Texas death penalty practice deserves abolition

Usmaan Hasan

Arkansas wants to execute eight people over the next 10 days. The state’s stock of Midazolam, a sedative used for lethal-injection, is due to expire at the end of the April. Not one to let taxpayer dollars go to waste, Gov. Asa Hutchinson opted to clear the state’s death row as soon as possible. For now, a federal judge has put a pin in these plans, but Arkansas plans to appeal. Gruesome instances like these remind us of a grim reality — capital punishment is a fundamentally flawed institution that has no place in modern society.

Texas is no stranger to death penalty complications. In March, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas used an antiquated standard to determine the necessary intellectual ability a death row defendant must demonstrate. Moreover, just last week Texas refused to conduct additional DNA testing for another defendant. This is especially concerning in a state that has the second highest rate of executions per capita. If a society is determined to provide the death penalty it must also be willing to pursue a gamut of opportunities to prove innocence. Anything less creates a legal system which stacks the deck against the accused. 

The laws of Texas seem predisposed for inmates to be put to death. Currently, a panel of jurors must unanimously agree upon the death sentence for the defendant to be put on death row. A single juror’s dissent automatically renders life in prison. However, state law bans judges and attorneys from communicating this second contingency. The impact is profound. In a 2008 trial juror Sven Berger didn’t believe defendant Paul Storey qualified for the death penalty. Berger also knew he couldn’t convince the other 10 jurors otherwise and so, unaware of the power of his dissent, Berger voted for the death sentence. Justice may be blind, but Texas laws are trying their hardest to keep jurors in the dark.

Capital punishment is a difficult subject to mediate. Society has an inherent drive to achieve justice, and the families of victims must not feel as if the law has marginalized them. However, the law must not be vengeful and it must not discriminate. The disproportionate representation of minorities on death row is an outgrowth of the bitter legacy of lynching in the United States. The death penalty requires complex moral gymnastics to justify taking a life. It fails as a deterrent and at best has an imperceptible effect on the homicide rate. Victims deserve justice, but so do the defendants. 

The fight to repeal capital punishment in Texas will take years to come to fruition. However, attempts to iron out some of the most glaring flaws can be made. DNA testing in Texas is only conducted when the defendant can prove the tests would change the outcome of the case. This standard unduly limits potential evidence and is far more restrictive than necessary. Senate Bill 1616, if passed, would improve juror transparency by removing the gag order on capital punishment case sentencing instructions. 

Finally, the criminal justice system needs a dramatic overhaul. For far too long minorities have been disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. A study by the University of Maryland, using Houston’s Harris County as a test case, found that black Americans were three times as likely to have their cases advanced to a death penalty trial than their white counterparts. Adopting a bottom-up approach to reform — amending drug possession and bail laws, for example — will mitigate the nefarious impacts of the modern day death penalty.

Arkansas is creating an environment in which assembly line justice is the norm and the basis of the criminal justice is eroded. Texas must learn from the failure of Arkansas and let the death penalty take its last breath.

Hasan is a business freshman from Plano. Follow him on Twitter @UzzieHasan.