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Texas Weighs Its Life or Death Decisions

The execution of a schizophrenic man helps build support for a new sentencing option in capital cases: life without parole.

August 15, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Kelsey Patterson was babbling again, this time about somebody taking his money, just as the state of Texas was about to take his life.

To most in the execution chamber that May night, Patterson's last words sounded like those of a madman. To J. Gary Hart, his lawyer of seven years, they merely matched the rest of his delusions -- that he had been programmed by remote control, that the beans on his plate were talking to him, that his own lawyers were trying to kill him.

"None of it was new to me," Hart said. "That's what was so disturbing."

Prodded in part by what some saw as the troubling execution of Patterson, a schizophrenic who killed two people, Texas has in recent months begun considering ways to fine-tune the application of the death penalty -- an unusual step for the state that executes the most inmates in the nation.

Although many states have inched away from capital punishment in recent years, Texas executes an inmate every 12 1/2 days, on average. The state is responsible for about a third of the nation's executions.

But some officials here who favor capital punishment -- sheriffs, judges, prosecutors and state legislators -- are calling for a more measured approach. They want to give juries the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Texas juries currently have two options when a defendant is convicted in capital murder cases: life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years and death by lethal injection. Texas is one of three states that applies the death penalty but does not allow juries to sentence a defendant to life in prison without parole.

"Texas is Texas," said state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, a Democrat who supports the death penalty. "We used to hang horse thieves, and hang 'em high -- make a public display of it. That has carried over, and we have established a type of reputation. But we have a golden opportunity to show the rest of the country that we are a compassionate state."

Lucio said he planned to introduce a bill this fall that would give juries the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison without parole. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said he believed that the proposal deserved consideration and could be a way to "improve the criminal justice system."

Similar plans have been floated unsuccessfully in Texas in past years. But Patterson's execution has led to new support for the proposal.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had voted 5-1 to recommend to Perry that the state commute Patterson's sentence to life in prison.

Hart had argued that executing Patterson, considering his mental deficiencies, would not "serve either the retributive or deterrence goals of capital punishment."

The board sent its recommendation to Perry, who decided against commutation less than an hour before Patterson was scheduled to die. Perry feared that because Texas did not offer a life-without-parole option, Patterson could one day be paroled.

Some prosecutors have protested the proposed sentencing measure, saying they would be less likely to secure a death penalty. But most say they sense that the public would like to see the change made.

"It is my thought that the public wants to have that option," said Anderson County Dist. Atty. Doug Lowe. "I think it's something that will happen."

Residents of Huntsville, a city between Houston and Dallas that is home to Texas' execution chamber, are conflicted about the proposal.

On a recent afternoon, Randy W. Cooper, 52, a taxi driver, and Eddie Marsh, 62, owner of a uniform business, wiled away the time chatting on a town square bench. Huntsville is a city peppered with pawnshops, churches and mobile home parks, home to seven prison units and Sam Houston State University. When school is in session, about half the town's residents are either university students or inmates.

Cooper feared that crime rates would soar if any effort was made to revise the death penalty and said suggestions that innocent people may be on death row didn't bother him.

"For every guy that didn't do it, there are 1,000 who did," he said. "Most of them are just animals. Anybody that doesn't like the death penalty, tell them to walk through death row and open all the doors and let them all out. I think they'd change their mind."

Marsh, however, said Texas was ready for a more moderate approach to capital punishment.

"The numbers are just horrible," he said. "We've got a stigma because of that."

Texas isn't planning anything dramatic, such as following Illinois' decision to commute the sentences of death row inmates last year after determining that the capital punishment system was flawed, including a disproportionate number of executions among minorities and the poor.

Support for executions remains strong in Texas, a state where political candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, routinely campaign by pledging that they have more zeal for the death penalty than their opponent.

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