Report: Capital Punishment Becoming More Unpopular in Texas


Statewide and nationwide reports released today show Texans and Americans in general continue to reject capital punishment, with death sentences and executions hitting near record lows in 2017, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Kristin Houle of the group Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says the seven executions in Texas in 2017 tied a modern era low, and what is significant for the future progress of capital punishment is that only four death sentences were handed down by juries this year, the lowest number since capital punishment was restored in the early 1980s.

At the high point of capital punishment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was not uncommon to see forty or more executions per year and seventy or more death sentences per year.  Ironically, more Texans were executed between 1990 and 2010 than were executed during the allegedly 'Wild West' days between 1870 and 1890.

But Houle says prosecutors have significantly slowed down asking for the death penalty, and juries have slowed meting out the punishment."

There have been 18 cases over the past three years where prosecutors sought the death penalty, and in eight of those cases, juries instead sentenced the person to life in prison without the possibility of parole," she said.

Harris County, which for thirty years led the nation in the number of its citizens executed, did not account for a single one of the seven executions in 2017, or any of the four people sentenced to death.  That's the first time that has happened in the modern history of capital punishment in Texas.

"Perhaps more than anyplace else, the changes in Harris County are symbolic of the long-term change in capital punishment in the United States," said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center.  "For the first time since 1974, the county that has carried out more executions than any other did not execute any prisoner, or sentence any defendant to death."

Analysts cite several reasons for the decline of capital punishment in Texas.

Houle says the sight of people walking out of Death Row after sometimes decades in custody for crimes that modern technology has determined they did not commit has had a powerful impact on jurors.

"We have seen 160 people include 13 people in Texas who have been completely exonerated and not only released from death row but released from prison entirely due to their unlawful conviction," she said.

In addition, the creation of the sentence of life without the possibility of parole has allowed juries to hand down a maximum penalty for the most heinous offenders without having to revert to the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court has raised several issues relating to the execution of people with mental issues, and has also required Texas to tighten up its standards for executing the mentally challenges.

Questions have been raised about the state's infamous 'Law of Parties,' which allow a person to be executed as an 'accomplice' even if that person did not commit the crime.  Efforts are under way to grant clemency of Jeff Wood of Kerrville, who has been on Death Row since 1996 for a murder he not only did not commit, he didn't even know had happened.  But he was sent to Death Row because he was sitting in a car in front of  a Kerrville gas station when a man inside was being murdered.

There is also even speculation that the widely circulated videos of ISIS and other jihadists publicly beheading people has come to associated executions with barbarity in the minds of potential jurors.

There also remain 'systemic problems' with racial discrimination in sentencing people to death.

"According to the Gallup poll, public support for the death penalty dropped by five percent in 2017 and Republicans registered a 10% drop since last year," Dunham said.  "This year's 55% support marks the lowest level since 1972, just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the nation's death penalty laws unconstitutional."

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