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December 17, 2017

Looking at latest notable Texas death penalty realities

Number_of_executions_between_2000-2017_the_united_states_texas_harris_county_chartbuilder_8a62cc520e6ffbae4480cedf31ee36ed.nbcnews-ux-600-480This new NBC News article, headlined "Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people," reviews how Texas has become fairly representative of the entire United States with a more limited use of capital punishment. Here are excerpts:

Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people.  That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.  Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.

In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death an astonishing number of people: zero. This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.

The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole. The number of executions has been trending downward across the United States, but it's particularly noticeable in Texas and Harris County.

“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also significant because they reflect the growing movement in the United States toward reform prosecutors who have pledged to use the death penalty more sparingly if at all,” said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The city of Houston lies within the confines of Harris County, making it one of the most populous counties in the country — and recently it became one of the most diverse, with a 2012 Rice University report concluded that Houston has become the most diverse city in the country. Under these new conditions, Kim Ogg ran in 2016 to become the county’s district attorney as a reformist candidate who pledged to use the death penalty in a more judicious manner than her predecessors, though the longtime prosecutor didn’t say she would abandon it altogether.  Rather, Ogg said she would save it for the “worst of the worst” — such as serial killer Anthony Shore, who was rescheduled for execution next month.

But this year, Ogg appears to have held true to her promise of only pursuing the death penalty in what she deems the most extreme cases.  It represents a break from a long pattern of Harris County prosecutors who pushed for the death penalty in nearly all capital cases. “The overall idea of what makes us safer is changing,” Ogg said. “We’re reframing the issues.  It’s no longer the number of convictions or scalps on the wall. It’s making sure the punishment meets the crime....”

But Ogg said she cannot alone take credit for the recent drop in executions.  The trend precedes her slightly and can also be connected to better educated and more diverse jury pools, as well as Texas’ new sentencing option of life without parole.  The state also has a more skilled group of indigent defense lawyers who build up mitigating circumstances — such as an abusive childhood or mental illness — for an alleged murderer’s crime.

Even a state like Texas might stop sentencing alleged killers to death in the near future. And that trend could well extend nationwide. “We’ve seen a deepening decline in the death penalty since the year 2000, and some states fell faster than others,” said University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, who wrote “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” He added that the declines are steepest in counties that had sentenced the most people to death.

December 17, 2017 at 02:12 PM | Permalink


Texas needs to wise up, and go all Italian, in its death penalty practice. Put the money elsewhere, more useful than in lawyer appellate jobs.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 17, 2017 4:31:45 PM

Even though not a capital case, I think that the exoneraton of Michael Morton after 25 years of incarceraton (and the disbarment and jailing--brief as it was of the Texas district attorney who prosecuted him) has had much to do with the decline of the death penalty in Texas and elsewhere. Kudos to the Texas lawyers and to Barry Sheck of the Innocense Project, who ferociously reopresented Morton. They not only proved his innocence but also uncovered the evidence that ed to real killer of Morton's wife.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Dec 17, 2017 5:15:18 PM

sorry for typos.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Dec 17, 2017 5:16:08 PM

Doug, David and Michael:

Some reality.

Why zero executions in Harris County, Texas, in 2017?

That zero executions represents the normal probabilities of death penalty due process, inclusive of lethal injection issues.

Harris County, Texas has averaged 3 executions per year (1976-2017) and averaged less than 1 execution, for 22 of those 42 years (4). The differences, between 0, 1 or 2 executions per year are the normal variables, which exist within all appeals, for each individual case, causing 0 executions in 2017 – the normal probabilities of due process.

Leo Jenkins was the only execution from Harris County, in 1996. He was a "volunteer". Would that, otherwise, zero execution year, 1996, mean anything, except that we would expect it, occasionally, as the normal probabilities of due process?

Three Harris County executions were stayed/vacated in 2017, the normal probabilities of due process.

Nationally, "States scheduled 81 executions in 2017, but 58 of them – more than 70 percent – were never carried out.", the normal probabilities of death penalty due process.

Most often, execution dates are required to force the inmates next round of appeals, requiring a stay, as any interested party knows - the normal course of due process.

The Non Effect of Life Without Penalty

There is zero evidence that passing Texas' 2005 LWOP law had any effect on fewer executions or death sentences, anywhere in Texas. There was a huge drop in death sentences, 69%, (48 to 15 , 1999-2005), a 10% average drop per year, prior to LWOP having any effect, with death sentences increasing 36%, the first full year after LWOP became law, 11 (2006) to 15 (2007), with death sentences averaging a little over 10 per year from 2006-2014, an average of a 1% drop for those total 10 years, part of a consistent 15 year (1999-2014) downward trend, unaffected by LWOP, with the 06-14 post LWOP drop, massively, smaller (10%) than the pre LWOP drop (69%).

A note on “Bloodthirsty” Texas, “The Capital of Capital Punishment”

“Texas sentences murderers to death at a rate below the national mean.” (3) or about the same as Oregon.

Since 1973, Texas has executed 0.73% of her murderers after 11 years of appeals, on average (3).

Texas and Harris County execute a miniscule percentage of murderers per murder. Most everywhere else, judges won’t allow cases to proceed in a responsible time frame.

China, allegedly, executes about 5000 per year. Harris County, labeled, the”Capital of Capital Punishment”, averages 3.

2) Press Release: U.S. Sees Second Fewest Death Sentences and Executions in 25 Years -
Public Support for Death Penalty Drops to 45-Year Low as Four More Death-Row Prisoners Exonerated in 2017, DPIC, 12/14/2017, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/YearEnd2017#pressrelease

4) Executions per year, Harris County
0 executions in 1976-1983 and 1985, 2017, or 10 years
1 execution in 1984, 1987, 1988, 1996, 2001, 2011, 2012, 7 years
2 executions 1991, 2002, 2013, 2015, 2016, 5 years

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Dec 18, 2017 8:02:32 AM

Dudley. I agree with you about the importance of feeling an effect at the gut level, and about finding no real meaning in random variability of a small sample. The death penalty in Texas is meaningless save for its cost, and the living it provides appellate lawyers on both sides, and the lawyer in the middle on the bench. I blame the Supreme Court for the design of this rent seeking system.

I have moved on from the death penalty. I estimated a benefit from attrition and incapacitation to start at 10,000 a year. Say each eligible organ donor could help 5 people, there would be that additional collateral benefit. Consent could be presumed. The eligible condemned would have to affirm his opposition to donation to prevent it.

Now, there are 60,000 opiate overdose deaths. The majority are not criminals, just addicts. The majority are working, and pay for their own addiction. The majority are productive adults with skills, and major responsibilities.

It is an additional major lawyer screw up of catastrophic proportion that the benefit of the death penalty will happen, but at the cost of the loss of life of 50,000 non-criminals.

This profession must be crushed, and restarted from scratch. Nothing stinks as much as the lawyer profession of the United States.

In fairness, the organized medicine societies also oppose the death penalty. They will not allow anyone to die without getting their worthless $250,000 in medical billings prior to every certain death.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 18, 2017 9:23:15 AM

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