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December 14, 2010

Data and debate over a drop in death sentencing in Texas

As detailed in this new Houston Chronicle article, which is headlined "Death sentences plunge in Texas: Foes cite new law, DNA testing; backers blame judges, delays in executions," in the year 2010 Texas juries "sentenced only eight killers to die this year, the lowest number since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court ended its ban on capital punishment."  Here is more about this interesting capital accounting:

The figures were released Monday in an end-of-year review of capital punishment by the Austin-based Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty...."It shows that Texas and the rest of the country are moving away from the death penalty, even in Harris County. It's an astonishing development," said coalition executive director Kristin Houlé.

Houlé attributed the drop to Texas' 2005 life without parole statute and to the high cost to counties of seeking the death sentence. Also eroding support for capital punishment is DNA testing, which has led to the exoneration of scores of inmates convicted of serious crimes...

Death penalty supporters, however, countered that fewer death sentences may reflect fewer killers and fewer killers who are eligible for execution. The Supreme Court shrank the pool of death-eligible killers by prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded offenders and those who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

Dudley Sharp, an outspoken Houston death penalty advocate, argued that drops in rape, robbery and murder have reduced the number of death-eligible criminals going to trial. "Texas murder rates have dropped about 67 percent, murders about 50 percent in Texas between 1991 and 2009," he said.  "Nationally, I think that part of the reduction is due to state prosecutors knowing that judges in their state will not allow an execution to take place."

Prosecutors also cite long-term incarceration of violent criminals and programs to lower recidivism among released prisoners.  Just as important, they claim, is a high degree of frustration over death sentences that never are carried out.

"Twenty-five years later, mothers and sons and daughters of victims are still waiting," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National Association of District Attorneys. "It's the old cliche about justice delayed is denied. ... For a number of states, the death penalty means we'll talk to you in 25 years and see where we are."

Nationally during the last 20 years, death sentences have ranged from a high of 328 in 1994, to a low last year of little more than 100. Texas recorded an all-time high — 48 — in 1999. That total fluctuated in the ensuing decade....

Since Texas' resumption of executions in 1982, 464 killers — 115 of them from Harris County — have been put to death. Currently, 105 Harris County killers await execution. Three of 17 killers executed this year were from Harris County. The next execution is scheduled for Jan. 11.

The year-end report of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is available at this link; lots of data and links to additional information about Texas capital justice can be found in this webpage on the TCADP site.   The full report spotlights three Texas capital cases in which Texas juries returned sentences of life, which seems to suggest that Texas prosecutors only sought the death penalty in 11 cases through 2010.

Though Texas justice has long be criticized by many, this latest data suggests the state is becoming far more measured in its application of the death penalty.  When one considers this reality in conjunction with the state's recent prohibition of LWOP for all juve offenders (even juve murderers) and also its effective and efficient sentencing reform and prison population reduction programs over the last decade, Texas is perhaps evolving into a model sentencing reform state instead of being the cruel tough-justice outlier that historically garnered so much criticism.

December 14, 2010 at 09:10 AM | Permalink


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Yes, perhaps heading in the right direction, but a long way still to go. The legacy of the bad years remains, and every effort is made to sweep the mistakes under the carpet rather than admit to them. With over 300 still on death row, there are many issues remaining. Re ban on juv lwop ... it was not made retrospective, leaving many anomalies and many young people languishing without hope of review.

Posted by: peter | Dec 14, 2010 4:22:38 PM

FWIW, last year just 3% of Texas capital convictions resulted in death sentences, down from a high of 24% in 1992. Most of the decline has occurred during a period when the GOP firmly controlled Texas' judiciary, the Legislature and the governorship.

Regarding Texas as a "model sentencing reform state," be sure to check out the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Right on Crime" campaign, being launched in D.C. today with a bunch of conservative notables. Details here including a call-in number to hear the event by phone.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 15, 2010 8:16:16 AM

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