All photos credit: Alex Hannaford
Huntsville, Texas—At 4 pm on June 26, the road in front of the tall red brick perimeter walls of Huntsville’s prison is quiet, but Texas State Troopers begin to cordon it off with yellow tape in anticipation of what’s about to happen.
In an hour, some fifty men and women will have gathered at the western end of the road, waving banners that read “Stop Executions,” “Don’t Kill For Me,” and “Abolish the Racist Death Penalty.” By 6 pm their numbers will have swollen to around sixty and they’ll be shouting, some of them gathering by the yellow tape and causing the ranks of troopers to swell too.
At 6:37 pm the crowd will fall silent, while behind those prison walls Texas executes its 500th death row inmate since capital punishment resumed here in 1982: a gruesome milestone that focused renewed international attention on a state that executes more people than any other in the nation.
The woman who will be strapped to a gurney and killed using a single, lethal dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital is Kimberly McCarthy, a 52-year-old former occupational therapist from Lancaster, Texas, just south of Dallas.
McCarthy is the thirteenth woman to be executed since a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment ended in 1976, and one of more than 1,300 people have been executed since. More than a third of these executions have been carried out in Texas.
Kimberly McCarthy’s guilt was never in question, and her crime was particularly heinous. In 1997, high on crack, she entered the home of her 71-year-old neighbor, Dorothy Booth, a former college professor, claiming she wanted to borrow a bag of sugar. McCarthy then stabbed Booth to death with a butcher’s knife, severing one of her fingers in order to remove her wedding ring (which she later pawned) and stole her credit cards to buy drugs. Traces of Booth’s blood were later found in McCarthy’s home. (DNA evidence also implicated McCarthy in the similarly grisly murders of two other elderly women in 1988, but she was never tried for those crimes.)
There were problems with McCarthy’s trial. Her initial conviction was overturned because a statement she gave to police was improperly used against her in court. She was tried a second time, before a jury that included just one black member. In Dallas County where the trial took place, a quarter of the population is black.
McCarthy’s appellate attorney, Maurie Levin, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin, claimed racism played a part in that decision. The court disagreed.
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At the eastern end of the road outside the prison is another yellow police cordon, behind which a handful of pro–death penalty activists are trying to stay out of the scorching sun.
It’s the first execution that psychology majors Jennifer Jepson and Destiny Thompson have attended, and they say they’re here to be a part of history. Jepson says she realizes that the death penalty doesn’t deter people from committing murder. Wouldn’t you opt for life without parole instead, then, I ask, to which she answers, “They can still kill people in prison. They had their chance.”