The State of Texas has executed 518 people since 1982; of these, 279 occurred during the administration of Texas Governor Rick Perry (2001-2014), more than any other governor in U.S. history. Executions peaked in Texas in 2000, when 40 people were put to death.
In 2014, the State of Texas executed 10 people, the fewest executions to take place in the state since 1996, when 3 people were put to death. Texas accounted for less than 30% of U.S. executions.
Harris County alone accounts for 122 executions, more than any state except Texas. Dallas County accounts for 53 executions, and Bexar accounts for 39.
New death sentences in Texas have dropped nearly 80% since 1999. Juries condemned 10 new individuals to death in Texas to date this year, according to data compiled from media outlets and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Death sentences peaked in 1999, when juries sent 48 people to death row. In 2010, new death sentences fell to their lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Texas’ revised death penalty statute in 1976.
Just five counties – 2% of the 254 counties in Texas – account for more than 60% of new death sentences since 2010.
Over the last five years, 60% of all new death sentences in Texas have been imposed on African-Americans.
While African-Americans comprise only 12% of the population of Texas, they comprise 41.8% of death row inmates, according to TDCJ. Hispanics comprise 28.2% of the death row population, and whites comprise 28.6%.
As of November 6, 2014, TDCJ counted 273 death row inmates, which includes 7 women. This remains the lowest Texas death row population since the late 1980s, according to research by TCADP. More than one-third of these individuals were convicted in Harris County. Texas holds the third-largest death row population in the nation, after California (750) and Florida (395).
Wrongful Convictions and Executions
Since 1973, 150 individuals – including 12 in Texas – have been released from death rows nationwide due to evidence of their wrongful conviction.
There also is significant evidence that the State of Texas has executed innocent people, including Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, and Cameron Todd Willingham.
In Texas, the cost of an average death penalty case is nearly three times higher than imprisoning someone in maximum security for 40 years, according to a study by the Dallas Morning News.
Abolition on the National and International Level
Six states – New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and 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.
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Background information on the Texas death penalty is available at http://tcadp.org/get-informed/background-information/.
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.
A total of 150 people have been released from death row since 1973, due to credible evidence of their wrongful conviction; this includes 12 individuals in Texas. Independent investigations have also made very credible cases that at least 3 innocent people have been executed in the state.
Top Spin: For each case where an innocent person is convicted, a guilty perpetrator is free to walk the streets.
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 hold those who are truly guilty of committing heinous crimes accountable for their actions and protect society. In 2005, the Texas legislature passed a law that provides Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) as a sentencing option. This is true life without parole. Prior to 2005, prosecutors and juries did not have this option.
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 18 that do not. Over the last seven years, Maryland, Connecticut, New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have abandoned the death penalty. Many other states that have the death penalty 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)