Kimberly McCarthy, who was put to death for the murder of her 71-year-old neighbor, was also the first woman executed in the U.S. in nearly three years.
McCarthy, 52, was executed for the 1997 robbery, beating and fatal stabbing of retired college psychology professor Dorothy Booth. Booth had agreed to give McCarthy a cup of sugar before she was attacked with a butcher knife and candelabra at her home in Lancaster, about 15 miles south of Dallas. Authorities say McCarthy cut off Booth's finger to remove her wedding ring.
It was among three slayings linked to McCarthy, a former nursing home therapist who became addicted to crack cocaine.
She was pronounced dead at 6:37 p.m. CDT, 20 minutes after Texas prison officials began administering a single lethal dose of pentobarbital.
Texas has carried out nearly 40 percent of the more than 1,300 executions in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. The state's standing stems from its size as the nation's second-most populous state as well as its tradition of tough justice for killers.
With increased debate in recent years over wrongful convictions, some states have halted the practice entirely. However, 32 states have the death penalty on the books. Though Texas still carries out executions, lawmakers have provided more sentencing options for juries and courts have narrowed the cases for which death can be sought.
Executions of women are infrequent. McCarthy was the 13th woman put to death in the U.S. and the fourth in Texas, the nation's busiest death penalty state, since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed capital punishment to resume. In that same period, more than 1,300 male inmates have been executed nationwide, 496 of them in Texas. Virginia is a distant second, nearly 400 executions behind.
McCarthy's lawyer, Maurie Levin, had asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the punishment, arguing black jurors were improperly excluded from McCarthy's trial by Dallas County prosecutors. McCarthy is black; her victim white. All but one of her 12 jurors were white. The court denied McCarthy's appeals, ruling her claims should have been raised previously.
Prosecutors said McCarthy stole Booth's Mercedes and drove to Dallas, pawned the woman's wedding ring she removed from the severed finger for $200 and went to a crack house to buy cocaine. Evidence also showed she used Booth's credit cards at a liquor store.
McCarthy blamed the crime on two drug dealers, but there was no evidence either existed.
DNA evidence also tied McCarthy to the December 1988 slayings of 81-year-old Maggie Harding and 85-year-old Jettie Lucas. Harding was stabbed and beaten with a meat tenderizer, while Lucas was beaten with both sides of a claw hammer and stabbed.
McCarthy, who denied any involvement in the attacks, was indicted but not tried for those slayings.
McCarthy is a former wife of Aaron Michaels, founder of the New Black Panther Party, and he testified on her behalf. They had separated before Booth's slaying.
In January, McCarthy was just hours away from being put to death when a Dallas judge delayed her execution.
McCarthy was the eighth Texas prisoner executed this year. She was among 10 women on death row in Texas, but the only one with an execution date. Seven male Texas prisoners have executions scheduled in the coming months.
When the van pulled away early the next morning, it carried to a nearby funeral home the body of convicted killer Charlie Brooks, who had just become the first Texas prisoner executed since a Supreme Court ruling six years earlier allowed the death penalty to resume in the United States.
What was unusual then has become rote. On Wednesday, barring a reprieve, Kimberly McCarthy will become the 500th convicted killer in Texas to receive a lethal injection.
The number far outpaces the execution total in any other state. It also reflects the reality of capital punishment in the United States today: While some states have halted the practice in recent years because of concern about wrongful convictions, executions continue at a steady pace in many others.
The death penalty is on the books in 32 states. On average, Texas executes an inmate about every three weeks.
Still, even as McCarthy prepares to die at the Huntsville Unit, it's clear that Texas, too, has been affected by the debate over capital punishment. In recent years, state lawmakers have provided more sentencing options for juries and courts have narrowed the cases in which the death penalty can be applied. In guaranteeing DNA testing for inmates and providing for sentences of life without parole, Texas could well be on a slower track to execute its next 500 inmates.
"It's a very fragile system" as attitudes change, said Mark White, who was Texas attorney general when Brooks was executed and then presided over 19 executions as governor from 1983 to 1987.
"There's a big difference between fair and harsh. ... I think you have (Texas) getting a reputation for being bloodthirsty, and that's not good."
Texas has accounted for nearly 40 percent of the more than 1,300 executions carried out since murderer Gary Gilmore went before a Utah firing squad in 1977 and became the first U.S. inmate executed following the Supreme Court's clarification of death penalty laws. (Texas had more than 300 executions before the pause.) Virginia is a distant second, nearly 400 executions behind. Texas' standing stems both from its size, with the nation's second-largest population, and its tradition of tough justice for killers.
Still awaiting punishment in Texas are 282 convicted murderers.
Some may be spared. Supreme Court rulings have now excluded mentally impaired people or those who were under 18 at the time of their crime. Legal battles continue over the lethal drugs used in the process, mental competence of inmates, professional competence of defense lawyers and sufficiency of evidence in light of DNA forensics technology.
Gov. Rick Perry, who has presided over more than half of Texas' executions, said the recent changes have helped make the state's system fairer. In addition to the new sentencing options, he signed bills to allow post-conviction DNA testing for inmates and establish minimum qualifications for court-appointed defense attorneys.
"I think our process works just fine," Perry said last year during his unsuccessful presidential campaign. "You may not agree with them, but we believe in our form of justice. ... We think it is clearly appropriate."
So do most Texans.
A 2012 poll from the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas showed only 21 percent opposed capital punishment.
Still, re-examinations of convictions have raised questions about whether some of those executed may have been innocent. The suspect cases included the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson deaths of his three young children. Arson experts consulted by a state panel determined evidence used to gain the conviction did not meet scientific standards. But Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott later barred the panel from further review of the trial evidence.
Over the years, the Texas execution list has provided a portrait of violent crime in a state where many people are armed, both good and bad, and juries have little tolerance for murderers.
Those executed have ranged from relatively common cases – robbers who killed store clerks, drug users who killed other drug users, spouses killing each other – to the bizarre and sensational. Ronald Clark O'Bryan, nicknamed the "Candy Man," poisoned his son's Halloween candy to collect on an insurance policy. Angel Resendez, a serial killer, rode the rails, stopping along the way to murder strangers. Lawrence Russell Brewer dragged a black man behind a pickup truck in a racist killing.
In the prison town of Huntsville, executions have become a well-worn ritual.
For more than 20 years, Dennis Longmire has been a fixture outside the fortress-like prison on execution evenings, holding a lit candle on a street corner. Hundreds of demonstrators once gathered there, but interest has long since subsided.
"Texas continues to march to a different beat," as other states drop the death penalty, says Longmire, a criminal justice professor at nearby Sam Houston State University. He calls the execution total "staggering."
McCarthy, convicted of killing a 71-year-old neighbor during a 1997 robbery, is among eight inmates scheduled for execution over the next four months. She would be the first woman put to death in the U.S. in three years and the 13th since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume.
McCarthy, 52, was condemned for using a butcher knife and candelabra to beat and fatally stab retired college professor Dorothy Booth at the victim's Lancaster home. Evidence showed the former nursing home therapist used the knife to sever Booth's finger to steal her wedding ring.
McCarthy, who is linked to two other slayings, has had her execution date pushed back twice this year. Her attorney, Maurie Levin, has been trying to halt her execution again, contending black jurors improperly were excluded from her trial by Dallas County prosecutors. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this week rejected the latest appeal, saying the claims should have been raised previously.
Levin said there has been a "pervasive influence of race in administration of the death penalty and the inadequacy of counsel – a longstanding issue here."
Even remarkable incidents in the death ritual can become mundane in the steady procession.
In 2000, Ponchai Wilkerson stunned officials when he spit out a small handcuff key he had kept hidden in his mouth as he prepared to die.
"In another state you live with that for a long time," said Willett, who became warden at the Huntsville Unit in 1998 and oversaw 89 executions. Here in Texas, another one is coming a few days later and you've forgotten that one before."