Democratic Convention: Life, Death and Bill White

In stark contrast to the Texas Republicans’ shout-fest in Dallas, the Democrats came to Corpus with few ideological bones (or fights) to pick. I figured I might find a spark at the Democrats Against the Death Penalty caucus. After all, the party is fixing to nominate a gubernatorial candidate who supports the death penalty. Bill White also opposes a moratorium on executions—something the party has backed in its last three platforms.

Surely a big caucus room half-full of dedicated anti-death penalty Democrats would have at least a few sharp words for White? Not quite. The tone was more cautiously hopeful than morally outraged.

“We have a chance to elect a governor who is not named Rick Perry,” proclaimed Scott Cobb, head of the Texas Moratorium Network, to vigorous applause. “Talking about the death penalty is going to be an ongoing process” if White is elected, Cobb said.

“He’s open to be educated,” a delegate said of White.

Clearly, these progressives are taking a “lesser of two evils” approach when stacking up White against Rick Perry. “It won’t quite be night and day,” Cobb told me after the session. “But maybe night and morning.”

When it comes to progressive moral issues—as opposed to the right-wing, Old Testament kind—you have to aim for baby steps in Texas. Even the most ardent death-penalty opponent knows that. Cobb talked about key arguments to make in this state—the ones that people can hear. There’s the risk (and reality) of executing innocent people, for one. Then there’s the expense. As Cobb noted, “The death penalty is much more costly to administer than life without the possibility of parole.”

All of which sounded a bit tepid after listening to the featured speaker, Juan Melendez, who spent 17 years, eight months and one day on death row in Florida for a murder and armed robbery he didn’t commit. “If Juan had been on death row in Texas, he would not have been alive and speaking to you today,” the caucus-goers were told as he was introduced.

“God knows how many people did not have the luck that I had,” Melendez said. He was finally released after exculpatory evidence, suppressed by prosectors, finally came to light.

“I pray to God every day that in my lifetime, I can live to see the death penalty abolished,” Melendez said, after telling the harrowing story of his frame-up and his nearly two decades living on death row. “People need to know that it’s racist. People need to know that it costs too much.

“As long as Texas has it, it will always be a risk to execute an innocent one. You can always release a man from jail,” Melendez said. “You can never release an innocent man from the grave.”

Chilling and powerful words. If only Bill White could have heard them. The campaign had promised to send a representative to the anti-death penalty caucus, but he didn’t show.

After the session, Cobb talked to me about a resolution being floated tomorrow, calling for abolition of the death penalty—a big step beyond the moratorium. We’ll see how that goes when the resolutions committee meets on Saturday morning. But it would be surprising, to say the least, for the party to so directly contradict its ticket-topper on an issue that creates such sparks (forgive the pun) in Texas.

Cobb wasn’t even sure whether the moratorium would be included in this year’s platform. “I’m a little bit afraid to look and see if they’ve gotten it taken out,” he said. But still, he sees White as someone who’ll at least consider the issue thoughtfully, whatever he says during the campaign—perhaps following the example of Bill Richardson in New Mexico, who came around to the moratorium side while governor. “I think over his term of office, he’s going to be very open to this discussion with us.”

Toward the end of the session, there was one burst of good righteous anger—but not directed at White. A woman in a pink baseball hat rose up and said, “Were any of the rest of you in the Gun Owners Caucus this morning when I talked about killing people in Texas?” She was, she said, a former Army quartermaster who knows her way around guns—and death. “I am a gun owner; I’m a gun user. These are people—Democrats!—who do not understand what a gun can do. When I brought up the issue, you should have heard the reaction of the other Democrats in that room. You’d have thought I was a pariah.

“You need to talk to your fellow Democrats, because I was shocked. These people don’t know what it’s really like to shoot somebody; they don’t know what death really is.”

Which goes for a lot of Texans, of course. Including, perhaps, the man the party will nominate tonight.

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Published at 8:41 pm CST