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On the death penalty

Most of what you need to know about this story concerning Wendy Davis, the death penalty, and the Governor’s race can be found at the end of it.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In July 2000, when she was a relatively new member of the Fort Worth City Council, Wendy Davis voted for an open-ended moratorium on the death penalty, a move that would have closed the nation’s busiest death chamber in Texas at a time when such a position was a political lightning rod in most of the state.

The resolution never passed.

Now, as the 51-year-old Democrat state senator ramps up her campaign for governor of Texas, her support for the resolution 14 years ago is attracting new attention, even though she publicly supports the death penalty.

Davis says her support for a moratorium in 2000, in a state that has executed more criminals than any other, was presaged on national questions at the time over whether innocent people were dying by lethal injection, at a time when DNA testing that had exonerated several convicts in Texas was just coming into vogue, and over whether juveniles and mentally disabled convicts, even foreign nationals, should face capital punishment.

Through a spokesman, Davis said the questions she had in 2000 have been addressed, by changes in law and by the courts.

“Senator Davis supports the death penalty and as governor will enforce it,” Zac Petkanas, her campaign communications director, said Friday. “In fact, she voted (as a senator in 2011) to expand the death penalty to those who murder children under the age of 10. … Senator Davis remains a proponent of the death penalty as ultimate punishment.”


In Texas, where overwhelming public support for the death penalty caused three Democrats vying for governor in the 1990s to run attack ads accusing each other of not being tough enough on murderers and other criminals, public support for capital punishment remains strong, though polls show that support has declined in the past 20 years.

“In 2000, as a new Democrat city council person in Fort Worth, given that Texas was far and away the most frequent user of the death penalty in the nation, her vote probably made sense,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has followed Texas gubernatorial politics for years. “Now, she’s running for statewide office in a state where the death penalty has support levels 10-12 points above the levels nationally, so it makes sense that she’s supporting the death penalty now. That’s not surprising.”

What will make a difference in whether Davis’ change of heart becomes an issue in her race is whether Abbott can make it one, he said.

“This apparent inconsistency is not a problem, but the problem will be if Abbott turns it into an issue, saying she does not support the death penalty … and that criminals will be running in the streets,” Jillson said. “If you pressed her, you might find there’s a Democrat city council woman still below the surface.”

To William “Rusty” Hubbarth, an Austin lawyer who is vice president of the Houston-based Justice for All victims-rights group, Davis’ view of the death penalty is a curiosity. Twice in January, he said he wrote Davis asking where she stands on the issue. He said she has yet to respond.

“Considering her past position, does she support it or does she support the platform of the Texas Democratic Party that calls for the death penalty to be abolished?” he said. “Will this hurt her? Probably not. People who love her will love her more, and people who don’t probably won’t care what she did in 2000.”

I’d say Mr. Hubbarth is spot on. There are certainly people that wish Davis were forcefully against the death penalty, but that position is clearly at odds with public opinion in Texas and would be quixotic at best given that she couldn’t do anything to change the law as Governor anyway. What she can do is appoint members to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that would be more than rubber-stampers, and support legislation that makes the process more just and transparent, which is what her support for a moratorium in 2000 after the execution of Gary Graham was about and which is consistent with her legislative record. For what it’s worth, while Texas remains the capital punishment capital of the world, our death row population has declined rapidly in the last decade and is at its lowest point since 1989. This is due in large part to a steep decline in the number of death sentences being meted out in the past decade. People may support the death penalty in Texas, but they’re getting a bit more reluctant for the state to use it, especially with “life without parole” as a sentencing option. All of this is a longwinded way of saying again that I agree with Rusty Hubbarth on the likely effect of this attempt by Greg Abbott to distract from Davis’ TV ad or whatever else he wants to distract attention from. EoW, Texpatriate, and Erica Greider have more.

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