Texas death machine on overdrive

Credit: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
By: Lily Hughes

THE EVENING of September 15 found Texas Gov. and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry partying it up with his buddy Donald Trump at Fall Fashion Week in New York City. 

Back in Texas that night, Duane Buck sat in his cell awaiting the walk to the death chamber. He had eaten his final meal and the scheduled time for his execution had come and gone. In a few short hours, his death warrant would expire--and he sat awaiting a final decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether he would live or die. 

Buck's lawyers had been appealing for a stay of execution based on the fact that during his trial, a psychologist argued he was a continuing danger to society simply because he was Black. 

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had denied clemency, and there was no indication that Perry would grant a reprieve. It was left to the U.S. Supreme Court to step in with one small measure of justice--to stop Buck's planned execution with only hours to go. 

Two days earlier, on September 13, Steve Woods was put to death despite the fact that another man confessed to committing the murders that put Woods on death row.

As he lay on the table in the execution chamber, Steven Woods said: "You're not about to witness an execution. You are about to witness a murder. I am strapped down for something Marcus Rhodes did. I never killed nobody, ever. Justice has let me down. Somebody completely screwed this up. Well, Warden, if you're going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull that trigger."

But we know that those words won't give any pause to Rick Perry. 

Perry holds the record for the number of executions--235 men and women have been killed in Texas under Perry's reign, surpassing his predecessor George W. Bush, who oversaw 152 executions. 

Perry is proud of his record. At a recent Republican presidential candidates' debate, NBC News' Brian Williams asked Perry whether he lost any sleep at night, worrying that he might have executed an innocent person.

After waiting for the right-wing audience's grisly applause for the Texas execution machine, Perry declared: "No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place...But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."

Without actually saying it, Williams was plainly asking about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed on Perry's orders in 2004. Willingham's execution--for allegedly starting a fire that killed his three children--has haunted Perry over the last few years. Forensics experts who examined the evidence believe it shows there was no arson.

That evidence was presented to Texas authorities days before the execution, but they chose to ignore it. Perry maintained that Willingham was guilty and a "monster." Perry worked to squash a posthumous investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, firing the head of the commission on the eve of a hearing and installing a more pliable appointee.


Even if Perry manages to stop the official Willingham investigation, the damage has been done. Perry's actions are widely seen as a cover-up and have cast a national spotlight on the Texas death penalty system. 

That crisis has had an impact. Support for the death penalty is on the decline and the number of death sentences has dropped dramatically. In each legislative session, there are dozens of bills calling for abolition or other progressive justice system reforms--a sharp contrast to 10 years ago when an abolition bill would never have been introduced. 

Stop the executions of Hank Skinner and Larry Swearingen 

Two other Texas death-row cases center on new testing of DNA evidence. Hank Skinner received a stay on November 7, just two days before his scheduled execution.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) said it needed to weigh his request for DNA testing in light of new laws in Texas, and Larry Swearingen's execution was stayed last year by the CCA.

The CCA recently ruled against Swearingen despite DNA that excluded him as the perpetrator in the crime he is accused of--other forensic evidence suggests he was in jail at the time of the killing. 

Hank Skinner won the right from the U.S. Supreme Court to sue in civil courts for new DNA testing--a right the criminal court system claims he forfeited by not asking for it at his trial. His lawyers have been fighting to win new DNA testing for him.

Why deny Hank Skinner new testing if it can show that he's innocent? Texas authorities are desperate to avoid answering that question. 

For more information on the case of Hank Skinner please visit hankskinner.org. A version of this story was first published in socialistworker.org