Death Sentences Fall Across Texas, Support Drops in County That Leads U.S. in Executions

Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed more men and women than any other county in the United States, but a recent poll shows that a strong majority of its residents now support alternative sentences. A report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that only 28% of respondents in Harris County prefer the death penalty to life without parole as punishment for first-degree murder. The poll also found that overall support for the death penalty was at a 20-year low, with 56% saying they were in favor of capital punishment. As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so have Harris County death sentences. The County handed down a combined 44 death sentences from 1994-1996, but sentenced only 5 people to death from 2012-2014. Death verdicts are also down statewide. According to a Dallas Morning News commentary, Texas imposed 11 death sentences in 2014, down from 39 in 1999. No death sentences have been imposed in the state so far this year. (Click image to enlarge.)

“There is no doubt about it. We’re seeing a reduction in the use of the death penalty in Texas,” Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Services, told the Morning News. Dr. Stephen Klineberg, the author of the Rice study, suggested changing demographics account for what he describes as the “gradual and unmistakable decline in support for the death penalty” in Houston. “It’s a reflection of a city prepared to embrace diversity and recognize that this is who we are. We may not have chosen it, but Houston is [in] the forefront of the country’s religious and ethnic demographic transformation.”

(“The 34th Annual Kinder Houston Area Survey,” Kinder Institute for Urban Research, May 5, 2015; R. Holeywell, “Q & A with Dr. Stephen Klineberg,” The Urban Edge Blog, May 5, 2015; Steve Blow, “Even in tough-on-crime Texas, death penalty convictions decline,” The Dallas Morning News, May 8, 2015; 2012-2014 sentencing data from DPIC research.) See Public Opinion and Sentencing.