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November 15, 2011

Noticing and noting racial skew of recent Texas death sentencing in Harris County

The Houston Chronicle has this notable report on recent death sentencing in Texas headlined "Harris death penalties show racial pattern: 12 of the last 13 men condemned 
in the county have been black." Here are excerpts:

The last white man to join death row from Harris County was a convicted serial killer in 2004.  Since then, 12 of the last 13 men newly condemned to die have been black, a Houston Chronicle analysis of prison and prosecution records shows.  The latest death sentence was handed down in October to a Hispanic.

The role of race in capital punishment has emerged repeatedly this year in the unsuccessful appeals by Duane Buck, an African-American from Houston convicted in a double murder.  His 1997 sentencing featured testimony from a former prison psychiatrist who claimed blacks are more dangerous than whites.

Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos, elected as a reformer, has overseen decisions about whether to seek the death penalty since 2009.  Her staff says the decisions are "race neutral" and "fact based."...

As part of its review of the last seven years of death sentences, the Chronicle also examined capital cases first prosecuted in the 1980s and 1990s that were reviewed again after successful death row appeals.  Since November 2004, five men have been re-sentenced to death -- three white, one black and one Hispanic.

Robert Morrow, one of the county's busiest capital defense attorneys, called the string of consecutive African-Americans who received new death sentences from 2004-2011 startling. He said those numbers alone should prompt additional research and debate --especially since relatively few participate in the local decision-making process as jurors or as prosecutors....

Harris County has a long history of aggressive prosecution of capital cases. More than a third of the state's current 305 death row inmates came from Harris County.  So did half of the 121 black inmates on death row, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data.

Blacks account for about half of recent murder arrests in Harris County.  But they more often get charged with capital murder than whites or Hispanics, an analysis of more than 300 recent court cases by the Chronicle shows.

November 15, 2011 at 09:23 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Just curious: what's the theoretical justification for separating out new death seances from reimposed death sentences (other than to skew the numbers and support the claim of racial disparity)?

Posted by: Question? | Nov 15, 2011 11:27:06 AM

"Harris County has a long history of aggressive prosecution of capital cases. More than a third of the state's current 305 death row inmates came from Harris County."

How much "More than a third"? "As of 2010 U.S. Census, the county had a population of 4.1 million,[2] making it the most populous county in Texas and the third most populous county in the United States."--Wikipedia

Maybe the level of capital prosecutions is appropos. "Its county seat is Houston[1], the largest city in Texas".

Posted by: adamakis | Nov 15, 2011 2:21:16 PM

Frankly, I am surprised that the ratio of death row inmates is not significantly higher for Harris County.

Harris County DA, Johnny Holmes built the system for successfully prosecuting capital crimes in Texas starting in the seventies. He recruited attorneys who could get convictions and then wind them through the appeals process. Later, many of those same attorneys sat at the bench to hear appeals for capital crimes. Few prosecutors in Texas are as well practiced in Capital crimes as Harris County prosecutors.

To the racial disparity issue, I would point out two salient facts. 1. The majority of victims of capital crimes are black. 2. The death penalty is only applicable in certain highly specialized circumstances. For example, murder, by itself, does not earn the death penalty in Texas. To earn the death penalty, a murder must occur during the commission of a felony. That means a jury has to make two convictions in order to apply the death penalty. That's a pretty tall hurdle to clear.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Nov 15, 2011 5:57:01 PM

"Blacks account for about half of recent murder arrests in Harris County." I certainly hope they meant to say: Blacks account for about half of recent DEATH ELIGIBLE murder arrests in Harris County THAT CAN BE PROVEN BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT BEFORE A JURY.

Because if they weren't looking at the latter, then they are comparing apples to oranges. Even then, not all death eligible cases are created equally. A killing of a child (under age six) or during a rape in the victim's home have a lot more jury appeal for death than, for example, multiple murder, especially if the victims are not entirely innocent such as prostitutes or drug dealers.

Journalists, and lawyers, are not statisticians. Neither should throw out numbers like this without some serious research into their actual meaning. It also would be nice if journalists would report what they find after having done so. Sadly, it does not appear that the Houston Chronicle made any such effort.

Posted by: David | Nov 15, 2011 8:43:46 PM

To David and the others above, see the definition of Texas capital offense here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_Texas

Most capital offenses, in Texas, take quite a bit of effort to commit. Juries on capital cases have to be convinced of quite a bit more than usual to convict.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Nov 15, 2011 10:09:11 PM

adamakis, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, Harris County accounts for approximately 1/6 of Texas's total population of 25,000,000 - and ratio was similar in 2000 as well - see, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/48201.html

Posted by: virginia | Nov 16, 2011 6:08:49 PM

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Posted by: Smith | Nov 21, 2011 12:06:30 PM

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