Death Penalty Protest in Austin, Texas

- By Matthew Wackerle

Hundreds gathered at a local park in Austin today to protest the death penalty in a state that leads the USA and much of the world in executions. Protestors marched to the state capital building chanting slogans such as, "You say death row, we say hell no!" as some Austin residents left the sidewalks to join the ranks that included a variety of political and religious organizations as well as relatives of inmates currently on death row who are awaiting execution. The annual march drew participants from all over Texas - particularly from the cities of Houston and, of course, Austin.

Currently, 449 inmates are awaiting execution in Texas prisons. Since the death penalty was reinstated following a national moratorium, Texas has executed over 300 prisoners. As the average stay on death row is approximately one decade, that number will more than double within the next ten years unless state-sanctioned killings are halted. Blacks and Hispanics are both grossly overrepresented on Texas death row. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, of the 449 inmates on death row, 181 are African American and 117 are Hispanic, or 41% and 26.5% respectively. Critics of the death penalty, including many conservatives such as televangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition Pat Robertson and Gov. Ryan of Illinois, who issued a state moratorium, cite such racially biased facts as an indication that the death penalty as it is currently applied is both inhumane and skewed.

Most of the demonstrators on Saturday, however, went a step further and demanded outright abolition of the death penalty, for not only minorities but the United States in general is overrepresented in executions. Today, the United States is one of the only high income nations that clings to what many societies now see as an outdated and immoral practice. Western Europeans and predominantly Catholic countries such as Mexico have in many cases refused to extradite individuals who would possibly be facing the death penalty in other nations, much to the displeasure of the United States.

Parents, siblings, and even an exonerated death row inmate who gave speeches at the rally referred to the proclivity of the Texas judicial system, Texas judges, and Texas juries to either exclude or overlook evidence that could indicate innocence. In the well known case of Gary Graham, who took the name Shaka Sankofa, four witnesses testified that Sankofa was not present at the location where Bobby Lambert was murdered. Furthermore, he was only identified by one eyewitness who suffered from poor eyesight. The lineup was also conducted haphazardly. Police lineups are flawed for a variety of reasons: In the case of Shaka Sankofa, it was due to Sankofa being present both in the photo and actual lineup, implying his involvement to the witness. Unfortunately, witnesses are routinely manipulated in the process of identifying suspects. When police officers think they have "the right man" they may ask the witnesses repeated questions that would implicate the suspect, such as "Are you sure it was not this guy?" The more witnesses seem to lean towards selecting the suspect that has already been condemned by police, the more the officers positively reinforce the witness. Although this creates an increased confidence on the part of the witness, many legal scholars and psychologists agree that such biased witness testimony is not necessarily valid. Nonetheless, sufficient measures have often failed to materialize in order to avoid such inaccuracies.

For now the death penalty seems to remain a culturally acceptable method of issuing "justice" in Texas and much of the United States. Despite the fact that the overwhelming consensus of social scientists is that the death penalty is neither a deterrent nor an effective means of addressing crime, perhaps the final test of the death penalty is whether it will continue to remain socially valid in the United States. Failing a ruling by the Supreme Court such as the one issued in the 1970's - or perhaps even more extreme in deeming capital punishment a violation of human and Constitutional rights - the end of the death penalty depends on the awareness of the need for institutional and moral reform amongst the population in general. Protests such as the March for a Moratorium in Austin offer some hope, but needless to say the road to abolition may be a long and difficult path.

For more information:
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Gary Graham's Last Statement
Campaign to End the Death Penalty
American Society of Criminology

Matthew Wackerle is a 20 year old government and sociology major at the University of Texas at Austin. He encourages feedback here:

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