Religion and culture behind Texas execution tally

DALLAS Mon Aug 13, 2007 2:05pm EDT

1 of 2. President of the Board of Directors of the Texas Prison Museum Aaron Dickson stands with 'Old Sparky,' the Texas electric chair in which 361 killers were executed, in this November 19, 2002 file photo. Texas will almost certainly hit the grim total of 400 executions this month, far ahead of any other state, testament to the influence of the state's conservative evangelical Christians and its cultural mix of Old South and Wild West. To match feature TEXAS-EXECUTIONS/

Credit: Reuters/Richard Carson/Files

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DALLAS (Reuters) - Texas will almost certainly hit the grim total of 400 executions this month, far ahead of any other state, testament to the influence of the state's conservative evangelical Christians and its cultural mix of Old South and Wild West.

"In Texas you have all the elements lined up. Public support, a governor that supports it and supportive courts," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"If any of those things are hesitant then the process slows down," said Dieter. "With all cylinders working as in Texas it produces a lot of executions."

Texas has executed 398 convicts since it resumed the practice in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on capital punishment, far exceeding second-place Virginia with 98 executions since the ban was lifted. It has five executions scheduled for August.

The average time spent on death row before execution is about 10 years, not much less than the national average of closer to 11 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But the average would be considerably longer if Texas were excluded.

A Texas governor can commute a death sentence or grant a reprieve based on a recommendation from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose members are appointed by the governor.

But governors past and present, including President George W. Bush and the state's current chief executive Rick Perry, have taken a hands-off approach.

"The courts are not much of a check in Texas and the executive defers to the courts," said Jordan Steiker, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Law and co-director of the school's Capital Punishment Center.

BIBLE BELT INFLUENCE

Like his predecessor, Governor Perry is a devout Christian, highlighting one key factor in Texas' enthusiasm for the death penalty that many outsiders find puzzling -- the support it gets from conservative evangelical churches.

This is in line with their emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for their own salvation, and they also find justification in scripture.

"A lot of evangelical Protestants not only believe that capital punishment is permissible but that it is demanded by God. And they see sanction for that in the Old Testament especially," said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Texas also stands at an unusual geographical and cultural crossroads: part Old South, with its legacy of racism, and part Old West, with a cowboy sense of rough justice.

Some critics say the South can be seen in the racial bias of death sentences with blacks more likely than whites to be condemned -- though Texas is not alone on this score.

Over 41 percent of the inmates currently on death row in Texas are black, but they account for only about 12 percent of the state's population.

Meanwhile, for some in Texas the death penalty is about the victim.

"It's the criminal justice system, not the victim justice system. I need to get justice for my victim. I need to see that justice here on earth," said Cathy Hill, whose husband Barry was shot dead while working as a deputy sheriff almost seven years ago. His killer is now on Texas' death row.

Support for capital punishment in Texas has also been attributed to the state's high rates of violent crime, though it is not strikingly above the national average.

According to FBI statistics for 2005, the national rate of violent crime was 469.2 per 100,000 inhabitants while the same rate for murder and non-negligent manslaughter was 5.6. For Texas, the same figures were 529.7 and 6.2.

While the prolific death chamber in the city of Huntsville, where 19 inmates have already been executed by lethal injection in 2007, makes Texas stand out, the state is also starting to follow national trends toward fewer death sentences.

Data provided by the state's Office of Court Administration for 1996 to 2006 -- when the number of murders fell somewhat but overall remained fairly constant -- show a sharp drop in the number of death sentences being imposed.

The highs over that period were in 1997 and 1999, years in which 37 death sentences were handed down. But in 2005 only 14 convicts were condemned to die in Texas.

The longer trend is a decline of homicides over the past 30 years with a peak of 2,652 in 1991 in Texas and 1,407 in 2005. And fewer murders should translate into fewer death sentences.

Demographics could help tilt the balance a bit further, as the state's booming economy attracts outsiders -- and potential jury members -- from more liberal regions and as its Latino population grows rapidly.

"Demographics could change things as minority groups like Latinos are generally less enthusiastic about the death penalty," said Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.

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