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The other humans who pay for the death penalty

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001

The US Presidential election is finally over and, regardless of how he got there, the American public has got what almost 24 per cent of them wished for – George W. Bush presiding for the next four years. As is the custom, the mainstream media has unleashed a tide of cautious optimism, keen to give the new guy a chance. So it may then seem bad form for me to come in so early in the piece and predict the end of the world as we know it but Texas already gave the fella a go and it is only fair to treat the state as a litmus test for the future of the nation.

Of course the subject of which I speak – and it really is the only thing Texas leads the nation in – is capital punishment. Now before y’all yawn and say "yada, yada, yada, he executes lots of people and seemed to enjoy it way too much during that second debate – tell us something new", I will issue a promise that this article will be a little different.

Death in Texas


Of the 682 people killed since 1976, Texas has accounted for 239. This year 84 people have been executed in the US – 40 of them were in Texas The next state is Oklahoma, with 11. Now, since the death penalty is supposedly reserved for the most heinous offenses, this suggests either that Texas is a state with such a concentration of extraordinary criminal horrors that the death penalty is the only thing saving the state from plunging over the precipice into brutal anarchic criminal chaos OR, as all the evidence suggests, that the death penalty is a pretty darn lousy deterrent.

After all the publicity about problems with the death penalty in other states – including a moratorium imposed by Illinois when it was discovered that 13 of their death-row residents were innocent (oops!), people started to ask Presidential hopeful Bush about Texas and their administration of the death punishment. Bush stated famously:

The only things that I can tell you is that every case I have reviewed I have been comfortable with the innocence or guilt of the person that I've looked at. I do not believe we've put a guilty ... I mean innocent person to death in the state of Texas. All Things Considered, NPR, June 16, 2000

Freudian slip? The most comprehensive examination performed to date of the Texas ‘machinery of death’ found the system to be "thoroughly flawed" including alcoholic and drug-addicted defense counsel, 84 cases of police and prosecutors presenting deliberately false or misleading testimony and a significantly greater likelihood of the death sentence being imposed upon blacks. The New York Times has called the Texas death system "little more than legal lynching".

Many people thought that the excessive use of the death penalty in Texas and its questionable justice system would be an issue that would plague Dubya’s campaign (just as failure to support the penalty had irrevocably harmed Michael Dukakis). The biggest political opportunity occurred when it was revealed that in the murder trial of a mentally retarded man, the court-appointed defense lawyer, Joe Cannon, had slept, and even audibly snored, through witness testimony. When asked about the quality of fairness and justice in Texas, as illustrated by the case, Bush said that the case had been overturned on appeal and that therefore "the system worked".

He was right – the court sensibly held that "a sleeping lawyer is the equivalent to having no lawyer at all". However Bush stayed quiet when a Texas court overturned the appeal decision and reaffirmed the conviction – the death penalty stands. The court ruled that, in essence, Cannon could have just been catnapping through the trivial parts of a murder trial of a man facing the penalty of death. This was not even an isolated case.


The Fun Test

With that boring background out of the way, let’s play a game. Go to the following links and read as much as you can:, or for the more fragile -

  1. Pages:
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  5. All

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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