AUSTIN, Texas -- OK, let's try this again, Texans. We now have one of the highest execution rates in the entire world.

Here are the numbers according to Amnesty International and some math: In 2000, four countries around the world accounted for 88 percent of all the executions --- the United States, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia. Nobody else is even in the game, though there is no reliable information from Iraq. In 2000, Texas alone, one state out of 50, was responsible for 47 percent of the executions in America. Here are the best estimates for numbers per capita (using the highest guess, not from Amnesty, of 1,700 executions in China -- the number that sent the human-rights people into a frenzy over the Beijing Olympics): Iran executes one for every 874,000 people, China executes one for every 742,000 people, Texas executes one for every 521,000, and the Saudis one for every 170,000. So we're not rock bottom, we're doing better than the Saudis -- a role normally played for us by Mississippi. Let's not try for the Olympics anytime soon.

I saw a great pro-death-penalty cartoon the other day in "Thaddeus and Weez" (a Texas cartoon strip): two little angels with halos are flying together, and one asks the other, "Were you killed by a teen-age murderer or an insane murderer or a retarded murderer or a just plain murderer?" Then they fly off holding hands.

The message is obvious: It doesn't make any difference to the victim why it happened, dead is dead. But the law makes all kinds of distinctions in all kinds of crime. Michael Sharlot, former dean of the UT Law School, who is "agnostic on the death penalty," points out that the difference between misdemeanor theft and felony theft is one penny.

You don't hear prosecutors going around saying, "Well, this guy didn't steal $100, but he did steal $99, so let's go for a felony conviction." Napoleon Beazley wasn't 18 when he committed a terrible crime, he was 17. The law says you can drink legally when you are 21 years old, but not when you are 20 years, 11 months and 29 days old. In a lot of states, the law says you can be executed for murder if your IQ is 70, but not if it's 69. A pregnant woman can get an abortion in the first trimester for almost any reason, but by the third trimester she must show a serious threat to her life or health.

If you look at law, it's one long process of drawing distinctions. Until 1898 in Texas, you could not be convicted of statutory rape if the "woman" was older than nine. Such decisions are not handed down from on high to Moses, they're handed up from the bowels of the Texas Legislature --- which should only be seen by consenting adults.

In addition, Beazley is black and he killed a prominent white man. If you've lived in this state long enough to consider yourself a Texan, you know a white man who kills a black man is unlikely to get the death penalty. Highly unlikely. It has happened exactly three times.

It's not only the race of the murderer and the race of the victim that skew the system -- we give radically different sentences in Texas from one jurisdiction to another. As a rule, you'll be punished much more harshly in a small city or rural area -- especially if the local prosecutor is looking to make his bones before the next election -- than you would be in a big city, where there's so much crime they plead a lot of cases out to avoid the expense of a trial.

None of this makes Napoleon Beazley innocent, but it does make the system unfair. Of all the things that throw our "justice system" out of whack, the biggest is poverty. Straight out, the thing that's most likely to get you the death penalty in this state is being poor. That's when they give you the lawyer who sleeps through the trial, is under the influence during the trial; the lawyer who is overworked, overwhelmed, underpaid and inexperienced; the incompetent lawyer; the lawyer who doesn't investigate your case or find your witnesses; the lawyer who doesn't present your DNA evidence; the lawyer who doesn't file your appeal in time; and so on through the long, horrifying list of everything that goes wrong. Murderers who don't get the death penalty aren't less guilty, they have better lawyers.

If you think the death penalty in this state is crock, try the rest of it.

The death penalty is the tip of the iceberg. We've got kids with first-offense felonies as minors and no one hurt doing 50 years, and Murder Two perps doing 10. Our whole system is bollixed up throughout by race, poverty and unequal sentencing.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at