American Caste

It's About Class

Texas Death Row is a striking portrait of our state's underclass. The 220 men and two women executed by the state of Texas between 1974 and the summer of 1999 (111 white, 76 black, 33 Latino, and two listed as "other") are virtually all from society's social and economic lowlands -- the dropouts, the laborers, the short-order cooks. Many, in fact, have no listed occupation at all. There are, to be sure, a handful who are college-educated (one was a former computer programmer, for example), but many are not high school graduates, and a surprising number did not even finish elementary school. The Texas Department of Corrections entry that describes the "personal data" for each executed inmate leaves no illusions about who it is that gets ground up on the underside of our society.

These inmates occupy a unique place in the Byzantine (some might say medieval) system of punishment that we administer to those who commit the worst transgressions. As reflected in their incarceration, they have been separated from society, of course. In addition, they are distinguished by the fact that, in sentencing them to death, we have administered the ultimate punishment. However, few are aware of a third component of their sentence: Texas' death row inmates will never again have direct, physical contact with a loved one. Death row inmates are, quite concretely, society's Untouchables.

Looking at the "Sentenced to Death For" descriptions that accompany each inmate's photograph, it becomes evident also that there are three kinds of crimes for which these individuals have been tried and sentenced to death. Some, a relatively small percentage, have killed a law enforcement officer. A second cluster of crimes reflects the desperation of the underclass: petty robberies gone awry that have netted paltry sums, underscoring the absolutely senseless nature of the murders. In almost all of these robberies, however, there is something about their commission that elevates them above ordinary criminal transgressions. Often, the distinguishing feature is the arbitrary, cold-blooded murder of the people who run our convenience stores and gas stations (most of whom readily comply with their assailant's directives and are killed nonetheless). Alternately (or additionally, depending on the crime in question), the victims are the hapless customers whose ill fortune makes them involuntary witnesses of the crimes they have stumbled upon. You can't read these descriptions and not be left with the unsettling awareness that there is true randomness to our fate. The odds of being shot execution-style during an outing to purchase a lottery ticket at your favorite convenience store may be the same as the odds of getting the winning ticket.

Then there is the final cluster of crimes: the ones that are not about thieves whose nefarious activities have somehow unraveled, but about unspeakable acts that elicit a different kind of response altogether. We can more readily understand crime that is the product of poverty and desperation. Such crimes have some sort of rationality, however reprehensible. These last crimes, on the other hand, betray something profoundly more unsettling and primitive. They evoke a kind of horror and dread. They unsettle sleep. They reveal a fact that none of us find easy to accept and whose implications are simply terrifying -- namely, that there are evil people among us. Not simply poor, uneducated people who make misguided attempts to take from others and purposefully or inadvertently kill them in the process, but truly malevolent individuals who rape and mutilate and torture their victims for what can only be described as perverse motives.

Most of these victims are chosen randomly -- while buying groceries, or washing their cars, or living as neighbors, or hitchhiking through town, or babysitting. These victims become the objects of a kind of cruelty that transcends words. Often, they must endure a protracted awareness of their fate, an ordeal that can range from a few hours to a few days before death becomes a merciful release. Horror is the only word that approximates our sense of these acts. They make one feel a kind of despair for the human condition. They scare and strip us of the comforting illusion that society is a safe and protective enclosure. Simply put, they bring us to a disconcerting awareness of the reality of evil. The crimes described in the "Sentenced to Death For" section are depicted in a straightforward, unembellished, "nothing but the facts, ma'am" style, but they retain a horrific, deeply disturbing essence which cannot be stripped from them no matter how sanitized the presentation.

Finally, there is an equally haunting question within these "Sentenced to Death For" accounts -- if haunting in an altogether different way. Within these descriptions lurks the question of genuine culpability. Can we be sure they committed the crimes of which they are accused? It is not the frequent proclamations of innocence by some of those who are moments from death (the "Last Statement" descriptions range from the potent, to the humorous, to the banal, not to mention a striking number of inmates who decline the opportunity to make any statement at all). Rather, it is the nature of the evidence itself (at least as summarized) that can give one pause. At times the evidence against these individuals seems clear, even incontrovertible. At others it becomes a matter of faith -- faith in the reported confessions, faith in the testimony of traumatized victims and witnesses, faith in the system itself. At these junctures, an ambiguity seeps in, an ambiguity that opens to the possibility of the unthinkable: that we, as a society, may be party to the execution of an innocent person.

Ricardo Ainslie is a professor in the educational psychology department at UT. He is the author of No Dancin' in Anson: An American Story of Race and Social Change (1995), among other titles, and he has conducted several interviews as part of a book project on the impact of the murder of James Byrd Jr. on the community of Jasper.

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