The Other Side of Texas’s Bloodlust


The thing that shocks people the most about the Texas criminal “justice” system is the number of people sentenced to death and executed. Less shocking, but apparently still surprising, is the fact that Texas juries can recommend probation for people convicted of a murder committed before last Saturday (as long as it is not capital murder and the accused has no felony convictions or probations).

I think these two cultural oddities may be related.

You’ve probably heard some variation of the following parable:

A Connecticut lawyer was visiting Texas in the early years of it statehood. He sat in the courtroom one day (trials were shorter in those days, but not by much) and watched a man tried for stealing a horse. The jury convicted the man and sentenced him to death. The next day in the same courtroom he watched a murder trial; the jury convicted that man and sentenced him to probation. This was a shock to the Connecticut lawyer. After the second trial he went and visited the judge in his chambers. After introducing himself and sucking up to the jude a bit he said, “Your honor, I’m dying to know. How is it that if a man steals a horse he gets hanged, but if he kills another man he gets probation?” The old judge nodded, spat in the spittoon, and said, “Look out that window.” The lawyer looked out the window and saw a quiet dusty street with a few horses tied to hitching posts in front of the businesses. “What am I looking for?” he asked. “Young man,” said the judge, “do you see any horses that need stealin’?”

This uniquely Texan ethic — that some people “need killin’” — cuts both ways for the accused: on the one hand, a culture that acknowledges that it feels that way is quicker to execute transgressors; on the other hand, “he needed killin’, and I was the guy to do it” is a legitimate argument in mitigation that can lead a jury to recommend probation for a person convicted of murder.


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