As Texas' 500th Execution Approaches, Death Penalty Opponents Ramp Up Calls For Reform

On an August night in 1998, Douglas Feldman pulled his Harley up next to an 18-wheeler that had just cut him off on a highway in Plano. Feldman shot and killed the driver, Robert Everett, then paused on his way home to murder an Exxon tanker driver named Nicholas Velasquez. A week or so later, he killed Antonio Vega for standing next to an 18-wheeler.

In 1999, he was caught and ultimately sentenced to die. With his last appeal exhausted, the execution is set for July 31, 2013. (As Brantley wrote about last week, Gawker recently caught up with Feldman, who politely requested some LSD.)

According to the Texas Death Penalty Education and Resource Center, Feldman's execution represents a grim milestone of sorts: the 500th execution in Texas in the modern era. As the Texas Tribune laid out in November, 253 of those have been under Governor Rick Perry, who's granted clemency just 31 times. Twenty-eight of those commutations were for minors, who the U.S. Supreme Court says we can't execute anymore, much as Texas might like to.

As Feldman's death date approaches, the TDERC and other anti-death penalty groups throughout the state want Texans to take notice. "We urge everyone in Texas and our friends worldwide to take action leading up to the 500th execution," they write. "To let Texas know that it should stop executions with a moratorium and begin the process of repealing the death penalty."

The Texas Moratorium Network agrees, although they count John Quintanilla Jr. as number 500 and Feldman as 502.

Quintanilla is slated to die on May 14, for a 2002 robbery of an arcade in Victoria, Texas. After sneaking through the back door of the arcade with two accomplices and demanding money from the arcade employees, Quintanilla ordered everyone down on the floor. He shot and killed a guy who tried to disarm him. He also shot a woman standing nearby, although her injuries weren't fatal.

TMN points to several factors to support their anti-death penalty stance, though lately they've focused intensely on innocence (141 Death Row inmates have been exonerated so far) and race (fully 70 percent of Death Row inmates in Texas are non-white).

Despite the urgings of anti-death penalty groups, though, there is roughly no chance that Texas will reconsider its stance on capital punishment any time soon. Yet on several fronts, we're seeing some incremental progress towards a slightly more humane and equitable stance on capital crimes. In late January, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins announced his support for a Racial Justice Act, which would allow Death Row prisoners to appeal on the grounds that their convictions were based on race.

A study from last year found that under Harris County's previous two DAs, race has played a significant factor in applying the death penalty . Under Johnny Holmes, who served as DA from 1992 to 1999, the death penalty was more likely to be imposed against black defendants and in cases where the victims were white. Under Charles Rosenthal, who served from 2001 to 2008, the race of the defendants "disappeared" as a factor, the study says. And yet "death sentences were imposed on behalf of white victims at 2.5 times the rate one would expect if the system were blind to race," the author, Scott Phillips writes. "[A]nd death sentences were imposed on behalf of white female victims at 5 times the rate one would expect if the system were blind to race and gender."

Just a week ago, 51-year-old Kimberly McCarthy was granted a temporary reprieve, after being slated to die January 29 for the 1997 killing of former college professor Dorothy Booth in Lancaster. A hearing is set for April 3, to allow McCarthy's lawyers to argue that her all-white jury was improperly selected by race. McCarthy is black.

The same week, the execution of Larry Swearingen was stayed while his lawyers complete DNA testing they believe will exonerate him. Swearingen, currently being held in Livingston, says he was already in jail on other charges when the victim, Melissa Trotter, a Conroe college student, was murdered in 1998.