First, NPR's program Fresh Air yesterday aired a lengthy interview with Houston attorney David Dow, who has written a new, much-praised book titled Autobiography of an Execution, which has received wide critical praise.
Then last night, the death penalty came up as a source of disagreement in the Democratic Governor's candidate debate, reports the Dallas News:
The hourlong debate was calm, with few direct exchanges and plenty of agreement between the two candidates. But it laid bare a number of disagreements between the two that hadn't been seen before in a campaign that has seen most of the energy on the GOP side.
White opposed placing a moratorium on executions and on natural-gas drilling in urban North Texas' shale belt, while Shami said justice and public health require both.
Shami said he supports capital punishment, "if we are 110 percent certain" of guilt. But he said recent exonerations, many based on DNA testing, require a pause so that cases can be reviewed.
"We have killed lots of innocent people in the state of Texas," Shami said – a claim that hasn't been definitively proven.
White, though, said a moratorium on executions would be too broad. "That would disrespect the juries and the victims," he said.
White acknowledged the system has problems, but said it generally works pretty well. He said he rejects "one-size-fits-all" solutions in this and other parts of government.
Meanwhile, coverage of Sunday's Sarah Palin rally in Houston on behalf of Governor Rick Perry's reelection campaign revealed fault lines in one family over the GOP primary based on the Todd Willingham case. This anecdote caught my eye at the end of the story:
Of course, that's just one family, but it suggests that Sen. Kay Hutchison may have so far underplayed the Willingham arson case as a GOP primary wedge issue.
Judith Simon of Katy, who wore a pink "Palin Power" T-shirt, said she finds the former governor authentic. "When I listen to Sarah Palin, I hear truth and sincerity coming through her. When you're used to hearing the truth, you recognize the truth."
Simon also said she supports Perry. But her husband, James, a fellow Palin fan, said he would not back Perry because he believes Perry allowed the state to execute an innocent man.
He was referring to Cameron Todd Willingham, whom the state put to death in 2004 for starting a house fire that killed his wife and children. An arson expert found that the investigation that led to Willingham's conviction was deeply flawed.
Asked whom he would support in the primary, James Simon said, "How do I say this politely? None of your business."
His sentiments suggested that some may have turned out to support Palin more than Perry.
However, seldom do political debates over the death penalty reach what may be the biggest practical hurdle to wider use of capital punishment - that it simply costs taxpayers' too much to implement. According to a report last week from the Amarillo Globe-News:
More prosecutors are deciding not to seek the death penalty in cases where it's an option, two local district attorneys said after two cases in which pursuing the ultimate punishment was an option.In rural Gray County, reports the Globe News, the District Attorney "spent more than $750,000 - that was about 10 percent of Gray County's annual budget - to bring [a capital defendant] to trial. The cost of the trial was one reason county commissioners were forced to raise taxes and withhold employee raises last year." Another Panhandle DA observed that "many rural counties might bankrupt themselves if they try capital cases."
"That's been the trend for probably the last decade and probably will continue to be a trend," Randall County Criminal District Attorney James Farren said.
Many prosecutors weigh the lack of certainty in securing a conviction against the high cost of litigation as reasons for not seeking the death penalty when available.
When Texas voters are asked by pollsters if they support the death penalty, they do so in overwhelming numbers. But I wonder if there isn't a somewhat more pedestrian question that might better gauge real-world support for capital punishment: Would you be willing to pay higher property taxes to implement the death penalty more often in your county? In Gray County that was an explicit choice faced by local prosecutors, who made a charging decision that's directly responsible for higher taxes and lower pay for county employees. I'd like to see that aspect of the issue discussed more by pols seeking our votes at all levels, but it's not how the debate is usually framed.