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December 13, 2012

New report on the state of capital punishment in Texas at year end

This new piece in the Texas Tribune, headlined "Death Row Population at Its Lowest Since 1989," reports on a few of the highlights from a new report concerning the administration of capital punishment in Texas.  Here is how the piece starts:

The population on Texas' death row is at its lowest in more than 20 years, and the number of new death sentences, though slightly up in 2012, continues a downward trend even in the nation's busiest death penalty state, according to a report released Wednesday by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

As they have nationally, death sentences in Texas have declined over the last decade. The state has seen a 75 percent drop in death sentences since 2002. And according to the coalition, the Texas death row population, at 289, is at its lowest point since 1989. According to the coalition's report, juries in the state issued nine new death sentences in 2012, a slight increase from the number issued in each of the two previous years.

But the distribution of new death sentences is uneven, the coalition reported.  For the third time in five years, there were no new death sentences out of Harris County, which once sent more people to death row than any other Texas county.  Meanwhile, the Dallas-Fort Worth area accounted for four of the new death sentences in 2012, and Dallas County alone contributed nearly 20 percent of death sentences in the last five years, according to the report.  Dallas County also led the state in executions: Five of the 15 Texans executed in 2012 were from there.

The full 16-page new report by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is available at this link. The report is titled "Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2012: The Year in Review."

December 13, 2012 at 09:16 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The article doesn't start to address why the decline in death sentences may have occurred. That is the more interesting story. Could it be that fewer capital crimes are being committed or fewer capital crimes are being prosecuted as such?

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Dec 13, 2012 9:35:30 AM

@Jardinero1
You're probably right, murders have been in decline since the early 90's. In Texas the number of murders are less than half of what they were 20 years ago. It follows that there would be fewer death sentences.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Dec 13, 2012 10:16:06 AM

The article doesn't start to address why the decline in death sentences may have occurred. That is the more interesting story. Could it be that fewer capital crimes are being committed or fewer capital crimes are being prosecuted as such?

Well, I don't know about capital crimes specifically, but the problem with fewer murders as an explanation for the data in this report is that the drop in murders largely predates the plunge in death sentences. The number of murders in the state peaked at 2652 in 1991, fell to 1332 by 2001, and fell slightly to 1126 by 2011. The number of death sentences in the following year (I'm assuming it takes on average one year to go to trial, the results are basically the same without that) were 31, 37, and 9, respectively. So the death sentence/murder ratio was 1.2% in 1992, 2.8% in 2002, and 0.8% in 2012.

I think part of what happened is that Texas introduced life without parole in 2005 (I believe over the objection of prosecutors) and, given this choice, juries have felt less need to use the death penalty.

Source for murders: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/txcrime.htm

Source for death sentences: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-sentences-united-states-1977-2008

Posted by: dsfan | Dec 13, 2012 11:01:57 AM

Actually, Jardinero, Texas has seen a boomlet in capital filings despite declining murder rates, with more sentences ending in LWOP but bottoming out at six new death sentences in fy 2011. On the bright side for Bill, Adamkis, federalist, SC, et. al., Nine is a 50%, one-year increase!

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 13, 2012 11:03:39 AM

Abair thusa!
To me and to the Founders, murder need no aggravating factor to merit the death penalty.

Murder itself is beyond an aggravating factor.

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 13, 2012 1:32:23 PM

Some of the decline in the number of death sentences may be the result of changes in Texas death penalty procedures in light of the handful of cases over the past decade in which the Supreme Court pointed out things that Texas needed to change.

My experience growing up in Texas and now having practiced in other states is that the Texas statute was (relative to other states) slightly slanted in favor of the death penalty (primarily through the lack of any express consideration of mitigation evidence). So the decline may be due to the Supreme Court requiring Texas to modify their instructions to direct juries to consider mitigation evidence.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 13, 2012 2:54:21 PM

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