June 25, 2013

Texas prepares to execute 500th inmate

Texas executes an inmate about every three weeks – far more than any other state – even as other states cut back for fear of wrong convictions.

The Associated Press

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This undated file photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows Kimberly McCarthy, who is on death row in Texas for the 1997 killing of a neighbor during a robbery. McCarthy is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.

AP

So do most Texans.

A 2012 poll from the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas showed only 21 percent opposed capital punishment.

Still, re-examinations of convictions have raised questions about whether some of those executed may have been innocent. The suspect cases included the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson deaths of his three young children. Arson experts consulted by a state panel determined evidence used to gain the conviction did not meet scientific standards. But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott later barred the panel from further review of the trial evidence.

Over the years, the Texas execution list has provided a portrait of violent crime in a state where many people are armed, both good and bad, and juries have little tolerance for murderers.

Those executed have ranged from relatively common cases — robbers who killed store clerks, drug users who killed other drug users, spouses killing each other — to the bizarre and sensational. Ronald Clark O'Bryan, nicknamed the "Candy Man," poisoned his son's Halloween candy to collect on an insurance policy. Angel Resendez, a serial killer, rode the rails, stopping along the way to murder strangers. Lawrence Russell Brewer dragged a black man behind a pickup truck in a racist killing.

In the prison town of Huntsville, executions have become a well-worn ritual.

For more than 20 years, Dennis Longmire has been a fixture outside the fortress-like prison on execution evenings, holding a lit candle on a street corner. Hundreds of demonstrators once gathered there, but interest has long since subsided.

"Texas continues to march to a different beat," as other states drop the death penalty, says Longmire, a criminal justice professor at nearby Sam Houston State University. He calls the execution total "staggering."

McCarthy, convicted of killing a 71-year-old neighbor during a 1997 robbery, is among eight inmates scheduled for execution over the next four months. She would be the first woman put to death in the U.S. in three years and the 13th since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume.

McCarthy, 52, was condemned for using a butcher knife and candelabra to beat and fatally stab retired college professor Dorothy Booth at the victim's Lancaster home. Evidence showed the former nursing home therapist used the knife to sever Booth's finger to steal her wedding ring.

McCarthy, who is linked to two other slayings, has had her execution date pushed back twice this year. Her attorney, Maurie Levin, has been trying to halt her execution again, contending black jurors improperly were excluded from her trial by Dallas County prosecutors. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this week rejected the latest appeal, saying the claims should have been raised previously.

Levin said there has been a "pervasive influence of race in administration of the death penalty and the inadequacy of counsel — a longstanding issue here."

Even remarkable incidents in the death ritual can become mundane in the steady procession.

In 2000, Ponchai Wilkerson stunned officials when he spit out a small handcuff key he had kept hidden in his mouth as he prepared to die.

"In another state you live with that for a long time," said Willett, who became warden at the Huntsville Unit in 1998 and oversaw 89 executions. Here in Texas, another one is coming a few days later and you've forgotten that one before."

 

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