Death Sentences Declining in Texas

Death sentences have dropped significantly over the last few years in Texas according to a study by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The number of death sentences is at a 35-year low as prosecutors have pushed for fewer death sentences and juries have become less willing to impose them. Since 2005, defendants may receive a sentence of life without parole instead of the death penalty. Before this change, the only alternative to the death penalty in Texas was a life sentence with eligiblity for parole after 40 years, or even less in earlier years. Since the introduction of life without parole, death sentences in Texas have dropped 40 percent compared with the four years prior. Texas had 13 death sentences in 2008, and 9 so far this year. Ten years ago, Texas sentenced 47 defendants to death.

"With life without parole being a viable option now, [juries] feel a lot more comfortable that that person is not going to be let out back into society," said Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon. "We are probably waiving the death penalty more times than we used to because we’re trying to forecast the outcome of the case. . . .It doesn’t translate to dollar bills. It translates into uses of limited resources."

Other reason offered for the decline indeath sentences were the number of wrongful convictions and the costs of prosecuting death sentences.  State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, the author of the life-without-parole law, said "It isn't life without parole that has weakened the death penalty.  It is a growing lack of belief that our system is fair." Reports of exonerations have appeared regularly in the past few years, and jurors may have become more worried about sending an innocent person to death row. A poll from Rasmussen Reports revealed that 73% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that some people may be executed who were innocent.  In addition, higher costs of pursuing the death penalty have become a concern in the midst of the economic recession. Pursuing life without parole is a cheaper alternative, saving the state millions in legal costs as cases are settled expeditiously.

In Harris County (Houston), which has sent more people to death row than most states, death sentences have dropped nearly 70 % over the last 4 years. "In many more cases, we are opting not to seek the death penalty because life without parole means the person convicted will not get out of prison and that makes us feel much better that the public will be protected from such a person," said Maria McAnulty, the county's trial bureau chief.

(A. Batheja, "Death sentences have dropped sharply after life without parole became possible," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 15, 2009).  See also Life Without Parole and Sentencing.