Minorities on death row in Texas are becoming a concern
David R. Dow, founder of the Texas Innocence Network and law professor at the University of Houston, is the author of “The Autobiography of an Execution.” Dow explains that out of the last 30 defendants in Harris County, 27 that faced the death penalty were people of color.
“If you look at the race of the murder victims of all of the people in prison, blacks and whites are victims of homicide in about equal numbers, but 80 percent of the people on death row are there for killing a white person,” Dow said. “The combination of those two factors tells you pretty unmistakably that race plays a role.”
The death penalty is a controversial subject in the United States and Western Europe. There are those who believe that the death penalty should be abolished in our country since some view the United States as a world power that stands up for injustice and other countries look to this country for guidance and assistance. On the same token, there are also many that believe justice is served with the sentence of death for heinous crimes that were committed.
There is a conception that prisoners live a fairly easy life at the expense of the taxpayers, but according to Dow, death row conditions are oppressive. Dow describes the 60 square feet cells as repressive with four solid steel walls and a “little transparent slit” on the doors.
“For 23 hours a day they are in that space, they get moved to what’s called a day room for one hour which is just a bigger cage where they can walk around, do exercise, but they’re still by themselves. There isn’t any human interaction whatsoever,” Dow said.
Inspired by the Innocence Project of New York and the Center for Wrongful Convictions, the Texas Innocence Network was founded in Houston on the premise that “there are 200,000 people in prison and if only one percent (2,000) of them are innocent, that’s a small percentage, but a big number,” Dow said. The lawyers in the Texas Innocence Network are better able to serve their clients by having law school students assist them in researching their death penalty cases. The trials and appeals costs not covered by taxpayers are funded through private donations.
Death row is expensive, where the price tag for imprisoning and executing prisoners can range from 2 to 4 million dollars per inmate. It’s a number that fuels proponents of abolishing the death penalty. In comparison, keeping someone in prison for life costs about $800,000 to $1,000,000. Dow says prison life is difficult with low quality healthcare, food, and exercise, which can substantially shorten prisoners’ life spans.
Has the Texas Innocence Network been able to help anyone on death row? Dow says the network has been successful in extending the lives of some clients, getting other prisoners moved out of death row and, for a few, obtaining their exonerations and freedom.