The Death Penalty in a Pro-life State: A Reflection on the Texas Tribune Fest
On Friday, September 23rd, I attended the Marshall Project’s panel Death Penalty in a Pro-life State the Texas Tribune Fest. There were two Texas legislators on the panel who are both in support of reforming the death penalty. The legislators featured were Joe Moody who is pro-choice and Jeff Leach who is pro-life. In this article, I will be focusing on Jeff Leach, whose goal as a politician is to protect life “from the womb to the tomb.”
This punny way of explaining his viewpoint evoked chuckles from the crowd– these monotone cackles were relatively common throughout the talk. The eerie comedic thread, whether intentional or not, gave the panel a Hunger Games-esque vibe. The amusement made sense, at times, to soothe the audience’s discomfort over discussing the death penalty: the euthanization of humans who are caged like animals. However, at some points, I found the chuckles to be disrespectful to the matter at hand. Such as at the end, which I will get into later.
Prior to attending this talk, the only thing I knew about the death penalty was that the prisoner gets to choose their last meal. I’d imagine the reason this meal is talked about so frequently is because we’d like to think that prisoners on death row retain a sliver of dignity. According to the panelists, inmates are in solitary confinement 23 and a half hours per day. Prisoners are put to death using a three step lethal injection. First, they’re injected with an anesthetic, sodium thiopental, to make them go unconscious. This is followed with a high dose of a muscle relaxant, pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes all voluntary muscles including the muscles that enable breath. Lastly, the prisoner is given potassium chloride, a chemical that causes irreversible cardiac arrest.
Only the prisoners whose release would undoubtedly result in another violence offense are supposed to be given the death sentence. Jeff Leach explained that in Texas we tend to give the death sentence to people who we’re “mad at, rather than scared of.” Both Moody and Leach believe that the current death penalty system is inhumane. They propose that legislators who make laws about the death penalty ought to be required to visit death row in order to humanize the issue.
There is currently no legislative protocol to recalling an execution; the appeal process is long and expensive. This results in many Texans who may not be guilty being put to death. Leach happened to be the person who told Mellisa Lucio, a woman on death row wrongly convicted for killing her daughter, that she was exonerated. However, Leach wasn’t aware that he was the one to first share this news with her. The guards on death row knew she wasn’t being put to death for two days and didn’t bother to tell her.
Melissa Lucio received her first hug in decades from Jeff Leach, after he told her she wasn’t being put to death. The only time Melissa received physical touch was when she was being handled by prison guards. Currently, those who have a loved one on death row aren’t allowed to touch them until after they’ve been put to death. When the panel opened up for questions, Leach was on the brink of tears as she listened to a lawyer talking about how the extreme no touch orders affected her clients on death row. She explained that she was only allowed to touch hands with the prisoner through the pane of glass that separated them as they spoke through a hand held phone. The guards often refused to give the prisoners legal papers. Leach promised that he would author a bill to loosen the no contact rule and to ensure that prisoners would receive their paperwork. The panel concluded with laughter Keri Blakinger, the panel moderator said: “I think there was some stuff I was supposed to say at the end but I forgot what…”