Shared from the 10/24/2021 San Antonio Express eEdition

It’s past time for death penalty to be abolished in Texas


It was a truly senseless murder.

John Henry Ramirez and two female companions killed Pablo Castro, a father of nine, in Corpus Christi in 2004. Castro was taking out trash at a convenience store where he worked when he was attacked.

Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times. The robbery and murder netted Ramirez $1.25. Ramirez and the two women had been on a three-day drug binge.

The two women were arrested the night of the murder, but Ramirez fled to Mexico and was not arrested until more than three years later. He was sentenced to death and has been on death row since 2009.

Ramirez was to be executed by lethal injection last month. However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice refused to allow his minister to lay hands on him and say prayers at the execution, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to grant Ramirez a stay of execution. The Supreme Court will hear the case later this year.

The case raises a number of constitutional questions about the exercise of religion at the moment of execution.

It is easy to get caught up in the horror of Castro’s killing and come to the conclusion that Ramirez, 37, should pay with his life.

After all, as the lead prosecutor at Ramirez’s trial has said, “Pablo Castro didn’t get to have somebody praying over him as this guy stabbed him 29 times.”

Two questions are paramount: Does Ramirez deserve to die for this crime? Do we deserve to do this to ourselves?

My answer to both questions is no. We shouldn’t do state-sponsored killings. It’s a repugnant and medieval act and cheapens the value of human life. It dehumanizes everybody.

I have been battling the death penalty since I walked onto Arkansas’ Death Row in 1969 as part of a documentary team interviewing men who faced death in the electric chair.

Remember, the death penalty is a process. It’s a process staffed from beginning to end by people. And people make mistakes.

Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, jurors — all make mistakes. The process is far from perfect. But, when a life hangs in the balance, mistakes are devastating.

Look at the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu and Carlos DeLuna. Each was executed by Texas and the evidence of their innocence is massive.

Nationwide there have been 185 exonerations of death row prisoners since 1973. Texas has had 16 exonerations in that time. These are men who were wrongly sentenced to death, with evidence of their innocence coming in time to stop their execution.

The national and international context for Texas’ use of the death penalty is startling.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1976 the U.S. has had more than 1,530 executions, with 573 occurring in Texas.

Since nations of the European Union don’t have the death penalty, that leaves the U.S. as the leader among Western industrial democracies in use of the death penalty. And, Texas’ 573 executions is tops in the U.S.

Some people will look at those numbers and feel it’s not enough. I disagree.

I am embarrassed and outraged by the practice of the death penalty in Texas. It is well past time for Texas to abolish it. Twenty-three of our 50 states have done away with it. And some states that have it don’t use it.

Perhaps there is an awakening across the U.S. about executions. In 1999, there were 98 executions in the U.S. Last year, only 17, with 10 of those being federal executions in the closing months of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Last year, Texas had three executions. This year, three as well. The death penalty has run its course. It’s time to let it go, Texas.

I am reminded of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun who began his career as an ardent supporter of the death penalty. By the end of his career, Blackmun was a severe critic, famously declaring in one dissent, “From this day forward I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”

Texas needs to do likewise.

And, the Express-News Editorial Board should give its strong public voice to those who say that the time for abolition of the death penalty has arrived. It’s time for the Editorial Board to speak up and speak out for abolition.

Roger C. Barnes is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of the Incarnate Word.

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