Texas carries out more executions than any other state — by a long shot.
More than 570 people have been executed by the state of Texas since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after briefly ruling it unconstitutional. That’s five times more than the number of executions in Virginia, the state with the next highest number.
Capital punishment remains a divisive topic in Texas and beyond. A 2021 Pew Research Center study found that 60% of Americans were in favor of the death penalty, while 80% said there was risk of innocent people being put to death. Twenty-three U.S. states and more than 70% of the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment entirely.
In El Paso, perspectives on capital punishment have a new personal significance for many after the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at a Walmart. Former El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza sought the death penalty of the accused shooter before he retired in 2020. His successor, Yvonne Rosales, said her office will do the same in what was the deadliest attack against Latinos in recent United States history.
“When it hits you personally it changes you,” retired Brig. Gen. Richard Behrenhausen said.
The former first commander of the Joint Task Force North at Fort Bliss, Behrenhausen is originally from Reading, Pennsylvania, but retired in El Paso. His perspective on the death penalty shifted radically after his brother was murdered in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1993. His brother’s killer, who plea bargained down to second-degree manslaughter, will probably be released within the next couple years, Behrenhausen said.
“I would be willing to bet that there are a number of families in this town and across the bridge in Juárez who feel very strongly about the death penalty because of the Walmart shooting, and have had their mind changed about the death penalty because of the Walmart shooting,” he said.
Before his brother’s murder, Behrenhausen said he was conflicted about the death penalty, because of his Catholic upbringing. But his views solidified when his brother was murdered: “I feel that the death penalty should be a viable option as a penalty for certain crimes in which a culprit has been proven unquestionably, without a doubt guilty,” he said.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, agreed that the events of Aug. 3 had an impact on the way El Pasoans feel about the death penalty, though he holds a different perspective on capital punishment.
“I believe people started thinking about (the death penalty) in different ways,” he said. “I think it becomes very challenging in the circumstance of such an egregious crime, because there’s a lot of emotion around it.”
Moody has sought for years to reform the state’s criminal justice system, including abolishing the death penalty. His recent legislative efforts include improving juror instructions in capital punishment cases, banning the death penalty in Texas for those who are intellectually or developmentally disabled, and banning the state’s controversial “law of parties” where a person can be eligible for the death penalty who was party to a killing but did not actually kill someone. Although some of these efforts have passed in the Texas House, they have stalled in the Senate.
Moody said he often encounters El Pasoans who express support for the death penalty, but only in the most extreme cases, like that of the Walmart shooter. But he said that is not how the death penalty functions in practice.
“It’s not so often utilized for the worst of the worst, but more so (it’s) utilized for the poorest of the poor, who don’t have the opportunity for good counsel,” he said. The lengthy and complicated process of executing someone, which can stretch across decades, could also lead to repeated retraumatization of the El Paso community in the case of the Walmart shooter, Moody said.
“If we’re going to heal as a community, that healing is not served by another killing,” he said.
There are currently seven men on death row for crimes committed in El Paso County. The average length of time they have spent on death row is 18 years and eight months: none have an execution scheduled.
Marcia Fulton’s daughter was murdered by one of those men. Like Behrenhausen, she supports the death penalty, though laments how long it has taken for the sentence to be carried out. Her 15-year-old daughter Desiree Wheatley was killed in June 1987 by David Leonard Wood, who would come to be known as the “Desert Killer.” Wood was convicted of murdering six girls and young women in Northeast El Paso in the 1980s, and is suspected in the disappearances of three more young women.
“I’m not saying everyone needs to be having the death penalty, but there are definitely cases where it is very appropriate. And definitely this was one of them,” Fulton said.
Retired police officer Ron Stallworth also said he was concerned about extended delays in carrying out sentences in cases like Fulton’s.
“One of the problems with the death penalty is that you could be found guilty today of a capital crime, be given the death penalty, and you may not face justice legally for years. That’s wrong,” he said.
Stallworth, an El Paso native, said his perspective on the death penalty has changed since he retired. Stallworth is known for having infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan while serving as the first African American police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department; his experience was the basis for the Spike Lee film “BlacKkKlansman”.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” he said. “When I was an active police officer, I was full force in for the death penalty.” But Stallworth said his support of capital punishment has softened, particularly because of the disproportionate rate with which Black men are executed.
In Texas, although Black people comprise less than 13% of residents, they have made up 44.7% of death row inmates, according to data compiled by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Still, Stallworth said he believes the Walmart shooter should be executed “without a doubt.” He said he wasn’t interested in hearing religious arguments in this case, noting how frequently conversations about the ethics of the death penalty are framed around religion.
Moody recalled past conversations with relatives of Jordan and Andre Anchondo, the young couple who died in the Walmart shooting while shielding their infant son, who expressed forgiveness toward the Walmart shooter and said they did not want the death penalty in the case.
“They were coming from a place of deep faith,” Moody said of the Anchondo family. “That level of grace, after having been through something like that, is something that’s almost incomprehensible to most of us.”
The Catholic Church’s stance on the death penalty has become increasingly hardline over the past several decades, with Pope Francis calling for the international abolition of the death penalty in 2018.
Bishop Mark Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso said he has been edified by the response of the El Paso community to the shooting.
“To me it was a thing of grace to see how people responded, refusing to choose anger and vengeance in response to the shooting, but rather (to say) we will not allow this individual’s terrible actions to bring us down to his level,” he said.
Seitz, who conducted the funeral mass for Gilbert Anchondo, also recalled being moved by the family’s response to the shooting.
“I’m not presuming to speak for everyone in our community or all of the victims because I understand that many of them are terribly traumatized and they don’t really know how to find healing in the midst of the pain that they’re going through,” Seitz said. “But I do know that there are those among the victims that have been very clear that they realize that no solution will come from (the death penalty).”
Moody cautioned that El Pasoans should avoid misdirecting energy by focusing on the death penalty as a path toward justice with the Walmart shooting.
“If we’re going to focus on (the shooter), we’re really treating the symptom, not the disease. What caused this shooting was white supremacy, was racism, was hatred, was politically violent language. And I find myself turning towards stamping that out. That is where I think our best efforts can be focused,” he said.
Cover photo: State executions in Texas are carried out in this chamber in Huntsville. (Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice)