The anti-capital-punishment plank long has been boilerplate language in the Texas Democratic Party platform. Nevertheless, Wendy Davis, the party’s 2014 gubernatorial nominee, came out in favor of the death penalty.
That didn’t work out so well for her. In fact, nothing did, and she got routed by Republican Greg Abbott.
On Thursday, Andrew White, now seeking the 2018 Democratic nomination to challenge probable GOP nominee Abbott, said he’d do everything legislatively possible to get the death penalty abolished and as much as he could do as governor to overturn death sentences.
“You know what,” White told reporters after he was featured at a Texas Tribune event. “I’m against the death penalty.”
There are several realities that would make this an into-the-wind effort by White, First, there’s the limited authority a Texas governor has in death penalty cases. The only unilateral power is the right to issue a one-time, 30-day delay in an execution.
And commutation from a death sentence to a life sentence can only be ordered by a Texas governor if recommended by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Conceptually, White said he opposes the death penalty because, “It doesn’t create a deterrent. It’s expensive and it’s a broken system. So I don’t know why we’re still involved in it.”
“I will work diligently to change the law. That’s what leadership does,” he said.
It’s an ambitious promise, especially against the backdrop that, even if he somehow becomes governor, he’d be working with (or against) a Legislature dominated by Republicans who’ve never breathed a word about doing away with the death penalty.
Acknowledging a Texas governor’s limited unilateral power in death penalty cases, White said he’d commute all death sentences — regardless of the facts of the case — in which the parole board recommended that action.
And, in what could be the most powerful thing he could do as governor, White said he’d only appoint parole board members who oppose the death penalty. “Uh, huh,” he said. “That’s right. It’s a broken system. It doesn’t work.”
Another caveat worth noting: Gubernatorial appointees to the parole board must win Senate confirmation. It’s hard to imagine the GOP-controlled Senate approving a nominee who says he or she would recommend commutation in every death penalty case.
White said capital punishment “doesn’t reduce murder. We’ve proven that. So the data say it doesn’t work, right? It’s broken. The data say we’ve put innocent people on death row, and it’s expensive. We have the data for that as well.”
“That’s why as a common-sense Democrat I’m against the death penalty and when I’m governor I will work to pass a law to overturn the death penalty, to eliminate the death penalty,” he said. “For instances where someone is on death row and I am governor, I will commute those sentences.”
The small gaggle of journalists, including me, failed to press White on whether that meant he’d seek a way to commute all existing death sentences. There are now 237 inmates on Texas death row, down from a peak of 451 in 1999. And there were only seven executions in Texas last year, down from a peak of 40 in 2000. A 2005 law change allowed life in prison without parole as a third option in capital cases — in addition to death and life with the possibility of parole after 40 years. That change has been credited with contributing to the reduction in death sentences.
White noted that his late dad, Democratic Gov. Mark White, supported capital punishment when he was in office but later changed his mind and actively advocated against it.
“I was a little ahead of him on this issue,” White said. “It’s funny. My dad, when he figured it out, he got behind (abolishing the death penalty) big time.”
The current Texas Democratic Party platform says, “Despite 13 death row exonerations in Texas in the last 11 years, the death chamber and its machinery are still fully operational in Texas.”
The party calls for legislation to abolish the death penalty and replacing it with life in prison without parole. The platform also backs a death penalty moratorium “while an unbiased and objective study of the entire process … and the execution process itself is shown to be reliable and without such grievous failures as have been evident in the recent past.”
The Texas GOP platform says, “Properly applied capital punishment is legitimate, is an effective deterrent and should be relatively swift and unencumbered.”
During White’s Thursday remarks at the Tribune event, he continued to focus his attention on Abbott and had little to say about former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who’s considered the other top-tier contender in the nine-candidate Democratic field seeking the nomination.
“We got to meet for the first time,” White said, referring to a Monday night candidate forum in San Angelo. “She’s a very nice lady. I don’t know where she stands on the issues. But I respect her public service. She’s got 12 years as a sheriff and years before that working in public service, and I respect that very much.”
This is going to get interesting when — as it should — White and Valdez talk less about Abbott (who on Thursday announced he’s got a daunting $43.3 million in his political account) and more about each other.
The primary is March 6. Early voting starts Feb. 20. If you’re not already registered, the deadline is Feb. 5.