In the end, it’s fitting that Bill Clinton would eulogize Texas ex-Governor Ann Richards for the “big things” she accomplished. Executing 49 people, including two juveniles and two mentally disabled prisoners certainly is “big.” Clinton only executed three people as Governor of Arkansas.
Of course, next to George W. Bush, who more than tripled Richards’ numbers at 152 kills, everyone looks like a lightweight. That’s probably why many liberal commentators bent over backwards to praise the recently deceased ex-Texas Governor as a civil rights pioneer and progressive. Richards, who lost her job as Texas Governor in 1994 to GW, appears as the archetypal hero of the “anybody but Bush” crowd. After all, her place in that national political spotlight came after her “poor George” speech when she famously skewered then-President George Bush Sr. as having a “silver foot” in his mouth.
In an era when the only fortitude Democrats demonstrate is their willingness to defy their political base and slavishly prop-up the right’s agenda, the myth of a larger-than-life Texan who sacrificed her political career to stand up for her ideals is appealing.
But Richards’s civil rights credentials crumble when you consider the outrageous and obvious racial-bias of Texas’ death row. Of the 49 executions she allowed, over half were minority prisoners — even as non-whites made up less than 25% of the population. While Blacks made up approximately 25% of murder victims annually, less than 4% of those executed were accused of killing Blacks. 87% the executed involved those accused of killing whites. Texas’s death row was (and continues to be) so bad that in 1994, the Death Penalty Information Center’s Richard Dieter described the situation as “in crisis.”
Richards’ 1990-94 stint as Governor spans an era when Democrats eagerly shed progressive positions in a rush to appeal to the right. One of the first “liberal” positions to be jettisoned was opposition to the death penalty. Leading the way was 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who left the campaign trail to mug in front of cameras as he oversaw the execution of mentally disabled Ricky Ray Rector. This display set the stage for the massive increase in executions during the Clinton years that would peak in 1999 with 98 executions nationally in a single year. Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council gave a lead to Democrats nationwide who drew all the wrong lessons from Bush Sr.’s successful race-baiting Willy Horton attacks ads and the meek ineffectual response to these challenges by Democratic challenger, Dukakis, in 1988.
Which brings us back to Richards. Her famously sharp tongue was still when it came to the death penalty. When asked would she support a death penalty abolition bill if it passed the Texas legislature, her sarcastic “I would faint” response betrayed indifference. When asked directly on the campaign trail about her views, she said, “I will uphold the laws of the State of Texas.” Considering the racial and class composition of the Texas killing machine — this commitment to the law sounds more George Wallace than MLK Jr.
In 1992, an opportunity to take a stand for justice came with juvenile death row prisoner Johnny Frank Garrett. Garrett was severely mentally impaired individual described as chronically psychotic and brain-damaged. His life was such a horror show that one mental health expert described Garrett as “one of the most virulent histories of abuse and neglect…I have encountered in 28 years of practice.”
According to Amnesty International:
“As a youth, Garrett was raped by his stepfather, who then hired him to another man for sex. From the age of 14 he was forced to perform bizarre sexual acts and participate in pornographic homosexual films. He was first introduced to alcohol and other drugs by members of his family at the age of ten and subsequently indulged in serious substance abuse involving brain-damaging substances such as paint-thinner and amphetamines. Garrett was regularly beaten and on one occasion was put upon the burner of a stove, resulting in severe scarring.”
Richards, was called on by human rights groups all over the world to halt the execution, but instead she meekly weighed in to temporarily delay the execution and then deferred to the Governor appointed Texas Board of Pardons and Parole and allowed it proceed on February 11, 1992. To Richards standing up for Garrett just wasn’t worth the effort.
That same year, the US Supreme Court infamously blocked Texas death row prisoner Leonel Herrera’s request from presenting newly-discovered evidence he claimed proved another man was responsible for the murder. Herrera had exhausted his appeals and no legal remedy was available for presenting the new evidence. The Supreme Court ruled innocence was not itself grounds for appeal.
Again, according to Amnesty International,
“Shortly before Herrera’s execution date, a group of prominent Texas attorneys and former judges called on Governor Ann Richards to develop mechanisms so that condemned prisoners alleging miscarriages of justice would receive full and fair clemency hearings. The only response from the governor’s office was a promise to ‘study’ the group’s recommendations.”
Leonel Herrera was executed on May 12, 1993. Herrera’s last words were: “I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Something terribly wrong is happening here tonight.”
Months later, juvenile offender Curtis Harris was executed in July 1993. There was strong evidence of racial bias in the selection of the jury in Harris’ case and his court-appointed attorney failed to present evidence of his mental disabilities and abusive childhood. Again, Richards did nothing.
In fact, during her time occupying the highest office in the Texas she did nothing to stop the death machine in Texas. To her, political expediency meant more than the lives of innocents, minorities, the mentally disabled, or juveniles.
Ann Richards support for incredibly barbaric and racist Texas death penalty should lay to rest any notion that she deservers to be called a progressive. Far from being a wistful alternative to GW Bush that progressives pine for, by paving the road for the slaughter to follow, her legacy is not only the dead men she executed, but it is also the 152 men and women GW Bush, her so-called nemesis, executed.
Goodbye Anne and good luck. Because if there’s a heaven, it’s a good bet Johnny Frank Garrett, Leonel Herrera, and Curtis Harris have been bending St. Peter’s ear for quite some time now.
Mike Stark is a national board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a regular contributor to the New Abolitionist, the newsletter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
Jim Bullington is prison-literacy activist in Denver, Colorado . He is a native Texan and a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
The authors can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org