The fact that Texas recently executed another prisoner in its custody isn't news. Nonetheless, the media picked up on the story because it's the lone star states 400th killing, and on this occasion, the European Union took the unusual step of requesting that Texas cease the practice of carrying out executions altogether.
The United States has put to death 1,089 people since the Supreme Court lifted a ban on capital punishment in 1976. Since then the State of Texas has lead the way claiming 400 of those killings, 131 of those under George W. Bush in his tenure as governor.
Lethal injection is the preferred method of execution, but the electric chair and gas chamber remain an option. Firing squads and hangings might sound barbaric, but those methods were used to kill 5 people in the United States as recently as 1996. In fact, it was only in 2001 that the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to put to death mentally impaired individuals.
Following that, in 2005 the Supreme Court concluded that it was unconstitutional to execute anyone who was under the age of 18 when they committed an offense. Think about what that means for a moment; before 2005 they could execute individuals for things they did when they were legally a child!
Johnny Ray Conner was executed in Texas on Wednesday for the 1998 fatal shooting of a grocery store clerk, Kathyanna Gon Thi Nguyen. Conner always denied the charge and in 2005, a judge overturned Conner's death sentence and ordered a retrial, saying Conner's lawyers had been ineffective. In January a federal appeals court reversed that decision.
Without a doubt, it is a tragedy that Kathyanna Gon Thi Nguyen was shot and killed. But I'm unconvinced that a state-sanctioned murder of her killer has redressed the balance or served any real justice.
Supporters of the death penalty often cite the Bible verse, "An eye for an eye", as some kind of divine justification. But the same book also says that God himself said "Vengeance is mine, I will repay."
So where is the moral directive for justice? Upon what did we base our judgment that killing is wrong? If it was wrong of Ray Conner to kill Kathyanna Gon Thi Nguyen, why then was it right for the state of Texas to kill Ray Conner?
Perhaps the family of Conner's victim feels better now that her killer is himself dead. But is it the job of the judiciary system to exact revenge in such a way? In effect, are we to believe that in this case, two wrongs have made a right?
Conner was in jail for the crime of murder. He no longer posed a significant threat to the people of Texas. One day he might have been released, and I will agree that such a prospect seems utterly unthinkable when one considers that his victim is dead. But in killing Conner isn't the State of Texas simply demonstrating the fact that it simply doesn't believe in its own rehabilitation system?
Perhaps execution is justice. Maybe killing a killer serves as a warning to other would-be murderers that the same fate awaits them should they be caught. However, as the President of the European Union pointed out, there seems to be absolutely no evidence from any quarter that the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent. Most murders are not the result of a calculated well thought out process of reason.
If justice is equal handed then one thing troubles me about the death penalty; how come there have been so few executions compared to the number of crimes that are potentially punishable by death? I understand that the process of law takes time, but in the state of Texas alone there were 55,902 murders between 1976 and 2005 and yet only 355 executions. How is there such a vast difference between the numbers of crime and so-called justice?
In Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 US Supreme Court case that resulted in a temporary end to executions, it was concluded that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual punishment" proscribed by the Eighth Amendment as incompatible with the evolving standards of decency in modern society.
Back then Justice Potter Stewart wrote "These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual. For, of all the people convicted of rapes and murders in 1967 and 1968, many just as reprehensible as these, the petitioners are among a capriciously selected random handful upon whom the sentence of death has in fact been imposed."
Stewart went on to write "I simply conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."
However, just four years later the Supreme Court allowed states to rewrite their death penalty statutes. Florida reinstated the death penalty within five months, followed shortly by 34 other states.
By the end of this month, barring last-minute appeals, the State of Texas will have killed three more people, Daroyce Mosley, John Amador, and Kenneth Foster. I've not looked at their specific cases, and make no mistake I'm not suggesting that Texas is especially savage, I'm merely asking whether killing these men and the others that will follow, will really serve justice, and if not then shouldn't the United States be examining the motives for the death penalty in the first place?