2010 Archives

Rick Halperin: Why don't people in Texas talk about the death penalty?


The following was posted to The Dallas Morning News website on October 6, 2010. It was written by Rick Halperin, the director of SMU's Embrey Human Rights Program.

"Death Penalty Matters"

Larry Cox of Amnesty International
The following excerpt was written by Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, and appeared in the Octobert 6, 2010, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Cox will speak at SMU at 7 p.m. Thursday in Hughes-Trigg Student Center as part of SMU's "Death Penalty Matters" fall series.

The corrosive effects
of capital punishment

Human rights violations can be the product of evil minds, but more often they are the result of unjust and dysfunctional systems. The Texas death penalty has become notorious for its dysfunctionality.

In my many years of working for human rights and death penalty abolition, I have found that correcting such flawed systems requires putting clear limits on state power. This is why abolition of the death penalty in Texas is imperative.

 When Amnesty International came into existence in 1961, capital punishment was widely used worldwide. Today, as the organization approaches its 50th birthday, two-thirds of all nations have repealed the death penalty or abandoned it in practice. Emerging from the oppression of totalitarian regimes, many countries have seen death penalty abolition as a way to permanently check the power of the state.

This movement has been slower to take root in some parts of the world, including in the United States and, especially, in Texas. In 2009, Texas put more prisoners to death than all but six countries – Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq , Iran, China and the entire United States. . .

Read the full opinion piece.

More about "Death Penalty Matters."

October 6, 2010

SMU's Embrey Human Rights program presents "Death Penalty Matters," a fall series of programs that is free and open to the public. Speakers include former Texas prosecutor Sam Millsap and Sister Helen Prejean. For more information, visit smu.edu/humanrights or call 214-768-8347.

The death penalty in America should be a topic of constant discussion in public forums and political conversation. The reality is that, in Texas - the state that has executed more people than any other single jurisdiction in the free world since 1976 - the silence about the death penalty is deafening.

Rick Halperin
Rick Halperin

With 3,200 people in more than 30 states waiting to be killed by electrocution, firing squad, gassing, hanging and chemical poisoning, how can it not generate discussion?

The answer is twofold. First, many Texans (and Americans) simply aren't aware of the issue. Second, speaking about the death penalty involves individuals confronting the dark side of human behavior and profoundly disturbing aspects of our own individual upbringings. To talk about the death penalty is automatically to start from a place of powerful negativity. The words typically associated with the core issues of this subject are negative: murder, tears, rage, loss and pain. This is because the larger issue surrounding the death penalty is violence in our society.

Many people were raised to believe that the death penalty is correct and just and fair. We have little reason to doubt the teachings of our schools, our civic and faith leaders or even our parents. As we grow older and form our own opinions on many issues, including this one, we can learn that, in fact, they were wrong - which is not easy to admit.

As adults and citizens of Texas, we have a responsibility to face the sobering realities of the death penalty, even though they may make us uncomfortable:

  1. The death penalty is, and always has been, biased against people of color and the poor. Of the 3,200 people on death row across the country, 56 percent are people of color - even though they compose only a third of the total U.S. population - and the vast majority come from the lowest economic rung of society.
  2. The death penalty is not now, nor has it ever been, a deterrent to other violent acts. Of 500 police chiefs surveyed in 2009 by the Death Penalty Information Center, 96 percent agree that the death penalty does not deter crime.
  3. The criminal justice system always has made terrible mistakes, which, unfortunately, have allowed innocent people to be both convicted and incarcerated for long periods of time and, even more tragically, to be executed.
  4. The death penalty remains as arbitrary in its application today as it was in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in the Furman v. Georgia decision.
  5. The death penalty does not save taxpayers money. The average cost of executing a person is $3 million, more than three times the cost of lifelong imprisonment. Texans will have spent $2.7 billion for the nearly 900 people who have been sentenced to death in Texas.

Many who are not opposed to the death penalty, including the Dallas district attorney, argue that it should be reserved for those who have been convicted of the most heinous crimes. But, in fact, those who are executed are not the "worst of the worst."

Compare the crimes of the typical person executed - someone who usually has committed a single homicide - with someone who remains alive and in prison despite the large number of people they have killed. Gary Ridgway, the Seattle Green River Killer, was sentenced to life without parole although he murdered 48 women. Zacarias Moussaoui received life without parole despite being convicted of conspiring to kill the nearly 3,000 Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks.

If Ridgway and Moussaoui do not constitute the "worst of the worst," then who does?

How can we be surprised that talking about this issue remains so terribly difficult?

# # #



Find an Expert