Sam Millsap Jr. knows that most people in his home state of Texas disagree with his fervent opposition to the death penalty, says the Houston Chronicle. Millsap has trouble getting an audience for his views in Texas, where polls consistently suggest a majority supports the death penalty. When a New Jersey commission recently backed the abolition of the death penalty, it was partly based on Millsap’s testimony. “I remember him well,” recalled panel chairman the Rev. M. William Howard Jr. “Whenever a prosecutor is able to tell that kind of story, people stand up and take notice.” Millsap travels to Paris this month to the Third World Congress Against the Death Penalty to explain his evolution from a full-throated execution advocate to a death penalty abolitionist.
Millsap knows that his pedigree as a Texas prosecutor is part of the draw. “When I go to these conferences,” he said, “people kind of stare at me like I’m the two-headed donkey in the freak show because I come from this place where people love to execute criminals.” Millsap, 55, was young and brash when he took over as Bexar County district attorney in 1983. He left office in 1987, he said, confident that all who were sentenced to die on his watch was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. The next 13 years whittled away at that confidence. DNA evidence was routinely setting the convicted free, and a groundbreaking Columbia University study of capital murder cases that had been overturned on appeal revealed rampant errors in defense and misconduct by prosecutors and police. Robert Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, agrees that enforcement of the death penalty is not a particularly troubling issue for most state prosecutors.