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Commentary: End the death penalty

While others have been analyzing and debating the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent divisive decision, I have been thinking about another landmark case handed down 40 years -- almost to the day -- before the court's ruling to uphold the controversial Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare."

On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty "cruel and unusual punishment" based mostly on the "arbitrary and capricious" nature of how it was being applied by the states. That 5-4 ruling in effect ushered in a moratorium on capital punishment for a few years.

I want to use the anniversary of that ruling to make two appeals: one to call for another moratorium on the death penalty, and the other to ask help for state prisoners who once again are suffering through a sweltering Texas summer.

Prior to the 1972 decision, Texas executed 361 people by electrocution, with the last one occurring in 1964, according to records of the Department of Criminal Justice. In those days, rape was one of the crimes for which one could be put to the death, something that had changed by the time executions were reinstated effective Jan. 1, 1974.

The state retired "Old Sparky" (the electric chair) and in 1977 adopted lethal injection as a means of execution. A Fort Worth resident, Charlie Brooks, became the first person in the country to die by lethal injection in 1982. Since then, 481 other men and women have been killed in the Texas death chamber, and eight more are scheduled to die this year.

Through those years, it has been easy to see that the death penalty as administered in this country, especially in Texas, remains arbitrary and capricious.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has ruled that the state cannot execute people who are mentally ill or those who were juveniles at the time of their crimes -- the decisions coming too late for several in those categories who had been put to death.

While I'd like to see the death penalty outlawed outright, as some other states have done in the past few years, at the very least we should call for another moratorium so that we can have a rational discussion about the legality and morality of capital punishment.

Now to another continuing problem in the state prison system that becomes more acute in the summer. I was reminded of it again last week as the unofficial temperature in Fort Worth was 109 degrees, knowing that the vast majority of Texas prisoners were in un-air-conditioned facilities where the summertime temperature usually is well above 100.

For the past 12 years Texas Citizens for Rehabilitation of Errants (TX-CURE), whose headquarters is in North Texas, has been providing fans for indigent prisoners (as defined by TDCJ).

Through 2011, the group had bought 6,015 fans for inmates, Project Director Dorothy Deen said.

The way the program is set up, the fans have to be purchased through the prison system at $20 each.

After inmates request a fan and are certified as indigent (having $5 or less in their prison trust fund account for six months), TX-CURE can add their names to its list and buy fans for them as the money becomes available.

Requests always exceed the amount of funds.

I'm especially proud of the program because it was started by longtime TX-CURE members and supporters Kenneth and Lois Robison. Their son, Larry Robison, was executed in 2000 for the 1982 murder of Bruce M. Gardner, one of five people killed in the Lake Worth tragedy.

The Robisons, who said their son was mentally ill his entire adult life, fought hard to try to stop his execution.

So far this year, 360 indigent prisoners have received fans from the organization, Deen said, and she is working on verifying about 250 more requests.

Readers of this newspaper have been generous in the past, and your contributions are needed again.

If you can help pay for one fan or several, send your donations to: TX-CURE Fan Project, P.O. Box 372, Burleson, TX 76097. For more information, contact Deen at (817) 447-1448.

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