Fighting capital punishment in a red state

Death Penalty
by Marvin Olasky

Posted on Tuesday, October 8, 2013, at 12:34 pm

Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky’s cover story in the current issue of WORLD magazine focuses on what the Bible says about the death penalty and what life is like on death row. In a series of 10 columns here on (posted Oct. 7–18), Marvin addresses public policy issues involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness in capital punishment.

Several groups in Texas, and more nationwide, campaign against the death penalty. Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), works out of a plain, crowded office next to a United Methodist church in South Austin. She is giving her life to this cause, which gripped her while an undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky and brought her to Texas seven years ago.

Houlé is adept at giving the strongest anti-death-penalty evidence, which details the possibility of wrongful convictions and executions because of mistaken eyewitness identification, misinterpretation of evidence, incompetent legal representation, unreliable expert testimony, false jailhouse testimony from inmates who can reduce their own time by making up stories, and pressure on officials (sometimes self-imposed) to find someone to take the fall.

She notes that over the past four decades 140 persons (including 12 in Texas) have gained release from death rows due to credible evidence of their wrongful conviction. She contends that Texas has executed at least three innocent persons. I’ve read the evidence concerning Cameron Willingham, executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three young daughters in 1991: I’m convinced—and much more important, nine fire experts have determined—that the finding of arson grew out of faulty evidence and flawed science.

But Houlé has also learned to bleed red in a red state, which means making arguments that exhibit less sympathy for those viewed as devils, and more emphasis on dollars and cents. She cites a Dallas Morning News study that showed the costs of executing a person, due to the longer trial needed plus the appeals process, to be three times higher than the cost of life imprisonment in a maximum-security unit. She likes the example of a sparsely populated West Texas county that spent $1 million in 2009 on one death penalty trial, with costs incurred becoming “a contributing factor in the county commission’s decision to withhold employee raises and increase tax rates.”

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss his cover story on the death penalty on The World and Everything in It:

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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