Abbott faces thorny death penalty choice

PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The death penalty is like gun rights in Texas politics: Candidates don’t dare get in the way of either. But Republican Greg Abbott, the favorite to succeed Gov. Rick Perry, must soon make a decision as attorney general that could disrupt the nation’s busiest death chamber.

It’s an election-year dilemma for Abbott. But in Texas, it’s one that Democratic rival Wendy Davis can’t easily exploit, illustrating how little room there is to maneuver on this issue.

Abbott must soon decide whether to stick with his earlier opinions that Texas must disclose the source of the execution drugs it uses. That revelation could prompt attention-shy suppliers to halt their drug deliveries and stop Texas’ executions.

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If Abbott holds firm, he’ll please death penalty opponents who prison officials say want to target the companies with protests and threats. Reversing course would go against his vows for transparency in government.

“There’s no political upside. It puts him in a little bit of a tough position,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.

The predicament comes up as Davis, the feisty Fort Worth lawmaker who has attracted national attention, is eager to find ways to shake up the campaign and prevent Abbott from riding a solid lead in the polls to a general election victory in the GOP-dominated state.

But Abbott’s difficulty leaves her with few opportunities since portraying the law-and-order attorney general, who has held the position since 2003, as somehow soft on crime would be implausible. Both Abbott and Davis support the death penalty.

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“I don’t think any accusations here stick,” said Harold Cook, a onetime leader of the Texas Democratic Party and now a consultant.

Polls in recent years have shown public support in Texas for capital punishment at more than 70 percent. The state has executed an average of 20 inmates a year since Perry took office in 2001.

“In Texas, a lot of people feel like it’s a settled issue,” said Texas Democratic state Rep. Jessica Farrar, whose multiple bills to abolish the death penalty have attracted only a handful of supporters.

But death penalty opponents have managed to halt executions in some states, including conservative ones, by putting pressure on the suppliers of the lethal drugs, charging that the chemical executions can be cruel and unusual.

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Since 2010, Abbott has rejected three attempts by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to keep information about its execution drug suppliers confidential. He ruled that the benefits of government transparency outweighed the state’s objections.

With prison officials warning that threats against suppliers are escalating, Abbott is expected to issue a ruling on the latest request in coming weeks.

When asked last weekend about Abbott’s options, Davis avoided calling Abbott out personally. She referred to an earlier statement that said she believes the execution drug information should be public.

“I support capital punishment and I believe that as it has worked in this state it’s been one that has provided due process in a way that I think we all would hope would occur,” she said.

Unless the issue is resolved, it could be a problem for whoever is elected Texas governor, some strategists say.

“If you are the governor when we run out of drugs and you can’t buy anymore, that’s where you’re going to create a problem,” said Republican consultant Allen Blakemore, a veteran of district attorney election races in Harris County.

Anti-capital punishment groups concede that Texas embraces the death penalty tighter than most but say public support for it is declining nationwide. Thirty-two states still have the death penalty after Illinois, Maryland and Connecticut — led by Democratic governors — repealed capital punishment in recent years.

“It’s certainly not the issue it used to be. And I would say that’s probably true politically,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Two death row inmates in Texas were put to death this month with the state’s available supply of pentobarbital.