I noted a few days ago that the crowd at the Republican Teabagger Debate the other night cheered the idea of letting uninsured people die. At the debate preceding that one, a very similar crowd whooped and hollered in support of the death penalty. That got me interested in learning a little more about the death penalty and how it is applied.
The crowd was actually cheering Rick Perry's defense of the death penalty in Texas, a state that has executed a whopping 474 prisoners since the Supreme Court abandoned its moratorium on executions in 1975. Almost half of those executions (234) have occurred while Perry has been governor. He said that he has not lost any sleep over the execution of prisoners because Texas has a very fair way of handling and reviewing those cases. (Texas, not surprisingly, leads the nation in executions. The next highest state in executions is Virginia with 109.)
The biggest issue with execution as a punishment is that it is not retractable. Once a person has been killed by the state, he or she cannot be reanimated if later proven to have been innocent. One hundred and thirty-eight people have been exonerated of their crimes while sitting on death row since 1973, and of those, 12 have been in Texas. Those were the "lucky" ones - they lived, though some had been in prison for decades awaiting justice.
But what about the ones who weren't so lucky?
The Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org) is an excellent source of information on the subject of the death penalty in the United States. That group is currently looking into the cases of nine individuals whom it believes may have been wrongfully executed. Of those nine, six perished in the Texas Death House. The most famous was Cameron Willingham who was executed in 2004. Mr. Willingham is well worth a Google.
Race seems to be an overriding factor in the use of the death penalty. In 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim discrimination or race-of-defendant discrimination - or both.
A study in North Carolina showed that the odds of receiving the death penalty rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white. A similar study in California found that those who killed whites were over three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks - and over four times more likely than those who killed Hispanics.
There have been over twelve hundred executions in the United States since the resumption of state-sponsored executions in the 1970s. (Over a third of those have been in Texas.) Of those executed nationwide, 56% have been white, 7% have been Hispanic, 35% have been black, and 2% other. Regarding the race of the victim in death penalty cases, 76% have been white, 6% have been Hispanic, 15% have been black, and 3% other.
Interestingly, 98% of the chief district attorneys in death penalty states are white, and only one percent are black.
2010 census information for Texas indicates that the state has 37.6% Hispanic/Latino population, 11.8% black, and 45.3% white (non-Hispanic). Of the 474 people executed by the state of Texas since the 1970's, 80 (16.9%) have been identified as Hispanic, 173 (36.5%) as black, and 219 (46.2%) as white - with two classified as other. That would indicate that Hispanics are under-represented on death row in Texas by over half, blacks are over-represented by three times, and whites are just about where they should be.
Race is a significant factor in who receives the death penalty and who doesn't - even in Texas.
Another interesting tidbit that I picked up while reading on this subject is that it is much more expensive to execute an individual - after the lengthy appeals and other aspects of due process are carried out - than it is to incarcerate that same person for the rest of his or her life.
But Rick Perry sleeps soundly - as, unfortunately, do we all. And the teabagger rabble wet themselves with glee every time another "killer" is snuffed by the state. To them the use of capital punishment is almost as orgasmic as watching a homeless person freeze to death - or winning a 9mm Glock handgun from their local Republican Party.
Surely we can sink no lower.