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Too old for death

Fascinating story about Texas’ oldest inmate on death row. He’s been there for 36 years.

Two weeks after he turned 40, Jack Harry Smith showed no signs of letting middle age slow him down. So on the first Saturday in January, he put on a ski mask, grabbed his pistol and a buddy, and went charging into a Pasadena convenience store.

As career criminals go, Smith never had been newsworthy nor successful. That changed by the time he ran out the front door of Corky’s Corner, and it wasn’t because of the small sack of cash in his hand.

Behind him lay the body of Roy Deputter, the store’s bookkeeper who lived in a trailer behind the store and had rushed inside with a gun when he heard the commotion. Before him loomed capital murder charges.

Smith’s lawyer says his client recalls little of the event. Prosecutors and lawmen typically are skeptical of convenient memory loss, but there’s a good chance he is telling the truth. On the day that Smith earned his ticket to death row, Jimmy Carter was threatening to slap a tariff on imported steel, Egypt and Israel were closing in on a historic peace accord, and the Dallas Cowboys were on the verge of their second Super Bowl title.

Which is another way of saying that Smith is old. By the standards of Texas’ death row, in fact, he is ancient. No one lasts that long in the nation’s most aggressive capital punishment state, certainly not a three-time loser who has spent most of his life behind bars. This isn’t California, which sends many people to death row but rarely executes them. The only inmates to escape the death chamber are those spared by appeals courts or those so mentally ill they are not competent for execution. And there are but a handful of those.

Smith is not one of them, and by rights he should not be alive. Yet he has beaten the odds and lingered on since 1978 – through six presidential administrations, countless Middle East negotiations and too many Super Bowls to remember. Tragedy has stalked his case for years and put his appeal on hold again and again. Now he is 76 and there’s no end in sight, at least not one imposed by the courts.

By “tragedy”, they mean that the original judge in the case and two of Smith’s lawyers died while his appeals were in process. That all helped delay the process, in addition to the usual slow pace of the system; the average inmate spends a bit more than ten years on death row before the sentence is carried out. At this point, the Attorney General’s office is officially pursuing matters, though the Harris County DA’s office could still be involved. Smith’s co-defendant was paroled a decade ago, and if his death sentence were to be commuted, he’d be paroled as well, though he has no family left and thus has no one to go home to. It’s hard to see what would be gained by continuing all the legal machinations. The best resolution, for some value of “best”, anyway, is probably to leave things as they are and let nature take its course.

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