Fewer Death Sentences in Texas

The death sentence has declined as a punishment in Texas in recent years. It's down 70$ since 2003, reaching an historic low this year. Texas also is executing fewer prisoners than in past years. The figures compiled by the Texas Coalition to abolish the death penalty. Rod Rice has more.

There may be a number of reasons for the decline of the death penalty; the most obvious is that juries are not opting for it.

"This year juries in Texas sent only eight new individuals to death row, which is the lowest number since the death penalty was revised and reinstituted in 1976."

Kristin Houle is the coalition's executive director.  She says since 2005 juries in Texas capital murder trials have had a second sentencing option: life in prison without parole.  Coupled with that is the recent number of people released from prison after new evidence proves they did not commit the crime for which a jury convicted them. Houle says life without parole punishes criminals severely for their crimes but leaves the ability to correct mistakes.  She sees this as not as an aberration, but a trend.

"No, I think the trend is definitely downward when it comes to new death sentences both in Texas and nationwide.  They have dropped consistently here in Texas over the last few years and I expect we will continue to see low numbers of new death sentences as prosecutors and juries become increasingly comfortable with the sentence of life without parole."

Prosecutors may be opting more for life without parole because of costs.  A death penalty trail requires two parts, the guilt or innocence phase and the sentencing phase. A life without parole trail is complete after the jury makes it's guilty or not guilty decision.  And jury selection can take longer in death penalty cases because all potential jurors must be questioned on their death penalty views.

"Capital murder trials in which prosecutors seek the death penalty can cost over a million dollars.  We saw that last year in Gray County which spent more than a million dollars seeking the death penalty for a man ultimately sentenced to life without parole."

The coalition’s data found that between 1976 and 2007 more than 80 Texas counties sentenced prisoners to death. 

Between 2007 and 2010 only 21 counties did, that's only 8% of all the states counties.

As to why executions are down, this year's 17 is the lowest since 2001, Houle says that's a function of authorities seeking execution dates and so it may or may not be a trend.

There 317 people on death row in Texas.

For the death penalty itself, Kristin Houle thinks 2010 may go down as the "year of doubt".
 

Bio photo of Rod Rice

Rod Rice

Local Anchor, Morning Edition

Rod Rice became fascinated with radio at an early age, while sitting on his Grandfather’s lap listening to his "programs" on the big Emerson Radio...