The crowd on death row is thinning out.
A dozen condemned inmates in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's so-called "death watch" cells are being executed at a scheduled rate of two a week over six weeks.
Two were executed the week of Oct. 13. Two were scheduled for this week. And two more the week after that. Then six more in November, adding to Texas' standing as the nation's most active death penalty state.
"It's just the way of Texas," death row inmate Alvin Kelly said in the days before his Oct. 14 execution. Kelly, convicted of shooting a family of three, including a 22-month-old boy, was the first in the current string of inmates to be given a lethal injection.
Relieving a logjam
The steady stream of executions is relieving a logjam created when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively halted lethal injections around the country while it decided whether the killing method was unconstitutionally inhumane. It ruled the method was constitutional and executions resumed.
Despite the death chamber's revolving door in October and November, this is hardly a record year for executions in Texas, with a total of 21 scheduled for 2008.
In the years George W. Bush was governor, Texas executed an average of 25 convicts a year, culminating in 40 executions in 2000. Since then, the state has averaged about two dozen a year.
"Will crime stop? Will my death stop what's going on in everyday society?" asked Kevin Watts, who was executed two days after Kelly. "They're just killing people." Watts was condemned for shooting three people in the back of the head during a robbery.
While the high court was considering the legality of lethal injection, the de facto moratorium didn't stop capital murder appeals moving through the courts. For many of the inmates now with execution dates, their convictions and sentences were upheld either before or during the hiatus.
Supreme Court opened the door
The Supreme Court's 7-2 decision in April holding that injection was not unconstitutionally cruel allowed executions to resume, and nine have been carried out in Texas already this year, the most in the nation.
Kelly, unlike some of his fellow prisoners in the Polunsky Unit, said he looked forward to dying, although he insisted evidence was manipulated and he was innocent in the deaths of toddler Devin Morgan and his parents, Jerry and Brenda, in East Texas in 1984.
"I'm tired of being here," said Kelly, 57, who had been on death row since 1991. "This is not life."
Watts, 27, was convicted of the execution-style shootings of Hak Po Kim, Yuan Tzu Banks and Chae Sun Shook during a robbery at a San Antonio restaurant in 2002. The wife of one of the victims was abducted, tortured and raped, but survived to testify against Watts.
"I've never said I was innocent," Watts said. "I said I was guilty from the get-go."
Watts, however, contended jurors never were allowed to hear anything good about him, and instead only were told of his history of violence and drug abuse.
When he returned this year to Bexar County to appear before a judge and receive his execution date, he exploded in court with an obscenity-filled tirade.
"I might have screwed myself," he said. "But I never had a chance to speak for myself, how I was railroaded, how I had an inadequate attorney, how this is not about justice.
"But there's no hate in my heart. I understand there are consequences to my actions."
Other inmates already executed or set to die this month include:
- Joseph Ries, 29, was executed on Oct. 21. Ries was convicted of breaking into a rural home in Hopkins County in northeast Texas, fatally shooting the man who was sleeping there and driving off in his car. Ries was 19 at the time of the slaying of 64-year-old Robert Ratliff.
- Bobby Wayne Woods, 42, was scheduled to be executed Thursday, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to have his claims of mental retardation reviewed. Woods was convicted of the 1997 murder of Sarah Patterson, the 11-year-old daughter of his ex-girlfriend. The child and her 9-year-old brother were abducted from their home in Granbury, about 25 miles southwest of Fort Worth. She died after her throat was slashed. Her brother, Cody, was choked into unconsciousness but survived.
- Eric Nenno, 47, is to be executed Oct. 28. He was convicted of the 1995 rape and strangling a 7-year-old neighbor girl, Nicole Benton, in Hockley, about 30 miles northwest of Houston. Two days after she disappeared, the girl's body was found in the attic of Nenno's home.
- Gregory Wright, 42, is to be executed Oct. 30. Wright, who was homeless, was convicted of taking part in the 1997 fatal stabbing of Donna Duncan Vick at her home in DeSoto, about 15 miles south of Dallas. Duncan, a 52-year-old widow, regularly ministered to the homeless and had given Wright food, shelter and money.
Besides the six others set to die in the first three weeks of November, at least six more inmates already have execution dates for early in 2009.