Harris sends nobody to death row
First I learn that Houston's air is getting cleaner.
Now I learn that we haven't sentenced a single scumbag murderer to death
this entire year.
This is not the city I signed up for.
In 1999, Houston displaced Los Angeles as the smoggiest city in the
nation. This year we set a record low with only 16 days exceeding federal
standards for ground-level ozone, smog's main ingredient.
In 2003, the year I moved here, Houston sent 9 murderers to death row.
That was 35 % of the state's death sentences that year, an amount that is
more than twice our 16.5 % share of the state's population.
From 15 a year to zero
In 2004, we did even better, accounting for fully 1/2 of the 20 Texans who
landed on death row. Back in the 1990s, a less populous Harris County was
even more prolific in sending murderers to meet their Maker or not.
For the 5 years beginning 1993, Harris County condemned more than 15
annually, contributing 39 % of the state's migration to death row.
But this year, which for capital crime trial purposes is basically over,
we've contributed precisely zero % to the state's nation-leading cadre of
dead men walking.
The Rosenthal factor?
I know what you're thinking: That's what happens when at the beginning of
the year you banish the tough-on-crime likes of Chuck Rosenthal for minor
indiscretions such as using his office computer for racist, romantic and
obscene e-mails. (Separate e-mails, not racist, romantic and obscene all
And, oh yes, defying a federal judge's direct order by erasing a couple of
thousand other e-mails that could have proved even more entertaining.
But acting District Attorney Ken Magidson declines to take either credit
or blame for the county's paltry annual contribution to death row.
Magidson said he personally reviewed each capital crime to see if
prosecutors could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they met "the
standards set by law" for the death penalty.
Only 2 death-penalty cases were presented to juries. In one of them,
prosecutors agreed a plea bargain of 60 years during the trial. In the
other one, the defendant was acquitted, more on which below.
Statistics from the past 3 years agree with Magidson's suggestion that he
wasn't the difference. From 2005 through 2007, Harris County condemned
just 7 men, or 15 % of the Texas total.
Prosecutors throughout the state appear to be seeking the death sentence
less often. This year only 16 cases have come to trial (and one currently
In addition, juries appear to be showing more skepticism. One found the
accused not guilty. One jury hung on the question of guilt. 4 juries found
the accused guilty but chose life sentences without possibility of parole.
One was the jury in the sole Harris County death penalty case that of
Juan Quintero, an illegal immigrant convicted of shooting a police officer
4 times in the head during a traffic stop.
"When you have a Texas jury refusing to give the death penalty to an
illegal immigrant who killed a cop if the significance of that doesn't
speak volumes, nothing will, " said David Dow, an anti-death penalty
activist and professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
Dow believes that Texas juries have joined the national mainstream. The
recent passage in Texas of the sentence of life without parole offers some
jurors a satisfying alternative to death (which is why Rosenthal and other
Texas district attorneys long opposed it).
What's more, say Dow and others, with the advent of highly publicized
DNA-based exonerations, jurors across the country have become more
concerned about imposing the death penalty.
In August, Michael Blair was released after 14 years on Texas death row.
DNA evidence cleared him of the 1993 rape of a 7-year-old girl.
Dow notes that while Texas jurors seem to have joined the rest of the
nation in increasing concern about the finality of the death penalty,
state officials "seem to be uniquely stubborn."
In other states, executions have been slowed. But not in Texas. According
to figures compiled by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty,
Texas this year has performed 18 executions, exactly the number as the
rest of the nation combined.
The runner-up was Virginia with 4. Florida executed only 2. Texas already
has 11 executions scheduled for next year, running only into March.
Only 1 is from Harris County. Tarrant County has 3.
So it looks like we may lose our title as the Death Penalty Capital of
(source: Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle)