"The continued drop in death sentences is something that makes us very happy here in Texas. As many people know, we have been working hard for many years to educate the people of Texas and to change the laws of the state. While we haven't abolished the death penalty yet (it will happen in the future), there has been enough publicity on the subject that citizens are beginning to realize that our criminal justice system is imperfect and the death penalty is not needed for the protection of society. The support of the international community, and especially the Sant' Egidio Community through "Cities for Life...Cities Against the Death Penalty", has helped the citizens of Texas realize that you can achieve justice without taking human life."
(Dave Atwood is the Founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty).
Texas sentences 8 to die in 2010; fewest since '76
HOUSTON — Texas juries sentenced eight convicted killers to death in 2010, the fewest in the nation's most active death penalty state since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.
The figures released Monday by the Austin-based Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty were characterized as an "astonishing development" by the group's executive director, Kristin Houle. She attributed the drop to a 2005 Texas law establishing life without parole as a possible sentence and to the high cost counties pay when seeking a death sentence.
Executions in Texas also were down in 2010. Seventeen people were put to death, the lowest total since 2001.
Death sentences nationally have ranged from a high of 328 in 1994, to a low in 2009 of a little more than 100. Harris County, which typically leads the nation in death sentences, condemned two people in 2010.
Harris County District Attorney's spokeswoman Donna Hawkins said the county has averaged two death sentences annually since life without parole became an option.
"It shows that Texas and the rest of the country are moving away from the death penalty, even in Harris County," Houle told the Houston Chronicle.
DNA testing, which has led to the exoneration of more than 40 Texas inmates wrongly convicted of serious crimes, has also eroded support for capital punishment, said Richard Dieter, the director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
"It's not that people are all or nothing about the death penalty," Dieter said. "They just have this growing sense of uncertainty. It's a slow wearing away of confidence ... a feeling that it is just too risky."
Supporters of the death penalty point out there are fewer killers eligible for execution. The Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of mentally disabled offenders and those who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.
Prosecutors said lengthy sentences for violent criminals and programs to lower recidivism have contributed to the decline in death sentences. They also said there is frustration over death sentences that never are carried out or take decades to happen.
"Twenty-five years later, mothers and sons and daughters of victims are still waiting," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National Association of District Attorneys. "It's the old cliche about justice delayed is denied. For a number of states, the death penalty means we'll talk to you in 25 years and see where we are."
TEXAS: Death sentences plunge in Texas
Foes cite new law, DNA testing; backers blame judges, delays in execution Juries in Texas
The nation's most-active death penalty state — sentenced only 8 killers to die this year, the lowest number since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court ended its ban on capital punishment. 17 killers were put to death in 2010, six fewer than last year for the lowest total since 2001.
So far this year, Harris County, which typically has led the state in assessing death sentences, has condemned 2 convicted killers.
The figures were released Monday in an end-of-year review of capital punishment by the Austin-based Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The report came just weeks after a poll by Washington, D.C.'s Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment group, found that only a third of registered voters in death penalty states thought death is the most appropriate punishment for murder.
"It shows that Texas and the rest of the country are moving away from the death penalty, even in Harris County. It's an astonishing development," said coalition executive director Kristin Houlé.
Houlé attributed the drop to Texas' 2005 life without parole statute and to the high cost to counties of seeking the death sentence.
Also eroding support for capital punishment is DNA testing, which has led to the exoneration of scores of inmates convicted of serious crimes, said Richard Dieter, the Washington, D.C., group's director.
"It's not that (most) people are all or nothing about the death penalty," Dieter said. "They just have this growing sense of uncertainty. It's a slow wearing away of confidence ... a feeling that it is just too risky."
Death penalty supporters, however, countered that fewer death sentences may reflect fewer killers and fewer killers who are eligible for execution.
The Supreme Court shrank the pool of death-eligible killers by prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded offenders and those who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.
Dudley Sharp, an outspoken Houston death penalty advocate, argued that drops in rape, robbery and murder have reduced the number of death-eligible criminals going to trial.
Texas murder rates down
"Texas murder rates have dropped about 67 %, murders about 50 % in Texas between 1991 and 2009," he said. "Nationally, I think that part of the reduction is due to state prosecutors knowing that judges in their state will not allow an execution to take place."
Prosecutors also cite long-term incarceration of violent criminals and programs to lower recidivism among released prisoners. Just as important, they claim, is a high degree of frustration over death sentences that never are carried out.
"25 years later, mothers and sons and daughters of victims are still waiting," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National Association of District Attorneys. "It's the old cliche about justice delayed is denied. ... For a number of states, the death penalty means we'll talk to you in 25 years and see where we are."
Nationally during the last 20 years, death sentences have ranged from a high of 328 in 1994, to a low last year of little more than 100. Texas recorded an all-time high — 48 — in 1999. That total fluctuated in the ensuing decade.
No drop in Harris County
This year, Harris County juries sent Garland Harper, convicted of stabbing his girlfriend and strangling her two daughters, and Mabry Landor, convicted of killing Houston police officer Timothy Abernethy, to death row. Juries in Dallas, Brazos, Nueces, Rusk and Travis counties also sentenced killers to death
Harris County District Attorney's spokeswoman Donna Hawkins said the county has averaged two death sentences annually since life without parole became an option. "While we cannot speak for other jurisdictions," she said, "Harris County has not seen a decline in death sentences.
Life without parole was added as a sentencing option in capital murder cases in late 2005. By then the decline in death sentences already had begun in Texas and elsewhere. During the heyday of capital punishment in Texas in the 1990s, it was not uncommon for Harris County to send 4 or 5 murderers to death row. In 1992, it was responsible for 10 of the state's 31 new death-row inmates. In the past 3 years, however, Harris County has totaled only 3 death sentences, and in 2009 it did not record one at all.
District Attorney Pat Lykos called the decision to seek a death sentence "the gravest and most profound decision that a district attorney makes."
"We will continue to seek the death penalty in appropriate cases," she said.
Since Texas' resumption of executions in 1982, 464 killers — 115 of them from Harris County — have been put to death. Currently, 105 Harris County killers await execution.
3 of 17 killers executed this year were from Harris County.
The next execution is scheduled for Jan. 11.