The Texas death chamber in Huntsville, TX, June 23, 2000 where Texas death row inmate Gary Graham was put to death by lethal injection on June 22, 2000.
HUNTSVILLE, Texas (USA Today) -- Texas, the nation's most prolific executioner of criminals, is about to put its 500th inmate to death since the mid-1970s.
Barring a last-minute reprieve, Kimberly McCarthy, a 52-year-old former Black Panther wife, will be given a lethal injection of pentobarbital at around 6:10 p.m. Wednesday for the murder of a 70-year-old Dallas County woman during a 1997 robbery.
And while McCarthy's crime was a notorious one - she used a butcher knife and candelabra to beat and fatally stab a retired college professor - her death is likely to bring even more attention than her crime. The grim milestone of 500 executions here has reignited debate on both sides of the death penalty issue.
Texas is by far the most fatal of the nation's 34 death penalty states. Virginia places a distant second with 110 executions since the death penalty was federally reinstated in 1976, followed by Oklahoma with 104 and Florida with 77, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that advocates against the death penalty.
Executions do little to deter future criminals, said Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. There have been 12 death row exonerations in Texas since 1976, she said. At least five executed offenders were "strongly suspected" of being innocent, she said.
"The system is rife with doubt and failures," Houlé said. "This is a punishment that can't be reversed."
Dudley Sharp, a Houston-based death penalty and victims advocate, said the death penalty absolutely deters some segment of the criminal population and, more important, brings fair justice to the families of victims. "Executed murders don't harm or murder again," he said.
Death row inmate Kimberly McCarthy. McCarthy is set to become the first woman executed in the United States since 2010 on Tuesday.(Photo: HO AFP/Getty Images)
Most Texans agree with Sharp. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted last year showed nearly two-thirds of respondents remain overwhelmingly in support of the death penalty.
"Here in Texas, we tell people that if you commit really bad crimes, we're going to look to putting you to death," said Jim Willett, a former warden and current director of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. "And we're going to follow through with it."
Executions sometimes draw throngs of protesters or advocates outside the red-brick death chamber in Huntsville, known as "The Walls Unit" for the soaring 20-foot-high walls that engulf the compound.
Despite Hollywood lore, offenders are given whatever the prison kitchen cooks up as a last meal, said John Hurt, a spokesman with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees executions. Many respectfully decline dinner. "Most of them will tell you they don't have much of an appetite," he said.
Texas has been executing its murderers since the 1920s, most famously with an electric chair nicknamed "Old Sparky" by inmates, according to the Texas Prison Museum. In all, 361 men died in the electric chair until the Supreme Court declared the death penalty "cruel and unusual punishment" in 1972.
It was reinstated four years later. Texas has executed 499 offenders since, using lethal injection.
McCarthy, who is linked to two other slayings, already has had her execution date pushed back twice this year. Evidence showed McCarthy, a former nursing home therapist, used a butcher knife to sever her victim's finger to steal her wedding ring.
McCarthy's attorney, Maurie Levin, is trying to halt her execution again, contending black jurors improperly were excluded from her trial by Dallas County prosecutors.
Levin said there has been a "pervasive influence of race in administration of the death penalty and the inadequacy of counsel - a long-standing issue here."