Skip to main content

Not all Texans love a good execution

By James C. Moore
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 1712 GMT (0112 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Texas has executed about 500 people since the 1980s, more than any other state
  • James Moore says the death penalty in Texas is infected with racism
  • Blacks make up fewer than 12% of Texans, but they're 37% of its executions
  • Moore: As Texas' population diversifies, sentiments are shifting about death penalty

Editor's note: James C. Moore is a business consultant and partner at Big Bend Strategies, a business messaging firm. He is co-author of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential" and a TV political analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Texas law regarding the death penalty often feels like a cultural remnant from the days of cowboys and the Old West: You kill; you get killed. In a recent New York Times article, the headline included the phrase, "Confronted on Execution, Texas Proudly Says It Kills Efficiently." The language feels like an understatement considering that 515 inmates have been put to death in Texas since 1982, about 60% of the national total. Unfortunately, efficiency does not equate with accuracy.

Robert James Campbell, for example, was convicted of murder and rape. His defense attorneys, however, during his trial in Texas were not allowed to introduce evidence that indicated he was intellectually disabled and struggled with right and wrong. A prosecution expert, arguing for death, said Campbell might be dangerous in the future "because he is black." These factors prompted a federal appeals court to stay Campbell's Tuesday execution and allow the introduction of additional evidence at new sentencing hearing.

Bernie Tiede, who is white, has had a different experience with Texas justice. Tiede shot an 81-year-old woman in the back and then stuffed her body into a freezer while he continued to live in her home. Although he spent 17 years in prison, Tiede was recently released when the court reconsidered his childhood sexual abuse, the kind of mitigating circumstance not allowed to be part of the record in Campbell's original trial.

James C. Moore
James C. Moore

Tiede's story was turned into the movie "Bernie" by Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, who has given the new parolee a home and arranged for a job. The Texas Tribune, a politics and government news site, wrote two extensive stories about Linklater and Tiede, which gave the killer a sympathetic profile and suggested that parole was a form of justice. Linklater has contributed $10,000 to the news site, according to its own records.

When Texas was recently preparing to execute a convicted cop killer from Mexico who had an IQ of 67, I thought of a former prosecutor I knew. In a similar case, he had said, "If Mexico doesn't want its citizens executed in Texas, they should warn them not to kill people while they are here." Texas comedian Ron White has joked that while other states are eliminating the death penalty, "We've been putting in an express lane."

Mexican citizen awaits execution in Texas
Texas execution dogs Gov. Rick Perry
Texas inmate presses for DNA testing

White is right, but Texas is often wrong.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, DNA evidence has exonerated and led to the release of 15 accused killers since 1972. The list of what are often called the top 10 infamous cases of wrongful execution includes five victims from Texas' death row. Two of those provide more than sufficient cause to reconsider capital punishment.

Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000, was sitting in a car when an accomplice killed a liquor store owner during a robbery in 1990. The only admissible evidence against Jones was a hair found at the site of the crime. DNA forensics could not prove it was his, but less than a decade later, improved techniques showed that it was the victim's hair, not Jones'. Regardless, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and appeals courts denied Jones a reprieve, and he was executed.

Cameron Todd Willingham met the same fate in 2004 after being convicted of killing his three young daughters by setting their home on fire. The Texas Forensic Science Commission investigated the arson evidence against Willingham and concluded that the findings were a product of "flawed" processes, five years after he had been put to death in Huntsville. His family has spent the past two years seeking a posthumous pardon from the state but has met with as much denial as during his appeals process.

There is sufficient injustice to go around in Texas, but the death penalty, undeniably, is infected with racism. In Houston, prosecutors are three times more likely to seek the death penalty for African-American defendants over white suspects, according to a study last year by the University of Maryland, which looked at 500 cases in Harris County, the state's most populous legal jurisdiction. Professor Ray Paternoster, a criminologist with 35 years of experience, concluded that Houston juries sought the death penalty only 20% of the time when the defendant was white and 70% for blacks.

Increasingly, however, sentiments are shifting. We are not likely to grant reprieves to death row inmates, but Texans are beginning to acknowledge inequalities in the administration of executions and the possibility of mistakes.

Racial injustices may be why support for the death penalty is showing faltering support in Texas, particularly among an increasingly diverse population. A survey released last month by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research of Houston showed that 69% of the city's residents favor an alternative to execution. Figures indicate that 39% prefer life without parole as an option, and only 28% backed the death penalty.

Those numbers reflect the fact that Houston has become the most racially diverse large city in the U.S. Whites now constitute a minority in every age demographic except people over the age of 65. Race, though, continues to be, unquestionably, a factor in Texas justice. Although blacks are fewer than 12% of the population, they make up more than 37% of the state's 500-plus executions since the law was reinstated.

Regardless of those disturbing statistics, Texas remains very efficient at carrying out the death penalty.

Just not as proficient at delivering justice.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT