The State of Texas has executed 498 people(1982-2013), out of more than 1,300 executions nationwide since 1977. Thirteen executions took place in 2011, the lowest number in 15 years.
Fifteen executions took place in Texas in 2012 – out of 43 nationwide.
Texas’ Highest Sentencing Counties, 2008-2012
*Death sentences were imposed in Brazos, Johnson, McLennan, and Smith Counties.
There currently are 283 people on death row in Texas, including 10 women; this is the lowest the death row population has been since at least 1989, according to research by TCADP. (2013)
Since 1973, 142 individuals – including 12 in Texas – have been released from death rows nationwide due to evidence of their wrongful conviction.
There also have been investigations into whether Texas wrongfully executed Carlos DeLuna in 1989, Ruben Cantu in 1993, and Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004.
In Texas, the cost of an average death penalty case is nearly three times higher than imprisoning someone in maximum security for 40 years. (Dallas Morning News)
Six states – New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and, most recently, Maryland – have abandoned the death penalty in recent years. A total of 18 states and the District of Columbia do not allow the death penalty.
139 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In 2011, the top five executing countries were China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
New death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 75% since 2002. In 2010 and 2011, new death sentences reached a historic low level, when eight people were sentenced to death statewide. In 2012, nine new death sentences were imposed, including two in Dallas County, two in Tarrant County, and one in Johnson County. In 2013, two new death sentences have been imposed to date, one in Dallas County, and one in Galveston County.
Death Penalty Basics Download PDF
Texas Death Penalty Info (4-page)Download PDF
Texas Death Penalty Info (1-page) Download PDF
Print for your own use or request multiple copies from the TCADP office.
Question: The death penalty is necessary to ‘get tough on crime.’ It is an effective deterrent to violent crime such as rape and murder.
Buffer: Does the death penalty deter crime?
Answer: Most research on the death penalty demonstrates that the possibility of being sentenced to death does not deter criminals from committing either calculated or spontaneous crimes. There is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty reduces the murder rate.
Furthermore, states that maintain the death penalty traditionally have higher murder rates than states that do not (according to FBI data). States in the southeast which have a higher number of executions than any other section of the country also have a higher rate of violent crime, whereas states in the northeast which have a much lower number of executions also have a lower rate of violent crime.
Top Spin: Use of the death penalty, therefore, is actually detrimental to the search for real solutions to violent crime because it offers a false sense of safety.
It could also be argued that the death penalty increases the level of brutality in society, furthering the cycle of violence.
Question: The death penalty is demanded by and carried out in the name of the victims’ families.
Buffer: Don’t murder victim families have a right to have the death penalty as a sentencing option?
Answer: It is only natural to feel angry and frustrated about the loss of innocent life through the violent act of murder. However, punishment for a crime cannot be decided on the basis of the wishes of the victim’s family. If this was the situation, all sentencing would be completely arbitrary, reflecting differing ideas about justice from case to case.
It is also important to remember that not all victims speak with the same voice. Many victims’ families oppose the death penalty. Members of organizations such as Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, the Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights argue that executions only perpetuate the violence that victimized their loved ones and draw attention and resources away from victims’ families, and delays the healing process while appeals keep the act a central part of their daily lives.
Top Spin: In addition, the death penalty itself creates more victims – the family members of the person who has been executed – and can take a terrible toll on the prison officials charged with carrying out executions.
We fail as a society, however, if all we can offer to those hurt by violent acts is more violence and death, rather than mercy and healing.
Question: We need to execute people who commit the most heinous crimes, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Timothy McVeigh.
Buffer: Don’t we need the death penalty to deal with the “worst of the worst”?
Answer: Death penalty supporters will often point to the most heinous case they can think of, in hopes of appealing to people’s sense of retribution for unthinkable crimes. Despite the claim that the death penalty is reserved for the “worst of the worst,” history clearly demonstrates that this is simply not true. When people claim that the death penalty is just, and that some people deserve punishment by death, they make assumptions about the fairness of the death penalty.
Although we might assume that gravity of the crime and culpability are the main factors that determine who is executed, the facts indicate otherwise. Local politics, the quality of legal counsel, the location of the crime, plea bargaining, and pure chance affect the process by which people are sentenced to death in this country. Offenders who commit similar crimes under similar circumstances often receive vastly different sentences. The race of both the offender and victim, as well as social and economic status, play a large part in deciding who lives and who dies.
Question: I don’t want my tax dollars to go toward incarcerating convicted murderers.
Buffer: Isn’t it less expensive to execute prisoners than to keep them in jail for the rest of their lives?
Answer: The costs associated with the death penalty are substantially higher than those associated with life imprisonment. The greatest costs of the death penalty are incurred prior to and during trial, not in post-conviction proceedings (appeals). Even if all appeals were abolished, the death penalty system would still be more expensive than alternative sentences.
In 2009, Gray County spent nearly $1 million in its pursuit of the death penalty for Levi King. His case, which had been moved to Lubbock County, consisted only of a punishment hearing. The cost to Gray County for seeking a death sentence for Levi King was a contributing factor in the county commission’s decision to withhold employee raises and increase tax rates. King was already serving two consecutive life sentences in Missouri and had pled guilty to the murders of three Texans.
A study by the Dallas Morning News determined that in Texas it costs three times as much to execute a person than to imprison someone for life: $2M vs $700K. Texas has executed more than 400 people. Think of the millions of dollars per year if they abolished the death penalty.
Top Spin: This is money that could have been used in more effective crime prevention measures, such as more police, better drug programs, etc.
Question: The American justice system is the best in the world and offers proper safeguards against mistakes.
Buffer: Doesn’t the system ensure that only the guilty actually are executed?
Answer: Most Americans trust our country’s justice system, but the fact that mistakes are made should lead many to question the “justice” involved in seeking the death penalty. No matter how good our justice system is, it is based on human reason and judgment and is subject to error.
Jailhouse or “snitch” false testimony, mistaken eyewitness identification, misinterpretation of evidence, incompetent legal representation, unreliable expert testimony, and community prejudices and pressures all too often impact the verdict and sentencing.
As of September 1, 2012, 140 people have been released from death row since 1973, due to credible evidence of their wrongful conviction, including 12 here in Texas. Independent investigations have also made very credible cases that at least 3 innocent people have been executed in the state.
Top Spin: And remember this, for each case where an innocent person is convicted, the guilty person “gets off”.
Not only does the system not necessarily protect the innocent, it doesn’t always punish the guilty.
Question: The death penalty is necessary for societal protection.
Buffer: Don’t we need to execute some people in order to protect society?
Answer: The state does indeed have an obligation to protect society from violent people. In 2005 the Texas legislature passed legislation that provide Life Without Parole (LWOP) as a sentencing option. This is true life without parole. Prior to 2005 juries did not have this option.
LWOP enables the state lock up violent offenders for the rest of their lives, and is an appropriate punishment for some offenders.
Top Spin: With this option we can protect society without resorting to the killing of another person.
Q: If we speed up executions, they would be a greater deterrent to violent crime and would cost less money.
Buffer: Couldn’t we reduce costs associated with the death penalty process and save tax dollars by speeding up the process?
Answer: A very important aspect of the process is to ensure that the right person receives the death penalty. Speeding up the process would increase the possibility that mistakes or errors would be overlooked. Given that errors and mistakes have been found to have occurred, if we speed up the process, we will only increase the likelihood of executing an innocent individual.
Top Spin: We need to work to improve the quality of and the trust that we have in the system, not seek ways to move individuals through it.
Question: The death penalty is needed to “restore order” to society.
Buffer: Don’t we need the death penalty to keep order?
Answer: Not every state in the country has the death penalty—there are 17 that do not. Over the last 5 years, Connecticut, New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have effectively abolished its use in their states. For example, states as diverse as Massachusetts, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Alaska do not have the death penalty and seem to be doing just fine. Many of the states that have the death penalty available have not executed anyone in years. Texas has executed more than 4 times the number of people as any other state, and yet murders and violent crimes continue. If the death penalty restores order, given the number of executions that have been carried out in Texas, why do we still have to use it. Wouldn’t we have come to a point where we don’t need it anymore?
Top Spin: Perhaps if we spend less of our time and limited resources on the death penalty and more on other crime prevention measures such as added police protection or more effective anti-drug programs, we could actually reduce the rate of murder and violent crime.
Question: The Bible demands “an eye for an eye” approach to justice.
Buffer: Doesn’t the Bible support the use of executions?
Answer: The Old Testament does indeed have the phrase “an eye for an eye”. However, this text was not specifically addressing the death penalty; it was addressing the inequity of punishments for crimes committed. Also, if you look in the New Testament you will find the following: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you do not resist an evil person”. The speaker, of course, is Jesus. There is also a story in the Bible about a women caught in adultery for which the sentence was that she should be stoned to death. When questioned about this, Jesus’ response was, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Top Spin: Perhaps our society would be better if we more often we took an approach of compassion, mercy and forgiveness.
James Colburn (download PDF)
Monty Delk (download PDF)
Scott Panetti (download PDF)
Kelsey Patterson (download PDF)
Executing the Insane: The Case of Scott Panetti: watch the video
The State of Texas ranks 47th nationally in terms of per capita spending on mental healthcare, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It ranks 1st in executions (more than 400 since 1982).
Around 30 percent of those incarcerated in Texas prison or jails have been clients of the state’s public mental health system. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)
Mental illness can impact a defendant’s ability to communicate effectively with his/her attorney, participate in legal proceedings, make rational decisions, or behave appropriately in a courtroom. It also can impact his/her ability to assist with appeals.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty is unconstitutional for people with mental retardation (Atkins v. Virginia). It has not excluded offenders with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ford v. Wainwright that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who does not understand the reason for, or the reality of, his or her punishment. The Ford decision left the determination of competency for execution up to each state, however, and it has not prevented the execution of scores of offenders diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illnesses.
The Texas Legislature did not establish a statute governing the process to determine competency to be executed until 1999.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which considers cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, has never found a death row inmate incompetent for execution. In a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Panetti vs. Quarterman, the justices ruled that “the Fifth Circuit’s incompetency standard is too restrictive to afford a prisoner Eighth Amendment protections.” At issue is the distinction between the prisoner’s “awareness” versus “rational understanding” of why she/he is to be executed.
At least 25 individuals with documented diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other persistent and severe mental illnesses have been executed by the State of Texas. Many had sought treatment before the commission of their crimes, but were denied long-term care.
Approximately 15-20% of Texas death row inmates receive ongoing mental health services. (Houston Chronicle, March 18, 2007)
The “insanity defense” is rarely used and rarely successful. Less than one percent of all defendants raise the insanity defense; of these, even fewer defendants are found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. (Psychiatric Times, April, 2002)
The American Bar Association, The American Psychatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Alliance on Mental illness have adopted a recommendation calling for a prohibition on the death penalty for those with severe mental disorders or disabilities. Numerous mental health organizations in Texas also have condemned the execution of offenders with severe mental illness.
Read the blog about severe mental illness and the death penalty: http://preventionnotpunishment.blogspot.com/
MIDP Resource Guide, 2nd Edition, (download now)
Please consider taking one of these actions to help educate others about issues related to the death penalty and mental illness:
- Organize a literature table on this issue: make copies of the Mental Illness and the Death Penalty Fact Sheet and the case studies (Kelsey Patterson, James Colburn, Larry Robison, etc.) and collect signatures on the TCADP “Count Me In” Form.
- Show the film “Executing the Insane: The Case of Scott Panetti” and facilitate a discussion.
- Host a speaker on the topic of mental illness and the death penalty. (Contact Kristin Houlé to make arrangements.)
- Be alert to death penalty cases in your community that involve issues related to mental illness – either when prosecutors announce their intention to seek the death penalty for someone who may have a severe mental illness or when a severely mentally ill offender on death row receives an execution date. Please notify Kristin immediately at email@example.com if you learn of such cases.
- Become involved with clemency campaigns on relevant death penalty cases in Texas as they arise. (This would entail contacting the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Perry, writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper, and mobilizing others in your community to take action.)
- For students: Reach out to professors in your psychology or social work departments or at your law school. Encourage them to view the Scott Panetti film in one of their classes or to host a speaker who has worked on the case of an offender with severe mental illness.
- Write letters to the editor in response to articles about mental illness and the criminal justice system.
- Reach out to mental health advocacy organizations in your area, such as local affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Texas or Mental Health America-Texas. Ask for a meeting to discuss opportunities for collaboration or invite them to participate in local events (marches, vigils, conferences, local chapter meetings, etc.). Learn about how you might support their advocacy efforts on behalf of those with mental illness.
- Provide mental health organizations, legal organizations, and criminal justice reform organizations in your area with a copy of the American Bar Association (ABA) recommendation calling for a prohibition on the death penalty for offenders with severe mental disorders and disabilities. Ask these organizations to secure an endorsement of the recommendation from their boards or governing bodies. Please contact Kristin to discuss this action in more detail.
- Download PDF of MIDP RESOURCE GUIDE