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Texas, belly of the death-penalty beast


Texas puts to death more people than any other jurisdiction in the Western world -- 167 persons since 1982. It has carried out more than two-and-a-half times as many death sentences as the next leading state, Virginia, which has executed 60.

A stunning 25 percent of Texas’ approximately 450 death row inmates have been convicted in Harris County, where Houston is located. Galveston-Houston’s bishop, Joseph Fiorenza, was recently elected president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

The 68-year-old Fiorenza, viewed as a moderate, is an outspoken death penalty opponent and has privately told associates he will make the issue a top priority for the U.S. bishops.

“He (Fiorenza) is the most outspoken bishop in the state (on the death penalty),” says Dave Atwood, president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Atwood, a Catholic and a Pax Christi board member, has left his work to become the virtually full-time volunteer head of the Texas coalition.

“Being in Houston, Fiorenza is at the center of the center of the belly of the beast,” Atwood said. “He knows the issue. He has taken a lot of heat for his strong opposition to the death penalty.”

Texas is a different beast. “Other states bend over backwards to avoid executions; Texas bends over backwards to have them,” says Atwood.

Texas has no public defenders office. The poor are at the mercy of locally elected judges, many of whom run for office on pro-execution platforms. These judges appoint attorneys often with little or no experience -- or interest -- in defending their clients. Meager funds are allocated to these unpopular defenses.

The deck is then stacked. Texas has a record of hiring “medical experts” who predict with uncanny certitude the predilection of a defendant to commit further violence, further greasing the skids to execution. Texas law forbids telling juries what alternatives to a death sentence might be available.

Texas is also the home of the notorious Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which rubber-stamps execution orders, preferring fax verdicts to deliberations. In one recent case, the court acknowledged the defense attorney had repeatedly fallen asleep during a capital murder trial. Nonetheless, it upheld the conviction.

Texas politicians outhustle each other to show their zeal for the death penalty, which extends to juveniles and the mentally retarded. More than two dozen of the state’s death row inmates are minors. An estimated 10 percent are mentally retarded.

Since 1990, only five countries are known to have executed juvenile offenders: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United States. Most of these -- nine -- were carried out in the United States, five in Texas.

Race is a dominant factor. To murder a white person in Texas means being five times more likely to receive the death penalty than to murder a black person.

Amnesty International concludes that Texas’ criminal procedures “fail to meet minimum international standards for the protection of human rights.”

Fiorenza said in a recent telephone interview, “It is a horrible situation and needs to be changed. ... Our whole criminal justice system [in Texas] needs to be overhauled.” The 21 bishop of Texas have been among few persons in the state who have raised their voices against the death penalty. The bishops have repeatedly opposed capital punishment, most recently in October 1997 when they said capital punishment is wrong “under all circumstances.”

Last month, they expressed opposition to the execution of the mentally retarded, arguing that if the death penalty is viewed as “the most extreme sanction available ... for offenders with the highest degree of blameworthiness” ... (then) how can someone “who by definition is significantly intellectually impaired ever meet ... (such) a standard of blame?”

Fiorenza termed the statement an effort to “crack that seemingly impenetrable [death penalty] wall.”

He admits that death penalty opponents face an uphill battle, but sees shifts; first, with the execution a year ago of the born-again Karla Faye Tucker; then with Pope John Paul’s speaking out against capital punishment.

The U.S. bishops have been repeatedly on record opposing capital punishment since at least 1974. State bishops’ conferences have issued strong statements.

Nevertheless, episcopal opposition to abortion, another life issue, has been more visible and vehement, despite the fact that the moral principle underpinning both positions is identical: Human life, as gift from God, is sacred; the direct taking of life is immoral.

Why has the abortion issue received more attention?

Some Catholics have distinguished between the taking of “innocent” life, as in abortion, and the taking of presumably guilty life, as in capital punishment.

Others have justified their support for capital punishment as an act of self-defense.

However, the church’s teachings on capital punishment have evolved and the wider Catholic audience seems to be beginning to hear the message.

Speaking in St. Louis, John Paul ended any distinction between “innocent” and “guilty” life by insisting that “life must never be taken, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” His personal appeal on behalf of convicted murderer Darrell Mease moved Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence.

Fiorenza admits his own thinking on the issue has developed over the years. “The more I reflected on the whole pro-life matter, the more I came to think an absolute principle was involved. ... Capital punishment is connected to abortion. ... I’ve seen the connection in my own mind.”

He has come to realize that the church’s antiabortion stance is fortified by absolute opposition to capital punishment. “The church will do far more to win the fight against abortion by helping society understand that violence to human life at any stage is a horrible moral evil,” he said

A nationwide campaign against Texas’ obscene and grossly unjust legalized slaughter is long overdue. To the degree that Catholic leaders get visibly involved, teaching consistent principles, the church’s evolving pro-life stance is better understood and the cloak of protection to the unborn extended.

For information on the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, telephone Dave Atwood at (713) 520-0300. To make personal contact with Texas death row inmates go to the Lamp of Hope project at www.c-com.net/~ksebung/

Tom Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999