Monday, December 31, 2007

In Texas, they're quick with the needle

The state of Texas apparently didn't get the same message that the rest of the country got. Most states put executions on hold temporarily after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in September to hear a case challenging lethal injections. Not Texas. On the day that the Supreme Court made its announcement, a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge ordered the court clerk's office to close promptly at 5 p.m., denying a Death Row inmate a last-minute appeal to the High Court. The inmate was executed hours later.

Not a good example

This rush to the death chamber helps to explain why 60 percent of all U.S. executions this year were in Texas. It's an example no state should emulate -- and, in fact, most states are doing the opposite. A recent report by the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty, found that while Texas led the nation in executions this year with 26, executions in the United States were at a 13-year low.

The decline is attributed to a de facto moratorium by states that have decided to wait for the Supreme Court's decision in the appeal of two Kentucky Death Row inmates. The men say that lethal injections violate the Constitution's Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The court will hear arguments on Monday.

Of the 42 executions in the United States last year, almost all of them -- 90 percent -- were in the South, with Texas claiming the lion's share, the report said.

These numbers show either that there is growing unease with executions across the country or, at the very least, that most states are willing to wait until all legal issues are resolved before resuming state-sanctioned killing. This is a prudent course -- one that Texas should adopt -- especially considering the growing body of evidence showing that mistakes occur more often than many people realize.

Four years ago, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of more than 100 Death Row inmates. He cited DNA evidence that was used to exonerate 13 condemned prisoners across the country. Two weeks ago, New Jersey passed a law abolishing its death penalty, although this decision is seen as largely symbolic since there hasn't been an execution there since 1963.

Rush to judgment

Except for Texas, the trend is positive. Those who want quick executions after convictions argue for swift justice, for closure for victims and for the deterrent effect -- if there is any -- of a proximity between crime and punishment. These are valid concerns that promote justice. But inherent in justice is that it be fairly determined and correctly administered. Texas should join the rest of the country in slowing down the rush to judgment.

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