Texans love God and killing killers

TexasDeathPenaltyWell, this is certainly a pushy opening for a story on a hot-button issue, care of Reuters reporter Ed Stoddard in Dallas:

Texas will almost certainly hit the grim total of 400 executions this month, far ahead of any other state, testament to the influence of the state’s conservative evangelical Christians and its cultural mix of Old South and Wild West.

… Texas has executed 398 convicts since it resumed the practice in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on capital punishment, far exceeding second-place Virginia with 98 executions since the ban was lifted. It has five executions scheduled for August.

Speaking as a prodigal Texan (and as an unrepentant opponent of the death penalty), I would have to say that a statement like that raises at least two big questions.

(1) Is this iron-clad connection between Christians in Texas and the death penalty justified?

(2) Has the reporter fairly demonstrated that it is justified?

In this case, I am going to go with “yes” on the first question and “no” on the latter.

Why? Here is a sample of the Godtalk in this piece, just to give you a flavor of what is going on here in the land of President George W. Bush and current Gov. Rick Perry:

Like his predecessor, Governor Perry is a devout Christian, highlighting one key factor in Texas’ enthusiasm for the death penalty that many outsiders find puzzling — the support it gets from conservative evangelical churches. This is in line with their emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for their own salvation, and they also find justification in scripture.

“A lot of evangelical Protestants not only believe that capital punishment is permissible but that it is demanded by God. And they see sanction for that in the Old Testament especially,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Texas also stands at an unusual geographical and cultural crossroads: part Old South, with its legacy of racism, and part Old West, with a cowboy sense of rough justice.

All kinds of things are going on in that crucial chunk of text, starting with the vague, vague, vague reference to “many outsiders” standing in judgment of these conservative, pro-death-penalty Christians. Might it have been possible to quote a critic or two by name?

Well, wait a second. I think Stoddard does that, only his outsider is a professor at Southern Methodist University — a progressive enclave in Bible Belt land of Texas if there ever was one. So the outsider is actually an insider on the left side of things.

This is good, since you need that voice in the article. However, it is also very bad in that this is the voice who gets to speak for the very, very complex world of Christianity in Texas. Where are the voices from Southern Baptist higher education — left and right — and from, oh, Hispanic Catholicism in the state? Trust me, there are people out there who can defend the death penalty and attack it from a wide variety of pews.

I would also agree that one would have to be blind not to see an element of racism in the Texas death-penalty statistics. However, isn’t it a bit of a cheap shot to — wink, wink — link that so directly to the reference to Bible thumping?

There was no need to turn this story into a one-sided cheap shot. The story is complex enough, and sad enough, even if you tell it straight.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://wafflnganglican.blogspot.com The Waffling Anglican

    Having lunch a couple of weeks ago with a co-parishioner who was once associated with a legal group that filed appeals on behalf of “wrongly convicted” inmates, the subject of executions came up. We both admitted the likelihod that the death penalty was applied unequally against blacks and, possibly, hispanics. I am afraid, however, that our recommendation for solving the problem was that the Great and Sovereign State of Texas should clearly be executing more white guys.

  • Dudley Sharp

    This is a slight variation of the letter that I sent to Ed Stoddard, the Reuter’s reporter.

    Some observations from a Texas pro death penalty expert, regarding the Reuter’s story, “Religion, culture behind Texas execution tally”. ( Aug 12, 2007 7:57PM EDT).

    Some important issues:

    The reporter, Stoddard, left out that Texas has the second lowest rate of overturning death penalty cases. That is, necessarily, the most important fact in having high execution numbers. Odd that he would miss that. That is attributable to the quality of prosecutors and defense counsel and, of course, the judges.

    The repoter forgot to tell us what percentage of death penalty state Governors haven’t supported the death penalty since 1976. This would establish if that has anything to do with executions. A clue: There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it does. Stoddard didn’t check, I suspect.

    Texas is about in the middle of death penalty states, when it comes to death sentences per murder. That seems to contradict some of the invented basis for death penalty support, as defined in the article.

    I suspect Texas is near the top of executions per murder, but I am not sure. Texas, being the third most populous state, has a lot of murders. At one point, murderers were most likely to be sentenced to death and executed in Delaware. That doesn’t seem to be much of a hotbed of southern/western Christian death penalty pressure. But, I might be wrong.

    As for polls, the majority in all states support capital punishment. 85% of Connecticut citizens supported the execution of Michael Ross. That’s the highest percentage I have ever seen. Again, not a hotbed of Souther/Western cowboy justice, eh?

    Christians are the overwhelming religious majority in all US states.

    As for the fundamentalist Christian influence, that doesn’t seem to be much of a factor, in the context of other states. Many southern states are fundamentalist, but don’t have near the executions.

    Some good information



    Stoddard writes:

    “Some critics say the South can be seen in the racial bias of death sentences with blacks more likely than whites to be condemned — though Texas is not alone on this score.
    Over 41 percent of the inmates currently on death row in Texas are black, but they account for only about 12 percent of the state’s population.”

    - Mr. Stoddard, some critics are wrong. White murderers are twice as likely to be executed as black murderers. Population count has NOTHING to do with it. It is the number of murders/capital murders committed. Blacks murderers are not more likely to be condemned. White murderers are.

    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    e-mail sharpjfa@aol.com, 713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas

    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

    Pro death penalty sites



  • Dudley Sharp

    The Waffling Anglican wrote: “We both admitted the likelihod that the death penalty was applied unequally against blacks and, possibly, hispanics.”


    RACE: A Death Penalty Primer – No Bias in Death Penalty Sentencing
    Dudley Sharp,  Justice Matters

    7 studies are reviewed, herein

    For emphasis, population count is totally irrelevant, regarding any consideration of class or race/ethnicity bias in the application of the death penalty. The only relevant factors in such a review are class, race/ethnic distribution of murderers and their victims in capital murders, as well as criminal history, the specific circumstances of the crime(s) and a review of  individual prosecutorial jurisdictions.

    Study 1: Drs. Stephen Klein and John Rolph

    “After accounting for some of the many factors that may influence penalty decisions, neither race of the defendant nor race of the victim appreciably improved prediction of who was sentenced to death . . . “.

    “Relationship of Offender and Victim Race to Death Penalty Sentences in California”(Jurimetrics Journal, 32, Fall 1991, aka The Rand Corporation Study)

    Study 2:  Smith College Professors Stanley Rothman and Stephen Powers found that legal variables, such as prior criminal history and the aggravated nature of the murder, are the proven basis for imposition of the death penalty. The black/white variation in sentencing has generally been reduced to zero when such legal variables are introduced as controls.

    “Execution by Quota?”, The Public Interest, Summer 1994

    Study 3: NO BIAS IN DEATH SENTENCING:   U of Maryland’s Death Penalty Study (1)

    The following are direct quotes from the Executive Summary of the U of Maryland study.

    Race of the victim

    “The race of the victim effect does not hold up, however, at the decision of the state’s attorney to advance a case to penalty trial and at the decision of the judge or jury to impose a death sentence given that a penalty trial has occurred.” p 27

    In other words, the victim’s race has no impact on seeking or
    giving death sentences.

    “The race of the victim does not appear to matter when the decision is to advance a case to the penalty phase or to sentence a defendant to death after a penalty phase
    hearing.” page 29

    In other words, the victim’s race has no impact on seeking or
    giving death sentences

    “Among the subset of cases where the case actually does reach a penalty trial, the victim’s race does not have a significant impact on the imposition of a death sentence.” page 35

    In fact, the study fails to demonstrate that there is any race of the victim effect in death sentencing in Maryland.

    “When the prosecuting jurisdiction is added to the model the effect for the victims race diminishes substantially, and is no longer statistically significant.” page 32

    In other words, when you look at the capital murder cases, from each, separate jurisdiction, individually, any alleged race of the victim effect cannot be found.

    ” . . . any attempt to deal with any racial disparity in the imposition of the death penalty in Maryland cannot ignore the substantial variability that exists in different state’s attorney’s offices in the processing of death cases.” p 34

    In other words, it is important to look at how each jurisdiction handles their capital cases, because each jurisdiction is different. And when that is done, no bias in death sentencing is found.

    Race of victim and defendant

    “There is no race of the offender / victim effect at either the decision to advance a case to penalty hearing or the decision to sentence a defendant to death
    given a penalty hearing.” page 30

    In other words, neither the race of the defendant nor the race of the victim have an impact on seeking or giving death sentences.

    Race of the defendant

    ” . . . there is no evidence that the race of the defendant matters at any stage once case characteristics are controlled for.” page 26

    ” . . . we found no evidence that the race of the defendant matters in processing of capital cases in the state.” p 26

    In other words, Maryland is not looking at race, but is concentrating on the nature of the murders.

    (1) Executive Summary:
    An Empirical Analysis of Maryland’s Death Sentencing System with Respect to the Influence of Race and Legal Jurisdiction, www(DOT)urhome.umd.edu/newsdesk/pdf/exec.pdf

    Study 4: No Racial Bias in the New Jersey Death Penalty System

    New Jersey
    For release: February 11, 2003
    For further information contact
    Winnie Comfort, AOC
    (609) 292-9580
    Report on Proportionality Released

    Trenton, N.J.

    The 2002 report essentially mirrors the findings contained in the 2001 report, and may be summarized as follows:

    –There is no sustained, statistically significant evidence that the race of the defendant affects which cases advance to penalty trial. Although bivariate analysis reveals that a greater proportion of death-eligible white defendants than African-American defendants advance to the penalty phase, that finding is not supported by regression studies and application of case-sorting techniques. There is no sustained, statistically significant evidence that the race of the defendant affects which cases result in imposition of the death penalty. Again, although bivariate analysis reveals that a greater proportion of death-eligible white defendants are sentenced to death than African-American defendants, that finding is not supported by regression studies and application of case-sorting techniques.
    –There is statistically significant evidence that white victim cases are more likely than African-American victim cases to advance to penalty trial, but that finding is eradicated when county variability is taken into account. A disproportionate number of minority victim cases are tried in counties with the lowest overall rates of progression to penalty trial, while less urban counties with a high concentration of white victim cases have higher rates of capital prosecutions. Although Judge Baime notes that county variability may itself be a problem, he offers no opinion on the subject because that issue is well beyond the contours of his report.
    –There is no sustained, statistically significant evidence that white victim cases are more likely than minority victim cases to result in imposition of the death penalty

    The New Jersey Supreme Court has accepted the 2002 annual report prepared by Judge David S. Baime, a retired Appellate Division judge, on the monitoring of proportionality review in capital punishment cases in New Jersey. The Supreme Court adopted a monitoring system in 2000 to determine whether racial discrimination played a role in the administration of New Jersey’s capital cases.

    In his capacity as a “special master,” a role that requires extrajudicial expertise and work with court-appointed experts, Judge Baime prepared the “Report to the New Jersey Supreme Court: Systemic Proportionality Review Project 2001-2002 Term.” .

    Judge Baime was assisted by statistical analysts David Weisburd, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and The University of Maryland, College Park, and Joseph Naus, a professor at Rutgers University. In an effort to provide the most accurate analysis possible, the monitoring system approved by the Court consists of three different statistical strategies: bivariate analyses, regression studies and case-sorting techniques. In order to establish systemic disproportionality, a defendant must relentlessly document the risk of racial disparity. This requires that the outcomes produced by the three modes of analysis substantially converge, or lead to the conclusion that racial discrimination plays a part in capital sentencing.

    The three modes of analysis were applied to three separate decision points: death outcomes at penalty trials, death outcomes among all death-eligible cases, as determined by Judge Baime and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), and advancement of death-eligible cases to penalty trials. Three identifiable groups–African-Americans, whites and Hispanics–were examined, and possible disparities in terms of the race or ethnicity of the defendant and the race or ethnicity of the victim were considered.

    Study 5:   Pro & Con: The Death Penalty in Black and White
    by Dudley Sharp
    Thursday, June 24, 1999
    IntellectualCapital.com,  6/24/99.
    stored at http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/racism.htm

    I don’t know about you, but when I get into a discussion about the death penalty, my first thoughts go to the victim and to the brutality of the murder. That is the foundation of the just nature of the death penalty.

    Too often these days, however the death penalty is discussed in different terms. Inevitably, with the racial history of this country, the effect of race in the application of the death penalty has become a central part of the death-penalty discourse. This is particularly true as some politicians are making the case for a death-penalty moratorium, in part to consider whether the death penalty is inherently racist.

    All too often, however, those arguments are spurious. In the death penalty debate, it should be the facts, and not the hype, that are in be black and white.

    A closer look at the statistics

    Often such discussion begins with the obvious: the race of the defendant. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports that black murderers represent 35% of those executed, white murderers 56%. As the argument goes, this must be evidence of systemic racism, as blacks represent 12% of the population, whites 74%.

    Fortunately, the United States does not execute people based on their population counts but on the murders they commit. As blacks represent 47% of murderers and whites 37%, we see that whites are twice as likely to be executed for committing murder as are their black counterparts.

    Furthermore, the Bureau of Justice Statistics says that whites sentenced to death are executed 17 months more quickly than blacks. With 98% of all head prosecutors in the United States being white, according to DPIC, how is such a result possible? Maybe prosecutors, judges and juries are focusing on the crimes and not the race of the defendant.

    That is not the case, say anti-death penalty groups, such as Amnesty International, and now the United Nations. If you adjust for the specific aggravating factors present within capital crimes, you find clear evidence of racism.

    Death-penalty opponents note, for example, that the Supreme Court, in the famous race-based challenge to the death penalty (McCleskey v. Kemp), found in 1987 that those who murderer whites were 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder blacks, under similar circumstances.

    David Baldus, who did the statistical study on McCleskey’s behalf, also completed a recent study in Philadelphia where it is was reported to show that black murderers were four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white murderers. With such results, how can anyone dispute the racist application of the death penalty?

    Quite easily.

    The Supreme Court, as well as many others, confused odds with multiples. The data reflect odds of 4-to-1, not four times more likely.

    What difference does it make?

    In Baldus’ Philadelphia study, we find that if only 2% more white murderers had been sentenced to death and only 2.5% fewer black murderers had been sentenced to death, then each group would have been sentenced to death by juries at the same rate — a far cry from the 400% differential stated within the incorrect interpretation of “four times”!

    A punishment that fits the crimes

    The next issue raised is the victim’s race. While blacks and whites comprise about an equal number of murder victims, the ratio of white-to-black victims in death-penalty cases is about 7-to-1. This has given rise to the allegation that the “system” only cares about white murder victims. A horrible accusation, if true.

    However, the ratio of white-to-black victims in the aggravated circumstances necessary for a capital murder conviction (rape, robbery, car-jacking, burglary, police murders, serial/multiple murders, etc.) is from 4-to-1 to 8-to-1 — numbers consistent with the victim ratios on death row.

    The final resting place for the racism charge lies within those cases where blacks have been executed for murdering whites and whites have been executed for murdering blacks. There have been 144 blacks and 10 whites executed under such circumstances, or a ratio of 14-to-1. As blacks are about 2.5 times more likely to murder whites than the other way around, there appears to be a huge disparity in such executions. Is racism the reason?

    If we look at robbery, the aggravated crime found most often in capital cases, we find that when there is a robbery with injury, the ratio of black robber/white victims versus white robbers/black victims is 21-to-1.

    Again, when looking at the circumstances consistent with capital crimes, we find no evidence of racial bias.

    The determining factor for sentencing in death-penalty cases is what it should be — the aggravating nature of the crimes. Both the Rand Corp. study of 1991 and the research presented by Smith College professors Stanley Rothman and Stephen Powers in 1994 confirm that finding. In other words, it appears that any racial variations present within the data are reflective of the crimes themselves and not racial bias within the system. A review of those studies, as well as of criminal-justice statistics, within the context of the aggravating circumstances present within capital murders and the related statutes, produces the same conclusion.

    Don’t assume the worst motives

    There will always be some variables of race, ethnicity and class within any study of criminal-justice practices, and based on historic, as well as current prejudices, we can never lower our guard. Because all studies are subject to poor protocols, bias and misinterpretation, we must make reasoned judgments based on as many respected considerations as we may have at our disposal.

    And even if criminal-justice statistics did not show the obvious correlation between crimes and the application of the death penalty, we should note what the Supreme Court stated in McCleskey: “Where the discretion that is fundamental to our criminal justice process is involved, we decline to assume that what is unexplained [by measured factors] is invidious.” Sound ideas should not be eliminated based on misguided statistics.

    In the case of the death penalty, the facts lead to only one conclusion. No moratorium is necessary.

    Study 6: Death Penalty Opponents Distortions are the Real Story

    “To properly protect the people in Baltimore City and other jurisdictions like it, we must restore public confidence in and support of capital punishment, so that prosecutors can seek it in appropriate cases, and jurors will impose it. The first step toward that end is to debunk the myth that capital punishment is imposed discriminatorily. The numbers are there, in the opponents’s own studies, once we cut through the spin and look at the facts.”

    Smoke and Mirrors on Race and the Death Penalty, Kent Scheidegger, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, Engage Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 2, 10/2003     www(DOT)cjlf.org/deathpenalty/EngageArticle.pdf

    Study 7:          Full Review Finds no Bias

    “From 1976-1995, 5 white murderers have been put to death for the murder of black persons and 101 black murderers have been put to death for the murder of white persons (NAACP LDF, 1996). Opponents falsely contend that this is evidence of racism in the “system”. That 101:5 ratio, or 20:1, is consistent with  statistics that show aggravated crimes (those crimes committed with the murder which may make a crime eligible for the death penalty) are committed by blacks against whites in far greater numbers than by whites against blacks. For all violent crimes, there are ten times as many black offenders (2,016,939) involved in white victim violent crimes as there are white offenders (210,869) involved in black victim violent crimes, or a 10:1 ratio. (The State of Violent Crime in America, pg. 12,1/96, data derived from Criminal Victimization in the U.S., 1993, BJS forthcoming, tables 42 and 48. Multiple offenders were assumed to be two offenders for calculation purposes.) In addition, blacks are nearly three times as likely to murder whites (849), as whites are to murder blacks (304), or 3:1 (Sourcebook 1994, BJS 1995, table 3.123). IF murder rates are statistically consistent within the violent crime category, as McCleskey et al indicate, then blacks are, statistically, by a 30:1 (10:1 X 3:1) ratio, more likely to murder whites, than whites are to murder blacks, in those circumstances where an additional aggravating factor is present (see C2). These are those crimes most eligible for the death penalty. That statistically projected ratio of 30:1 is hardly inconsistent with the 20:1 ratio for black offender(s)/white victim vs white offender(s)/black victim executions. The most relevant aggravated crime is robbery with injury, wherein blacks are 21 times more likely to be involved in such crimes as are whites. This 21:1 ratio represents 1.4 million black offender(s)/white victim vs. 68,000 white offender(s)/black victim for robbery with injury crimes (JFA, using BJS, 1977-84 data). IF overall murder statistics are consistent, within this crime category, as McCleskey et al suggests, then there is a 30-60:1 ratio of black on white vs white on black murders within this robbery/murder category. (From 1977-1984).”

    Excerpt from “C. RACE, SENTENCING AND THE DEATH PENALTY”, paragraph No. 5., DEATH PENALTY AND SENTENCING INFORMATION In the United States, 10/1/97, by Dudley Sharp,  http://prodeathpenalty.com/DP.html#C.Race

    copyright 1998-2007 Dudley Sharp

    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    email sharpjfa@aol.com, phone 713-622-5491
    Houston, Texas

    Permission for distribution of this document is approved as long as it is distributed in its entirety, without changes, inclusive of this statement.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    It is not “religion” as much as the fact that Texas has it’s roots as a frontier area where justice was local, distances were long, and there was no strong policing from a central state. If you have a murderer, what do you do with him? Let him lose to kill other defenseless people, or execute him?

    Without understanding the culture, it allows the effete to “blame” religion, not see that the strict religion is a result of that same culture.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Stoddard appears to be a good fit for Reuters. I imagine that he’ll be employed there a long time.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Nancy writes: “It is not “religion” as much as the fact that Texas has it’s roots as a frontier area where justice was local, distances were long, and there was no strong policing from a central state. If you have a murderer, what do you do with him? Let him lose to kill other defenseless people, or execute him?”

    Yes, but the same can be said for every state west of the Mississippi.

  • http://wafflinganglican.blogspot.com The Waffling Anglican

    Dudley – Thank you for the references!

  • James

    1. Texas has a history of problems with racism, true, but it is culturally in no way “Old South”. It’s Gunsmoke to the South’s Gone With the Wind. This goes a long way to understanding Texans, seriously. (I am one, displaced to the Northeast where racism is JUST as big a problem, just shown differently…see #3)

    2. Most evangelicals don’t look to the Old Testament for Biblical support of the death penalty. They look to Romans 13.

    3. Racism is not a Southern (or in the case of Texas, Southwestern) issue. Remember the Draft Riots?