Why Texas is execution capital

Explanations range from the history of slavery to the state's budget for legal defense.

Even for the busiest death chamber in the United States, the past few days have been particularly active.

Last week, four men on Texas' death row were sentenced to die. Although two of them were spared - at least temporarily - by last-minute appeals, the state tomorrow still plans to send Joseph Meanes to the red brick bungalow in Huntsville known as the Death House.

Already this year, 18 men and one woman have been killed by lethal injection in Texas. Since 1976, Texas has executed 163 inmates - almost three times more than Virginia, the state with the second-highest number.

Behind Texas' high execution rate lie changing perceptions about the death penalty in the United States as well as peculiarities unique to Texas. Together, they offer insights into America's views - and differences - on capital punishment.

The reasons for the Lone Star State's frequent use of the death penalty are many: from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals' unwillingness to interfere to Texas' ties to the conservative South. But Jim Mattox, a lawyer and former Texas attorney general, says the high rate is a result of inadequate legal defense for accused killers.

"I think you'd find our state government and county government are more parsimonious with the money needed to provide defense counsel for indigent prisoners," says Mr. Mattox, a death-penalty supporter who oversaw three dozen executions during his eight years in office. "Our death-row inmates overall have a very difficult time getting adequate representation on their cases, particularly after the first set of appeals."

Public-defense system

Mattox's comments are echoed by death-penalty opponents as well. "Texas doesn't have a statewide public-defender system," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that opposes the death penalty. "The attorneys are appointed by the local judge who determines the amount of pay.... So you may get a lawyer who doesn't have any experience."

While defense lawyers are important, tough prosecutors may be a bigger factor in the Texas equation. And Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. is, without a doubt, the state's toughest prosecutor.

Nearly one-third of all the inmates on death row in Texas were convicted in Harris County, home to the city of Houston. Dallas County, the state's second-most populous county with 2 million residents, currently has 37 inmates on death row. Harris County, which has 1 million more residents than Dallas County, has 137 inmates on death row.

But crime statistics alone do not explain the difference. The murder rates in Houston and Dallas are almost identical. The difference is Mr. Holmes. In office since 1979, he approves every decision to seek the death penalty. And when Holmes or his prosecutors seek death, they usually get it.

"In 80 to 90 percent of the cases where we seek the death penalty, we get it," says Keno Henderson, who heads the trial bureau in the Harris County District Attorney's Office. Why does Holmes seek the death penalty more than other prosecutors? "He believes in enforcing the law," replies Mr. Henderson. "If we have legally sufficient evidence, then we seek it."

Legacy of the Confederacy

Yet some experts say that the readiness to seek the death penalty here has more to do with geography than justice. "This is the lasting legacy of slavery," says Sheldon Eckland-Olson, the provost at the University of Texas at Austin, and co-author of "The Rope, the Chair & the Needle," a book that examines capital punishment in Texas. "We don't kill people unless we dehumanize them. We are more likely to use it in the South because we have a legacy of dehumanizing people through slavery. It's a former Confederacy phenomenon."

There is no question that execution is far more common in the South than in other parts of the country. Of the 495 executions in the US since 1976, 403 - or 81 percent - have occurred in Southern states.

There is also the question of the federal courts and the differences between the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Texas, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees California. With 513 inmates on death row, California is the only state with more condemned prisoners than Texas, which has 451. But California has executed only five prisoners since 1976.

The Ninth Circuit is "a more liberal court on this issue," says Michael Sharlot, dean of the University of Texas Law School. "It's going to be much more reluctant to let death sentences proceed. The Fifth Circuit is a much more conservative circuit. It is more deferential to the popular will."

And in Texas, that popular will is expressed by people like Benny Washington. A data-processing manager at a chemical research plant in Austin, Mr. Washington says there is only one thing wrong with the death penalty in Texas: "Those guys spend too long on death row," he says. "They should be killing them quicker."

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