2019 Legislature Given Best Chance Ever of Abolishing the Death Penalty

Could Texas, which is known globally for its frequent use of the death penalty, actually abolish capital punishment?  1200 WOAI reports that analysts say the chances of a measure to eliminate the death penalty stands to gain the most traction yet in the 2019 Legislasture.

Several bills have been introduced to eliminate executions, the main one has been filed by State Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston).

Farrar's bill would mandate that capital murder, which is now punishable by death by lethal injection, instead carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole, a sentence just created by the Legislature in 2011.

Observers say there are three main reasons why the death penalty's days could be numbered in Texas.

First of all, Texas has seen several inmates released from death row as new technologies have led to the re-opening of old cases by groups like the Innocence Project, and the discovery that people who were sentenced to death by using what appeared at the time to be rock solid evidence were in fact innocent.

The state's controversial use of what is called the 'Law of Parties' to execute people who did not kill anybody has also lowered the credibility of capital punishment.  A member of the so called 'Texas Seven' group of escapees was executed last month for the murder of an Irving Police Officer during a robbery at a sporting goods store in 2000.  The man who was executed didn't kill the officer and didn't even know the officer was being killed as he sat in a getaway car.  But under the 'law of parties' he was found to be just as responsible as the person who pulled the trigger. Similarly, the case of Kerrville's Jeff Wood, who is on death row because an acquaintance killed a convenience store clerk while he was in the car waiting has attracted national attention.

But the prime reason the death penalty is more likely than ever before to be abolished in the coming session is that it has fallen out of favor with the public, as represented by the members of the public who serve on juries.

Only seven Texans were executed in 2017, and the state in 2018 only sentenced seven people to death.  That is compared to the 1990s, when Texas routinely executed fifty people a year.

The fact that the death penalty is being used so sparingly has raised questions about the wisdom of the millions of dollars a year it costs the state to maintain the infrastructure of capital punishment, from mandatory appeals to the existence of the death chamber and the 'Death Row' at the Poliunsky Unit near Huntsville.

Farrar's bill does not specify what should be done with the 227 people who are currently waiting execution in Texas, some of whom have lived on death row for more than forty years.  But if the death penalty were abolished, their sentences would almost certainly be reduced by the courts to life without the possibility of parole.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who would have to sign any bill approved by the Legislature to abolish capital punishment, has not commented on the issue.

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