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The state of state killing

Andrea Laidman | Monday, September 17, 2007

About every six days in Texas, a man is killed by lethal injection. This is the pace set by the current calendar of executions, where a total of 10 men were scheduled to die in August and September. Two men have recently had their death sentences thrown out – taming the frequency of executions slightly – in rare instances for Texas: A commutation by Governor Rick Perry and a stayed execution by a Dallas county judge.Thirty-nine executions have occurred so far in 2007 across the U.S. Twenty-four of those have been in Texas. No other state has executed more than three inmates this year.The death by lethal injection of Johnny Conner on Aug. 22 marked the state’s 400th execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty there in 1982. That’s an average of 16 executions per year over a quarter of a century.Sixteen deaths per year is a shocking statistic, but it fails to capture the reality of the death penalty in Texas. Calculating the average number of executions doesn’t reveal that 315 of the 400 executions in Texas have occurred in the past 13 years under the tenure of only two governors.From 1994 to 2000, 152 inmates were killed under then-Gov. George W. Bush. From 2000 to today, 164 have been executed with Gov. Perry in charge.These two governors have achieved the highest numbers in American history for a state in killing its own citizens. And to what end? The murder rate in Texas remains more than double that of any state without the death penalty in the nation.While executions continue to climb in Texas, they’re declining nationally, returning to levels of the early 1990s when the American public found the death penalty far less appealing than it has in the last decade. Overall support for the death penalty is down, and a 2006 Gallup poll reported that for the first time, more Americans expressed support for life without parole as a sentencing option than for the death penalty.A more recent poll by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington, D.C., found that 58 percent of Americans want a moratorium on executions. A poll by the American Bar Association in Indiana reported that 61 percent of Hoosiers agree.In an interview with Newsweek, Richard Dieter, executive director of the DPIC, said Americans are not expressing total opposition or moral objection to the death penalty, but rather concerns about how the state’s ultimate punishment is used and implemented. The big issues are protecting the innocent, unfairness and disbelief in the death penalty as a deterrent.According to Dieter, who comes to campus this week to deliver the opening lecture of a five-part series on the death penalty, “[T]here’s common agreement about who’s on death row: People who can’t afford their own lawyers, and a high percentage of minorities. The end result is dissatisfaction.”Dissatisfaction, skepticism, and waning support for the idea that minor reforms can bring fairness.Even Perry expressed concerns about fairness, with his commutation of Kenneth Foster on Aug. 30. Foster was sentenced to death even though he did not pull the trigger in the 1996 murder he was convicted of, under a Texas law that makes an accomplice to murder subject to the death penalty.Foster was driving with a group of friends late into the night on Aug. 15, 1996. They were heavily under the influence of drugs and were committing armed robberies. One confrontation between Foster’s friend, who had exited the car, and a man on the street ended in murder. Foster was sentenced to death in the case, though he sat eighty feet away in the car when his friend’s gun went off.The approach of the scheduled execution of Foster for Aug. 30 (the date of his commutation) received international attention and petitions for his execution to be called off.The idea of executing the man who didn’t pull the trigger was just too much, even for Perry.”After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendations from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster’s sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment,” Perry said in a statement. “I am concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously, and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine.”As a nation, America is losing confidence in the death penalty. That’s the verdict of polls, interviews, nationwide trends, events like Foster’s commutation and the stance of experts like Mr. Dieter, who believe that a moratorium on executions is the solution Americans want.

Andrea Laidman is a senior political science and peace studies major, and the Director of Notre Dame Against State Killing (ND ASK), a campaign for a moratorium in Indiana. Her column’s title recalls advice given to John Adams by his wife, Abigail: “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She can be contacted at alaidman@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.