AUSTIN — With Texas moving closer to its 500th execution, Rep. Lon Burnam on Wednesday described himself as a “21st century abolitionist” and denounced the death penalty as “a gross example of institutionalized racism.”
The Fort Worth Democrat joined other death penalty opponents in a “Day of Innocence” to promote legislation to repeal capital punishment. They acknowledged that they are overwhelmingly outnumbered in a state that leads the nation in executions but nevertheless vowed to keep on fighting.
“We are right and the people who are on the other side are wrong,” Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, told about a dozen death penalty opponents in a legislative committee room. “Don’t be discouraged…Today we have a new beginning.”
Dutton filed his first anti-death penalty bill 10 years ago to stop what he called the “madness” of executions. “Every time I read in the paper that they executed somebody, I as a legislator take full responsibility,” he said. “Everybody in the Legislature had a part in it because we didn’t stop it.”
Burnam, the senior member of Tarrant County’s 11-member House delegation, drew applause as he told fellow death penalty opponents: “I’m a 21st Century abolitionist and I’m proud of it.”
“There is no more gross example of institutionalized racism in this state today than in the death penalty,” Burnam asserted, saying that prisoners put to death in Texas are overwhelmingly poor and “people of color.”
Of the 287 inmates now on Death Row, according to the Texas Department of Corrections, 40 percent are black and 30 percent are Hispanic.
Texas has executed more than 490 inmates since 1976 and is nearing its 500th execution of a prisoner. Depending on appeals, that could come May 7 with the scheduled execution of Carroll Parr, convicted of killing a man in robbery outside a convenience store in McLennan County in 2003.
“We have executed in Texas almost 500 people,” said Burnam, describing the upcoming threshold as “one of shame.”
Clarence Brandley, a former Death Row inmate who was wrongly convicted in the rape and murder of a 16-year-old student in Conroe, also participated in the event, vowing to “do everything in my power” to overturn the death penalty.
In addition to seeking a ban on capital punishment, Texas death penalty opponents are seek to change Texas’ “law of parties” doctrine under which people can be sentenced to death for assisting in a capital crime even though they didn’t commit the murder.