Everything’s Bigger in Texas: 500th Inmate Executed in the Lone Star State
At 6:17 pm on June 26, lethal injections entered the body of 52 year old Texan Kimberly McCarthy. At 6:37 pm, she was pronounced dead and officially became the 500th Texas inmate executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. She was put to death for the robbery, beating and fatal stabbing of her 71-year-old neighbor, Dorothy Booth, in 1997.
While this crime is obviously heinous, the correlation of race and execution is crucial to fully understand the case. We cannot fully examine this case without understanding that McCarthy was black and Booth was white. This scenario of a white victim and black defendant has resulted in an execution 13 times more often than it has for a white defendant accused of murdering a black victim. In fact, death rows all over the country are disproportionately filled with minorities. Psychological research shows that even when controlling for the charges filed and the evidence entered, this disproportionate sentencing is consistent.
The Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia in 1972 that capital punishment, as carried out under current state statutes, was a form of “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating the 8th Amendment. The application of the punishment was unequal, often discretionary and haphazard. This ruling provided an invitation for states to rewrite their capital punishment statues. When the consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors was added in 1976, capital punishment was reinstated on the standard that new provisions made sentencing less arbitrary.
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate the death penalty, we recognize that the enforcement of capital punishment may fall short of the standards the Court sought to impose. McCarthy’s case raises questions about the discriminatory nature of capital punishment. Would McCarthy have been put to death if she was white or if the victim of her crime was black?
Aside from racial disparities and other flaws in the penal system, it is important for us as Jews and as humans to reflect on what state killings say about our society. Do we want to live in a community that kills its own citizens?
The Mishnah includes a lot of discussion about the use of the death penalty, suggesting it was frequently used and widely accepted during the time of the Sanhedrin. However, with a closer read, one can discern this was not the case. There were many conditions that needed to be met before a member of the community could be put to death. Two witnesses, who not only saw the murder take place, but who also warned the criminal of the consequences before he or she continued with the act, were required to give testimony. Who would proceed with a murder with two witnesses present and after a warning of the death penalty had been issued?
These unlikely conditions for a murder made the use of the death penalty rare, and also implicated the community as complicit in the act. The specific requirements for a death-eligible crime described in Mishnah Sanhedrin ensure that capital punishment, if imposed, is imposed in the most just manner possible. Execution is only permissible if it is absolutely necessary and if it can be guaranteed that the person being executed is indeed the criminal. Most of the Mishnaic writings on capital punishment came from a time when the right to impose capital punishment was taken from the Jewish courts by the Romans, making these laws more theoretical than practical.
There are still 32 states in America where capital punishment is legal. Despite the fact that 61% of Americans would prefer other means of punishment to state killing, people are still being executed. McCarthy’s execution was historic for the United States and for the state of Texas, the leading state in executions. Will we see 500 more lives taken, or will we seek an alternative punishment through death penalty reform?