Thursday, October 04, 2007

Progress amidst reprieves on Texas death row

Maggie says:
One of the wonderful things about living in Albuquerque was feeling connected to the action, knowing the power of change, and having humbling opportunities to affect something much larger than myself. But as a new girl in a new city in a new (huge) state, that feeling’s not going to come easily or quickly. So instead, I’m the outsider looking in, surrounded by forces too large to feel at home with just yet.

Capital punishment hits home in this way. I’ve been on the periphery of the movement to end capital punishment for a long time. Boston (in a state where capital punishment is outlawed, mind you) afforded meetings led by Cornel West, getting Sister Helen Prejean herself to sign my copy of Dead Man Walking, and being lucky enough to get to know the man who probably doomed himself in ’88 with his honest answer that he wouldn’t want to execute his wife’s would-be rapist. Ahh, Boston. The movement in New Mexico is small by comparison – the state has only executed one person since 1976, and although recent bills to outlaw the practice have been voted down in the state legislature, New Mexico will never feel as… bloodthirsty as some other states do.

Enter: Texas. For someone who doesn’t believe in the death penalty, I certainly picked the right place to move, didn’t I? I could easily make broadly sweeping statements about Texas culture or the folks this state has graduated to Washington, but I refuse to do that, namely because I don’t believe it. There are lovely, wonderful people here, and this is the state that gave us Ann Richards and Molly Ivins and Ms. Marjorie, so you won’t hear me making generalities any time soon.

And yet. In a massive Dallas City Hall corruption case that handed down a 166-page federal indictment this week, one off-hand quote in a newspaper article stopped me cold. “If he did it,” the man-on-the-street said, “he should burn.”

? Because the last time I checked, that’s not a phrase to throw around lightly, and certainly not when embezzling money is the crime in question.

Mornings making coffee in the kitchen, my heart skips a beat when KERA mentions that there was an execution in the early hours of dawn, or that one is scheduled for that night. It’s the kind of news that doesn’t compute with the childhood pictures smiling at me from across the coffee maker, or the underlying principles that define my days, or the reason I moved here to begin with. The numbers here run my blood cold, leave me searching for a blanket and craving connection.

But there are already gains: just over a month ago, Governor Rick Perry commuted a death row sentence for the very first time since taking office. Kenneth Foster was sentenced to death under the “law of parties” rule here that offers the sentence of capital punishment if a murder could have been predicted by someone not directly involved in the killing. That rule has been at the center of many organizing efforts here; in 1996, Foster was waiting in a get-away car while a friend murdered a man during a botched home robbery. After the commutation, a spokeswoman for his family said, “It is a historic turning point for Kenneth. But it's also a historic turning point in Texas, and indeed, with regard to death penalty in general.”

Suddenly, true change is even more palatable. Last’s week last-minute reprieve by the U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for this week’s news. In a move that mirrors nationwide trends, a state appeals court just indefinitely halted executions in Texas. The de facto moratorium on executions in Texas buys the courts time to weigh in on the cruel and unusual punishment status of the lethal injection practice. And in the meantime, Huntsville is still.

Texas brings up for me my shifting sense of perspective toward institutions. Historically, our institutions can be hopelessly, dangerously behind the times, tools for action that is unethical and immoral on the part of an elite afraid of losing power, and grassroots action is required to demand reform and affect change. (I offer up the current immigration crisis in Irving, TX as an example.) Yet with capital punishment, in a state condemned worldwide for its heavy-handedness, I find myself grateful that institutions like the courts can perhaps be catalysts for progress in an environment desperate for it.

I’ve been told that optimists die hard in a state like this one. But there is always goodness to be found, and I know I’ll feel a little better every morning the news doesn’t tell me the state just killed someone to make me safer.