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Support for death penalty still strong in Texas

In the middle of a prison cemetery known as Peckerwood Hill, inmates Mack Matthews and George Washington share a common fate.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the middle of a prison cemetery known as Peckerwood Hill, inmates Mack Matthews and George Washington share a common fate.

The men were among five condemned killers who on Feb. 8, 1924, were strapped into Texas' new wooden electric chair for what the Austin American-Statesman described as a two-hour "harvest of death."

At the time, state officials had just taken over execution duties from county sheriffs. They used the chair for more than 360 executions over the next 50 years.

Although the death penalty is under attack across the nation, support for capital punishment remains strong in Texas, where a history of frontier justice, a law-and-order culture and conservative politics keep the execution chamber busy.

"It's a tradition here and something we want to do, and we're not going to back away from what's going on elsewhere," says James Marquart, co-author of a history of the death penalty in the state.

Lethal injections enter in
Texas retired the electric chair in 1972, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executions under state death-penalty laws were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Legislators quickly rewrote laws to reopen the death chamber using lethal injection, which was considered more humane. The revised law was approved by the courts in 1976, and executions resumed six years later.

"That's the context you have to put it in," said Marquart, director of the criminology and sociology programs at the University of Texas at Dallas. "We didn't wait for other states, other legislatures, other people to tell us what to do. They knew public opinion supported capital punishment and weren't going to back from it."

On Monday, the high court again hears arguments about whether execution is cruel and unusual punishment, this time considering the claims of two Kentucky inmates who contend the three-drug injection could cause excruciating pain. Executions across the nation came to a halt in September after the court agreed to hear the Kentucky case.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 405 inmates — more than any other state. Virginia is second with 98.

Texas also leads the nation in the number of prisoners convicted and later set free after DNA evidence showed they were innocent, although none of those 30 cases involved death row inmates.

Texas "might sentence people to death at rates that are not horribly out of line, but they execute more," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado capital punishment expert. He said execution figures may reflect differences in attorney compensation, lack of public defenders and lack of attorneys to pursue appeals.

Unmatched among states in executions
Twenty-six of the 42 U.S. inmates executed last year were in Texas. No other state did more than three. In 2006, Texas executed 24. Ohio was next with five. It's a scenario that's played out nearly every year over two decades.

But even in the electric-chair days, Texas was among the most active death-penalty states. The graves of Matthews and Washington are surrounded by others marked with the two- or three-digit inmate numbers reserved for those on death row.

In 1923, the state took over execution duties from county sheriffs, who had conducted public hangings.

"Legal local hangings by the 1920s were a long-established part of the state's landscape," Marquart wrote in his 1994 book "The Rope, The Chair and The Needle." "Indeed, one of the most enduring stereotypes of Texas surrounds the public hanging of cattle rustlers on the range or in dusty frontier hamlets."

A list of executions in the U.S. from 1608 through 1972, compiled by capital punishment historian Watt Espy, shows Texas put 755 people to death, ranking behind Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

But that number that does not account for at least 335 lynchings — only Mississippi and Georgia had more — over a 30-year period ending in 1918, according to an NAACP study published in 1919.

The lynchings, prevalent in former Confederate states after the abolition of slavery, reflected a trend toward acceptance of capital punishment as illegal hangings "gave way to state-sanctioned executions," Marquart theorized in his book.

"It's ingrained in the culture," he said in an interview.

Prosecutors tough on appeals
As governor in the mid-1980s, Mark White presided over the executions of 19 men.

"I think people of Texas are most fair-minded when presented with facts," he said. "They're not mean-spirited, but are supportive of strict enforcement of law and severe penalties for those who repeat their crimes."

White, who was attorney general when executions resumed here in 1982, said he wanted his office to be aggressive when handling the appeals of capital cases. That policy remains in effect today.

"My approach was: OK, everybody has adequate time to prepare an appeal, but let's not delay it and risk creating a backlog," he said.

That's what happened in New Jersey, which reinstated the death penalty in 1982 but executed no one after 1963. Last month, it became the first state in four decades to abolish capital punishment.

Texas vulnerable to criticism
Other than a Supreme Court decision outlawing capital punishment nationally, there's little likelihood of Texas considering following suit.

The determined pursuit of the death penalty has left Texas open to criticism about overzealous judges and the prospect that innocent people may have been executed.

The judge issue intensified with September's execution of Michael Richard, the last inmate in the nation to be put to death before the Supreme Court agreed to take the Kentucky case on lethal injection.

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, refused to keep the court open past 5 p.m. to let Richard's lawyers file a late appeal that would have spared his life at least until the Supreme Court decided the Kentucky case.

Keller, who has declined to speak about her decision, has distributed campaign literature touting her qualifications as a law-and-order judge.

Also fueling criticism of the death penalty are worries about potentially innocent inmates on death row. Questions have been raised in a handful of executions since 1982, but no one for certain has been wrongly executed.

"That may be the event that would end it," Marquart said.