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Maurice Chammah Charts The History Of The Death Penalty In 'Let The Lord Sort Them'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Seventeen people were executed in the United States in 2020, and three in Donald Trump's final days in office. But the number of executions in the U.S. has been in sharp decline since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, except in Texas. Five hundred and 70 men and women, more than a third of the number of people put to death since the death penalty returned, have been put to death in Texas.

Maurice Chammah, a staff writer for the Marshall Project, has written a book about the effect of the death penalty and the lives of those who prosecute, sentence and live and die by it - "Let The Lord Sort Them: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty." Maurice Chammah joins us now from Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I know there's no easy answer to this, but why has Texas stood apart, do you think?

CHAMMAH: It's a complex story. One piece of the puzzle is that the more you carry out executions, the easier it is to do. And it creates a kind of, what one scholar calls, a muscle memory, right? But more than that, I found that there was a kind of deeper cultural explanation. Whenever I would interview people about the death penalty in Texas, there would sort of make these references to a kind of old frontier myth, the kind of thing you would imagine seeing in a Western movie, as a justification for the sort of deep cultural attachment that we have to the punishment.

SIMON: I want to ask about some of the people you write about. Elsa Alcala - famed prosecutor, a judge on the Court of Appeals, respected, a Republican, or used to be - tell us about her experience and how it affected the evolution of her thinking.

CHAMMAH: Sure. She came from a poor family in Kingsville, Texas. And throughout the '90s, she fought these sort of waves of urban crime. She sent several men to death row. She learned all of the skills in how to convince juries. But then Elsa got older. You know, it was a very common career path to become a judge. But as she started ruling on the appeals of death row inmates, she started to see sort of problems, systemic problems sort of across many cases, and that the ways the courts were ruling on these cases were allowing executions that she felt violated the Constitution. I thought that the way in which she came to see all of the problems that marked the system were illustrative of the way that many Americans have kind of come to turn away from the death penalty and see these larger problems and question whether it's the right punishment for some of these murders.

SIMON: And I want to ask you about Carroll Pickett - death house chaplain, worked nearly 100 executions.

CHAMMAH: That's right. So I open the book with a scene in which Pickett was tasked in 1982 with working on executions. And the warden tells him, your job is going to be to seduce the emotions of the prisoner. And I found this phrase very troubling. And he kind of found this role where, on the one hand, he wanted to comfort the man who was going to be executed and sort of give him some peace in his final hours. But at the same time, he knew that in doing that, it would actually make it easier on the system. It would make it so that the prisoner was less likely to fight back to cause some sort of scandal that would be an embarrassment for the warden or the governor.

SIMON: I mean, you talk about Fred Allen, the tie-down team.

CHAMMAH: So Pickett was part of ultimately a kind of team of executioners. There were men who would come in and strap the body of the man who was going to be executed to the gurney. There was someone else who would drive the body away in a hearse, you know, from the execution chamber. And each of these men had to really kind of reckon with what they were doing. And Fred Allen was an example of someone who really kind of broke down. He eventually went to chaplain Pickett and said, you know, I don't understand why I'm, you know, seeing the faces of these people every night, and I'm, you know, just bursting into tears and shaking. And there's something truly, truly traumatizing about seeing so many deaths.

SIMON: Karla Faye Tucker - I think the name is still known - committed a horrible crime, killed a woman with a pickaxe. She said - I'm going to read her words - if my execution is the only thing that can fulfill the demand for restitution and justice, then I accept that. She became very religious. She became, if I might put it this way, a wholesome influence in prison. It raises the question even for people who support the death penalty. Is the person being executed the same person who committed the crime?

CHAMMAH: That's right. And in case after case, you know, because the appeals last for so long, the person being executed is much older and has come to a certain amount of wisdom about what they did at a younger age. This is assuming there's not a kind of severe mental illness or or something else. But she had transformed so vividly. She appeared on "Larry King Live." Governor George W. Bush - although he didn't spare her life through clemency - he admitted openly to being very troubled by her case.

There were also interesting dynamics and troubling dynamics around gender that I tried to explore. You know, multiple people told me, I think had it been a Black man, for example, who converted to Christianity and made this sort of public pitch about remorse, it might not have landed quite as spectacularly, as dramatically as it did for this white woman. You know, there was a lot going on in that case. And I think that a lot of the ideas evoked by that case sort of started the long march towards the decline and what will probably eventually be the end of the death penalty in the U.S.

SIMON: I mean, we should explain, she was, in fact, executed.

CHAMMAH: She was executed, yeah, in 1998.

SIMON: So years ago when the death penalty was reinstituted in California, a producer and I went out to San Quentin. A man named Robert Alton Harris - warden's office offered me a chance to be one of the reporters who witnessed the execution. And I said, as a reporter, I can't turn it down. But I've got to tell you, I will feel the need to make some vain and foolish gesture to try and stop it. And the nice person from the warden's office said, I think we'll go in another direction.

CHAMMAH: Sure. It's like almost as if you were looking for a way out of it. I should say that, you know, people are often surprised that I've never witnessed an execution. There's a part of me that wonders if I would be able to tell sort of a richer story to readers had I witnessed one. But there's another part that is sort of grateful for the privilege to not be traumatized in that way.

SIMON: There was a hope, even an expectation among some people opposed to the death penalty in the early 2000s that while the U.S. might not ever abolish capital punishment in all 50 states, the number of charges will be reduced, the appeals so prolonged that the number could be vastly reduced. Do you think that might ever happen with Texas?

CHAMMAH: You know, I will say that it's already happened in many states. Texas will likely be one of the last states to give up the death penalty. It's so ingrained here. But that said, every year, prosecutors seek fewer and fewer death sentences against defendants. It's now less than 10 per year. And eventually, there will be, you know, so few people on death row that executions will be a much, much more rare event.

SIMON: And, of course, there's a cost for everybody involved, isn't there?

CHAMMAH: You know, the idea of the book was to explain these big-picture historical changes that have taken place but to do it through the sort of experiences of real people because I wanted people to understand that although this issue may seem like a kind of abstract political, even a kind of culture-war issue that we fight about, the number of people whose real lives are sort of transformed and affected in very profound ways by it is sort of a piece of this public policy that we don't spend enough time looking at.

SIMON: Maurice Chammah - his book, "Let The Lord Sort Them" - thank you so much for being with us.

CHAMMAH: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.