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Texas to send No. 500 to death chamber

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Owing to its size and inclinations, Texas registers prodigious statistics, but none so bleak as what comes from the state’s pre-Civil War red-brick prison in Huntsville that houses the nation’s busiest execution chamber.

There, on Wednesday, Texas’ 500th execution since national reinstatement is set to be carried out. The life scheduled for termination belongs to Kimberly McCarthy, whose grisly murder of elderly neighbour Dorothy Booth of Lancaster brings the state to this grim milestone.

It’s one that no other state may ever touch. Virginia, second in terms of executions, is barely a fifth of the way there, and the pace of capital punishment has slowed nationwide, even in Texas.

Part of that has to do with a collective shudder at the realities of a fallible criminal-justice system. Part of it has to do with a growing list of states — now at 18 — that have abolished the death penalty. Part of it has to do with a willingness to pause and take an unflinching look at the system and why it singles out some killers to die and others to live.

In Ohio, the eighth-ranking capital-punishment state, a special commission appointed by the state Supreme Court is now doing that self-examination. It was galvanized by a report that showed the likelihood of being executed depended on where a killer committed his crime and who he killed. Defendants paid a disproportionately higher price in Cincinnati, for example, as opposed to Cleveland and other major cities. Killers of whites were far likelier to face execution than killers of blacks.

Unevenness in capital punishment is also a blemish on the Texas record. Again, geography and race count — among the reasons that this newspaper opposes capital punishment.

Of Texas’ 254 counties, only 22 have sent killers to death row in the previous five years, and only 11 have done so in the previous two, according to an analysis from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A death case is too time-consuming and expensive for many counties to take on.

Studies indicate that the race of the victim and murderer likely produce different outcomes in Texas, from decisions made by jurors to convict and by prosecutors to bring charges. Of the 46 death verdicts in the past five years, 21 defendants were black.

It’s time, in Texas, for our own unflinching self-exam on the system of sending people to the death chamber.

That’s especially important for Dallas County, which is suddenly notable as Texas’ leading county for new death sentences, with eight in the previous five years.

The McCarthy case, the potential 500th execution, dredges up this county’s sketchy history of racially discriminatory jury selection. New briefs in the case cite findings by this newspaper that, as recently as 2005 — three years after the McCarthy trial — Dallas County prosecutors excluded eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate they rejected eligible whites.

McCarthy is not a sympathetic character, and her culpability in a brutal murder is not at issue. Still, in the grim business of seeking an eye for an eye, Texas must insist on a fair, dispassionate, even-handed, colour blind justice system. It’s not the one we have today.

 — The Dallas Morning News

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