The Politics of Death 

Mount St

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Mount St. Mark Foley erupted in a plume of red-hot instant messages, flash-frying the fat off the House Republican leadership before propelling enough ashy filth into the atmosphere to cloud the Senate midterm elections as well. Republicans in state races were left to scramble, retreat, build dams, and dig moats, lest the lava roll down the mountain and incinerate their own campaigns. Condemning Foley’s page-boy fetish and House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s buck-bucking wasn’t enough; any Democrat could do that and pitch tighter online sexual-predator laws. Republicans would have to go one step beyond.

Texas’s Republican incumbent triumvirate — Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Attorney General Greg Abbott — have stump-speeched all month about the electronic fishhooks dangling into your children’s bedrooms through PCs. Last week, Dewhurst, as Senate president, had the honor of debuting the “Texas Children First” proposal to do what the Democrats never would: expand the death penalty to include repeat child rapists.

If there’s any doubt that the proposal is anything short of political maneuvering, consider that two years ago Dewhurst proposed another bill called “Texas Children First,” an education-reform plan that included a $6.7-billion increase in public-education spending. The bill never crossed the finish line.

“Yeah, I saw `Texas Children First` in the newspaper and thought, ‘huh,’” said one aide to Senator Florence Shapiro, the Republican who introduced Dewhurst’s original bill. “But the whole world’s forgotten it, so I don’t think there’ll be any confusion.”

So much for elephants and forgetting. It’s amazing how a sex scandal can change one’s priorities — in two years, kids have gone from needing better education to requiring more executions.

In the meantime, Texas death-penalty opponents are lacing their boots for the 7th Annual March to Stop Executions in Austin on October 28. The news has never been more in their favor: Bexar County is investigating whether Ruben Cantu was executed in innocence; Texas Appeals Court judges tossed out Gabriel Gonzales’s death sentence based on defense-attorney negligence; and Michael DeWayne Johnson committed suicide last week, hours before his execution, leaving his final plea of innocence written in blood on his cell wall.

But now Perry, Dewhurst, and Abbott are framing the death penalty in terms of child molestation. Death-penalty opposition groups are recognizing that Dewhurst’s proposal will require a difficult strategy switch from offense to defense. It’s one thing to be accused of supporting terrorism by standing up for civil liberties; it’s another to be accused of being soft on child rapists by standing up for human rights. Nevermind that the Supreme Court has already ruled that the death penalty for anything short of homicide is cruel and unusual; no one wants to seem sympathetic to pedophiles.

“They’re just using the election to show they’re tough on crime,” said Hooman Hedayati, president of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty. “I don’t think it’s going to get a lot of support, but we’re not just going to sit and let it happen.”

To whom can anti-death-penalty activists turn? Certainly not State Senator Rodney Ellis, the sole incumbent Democrat on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. He’s pro-death, because, as one of his aides told the Current, “You can’t get elected in Texas if you’re against the death penalty.”
Is that how it is?

Apparently. Early last week, Scott Cobb, the director of the Texas Moratorium Network, told the Current that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell was on their side. Cobb said they’d met with Bell personally two months ago to discuss how to deal with the issue during the campaign and Bell pledged to sign a moratorium if one landed on his desk. Cobb even offered to help Bell write his response should the issue come up during the debate.

We called Chris Bell’s office for confirmation. After two hour’s deliberation, Bell’s spokesperson said Bell would not sign a moratorium, and would indeed support the death penalty for sex offenders, “provided it doesn’t cause more problems than it would solve.” Independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn wouldn’t sign a moratorium, her press liaison said, but instead of the death penalty for repeat offenders, she’d push for life-imprisonment, no parole, for child rapists on their first offense. That leaves Kinky Friedman as the only viable pro-moratorium candidate, with his catchphrase, “I’m not anti-death penalty; I’m anti-the-wrong-guy-getting-executed.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of spinelessness in our political culture,” said Democratic attorney-general candidate David Van Os, who sees the execution expansion as unconstitutional. “For a long time, I’ve been of the opinion that the way the death penalty is administered in Texas has lots of problems.”

He added, “I’m undecided as to whether there should be a moratorium, but I’d definitely consider it.”

Cobb, over at the Moratorium Network, said he was confused by Bell’s denial, because Bell had said he’d support a moratorium. Cobb thought maybe Bell just can’t say it outright during the campaign.

“I’m personally going to stick with Bell,” Cobb said. “But a lot of people will switch to Kinky.”

Just before deadline, Jason Stanford, a different spokesperson for Bell, called up to clarify the earlier statement, claiming miscommunication. Bell, he now says, wouldn’t veto a moratorium, though Stanford won’t say whether or not Bell would let the bill pass with his signature on it. Bell would, however, support the death penalty for repeat child rapists.

“Whatever we can do to hasten their entry into hell,” Stanford said.

More by Dave Maass

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