Executions on the rise Capricious penalty: With more people on death row, more chances of error.

January 07, 1996

TOUGH-ON-CRIME attitudes and aggressive prosecutors helped give the state of Texas a grim distinction in 1995 -- 19 executions, almost a third of all those carried out in the country last year. That keeps pace with the state's general record in the two decades since the Supreme Court ended a four-year moratorium on capital punishment: Texas has carried out 104 of the 313 executions in this country since 1976.

To our mind, that record is itself evidence of the capricious, inherently unfair nature of this penalty. Is Texas home to one-third of American criminals who deserve the ultimate, irreversible punishment? Are crimes more grisly or unforgiveable there than elsewhere in the country? Serious questions have been raised about the role of race in sentencing convicted criminals to death, but geography also plays a role, with southern states -- particularly Texas -- being far more willing to seek and impose the death penalty. Twelve states do not have a death penalty at all.

According to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based research group, some

3,000 men and women are currently awaiting execution. With revisions to cut down the lengthy appeals process and shrinking resources for legal defense, that back-up could mean that the coming years will see a dramatic increase in the number of executions. The 1995 total of 56 was the highest number of executions since 1957.

As the death penalty process speeds up, the chances increase that people will die for crimes they did not commit. One sobering example was cited in the recent report -- a Mississippi woman convicted of murdering her 9-month-old child and sentenced to death. The state's Supreme Court later overturned her conviction and, in a retrial, she was acquitted last month.

Evidence now suggests that her baby died not from criminal mistreatment, but from either cystic kidney disease or sudden ,, infant death syndrome. What worse way to compound the tragic death of a child than to execute an innocent mother?

The Supreme Court has said that the death penalty does not violate the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But the vast discrepancies in its application across the country, the inevitable influence of the changing moods of the electorate and, especially, close calls like the case of the Mississippi mother suggest that there are more effective ways to fight crime.

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