Death chamber gurney at the Huntsville prison in Texas.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Texas’s death-penalty system is a travesty. It is racist; kills people who are probably innocent at an alarming rate; and has used drugs sourced from a pharmacy that, according to BuzzFeed News, was “cited for scores of safety violations,” forged quality control documents, and sent at least one child to the emergency room because it had improperly compounded their medication. Five of the 11 Texas inmates executed in 2018 said the drugs used to kill them felt like they were “burning” them internally, even though they were supposed to be pain-free — reflecting a nationwide pattern of excruciating deaths by lethal injection. Perhaps even worse is that Texas is not unique. These issues illustrate an ethical and logistical crisis facing the American death-penalty system as a whole, from Tennessee to South Dakota to Oklahoma.
Yet barring a miracle, December 4 will be business as usual. Joseph Garcia is set to be executed in Texas for his role in the Christmas Eve 2000 murder of Irving Police Officer Aubrey Hawkins, which occurred during a shoot-out after Garcia and six other men broke out of a maximum-security prison in Kenedy and robbed a sporting goods store. There is no proof that Garcia pulled the trigger. In fact, he was inside the store while the shooting unfolded outside, making his guilt unlikely. But Texas’s Law of Parties holds that he could be convicted of a crime his associates had committed simply because he was present.
Details from Garcia’s tragic personal story cast doubt on whether he should have been in the prison he escaped from in the first place. Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and prominent death-penalty abolitionist, outlined it in a Twitter thread on Sunday:
The thread is worth reading in its entirety, but includes accounts of Garcia’s trauma-filled childhood, including several instances of sexual abuse and his first criminal conviction, for which he received a 50-year prison sentence. The conviction stemmed from a 1996 incident where he stabbed and killed Miguel Luna, an acquaintance with whom he attended a party one night. Luna — who had had a history of violence against women and, in Prejean’s words, “men who he perceived as obstacles to his access to women” — had stolen Garcia’s keys and attacked him after Garcia separated him from a female partygoer Luna was trying to coerce into sex.
Garcia’s court-appointed attorney failed to note Luna’s history or make a self-defense argument, but the system’s failure to give Garcia a fair shake did not stop there. Four years later came the Irving store robbery that spiraled out of control, resulting in the death of a police officer for which there is still no proof of Garcia’s hands-on involvement. In 2003, his case was overseen by a judge named Vickers “Vic” Cunningham, who made headlines in May when the Dallas Morning News reported that his living trust rewarded his children for marrying white people rather than interracially. These injustices continued in the absurdity of Garcia’s death sentence. Participating in a robbery is not murder. Yet under Texas law, he was found guilty of killing Officer Hawkins — which he has maintained he did not do, and which nobody has proven he did — because the people with whom he was simultaneously committing a different crime may have. This is an unacceptable pretense on which to convict anybody of a crime, let alone sentence them to death.
But in a broader sense, Garcia’s case illustrates the fundamental illogic on which the death penalty is predicated. There is no proof that capital punishment deters crime. It is racist, as demonstrated locally by the 102 black inmates executed in Texas, as of July 2017, out of the 235 total — a rate of 43 percent, compared to black Texans’s 12.7 percent population share. Every European nation has abolished it, save for Belarus, a dictatorship. It is such a contentious practice that its application is often subject to years of appeals, deferring closure to victims and leaving the convicted to languish on death row for decades, awaiting what can end up being an agonizingly painful death. The details of its implementation aside, the existence of the death penalty presumes that a country whose wealth was derived from black slave labor and indigenous-land theft, and seen thousands of racist lynchings, has moral legitimacy to be executing people in the first place.
America’s commitment to this horrific farce persists nonetheless. Capital punishment is cast often as the overwhelming province of former slave-holding states in the South, like Texas, but California houses one in every four death-row inmates. Its use is declining across the country, but efforts to do away with it entirely face severe opposition. After Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala — the first and only black elected prosecutor in Florida history — announced in March 2017 that she would not seek the death penalty in any case tried by her office, Republican then-governor Rick Scott personally reassigned several of her cases to another prosecutor. “He’s taking away the authority that she was given by the people [who elected her],” State Senator Randolph Bracy told the Orlando Sentinel at the time. Most of these national tensions converge at Garcia’s case, which illustrates vividly the dysfunction and immorality of a systemic atrocity masquerading as justice. Nobody is served by the death penalty’s continued existence save its financial profiteers and those committed to the delusion it constitutes anything more than revenge. That a broken man like Garcia can be killed legally, here, in its name, for a crime he likely did not commit, is Texas’s shame, and ours as a nation.