Jim Willett remembers the night of Dec. 6, 1982, when he was assigned to guard a mortuary van that had arrived at the death house at the Huntsville prison.
“I remember thinking: We’re really going to do this. This is really going to happen,” says Willett, who was a captain for the Texas Department of Corrections.
When the van pulled away early the next morning, it carried to a nearby funeral home the body of convicted killer Charlie Brooks, who had just become the first Texas prisoner executed since a Supreme Court ruling six years earlier allowed the death penalty to resume in the United States.
What was unusual then has become rote. On Wednesday, barring a reprieve, Kimberly McCarthy will become the 500th convicted killer in Texas to receive a lethal injection.
The number far outpaces the execution total in any other state. But it also reflects the reality of capital punishment in the U.S. today: While some states have halted the practice in recent years because of concern about wrongful convictions, executions continue at a steady pace in others.
The death penalty is on the books in 32 states. On average, Texas executes an inmate about every three weeks.
Still, even as McCarthy prepares to die at the Huntsville Unit, it’s clear that Texas, too, has been affected by the debate over capital punishment. In recent years, state lawmakers have provided more sentencing options for juries and courts have narrowed the cases in which the death penalty can be applied. In guaranteeing DNA testing for inmates and providing for sentences of life without parole, Texas could well be on a slower track to execute its next 500 inmates.
“It’s a very fragile system” as attitudes change, said Mark White, who was Texas attorney general when Brooks was executed and then presided over 19 executions as governor from 1983 to 1987.
Texas has accounted for nearly 40 percent of the more than 1,300 executions carried out since murderer Gary Gilmore went before a Utah firing squad in 1977 and became the first U.S. inmate executed following the Supreme Court’s clarification of death penalty laws. (Texas had more than 300 executions before the pause.) Virginia is a distant second, nearly 400 executions behind. Texas’ standing stems both from its size, with the nation’s second largest population, and its tradition of tough justice for killers.
Still awaiting punishment in Texas are 282 convicted murderers.
Some may be spared. Supreme Court rulings have now excluded mentally impaired people or those who were under 18 at the time of their crime. Legal battles continue over the lethal drugs used in the process, mental competence of inmates, professional competence of defense lawyers and sufficiency of evidence in light of DNA forensics technology.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has presided over more than half of the state’s executions, said that the recent changes have helped make Texas’ system fairer. In addition to the new sentencing options, he signed bills to allow post-conviction DNA testing for inmates and establish minimum qualifications for court-appointed defense attorneys.
“I think our process works just fine,” Perry said last year during his unsuccessful presidential campaign. “We believe in our form of justice. … We think it is clearly appropriate.”
So do most Texans. A 2012 poll from the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas showed only 21 percent opposed to capital punishment.