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Last updated 8:53AM ET
February 28, 2021
Death Penalty in Texas 25 years later: "Against"
(KERA) -

As a Texan living in Europe, I sometimes feel as if I'm bearing a big and unusual scar - the kind that compels strangers to ask: How'd you get that?

The scar is the Texas death penalty, and what Europeans really want to know is: What drives Texas to use it so wantonly? What makes Texas swim so strongly against the tide of human decency?

I don't defend Texas because I share most Europeans' belief that capital punishment is wrong.

In the 27 countries of the European Union, and in Switzerland, where I live, capital punishment is rightly banned as cruel, an offense against human dignity and an ineffective deterrent against violent crime.

No country of the European Union has executed a human being since Latvia did so in 1996 - eight years before it joined. If Latvia had not stopped executing human beings, it wouldn't have been allowed to join. The trade off was that stark.

Texas, by contrast, has been on a death-dealing splurge. In all the time that the European Union has executed nary a soul, the Lone Star state has executed 301. A total of 405 people have been put to death in Texas since executions resumed there in 1982.

Even among the states, Texas stands out for its bloodlust. Although Texas accounts for only 8 percent of the U.S. population, it accounts for 37 percent of its executions.

Because of the haphazard and unfair manner in which Texas administers justice, it can't even be sure that all the people it executes are truly guilty.

Thanks to the modern miracle of DNA testing, Dallas County recently exonerated 13 people of crimes they didn't commit. The wrongly convicted felons served a total of 185 years behind bars. Fortunately, none was on Death Row. But what are the odds that Texas has executed an innocent? I'd say they're high.

I'm pleased that the federal judiciary has tossed a wrench into the gears of the Texas death machinery. A de facto national moratorium is in effect while the United States Supreme Court tries to decide whether lethal injections violate the Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment".

Unsurprisingly, Texas is resisting. Even though the Supreme Court has indicated that it will brook no more executions until it finishes sorting through the issue, some defiant Texas judges continue to set execution dates.

But the fundamental question isn't whether to replace lethal injections with some supposedly more humane method. The fundamental question is whether capital punishment should exist at all.

It shouldn't.

What would be more humane? Beheading? Hanging? Stoning? Shooting? Gassing? Electrocution? They're all beastly. They all preclude any chance of appeal.

I'm not saying that Texas should emulate Europe in every respect. In most of Europe, the alternative to capital punishment is life imprisonment. But life imprisonment here rarely means that. In Germany, for example, a life sentence usually translates into closer to 15 years in jail. In Spain, the maximum a judge can apply usually is 30 years.

Texas could abolish the death penalty while retaining its power to impose life sentences without possibility of parole.

The state's reputation is on the line. Being a pariah can have real consequences. Companies can decide not to invest. Customers can choose not to buy. Tourists can decide not to visit. And Texans living abroad can find that people regard them strangely - as if they carry a repulsive scar.

Just ask me.

Timothy O'Leary is a journalist and editor living in Switzerland and a former writer for the Dallas Morning News.

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