Is the death penalty a dying breed?
Executions nationwide and in Texas were down in 2008. So were death
The numbers don't lie but not everyone agrees on what they say.
Defense attorneys think the statistics indicate a waning enthusiasm in the
Lone Star State, the death penalty capital of the country, for the
"It has taken a little longer for the transformation to be felt here,"
said Rob Owen, co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the
University of Texas at Austin. "I think we are seeing the leading edge of
that national transformation."
Prosecutors doubt that, saying the numbers simply reflect the cyclical
nature of criminal justice.
"A real sea change? I think it's too early to tell," said Michael
Casillas, chief prosecutor of the appellate division of the Dallas County
district attorney's office. "Things are, even in the criminal justice
system, kind of cyclical."
Whether the numbers indicate a temporary slowdown or a slow grinding to a
halt, neither side thinks the death penalty will disappear any time soon.
The 18 executions that took place in Texas in 2008 occurred in the last
half of the year, following a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that had
temporarily halted capital punishment. And 13 executions have been
scheduled in the next 9 weeks.
Even in Dallas County, where District Attorney Craig Watkins has indicated
his discomfort with capital punishment and the district attorney's office
is reviewing the case of every inmate on death row from Dallas,
prosecutors are going to start seeking execution dates again soon, said
Lisa Smith, deputy chief of the appellate section.
The review of several dozen cases, some dating back decades, is about
"There are cases that are ripe to be set," she said. "Do I anticipate
dates being set in the next few months? Yes, I do."
Dallas County has always been sparing in its use of the death penalty, but
that hasn't been the case in Harris County, which has led the state in
death sentences for years.
But in 2008, not a single person was sentenced to die in Harris County.
That's a significant statistic, Owen said, "just because Harris County has
been, for so long in Texas, the bellwether. They really have led the
state's enthusiastic pursuit of the death penalty, and it's startling to
have a year in which not a single death verdict comes out of Harris
Perhaps more telling, said David Dow, litigation director for the Texas
Defender Service, was the fact that a Harris County jury refused to impose
a death sentence in the case of an illegal immigrant who killed a police
Whether Harris County will continue to limit its use of capital punishment
is unknown: A new district attorney, former judge Pat Lykos, took office
after the resignation of the previous district attorney, and observers
aren't sure how strong her appetite is for capital punishment.
But regardless of what happens in Harris County, Dow and Owen said several
factors account for the apparently dwindling death penalty in Texas: a
parade of exonerees in the state in the last couple of years, which has
made jurors aware of the fallibility of the system; improved
representation by defense lawyers; the high cost of prosecuting death
penalty cases; and the availability of life without parole as an option.
But Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney for Governmental Relations for the
Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said it's too early to
tell whether the life without parole option has made a difference, and he
doubts that news of wrongful convictions in Dallas County affects jurors
several counties away.
In addition, the cost of capital trials has always been more of a factor
in rural counties than in metropolitan areas, where most such crimes
occur, he said.
The quality of defense representation and available resources has
improved, he said, but he suggested the reason for the declining number of
death sentences and executions may be far more simple.
"We have a lot fewer murders than we did," Edmonds said, so "you have a
smaller pool of potential death row inmates from which to choose."
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, 2,149 murders occurred
in Texas in 1993, while 1,415 occurred in 2007.
BY THE NUMBERS
18 — Executions in Texas in 2008
26 — Executions in Texas in 2007
11 — New death sentences in Texas in 2008
14 — New death sentences in Texas in 2007
[sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice; Texas Coalition to Abolish
the Death Penalty]
(source: Dallas Morning News)