County Commissioner Proposes Moratorium on Capital Prosecutions in Dallas, Texas

A Dallas, Texas, county commissioner has called for a two-year halt on death-penalty trials, saying it would give the county time to study the financial and ethical costs of capital punishment. On August 6, 2019, Commissioner J.J. Koch (pictured) proposed a county moratorium on capital prosecutions, with cost savings from not pursuing the death penalty redirected toward investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases. The proposal was notable coming in a county that has executed more prisoners since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in the 1970s than any other county except Harris, Texas.

Several county commissioners expressed support for Koch’s proposal, although they acknowledged that the plan was aspirational and that they could not direct the district attorney, who has exclusive charging authority, to enforce it. District Attorney John Creuzot commended Koch “for having the courage to bring … up” the issue. Creuzot said he supported discussing the proposal but could not commit himself to a moratorium on prosecutions “because I don’t know what’s around the corner.”

Creuzot recently announced that Dallas prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Billy Chemirmir, accused in the deaths of more than a dozen elderly women in North Texas senior living complexes. The trial and potential appeals are expected to be extremely costly for the county. Creuzot told the Dallas Morning News that he supports pursuing the death penalty in circumstances in which a defendant poses a “continuing threat in the penal society.” In other cases, he said, a sentence of life without parole can equally and less expensively protect public safety.

Citing the Dallas County case of Kenneth Thomas, Creuzot said “[i]t’s becoming more and more difficult to sustain a death penalty conviction.” Thomas has been sentenced to death twice, with his first death sentence imposed in 1987. However, his death sentences were overturned both times as a result of prejudicial constitutional violations in each trial. Most recently, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals directed that he be provided a new sentencing hearing on his claim of intellectual disability. A prior sentencing jury had rejected that claim, but had applied a scientifically invalid and unconstitutional standard for evaluating intellectual disability.

Commissioners John Wiley Price and Elba Garcia agreed with Koch’s proposed moratorium on prosecutions, and Commissioner Theresa Daniel said she looked forward to discussing the issue, with prosecutors and judges included in the discussion. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins also voiced support for a moratorium, but reiterated that it would be under the district attorney’s discretion. Koch agreed, saying, “We can’t do anything unilaterally. It’s his department.” Nevertheless, he said, the commissioners could adopt a moratorium resolution to express their views on capital prosecutions, noting that they also control the budget of the district attorney’s office.

Dallas has executed 60 prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its capital sentencing statute in Jurek v. Texas in 1976, more than 28 current or former death-penalty states and the federal government. Only Harris County (Houston), with 129, has carried out more executions. Dallas’s 31-person death-row on January 1, 2013 was the 14th largest of any county in the U.S., and juries in the county imposed three more death sentences that year. Since 2013, however, only one person has been sentenced to death in the county.