The Histories We Need to Face

Dear Supporters:

At Texas Defender Service, we represent people in Texas prisons facing excessive punishments. That work also requires facing our State’s history of racial terror and the long legacy of slavery.

The imprint of slavery is apparent in all aspects of our criminal-legal system today. 

Four of the five people Texas executed so far this year were Black or Latino, and they were killed in a prison built by enslaved people. The architect and first superintendent of that prison was himself an enslaver. He earned money by contracting out the people he enslaved to build the prison.

Enslaved people later worked the prison’s textile mill, which supplied the Confederacy with cloth during the Civil War. Just outside the prison’s front gates, a two-sided monument erected in 1963 memorializes, on one side, “Texans Who Served the Confederacy” and, on the other side, commemorates the textile mill’s role in supplying cloth for the Confederacy during a Union Blockade.

During slavery, the death penalty was used to terrorize enslaved people, punish freedom seekers, and quash rebellions. After the Civil War, the death penalty served as an instrument of social control that instituted terror over Black communities and stemmed the appetite for lynching.

Today, racial discrimination infects every stage of a capital case. The role of racism in the death penalty is obvious from the numbers: 21 of the last 22 people sent to death row from Harris County are people of color, as are four of five people on death row from Travis County. 

Earlier this month, Arthur Brown Jr., a man with intellectual disability and a compelling claim of actual innocence, was executed despite valiant representation by his attorneys at the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs. One of Arthur’s jurors admitted to knowing that Arthur was guilty when she first saw him walk into the room because Arthur, a Black man, looked like a “thug.” Andre Thomas, a Black man whose execution date was withdrawn just earlier this month, was tried by jurors who expressly admitted to racist views.

Our criminal-legal system in Texas is inextricably intertwined with our history of slavery, Jim Crow, racial terror, and lynchings. Nowhere is that fact more apparent than in the death penalty.

These are the histories we need to face in our fight for justice. Only by acknowledging the past can we transform the future.

With gratitude,

Burke Butler
Executive Director
Texas Defender Service