Last Wednesday, Texas executed Kimberly McCarthy, the 500th inmate to be executed by the state since it reinstated the death penalty in 1976. But I’m not celebrating. Like many conservatives, I oppose the death penalty and I shudder when I think back to the September 2011 GOP presidential debate where the crowd applauded Governor Rick Perry’s record on the death penalty. As a lifelong Texan and conservative Republican, I think this latest execution represents a sad and solemn milestone.
My great state of Texas, whose traditions and values I hold dear, has the death penalty all wrong. But the state’s large number of executions — since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume 37 years ago, Texas has accounted for 40 percent of all executions in the United States — is only part of the story.
Regrettably, Texas is famous for providing inadequate defense counsel in capital cases and for executing people who may have been innocent. The 500 inmates Texas has executed since 1976 have included people with severe mental illnesses or reduced intellectual faculties. Flaws and failures punctuate the Texas approach to capital punishment. Grim doubts continue to hang over the cases of Gary Graham, Claude Jones, Ruben Cantu, Carlos DeLuna, Cameron Todd Willingham, and others who have been put to death despite real questions about their guilt and the accuracy of the cases brought against them.
So far, a dozen people have been fortunate enough to escape Texas’ death row. Nationwide, 142 people have been released from death row (to date) after evidence was discovered proving that they were wrongfully convicted.
Liberty-loving conservatives are waking up to the risk of executing innocent people, as well as the outrageous expense of capital trials and their endless appeals. Many of us now realize the death penalty does nothing to make us safer and does not deter killers. Despite all its executions, Texas had the 23rd highest murder rate in the nation in 2011.
Today, America is shifting away from the death penalty. Six states have repealed capital punishment in the past six years and the pace of executions is slowing everywhere as fewer inmates are sentenced to death. In Texas, the imposition of the death penalty peaked in 1999, when four-dozen people were put on death row; only nine people were put on death row last year. Juries are increasingly reluctant to sentence people to death. I suspect that many of the prisoners who’ve spent decades on death row wouldn’t have been sent there if they were charged and put on trial today.
I’m not a bleeding heart liberal. But I think Republicans need to rethink our party’s “tough on crime” positions. Capital punishment isn’t consistent with our principles of limited government, liberty and fiscal responsibility. Kimberly McCarthy’s execution is an opportunity for all of us to take another look at this irrevocable, unjust and expensive punishment, and finally concede that the death penalty system no longer fits with our beliefs and should be done away with.
Pat Monks of Houston, Texas, is the Republican chair for Precinct 718 of Harris County, a member of the board of directors of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and a founding supporter of the national group Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. He’s a criminal defense attorney.