MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A former Texas governor is making news by raising doubts about the death penalty. Democrat Mark White was governor from 1983 to '87, then a strong death penalty supporter who oversaw 19 executions. Now he's rethinking capital punishment and he joins us from Houston to explain why. Governor White, welcome to the program.
Governor MARK WHITE (Former Governor, Texas): Thank you. It's good to be with you.
BLOCK: I'm going to play for you part of a campaign ad from back in 1990 when you ran again. You lost in the Democratic primary, and the ad shows you walking along the portraits of people who were executed while you were governor. Let's take a listen.
(Soundbite of campaign ad)
Gov. WHITE: These hardened criminals will never again murder, rape or deal drugs. As governor I made sure they received the ultimate punishment: death. And Texas is a safer place for it.
BLOCK: Governor White, as you listen to that ad now, what do you think, were those executions constitutional?
Gov. WHITE: They were clearly constitutional at that time and even today. The distinction that I make today is that we've seen the change in technology and science over the years in the DNA testing, which can be done today - makes certain crimes more certain or also confirms the innocence of those wrongfully accused. I think we've seen that many people have been released from prison because they were found to be literally innocent of the crime. This was something that I think we need to be very cautious about when we carry out executions today and that's the reason I've been speaking about the prospect of our legislature reviewing the status of our death penalty statute.
BLOCK: Do you believe that innocent people have been executed in the state of Texas?
Gov. WHITE: I don't - I can't say for certain either way. I would hope not, and that's one of the worst things that could possibly happen is you see how terrible it is for someone to be confined for years in prison later to be determined to be innocent because of DNA testing. How much more horrible it would be if we were to have executed someone who was, in fact, innocent?
BLOCK: As a strong supporter of the death penalty before, I'm assuming you thought it had some sort of deterrent effect on crime. Do you still think that now?
Gov. WHITE: No, I never did think it was a great deterrent, and I still think it's not. Obviously, with 400 people on death row, there's at least 400 people up there that didn't deter. What I felt at the time was, and still do in this sense, that it is an appropriate punishment for the most heinous crimes. And it's been narrowed down as to what those heinous crimes are. What I see in retrospect is that our system is not as foolproof as I think it should be in order to carry out a punishment that's irreversible.
BLOCK: Do you think, Governor White, that it would be palatable to you to substitute a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole for the death penalty?
Gov. WHITE: Well, I'm - let me say, I'm a private citizen and I certainly would accept that is a way, and to make certain we didn't have unfortunate execution of an innocent person.
BLOCK: That would be acceptable, you think?
Gov. WHITE: Yes. And I'll assure you that that is a very harsh punishment. If you could imagine being locked up in a room of about maybe 96 square feet for 23 hours of a day, every day for as many years as you might live, it would be a very, very tough existence.
BLOCK: When you think about the prisoners who were executed during your time as governor, do you have second thoughts about those? Do those cases come back to you?
Gov. WHITE: Every one of them. I can recall the details in which we went through all of the records to make certain everything was done appropriately and then substantively appropriate as well. I don't have any reservation about it, I just - that was a job that I undertook. It was something that was most distasteful. But that's what the law was in Texas. And I think that we seem - a need to strengthen procedures to make sure that we don't have any such thing as execution of an innocent person.
BLOCK: Governor White, thank you very much for talking with us.
Gov. WHITE: Thank you.
BLOCK: That's former Governor Mark White, a Democrat. He was governor of Texas from 1983 to '87.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.