a notorious expert-for-hire later expelled from the American and Texas psychiatric associations for precisely such unethical behavior. But his testimony at the time nailed Faulder by saying he was a menace if allowed to live, an opinion necessary to secure the death penalty. No one testified that, due to a severe childhood head injury, Faulder was liable to blackouts and other behavior problems.

These are just a few highlights on the Texas justice roller-coaster. Dec. 10 is Faulder’s ninth execution date. His is not much of a life, but he is making the best of it. He has, when circumstances allowed, acted as an unofficial nondenominational chaplain on death row. Not that this makes him innocent -- many people get religion fast on death row.

Amnesty International and other networks are making last-minute efforts to turn this travesty around. They’re not asking for his release but that his sentence be commuted to life imprisonment or some variation.

One suspects a day will come when Texans will look back in shame not only that they killed people with such abandon but that they did it so fast and loose -- well, slow and loose -- with so little thought to human rights, which our country stretches so hard to proclaim around the world.

There is still time to write and stir things up. If you have an official letterhead, use it. Complain to:

The Hon. George Bush, governor of Texas, State Capitol, P.O. Box 12428, Austin TX 78711; fax 612-463-1849; phone 512-463-2000;

Victor Rodriguez, Texas Board of Pardons, P.O. Box 13401, Austin TX 78711; fax 612-467-0945.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998