Activists Make Texas Lawmakers Face Facts

By: Mike DeBrauw

Opposition to the death penalty is spreading everywhere -- even in Texas, the execution capital of the world.

Last year, Texas -- under orders from the executioner-in-chief, George W. Bush -- put 40 people to death, more than any state has in a single year in the entire history of the country.

But Bush’s sick record started to come under scrutiny during last year’s campaign. And Texas is reeling in the wake of several scandals surrounding death penalty cases -- for example, the exposure of an expert prosecution witness named Walter Quijano, who helped send seven men to death row with the claim that racial minorities are more likely to commit violent crimes.

Because of this attention, state lawmakers are facing a flurry of proposals aimed at reforming Texas’ killing machine. One bill that could become law soon would give death row prisoners the right to DNA testing. Other proposals include giving juries in capital cases the option of a life-without-parole sentence and setting minimum standards for defense lawyers in death penalty cases.

The most ambitious legislation is Rep. Harold Dutton Jr.’s bill which would stop executions in Texas for two years while the state’s death penalty system is studied by a special commission. "Our system is broken," Dutton said. "We shouldn’t keep executing people while we study the problem."

On March 19, the State Affairs Committee of the Texas House of Representatives held a public hearing on the bill that captured national media attention as a result of the moving testimony from witnesses about the sick realities of the Texas death penalty.

Exonerated death row inmates Randall Dale Adams and Kerry Cook both spoke powerfully about waiting to die for crimes they didn’t commit. Rev. Caroll Pickett talked about ministering to Huntsville inmates and witnessing more than 95 executions. Jeannette Popp, the mother of a Texas murder victim, told lawmakers that the execution of her daughter’s killer would bring her no comfort -- she asked them to vote for Dutton’s moratorium as a step towards abolition.

All in all, more than 25 witnesses testified in favor of the bill. Only one testified against it, and he drew hostile responses both from committee members and the room packed with moratorium supporters. Austin Campaign members mobilized a big turnout for the hearings, and Campaigners Bill Vaught and Jordan Buckley testified, presenting legislators with the Campaign’s petition in support of the moratorium.

As the New Abolitionist went to press, lawmakers said Dutton’s bill had a good chance of making it out of committee and to the House floor for a debate. We still have a long way to go before the moratorium would become law. But a House debate on the moratorium would cast a spotlight on the issues.

Deep in the heart of Texas, activists are making lawmakers face the facts.