For the most part, executions these days pass with scarcely a murmur. By last week, 612 people had been put to death in the United States since capital punishment was brought back 24 years ago — 206 of them in Texas alone. Aside from Goss and Beets, three other inmates are set to die this week, one in Ohio and two in Florida (where Bush’s kid brother, Jeb, another unblinking advocate of the ultimate punishment, is governor).
Now, for the first time in a generation, there are signs of a shift in the public mood. The biggest came on Jan. 31, when the governor of Illinois, an old-guard Republican named George Ryan, halted all executions in his state. Illinois, he admitted, has a “shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.” Since 1976, the state has executed 12 men. Over the same period, 13 condemned men were exonerated. Three were freed after journalism students dug up evidence that someone else had committed the crime. In other cases, the Chicago Tribune documented gross legal lapses. “I cannot support a system,” Ryan concluded, “which has proven so fraught with error.”
Other signs of change: 12 of the 38 states with capital punishment have bills pending to stop executions. Nebraska’s legislature ordered a moratorium, though its governor vetoed it. A new bill before Congress would make it easier to use DNA evidence to challenge capital convictions. The Catholic church is urging reform (Missouri’s governor commuted one death sentence after an appeal from the Pope). Movies like The Hurricane dramatize the frailty of the system, while The West Wing, the hit TV series set in the White House, movingly shows a president played by Martin Sheen praying for forgiveness after letting an execution go ahead because he doesn’t dare to defy public opinion.
In fact, a solid majority of Americans still backs execution, and most politicians find it wisest to go along. Even the candidate formerly known as Hillary Rodham Clinton (like Madonna and Cher, she’s just “Hillary” now that she’s been re-branded for her New York Senate run) advertises herself as tough on crime by backing capital punishment. But it’s no longer the kiss of death to express doubts. While violent crime was exploding in the 1970s and ’80s, American voters demanded punishment above all. Now that crime is way down, there’s new room to question the effectiveness — and the justice — of executions.
Not, however, in the Texas of George W. Bush. Not only has he overseen more executions than any other governor in modern times, but he shows no concern about the glaring flaws in his own system. One example: Texas has no statewide system of public defenders. It’s up to local (elected) judges to appoint lawyers for poor defendants, and they have a record of selecting poorly qualified cronies. Texas courts have upheld capital convictions even though lawyers literally napped through the trial. In one notorious case, a trial judge opined that “the Constitution doesn’t say the lawyer has to be awake.” The Texas legislature voted for a public defenders’ system, but Bush vetoed the bill.
There’s more. Bush opposed a law to ban executions of the mentally handicapped. He recently presided over the executions of one man who had to be transported from an intensive-care ward directly to the death house after attempting suicide, and another who was just 17 when he committed his crime. And his system for reviewing last-minute clemency appeals is so perfunctory that it often takes just 15 minutes to dispose of a case.
Bush is often asked, as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, whether he has any doubts about the system. His consistent reply is that everyone — everyone — executed while he’s been governor was guilty as charged. You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to wonder how that can be true, given the litany of errors uncovered in a state like Illinois. But this week — and for many weeks to come — it will be business as usual at the Texas death house.