Texas isn’t just big in size and population. It’s also big on the death penalty. When it comes to executions, Texas is the battleground state and has been No. 1 since 1976.
The Lone Star State reached a milestone this summer when Kimberly McCarthy became the 500th person executed in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1974 and modern-day executions resumed in 1982 with the nation’s first lethal injection.
The problem, death penalty opponents say, is that eight of the last 10 people executed in Texas have been African Americans, who also account for 40 percent of those on the state’s death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
“The racism and the imposition of death sentences almost universally affect people who are poor or people of color,” said Maurie A. Levin, McCarthy’s attorney and co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas in Austin.
This is also true nationally. Although African Americans make up 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 42 percent of the inmates on death row and 35 percent of those executed since 1976, the Death Penalty Information Center reports.
“The NAACP is strongly opposed to the death penalty and has been since the very beginning, going back to lynchings and unfair trials,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. “It carries all the disparities that it carried in the days of lynching.”
Texas is one of three states, along with California and Florida, with the largest death row populations. In Texas alone, at least a dozen people on death row were found to be innocent before they were executed.
“If you look at the work of the Innocence Project, hundreds of people have been exonerated after the fact,” said Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League.
DNA evidence has saved 18 people from execution and cleared about 300 others of lesser crimes — two-thirds of them African Americans. “These are only a very small percentage of cases,” said Paul Cates, communications director of the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization based in New York.
Morial and other opponents say that the large margin of error, racial disparities and high costs are just a few reasons that the death penalty should be abolished and replaced with life sentences without the possibility of parole.
However, Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who ran for president in the last election, is unapologetically pro-life while also being pro-death penalty.
“Like the vast majority of Texans, I believe the death penalty is an appropriate response for the most violent of crimes against our fellow human beings,” Perry said in a speech to the Texas Broadcasters Association in 2001.
“In fact, I believe capital punishment affirms the high value we place on innocent life because it tells those who would prey on our citizens that you will pay the ultimate price for their unthinkable acts of violence.”
Shelton said that states like Texas are just stubborn and wrong. “Sometimes states confuse legacy with bad ideas,” he said. “They want to be tough on crime. They’re not willing to be open-minded and take a fresh look at the death penalty.”
Morial and Shelton said that the death penalty has not proven to be the deterrent to crime that supporters claim. “The states that have the highest homicide rates are the states with the death penalty,” Shelton added.
The murder rate in those states averaged 4.7 out of 100,000 people in 2011, compared to 3.1 for states without the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas, which accounts for more than half of executions nationwide, had an average murder rate of 4.4.
Stanford Fraser, a Harvard University law student from Bowie, finds a measure of satisfaction in helping to turn back the death penalty in Maryland. “America is the only Westernized democracy that still has the death penalty,” Fraser said. “It’s an outmoded form of justice.” The 22-year-old was part of rallies outside the statehouse in Annapolis that fueled the repeal of Maryland’s death penalty, effective Oct. 1.
“We were delighted to see Maryland eliminate the death penalty,” Shelton said. ”We’re slowly seeing states reconsider and even change their policy.”
Levin welcomes such activism, but says that more still needs to be done.
“The ongoing executions are something that everyone in the country bears responsibility for,” Levin says. “Even if someone lives in a state where there’s no death penalty, we are a country of united states.”
Levin tried to block Kimberly McCarthy’s execution, because 11 of her 12 jurors were white, as was the victim of her alleged crime. Her client, a former crack addict, is accused of killing and robbing her neighbor in 1997.
“The heart of the litigation was the discrimination in the jury selection, which wasn’t considered by the merits in any court,” Levin said.
McCarthy was one of 51 people from Dallas County executed in Texas, second only to Harris County, which leads the nation as the source of 116 executions and nearly 300 death sentences since 1982, the Death Penalty Information Center reports.
In another Texas case, jurors were told that Duane Buck posed a danger to society simply because he’s black. Buck was convicted in 1997 of killing two people near Houston. He also wounded his half-sister, who now forgives him and is fighting for his life as supporters near and far push for a fair sentencing hearing.
“The death penalty too often is a rush to judgment when it comes to African Americans,” Shelton said. “The rush to judgment is very much a part of the lynching process.”
Yanick Rice Lamb is an associate professor of journalism and interim assistant chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Howard University. Follow her on Twitter at @yrlamb.