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Tense time on death row as execution pace accelerates

May 19, 1997

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Death row inmate Carl Napier, who murdered three people 11 years ago on a houseboat, is not happy about the rate of executions in Texas these days.

``It’s pretty depressing because we can see there’s nothing there in the way of appeals,″ Napier said. ``It used to be you’d have a big list of names and there might be one or two on the whole list actually be executed. Now, they’re going right down the row and killing every one.″

Beginning today, four people are to be executed on four consecutive days in a state that is far and away the nation’s most active for capital punishment.

The current flurry hasn’t been lost on many of the 454 inmates who call death row home, especially longtime prisoners who realize their days are numbered. An unprecedented number of their fellow inmates have been or will be strapped down for lethal injection.

``I try not to think about it,″ said Larry White, scheduled to die Thursday for strangling and stabbing a woman with a screwdriver 20 years ago in Houston. ``We do all the time talk about it. But we can’t do anything about it.″

This week’s executions will bring to seven the number of people put to death this month, with at least eight more planned in June.

That would push Texas’ total for the year to 23, eclipsing the record 19 injections for all of 1995 and topping any of the years between 1924 and 1965 when condemned prisoners were strapped to ``Old Sparky,″ the state’s electric chair.

Since the death penalty resumed in 1982, Texas has carried out 118 executions.

Paving the way for faster executions was a recent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that upheld a state law designed to speed up appeals.

The law altered the timetables and deadlines for inmate appeals, and was expected to cut two to three years off the average 10-year state appeal process.

A legal challenge to the law virtually halted executions last year. Appeals delayed because of the challenge, along with cases which have exhausted appeals this year, have combined to produce this year’s spurt.

Lawyer Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project criticized the ruling at the time, saying it made it more likely that innocent people would be put to death.

``It makes it easier to execute people and takes away a safeguard that’s historically been there to protect people against wrongful execution,″ he said.

Inmates were surprised at the result.

``Because so few happened last year, people here relaxed,″ said Jim Beathard, who is awaiting death for the 1984 slaying of a 14-year-old boy, one of three members of a family killed in a scheme to collect insurance benefits.

``We used to look at a long list and see which guys might go,″ Beathard said. ``Now we look at a list and see if any of them won’t.

``They are moving more rapidly and efficiently.″

Napier is angry about it.

``It’s frustrating, devastating, the whole nine yards,″ he said. ``Some people block it out, but they’re in a fantasy world. We need some support in the free world.″

There appears to be little help on the horizon in Texas.

Public opinion polls show broad support for the death penalty and politicians run for office with tough-on-crime campaigns. Legislators have moved to expand the crimes eligible for death sentences and some states like New York that did not have the death penalty now do.

In Huntsville, executions draw meager numbers of anti-death penalty demonstrators. Relatives allowed to watch the killer of their loved ones die routinely complain about how long it takes to carry out the punishment.

Beathard said inmates feel as if no one is trying to stop them from being put to death.

``The public right now is more intent on revenge that they thinly disguise as justice,″ Beathard said. ``That’s evidence of a poorly educated public.

``There’s not much hope out there.″

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