Hours before Karl Eugene Chamberlain is scheduled to be executed for the rape and murder of Felecia Prechtl in Dallas in 1991, a small group of protesters gathered on the steps of the Frank Crowley Courts Building to condemn the practice of putting people to death as a matter of public policy. Chamberlain will be the first execution in the state since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal injections in April.
Dr. Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Human Rights Education Program, went so far as to voice optimism about the end of executions in the state that’s most fond of them. “I tell you as sure as the sun comes up tomorrow,” he said. “We are going to live to see the end of this horror in Texas.”
How might that happen? Halperin said his hope lies with legislators, such as Houston State Senator Rodney Ellis, who fought to end executions of the mentally retarded, as well as with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project of Texas.
“The D.A. here has set a healthier tone,” Hakperin says, referring to Craig Watkins' relationship with the Innocence Project and its efforts to use DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted. “We have people on Death Row in this county who have strong claims of innocence.”
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He also pointed out that juries in Texas and nationwide are becoming less likely to endorse death sentences. The number of annual death sentences issued across the country dropped from more than 300 four years ago to 114 last year, Halperin said. Juries -- and Americans in general -- he insists, are coming around to the idea that lengthy sentences are an effective means of securing public safety without taking a life. Besides, he adds, it’s widely accepted knowledge that it costs taxpayers roughly half the money -- $1 million -- to house a prisoner for life than it does to execute him (including appeals, the price tag is around $2.3 million).
Also rallying this morning was Andres Latallade, a New York man who served some 13 years in prisons in the Northeast and recently walked from New Jersey to Austin to protest the death penalty on behalf of a group called Journey of Hope.
“I woke up one day and thought, ‘I’m walking to Texas,” he said. “I felt like the opinion of the death penalty was tipping in our favor, so maybe if I could educate a couple thousand people we could really tip it.” The trek took him 55 days -- about 35 miles per day, he said, showing the bulging calves he developed along the way.
His next stop is Huntsville, where Karl Chamberlain is scheduled to be put to death before sunrise. --Megan Feldman