Reforming the death penalty

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mark White, the only surviving former Democratic Governor of Texas, has rethought some of his positions on the death penalty. Those who watched the recent documentary on Ann Richards on HBO here in the last few days will surely remember White’s infamous commercial on capital punishment. He walked by gigantic portraits of the men put to death during his tenure, openly bragging about being responsible for their executions. The rhetoric was disturbing anyways, but especially so for a Democratic primary, which the ad aired during.

Speaking some 24 years later, White says the ad was “in poor taste” and regrets it, but he more importantly called for a general overhaul of death penalty mechanisms throughout the State. His impetus on this issue has been the botched execution in Oklahoma, where the state obtained a secret batch of pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy, much like Texas does for their executions. In Oklahoma, the result was a condemned man who suffered a terribly cruel and unusual punishment. Fortunately, in Texas, no much such has occurred…yet. While Oklahoma then promptly ordered a complete review of the death penalty, Texas has not done so.

White offered three suggestions for the death penalty, and certainly remained supportive of the institution in quite general terms. It is worth noting that the Texas Democratic Party changed their platform in 2012 to call for the full repeal and abolition of capital punishment. White’s approach, however, is far more nuanced. He believes in an expansion of the scheme for the condemned to prove their innocence through DNA exoneration. Additionally, he believes that the State should have a consistent standard to determine mental retardation (In the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the US Supreme Court ruled that mentally retarded individuals who nonetheless knew the difference between right and wrong could not be legally executed. The criteria for determining said retardation has not been established uniformly, however).

Last, in light of the Oklahoma case, White declared his strong desire for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to release the info on the pentobarbital it has obtained from the compounding pharmacies. The drug, an anesthetic, is injected in a high enough dosage to cause for respiratory arrest. Rick Perry, for his part, seemed completely unfazed by the events that transpired with his neighbor to the north.

The Dallas Morning News reports that, among other news items, Perry appeared utterly nonchalant on the topic of the botched Oklahoma execution. He denied the need for any review of Texas’ mechanisms and he strongly argued Texas’ uniqueness when compared to Oklahoma. In a statement, Perry made the point.

“I think we have an appropriate process in place from the standpoint of the appeals process to make sure that due process is addressed,” Perry said. “And the process of the actual execution I will suggest to you is very different from Oklahoma. We only use one drug but I’m confident that the way that the executions are taken care of in the state of Texas are appropriate and humane.”

Of course, as remiss as I may be for admitting this, Perry does have a point. The compounding pharmacy-obtained pentobarbital has been used to end the lives of many Texas denizens, and there is no evidence that it is any more cruel than the previous executions. Obviously, I think even the previous executions were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, but that’s just me, and not prominent Democrats.

Wendy Davis, the State Senator and Democratic nominee for Governor, is a strong supporter of capital punishment (Or, at least, has been ever since she started running for higher officer). In fact, a campaign spokesperson even said that Davis does not support any sort of review of the process. Though, to be fair, this could just be the gross incompetence of Davis’ press office.

Leticia Van de Putte, another State Senator and the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor, for her part, seemed much more amenable to the idea of review. I cannot say I am familiar with Van de Putte’s death penalty stance off the top of my head, but I found a press release complimenting a military jury for sentencing the Fort Hood shooter to death.

Once again, I have a pretty concise position on this issue: abolition. That being said, I understand it is not a popular point to have, and I accept that incremental progress is needed. Good for White (and Van de Putte) for takingt he first step.

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