By Robert Bryce, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Even for the busiest death chamber in the United States, the past few days have been particularly active.
Last week, four men on Texas' death row were sentenced to die. Although two of them were spared - at least temporarily - by last- minute appeals, the state tomorrow still plans to send Joseph Meanes to the red brick bungalow in Huntsville known as the Death House.
Already this year, 18 men and one woman have been killed by lethal injection in Texas. Since 1976, Texas has executed 163 inmates - almost three times more than Virginia, the state with the second- highest number. Behind Texas' high execution rate lie changing perceptions about the death penalty in the United States as well as peculiarities unique to Texas. Together, they offer insights into America's views - and differences - on capital punishment. The reasons for the Lone Star State's frequent use of the death penalty are many: from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals' unwillingness to interfere to Texas' ties to the conservative South. But Jim Mattox, a lawyer and former Texas attorney general, says the high rate is a result of inadequate legal defense for accused killers. "I think you'd find our state government and county government are more parsimonious with the money needed to provide defense counsel for indigent prisoners," says Mr. Mattox, a death-penalty supporter who oversaw three dozen executions during his eight years in office. "Our death-row inmates overall have a very difficult time getting adequate representation on their cases, particularly after the first set of appeals." Public-defense system Mattox's comments are echoed by death-penalty opponents as well. "Texas doesn't have a statewide public-defender system," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that opposes the death penalty. "The attorneys are appointed by the local judge who determines the amount of pay.... So you may get a lawyer who doesn't have any experience." While defense lawyers are important, tough prosecutors may be a bigger factor in the Texas equation. And Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. is, without a doubt, the state's toughest prosecutor. Nearly one-third of all the inmates on death row in Texas were convicted in Harris County, home to the city of Houston. Dallas County, the state's second-most populous county with 2 million residents, currently has 37 inmates on death row. Harris County, which has 1 million more residents than Dallas County, has 137 inmates on death row. …