Death Penalty in Texas: High Cost of Punishment

BEFORE both houses of Congress vote on whether to make capital offenses of an additional 52 federal crimes, they may want to look at Texas.

Tough talk may reflect the public mood these days, but the experience of Texas shows that capital punishment has a number of flaws, says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Those include high costs, wrongful convictions, and racism, he says.

Since the Supreme Court legalized the death penalty in 1976, Texas has had 76 executions, twice the tally in No. 2 Florida. Texas has 363 inmates on death row, just behind California's 380. The average cost of incarceration tops $50 a day in Texas. That means the state spends more than $1 million to keep a prisoner behind bars for 60 years. But a death penalty case costs Texans $2.3 million, according to 1992 calculations by the Dallas Morning News.

Innocent people also wind up on death row because of pressure on prosecutors to obtain convictions, Mr. Dieter says. Pathologist Ralph Erdmann was popular with Texas prosecutors until it was proved that he repeatedly falsified autopsies and gave false testimony. At least 20 capital convictions in Texas are being appealed because Mr. Erdmann testified.

Racism skews use of the death penalty in Texas, Dieter says. A murderer is five times more likely to receive a capital sentence when the victim is white rather than black. More than half of death row inmates in Texas are minorities.

The Texas attorney general has not studied the cost of the death penalty, spokesman Ron Dusek says. But even if the cost is higher, he says, Texans believe that some crimes warrant the death penalty. Mr. Dusek acknowledges a problem with wrongful convictions. But until someone designs a better system, he adds, Texas must use the one it has.

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