Capitol Offenses

Murder by Death: The Sequels


Texas can’t kill its murderers fast enough. Since 1976, Texas has executed nearly three times more inmates than any other state. Yet the death-row cells in Huntsville, which currently hold 448 men, are bursting at the seams.

While state prison officials make plans to add cells, legislators have introduced a trio of bills that could make death row even more crowded. Democratic Representative Bob Turner of Coleman has introduced a bill to provide additional funding to small counties prosecuting capital cases. Turner’s bill, H.B. 424, would impose a five-dollar fee on persons convicted of felonies, and a one-dollar fee for misdemeanors. Those fees would raise an estimated $3.3 million a year for potential capital prosecutions. Counties with less than 50,000 residents could apply for the funds.

Turner supports the death penalty, and says his bill will relieve budgetary pressures on small counties like Jasper County, which will spend nearly a half-million on the trials of the three white men accused of the racially-motivated murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man. The first, John William King, was found guilty last month and is now awaiting execution. In addition to the trial costs, the county has had to spend $343,000 to remodel the courthouse and grounds to meet media and security needs.

Turner’s bill has strong support among Jasper County officials. Auditor Jonetta Nash says the costs of the trials are “quite a strain” for the county, which employs 145 people with an annual budget of $6 million. Despite a $100,000 grant from the Governor’s office and assistance with investigative costs from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, county commissioners raised property taxes eight percent in order to pay for the investigation and trials. The tax hike will raise about $260,000 — a fraction of the amount needed.

Nash and other rural officials are squarely behind Turner’s bill. Allen Amos, a member of the Rural County Judges Association, said the funding bill is “the number one thing on our agenda. These capital-murder trials can devastate the budget of a small county.” Amos, one of fifty-five judges from small Texas counties in the Judges Association, added, “If you go to trial with an automatic appeal, you could be looking at $350,000 to $500,000 for each one of these things.” The costs of capital murder trials are so high for small counties that prosecutors in some cases decline to seek the death penalty. For example, last year Crockett County offered a plea bargain to avoid capital trial costs — the defendant accepted a life sentence. Crockett County Judge Jeffrey Sutton says the motivation for the plea bargain was fiscal, not legal. “It saved us almost $200,000,” he said. Legislators in Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington have recently introduced bills similar to that proposed by Turner. Last March, then-Idaho Governor Phil Batt signed into law a measure that creates a statewide fund for small counties that are seeking the death penalty.

Turner (also the author of the “veggie libel” law that led to last year’s high profile trial of talk show host Oprah Winfrey for her disparaging comments about beef), says his bill will do more than help rural county budgets. “It’s going to lend itself toward meting out a more favorable justice,” he said. Pointing to financially-strapped counties like Crockett, Turner said, “It’s necessary that they drop the capital-murder status and go for a simple conviction. So I think it’ll serve justice better to have that death-penalty option available — even if they don’t use it.”

Bills filed by two Democratic Senators, Royce West of Dallas and Rodney Ellis of Houston, could also increase the number of prisoners on death row. West’s bill (S.B. 49) would expand the type of crimes eligible for the death penalty. Execution would be possible for any person who “murders an individual selected because of the person’s bias or prejudice against a group.” (Capital offenses currently include multiple murders, murder of a law enforcement officer, murder with other felonies, murder of a young child, murder for hire, and murder by a prisoner.) Ellis’ bill (S.B. 275, sponsored in the House by Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson) is titled “The James Byrd Hate Crimes Act.” Like Turner’s bill, it would provide funding to small counties prosecuting murder cases, but only for those deemed “hate crimes.”

Richard Dieter, executive director of the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, questions the logic of West’s bill. Racists, says Dieter, “aren’t necessarily deterred by the death sentence. In some ways, it could be an attraction, because it gains them notoriety.” And while legislators demand more money for capital prosecutions, Dieter wonders if the money will be misspent. He points out that the total cost of one execution in Texas exceeds $2 million when all appeals and incarceration costs are included. “Is it worth a couple million dollars,” Dieter asks, “to get somebody executed — versus, say, having forty more police on the streets, or instead of building more prison cells?”

In the wake of the Byrd murder, it appears that some Texas legislators are willing to pay almost any price to keep expanding death row.

Robert Bryce is a contributing editor for the Austin Chronicle.