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June 3, 2017

"Is the death penalty dying in Dallas County?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this local article which documents a trend that leads me to think that the death penalty is never again likely to be a significant part of American criminal justice systems (if it every really was in the recent past).  Here are excerpts:

The crimes were heinous but Dallas County jurors couldn't condemn the convicted killers. A college student killed three people at a drug house in a premeditated robbery. A former special education teacher and U.S. Army veteran killed his girlfriend, her teenage daughter, his estranged wife, her adult daughter and severely wounded four children in a two-city rampage.

But neither killer received the death penalty, a punishment reserved for the "worst of the worst." Statewide, juries have declined death sentences in nearly half of the cases presented to them in the past two years.

So, what does it take to win a death penalty sentence? "You gotta be perfect probably these days," said Edwin King, a special prosecutor in one of the Dallas County cases.

Jurors couldn't agree to the death sentence in the two recent capital murder trials. They were the first Dallas County cases in which the state sought the death penalty since 2014.

The decision to seek the death penalty is based on the the severity of the crime, criminal background and what the victim's family wants, said Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson. "Our office only seeks the death penalty in the most heinous and serious of crimes," Johnson said....

"Even in Texas, the death penalty is dying," said Jason Redick of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In the 15 death penalty cases tried in Texas since 2015, jurors have sent only eight men to death row. Death sentences peaked in the 1990s. Between 2007 and 2013, Dallas County led the state in defendants sent to death row. During that time, the county sentenced 12 people to death. Executions in Texas are also declining because of legal reforms that give prisoners more chances to have their sentences reviewed.

Jurors are only selected after they agree that they can give the ultimate punishment. Even so, they appear to be split on the issue in recent years. "We know these aren't folks who are anti-death penalty folks," Redick said. "At one point, they said they could hand out a death sentence."

June 3, 2017 at 01:13 PM | Permalink


Citing the actions of judges holding up or dissenting because they want to hold up death sentences really needs to be looked at as part of a wider story.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 3, 2017 9:19:27 PM

End the death penalty. Fire all the rent seeking appellate lawyers and judges.

Then have accidents, murders, and suicides in prison. Like upon arrival.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 4, 2017 8:43:49 AM

The issue is the jury vote.

Texas takes a unanimous jury for death.

1 can overrule 11, the most undemocratic practice in the US, wherein the vast minority overwhelns the vast majority.

It's why I think 9-3 or 8-4 should be the standard and future dangerousness should be removed from the law.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jun 4, 2017 9:07:04 AM

I suspect that the exoneration of Michael Morton in 2011 in Texas has played a part here. Even though the case was not capital, it demonstrated to potential jurors in future cases the fallibility of the criminal justice system. See the following summary of the case:

"Michael Morton (born August 12, 1954) is an American who was wrongfully convicted in 1987 in a Williamson County, Texas court of the 1986 murder of his wife Christine Morton. He spent nearly 25 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence which supported his claim of innocence and pointed to the crime being committed by another individual. Morton was released from prison on October 4, 2011; the prosecutor was convicted of contempt of court for withholding evidence after the judge had ordered its release to the defense"

Posted by: Michael R Levine | Jun 4, 2017 9:50:14 AM

In addition to Morton, a prior Dallas County DA established a conviction integrity unit that exonerated quite a few. A lot of Texans of varied political bent are skeptical of the efficacy of the criminal justice system, especially when there are no "take backs."

Williamson County, where Morton was convicted, from police and prosecutors on down to jurors, has to be among the worst places to be a criminal defendant in the world. It's really extraordinary.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jun 4, 2017 11:20:40 AM

"1 can overrule 11, the most undemocratic practice in the US, wherein the vast minority overwhelns the vast majority."

If one stopping 11 is a problem, it doesn't stop with what amounts to a jury determination that someone is guilty of a capital offense. The whole unanimous jury rule is problematic. If you go down to 8-4, you in effect are crowding out a significant minority, who can be ignored since their votes don't matter.

This is partially why for centuries, that isn't what was done. "Democracy" in this country is not a strict majority or near majority rule. It involves ensuring various groups have a significant say. A 2/3 rule would diminish that as well as weakening the safeguard of a stricter rule to kill someone.

If you want to go that route, executions would be the last place to do it; you'd think the first thing would be to change it for non-capital sentences, since the stakes were less.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 4, 2017 12:16:56 PM

Are these homicides counted as murders or are they excused?


Posted by: David Behar | Jun 4, 2017 12:38:37 PM

In 2008, in Dallas County, Gregory Wright was executed after a final appeal to the Fifth Circuit resulted in an admission by that court that the dna evidence used against him was at best inconclusive that he, rather than a co-accused, was the person responsible for the killing of which they were both separately accused. Wright was the first of the two to be tried, and was done so on the basis that he was the sole killer. Later, the co-accused was given the same verdict and sentence. The Fifth Circuit however refused to lift the sentence against Wright, introducing for the first time in any part of legal proceeding against him the spectre of the Law of Parties which they claimed justified the execution proceeding. This, in spite of an unsolicited late admission of sole guilt by the co-accused - which he used cynically to use with dramatic effect when he later withdrew the admission at a subsequent oral court hearing. The prosecutor put on record that the co-accused actions would certainly gain him credit within the judicial process - and so it proved when, after Wright's execution, the co-accused was granted a jury re-hearing of his sentence which resulted, because of jury disagreement, in the dismissal of his original sentence of death - replaced with LWOP. How is it possible for the Law of Parties to be used against one party only? At his execution, as he had all along, Greg Wright made a clear explanatory statement of his own innocence. Anyone familiar with this case would recognize that it was one of the most arbitrary and ill-judged death penalty decisions made in the county of Dallas. For that reason alone, it is right that jurists in the county, and the judiciary, recognize that the death penalty should have no part to play when assessing guilt or punishment of murder in an honest and civilized trial. The high stakes created are liable to cloak the truth, not reveal it. That recognition is finally happening in Dallas County today, and in many other jurisdictions throughout the US.

Posted by: peter | Jun 4, 2017 3:26:36 PM

Fact: Justice IS blind! District Judges are glorified attorney's and most Judges are incompetent. Juror's do not know their Rights and the Justice System does not want them to know that they have full control of the Court. Prosecutors are not made accountable for their wrong doings and tax payers have been footing the bills. Grand Jury's are supposed to protect the people from over zealous prosecutors but instead only get one side of the case. I for one have always wanted to be on the Jury, especially the Grand Jury but the Judge picks those that pick Juror's that are in agreement with the prosecutor. How can that be called Justice?

Posted by: LC in Texas | Jun 4, 2017 7:22:14 PM

End the death penalty. Replace with public self help. Kill a violent repeat offender, get $10,000 cash.

Here. In the US, these people may have been villified as racist, and prosecuted by the feminist lawyer and its male running dogs.


Posted by: David Behar | Jun 4, 2017 9:09:24 PM

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