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December 9, 2008

The decline of death even in Texas!

Perhaps the surest sign that the death penalty is dying a slow death in the United States comes from the state most responsible for keep the death penalty so lively in recent decades.  Thanks to Capital Defense Weekly, I discovered this new report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, titled "Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2008: The Year in Review."  Consider these amazing data concerning death sentences imposed in 2008 from the report:

According to data compiled from news sources, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the Office of Court Administration, eight men and one woman were newly sentenced to death in Texas in 2008.  This marks the lowest number of new death sentences in Texas since official reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 and reflects similar trends nationwide.  It also represents a steep departure from the late 1990s, when as many as 48 people in Texas were sent to death row in a single year.... 

Notably, Harris County, which in the past condemned as many as 15 people a year to death, did not send anyone to death row in 2008.  While Harris County still accounts for a third of all Texas inmates awaiting execution (116 of 344), it only has sentenced seven people to death in the last four years.

Wow!  I assume these remarkable numbers reflect the tendency of prosecutors seeking few death sentences and juries handing out fewer death sentences (though I suppose it is possible that there were a lot few horrible Texas murders in recent years than a decade ago).

Some recent related posts:

December 9, 2008 at 10:43 AM | Permalink


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In addition to prosecutor and jury decisions, IMO there's a third cause for the declining number of Texas death sentences: New standards in the wake of the 2001 Texas Fair Defense Act to ensure capital defendants have adequate trial counsel. Better lawyers on the front end means fewer death penalty results on the backside, whereas in Harris County, in particular, the quality of counsel in such cases was historically, notoriously low before that law passed.

As evidence of this trend, more than 60 counties in West Texas recently banded together to jointly fund a capital public defender program, solving the dual problem of 1) the large cost of DP defense and 2) the lack of qualified counsel in many rural counties. So some of this may represent shifting public attitudes, but it may also demonstrate what happens when capital defendants receive effective, zealous legal representation compared to a more lackadaisical variety.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 9, 2008 11:28:04 AM

The real reason is that Texas recently added life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option. Previously, the jury had to either order someone executed or be let with the thought that this person would be out on parole. (Of course, they weren't actually going to get parole, but that's beside the point.)

Posted by: blah | Dec 9, 2008 1:25:22 PM

Is it not possible that the death penalty is a deterrant to violent crime? That is, the lower number of death sentences means there is less violence because of fear of receiving the death penalty.

Probably not. But it is a hypothesis that might merit consideration.

Posted by: Allan | Dec 9, 2008 2:22:47 PM

Both Grits & Blah are correct -- better lawyers & LWOP are producing fewer death sentences. Additionally, a relatively new method of jury selection, the Colorado method, helps counsel get -- where they are adult enough to know they won't win the guilt phase -- life verdicts much, much, more often. Finally, a change in culture in the defense bar where we call a "win" in a capital case not a NG / "not guilty" but any verdict other than death encourages lawyers to seek life at all costs.

Posted by: anon | Dec 9, 2008 9:49:48 PM

For Harris County anyway, political turmoil is probably the largest reason no one was sentenced to death in 2008. Former DA Chuck Rosenthal resigned in February 2008 and an interim DA was appointed until an election could be held in November. I don't have the numbers, but I wonder how many actual death-penalty trials were held in 2008 in Harris County, rather than being delayed so that a new, elected DA could make the necessary decisions.

Posted by: Ed | Dec 10, 2008 11:54:04 AM

But cf. http://eji.org/eji/node/110 ("With a population of only 4.5 million people, Alabama’s 13 new death sentences [in 2007] was greater than the 11 new death sentences imposed in Texas, which has a population of 23.5 million people."). Good old Alabama, always bucking those trends!

Of course, the same organization also notes the substantial number of Alabama death sentences imposed via judicial override by elected judges. http://eji.org/eji/node/122 So, it is possible that, at the jury level, the putative downward trend in death sentencing holds even in Alabama.

Posted by: Observer | Dec 10, 2008 12:03:33 PM

Dang. I thought those URLs would make links automatically. Let's try html tags: first link, second link

Posted by: Observer | Dec 10, 2008 12:05:45 PM

Yeah, we're pretty proud of our capital system in Alabama: no public defender system, judicial override, minimal appointment standards, no $$ for post-conviction representation. I think we have determined that there can be no problems with the system if you refuse to implement a system. On the up side, we have plans to execute 5 people in 5 months, starting January, '09.

Posted by: Alabama atty | Dec 10, 2008 3:08:17 PM

Allan wrote: "Is it not possible that the death penalty is a deterrant to violent crime?"

No, it is not possible. Crime has causes, and the cause of murder is not the absence of a death penalty. The amount of people that take your hypothesis seriously is merely a measure of the extent of delusion (and ruling class propaganda) within a society.

Economic dysfunction (which in turn causes political and social dysfunction) cause murder. If you want to reduce murder, give people health care and guarantee them a place to live. Any other suggestion is absurd is on its face.

Posted by: DK | Dec 10, 2008 9:30:31 PM

Unfortunately for TCADP, Texas juries returned THREE death sentences the same week this report came out.


Posted by: Back to Reality | Dec 15, 2008 10:29:45 AM

Well that's some great news for a change. I wonder if this is what Texas is most known for.

Posted by: Texas Property Tax Loans | Jan 22, 2009 3:06:02 PM

Well that's some great news for a change. I wonder if this is what Texas is most known for.

Posted by: Texas Property Tax Loans | Jan 22, 2009 3:06:03 PM

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