Texas carried out its 500th execution on June 26 at the Walls Prison Unit in Huntsville as hundreds protested outside.
Kimberly McCarthy, 52, an African-American woman, was denied a stay of execution despite pending appeals in the Dallas trial court and in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Her appeals had raised two critical issues: the removal of all people of color except for one from her jury, following a documented history of deliberate racism in Dallas County; and the inadequate representation provided by her previous attorneys, who never challenged this racism legally.
Activists, attorneys and legal associations, major media, scholars and civil rights organizations have all condemned the existing system of capital punishment. Most acknowledge that the flaws are fatal and cannot be fixed. Every major newspaper in Texas has called for its end.
The Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement traveled from Houston to be part of a militant demonstration at the death house in Huntsville.
“The death penalty is so racist and arbitrary that no one, whether actually innocent or guilty, should ever be executed in Texas or the United States. From the racism to the prosecutorial misconduct to the execution of the innocent, the mentally ill, noncitizens and those with diminished mental capacity, the death penalty is guilty and must be shut down now,” organizer Pat Hartwell told Workers World. “And on top of that, Texas has spent well over $1 billion on these 500 killings.”
The Dallas Peace Center sent dozens of people to Huntsville. Activists demonstrated in Austin at the Capitol as well.
Legal lynching worst in Texas
The so-called modern era of the death penalty began in 1976, after the U.S. Supreme Court, which had stopped executions in 1972, allowed them to resume. Since then, the country has carried out 1,336 executions, mostly in the South.
Texas has held 37 percent of them. Over 400 of Texas’ executions took place under the former governor, George W. Bush, and the current governor, Rick Perry.
Texas uses the death penalty more than any other state. Number two in executions is Virginia, with 110. Texas has executed more people than the next six states — Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Alabama and Georgia — combined.
The death penalty is a vestige of the virulent national oppression honed during 400 years of enslavement of African people. This oppression continued after the so-called Emancipation Proclamation. Today’s death penalty is a continuation, by legal means, of the illegal lynchings that took place after the Civil War up into the 1900s.
Capital punishment is consumed by the racism so pervasive in today’s criminal justice system. Prosecutorial misconduct is the order of the day. District attorneys hide exculpatory evidence from the defense, evidence is destroyed or just “lost,” and jailhouse snitches are given favors to provide evidence that prosecutors do not have.
Executions take place because crime labs falsify evidence, African-American and Latino/a jurors are struck from cases solely because of their race, and incompetent lawyers fail to represent their clients.
In Dallas County, where McCarthy was convicted, the racist practices of the district attorney’s office were actually codified in its manuals on jury selection.
The Dallas Morning News described racial discrimination in jury selection as early as the 1930s, when it published an article reporting that a riot almost took place when Blacks appeared at the Dallas County Courthouse insisting they be considered for jury service.
In 1938, the African-American president of Wiley Junior College was thrown head first down the courthouse steps when he refused to leave after being excused from jury service. It wasn’t until 1949 that an African American was permitted to serve on a jury trial.
D.A.’s overt racism
Henry Wade, who took over as Dallas district attorney in 1951, was responsible for creating and fostering the culture of racism still present today. Jack Hampton, who later became a judge in Dallas, told the Dallas Morning News that he once allowed a Black woman to serve on a jury in a minor trial he was prosecuting. When the woman was reluctant to convict the defendant and hung up the jury, Wade told Hampton, “If you ever put another n***er on a jury, you’re fired.” Hampton never put another African American on a jury for the remainder of his tenure in the D.A.’s office.
Wade served as district attorney for 35 years, from 1951 to 1986. A now infamous jury training manual produced by his office told prosecutors “to never take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans, or any minority race, no matter how rich or how well-educated.” A later memo said it “was not advisable to select jurors with multiple gold chains around their necks or those who were ‘free thinkers.’”
This information was in McCarthy’s pending appeal as she rightfully claimed that these racist practices affected the outcome of her trial, since those who prosecuted her were trained under Wade.
Racism is prevalent all over Texas. The Houston Chronicle reported in November of 2011 that the last white person sent to death row from Houston’s Harris County was in 2004. Since then, 12 of the last 13 men newly condemned to die have been Black, a Houston Chronicle analysis of prison and prosecution records shows. The latest Houston death sentence was handed down in October 2011 to a Latino.
Harris County also has a long history of aggressive prosecution of capital cases. Thirty-five percent of the 283 people on Texas’ current death row came from Harris County. So did half of the 111 Black prisoners on death row, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data.
“Although Texas is using the death penalty less, the state still uses it disproportionately on people of color,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row prisoners in their appeals. “This is a recurring problem and Texas’ failure to fix it demonstrates how broken its capital punishment system is.”
In the last six years, six states have abolished the death penalty, making 18 states that now cannot execute. Several others are studying capital punishment and some are considering repeal. Of the 32 states that have the death penalty on their books, most do not use it. But six people are still scheduled for execution in Texas.
“What we do know is that the death penalty is on its way out,” said Hartwell. “The Abolition Movement just hopes it doesn’t take any more victims with it before it is gone. Just as we fight the rampant deaths at the hands of the police and the Border Patrol, in Texas we fight legal lynching.”