Looking Back at the Peak of Texas's Death Sentencing
So far in 2015, no one has been sentenced to death in Texas. The death row population has dropped to 257, down from 460 at its peak in 1999. In that year, Texas sentenced 48 people to death, the most in any year since the death penalty was reinstated. Among the reasons for the decline in death sentences has been the adoption of the alternative sentence of life without parole (adopted in 2005), and a change in the political climate that had led politicians to compete in trying to appear "tough on crime." The Austin American-Statesman recently examined the cases of the 48 defendants sentenced to death in 1999. Harris County (Houston) handed down more of the sentences (11) than any other county, even though the number of murders there had been declining. Of those sentenced to death in 1999, half have been executed. One, Michael Toney, was exonerated in 2009. Two died of natural causes. Six had their sentences reduced when the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles in 2005 - all six were 17 at the time of their crimes. The rest remain on death row.
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Southern California Tops Deep South in New Death Sentences Amid Mounting Evidence of Misconduct
Riverside County, California is "the buckle of a new Death Belt," says Professor Robert J. Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, producing 7 death sentences in the first half of 2015. This, Smith says, is "more than California’s other 57 counties combined, more than any other state, and more than the whole Deep South combined." Los Angeles County has produced 33 death sentences since 2010 - the most in the Nation - and 5 Southern California counties (also including Kern, Orange, and San Bernardino) are among the most prolific 15 counties nationwide in producing death sentences in that time period. Meanwhile, there has been a dramatic drop in new death verdicts in the Deep South, which Smith notes formerly produced the most death sentences. No one has been sentenced to death in 2015 in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, or Texas. However, the Southern California counties "have more in common than overzealous use of the death penalty," Smith says. Prosecutor's offices in these counties face charges of rampant misconduct, including deliberately withholding favorable evidence and lying to courts. The entire Orange County District Attorney's office was recused from a recent capital prosecution as a result of extensive misconduct. Its Deputy District Attorney Erik Petersen recently resigned and left the state after he came under scrutiny for the use of an illegal jailhouse informant program to secure testimony against defendants. In Riverside County, federal courts overturned a murder conviction earlier this year because a prosecutor lied about whether an informant received incentives for testifying. Kern and Los Angeles prosecutors have also been cited for repeated acts of misconduct. (Click image to enlarge. Map shows counties that handed down the most death sentences in 2014.)
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Former Prosecutor Says Texas "Can Live Without the Death Penalty"
Former Texas prosecutor, Tim Cole - described by the Dallas Morning News as "a no-holds-barred lawman" in 4 terms as District Attorney for Archer, Clay, and Montague counties - now says that "Texas should join the 19 U.S. states where the death penalty has been abolished." In an op-ed in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Cole says Texas' dramatic decline in imposing the death penalty, from a record 49 death sentences in 1994 and 48 in 1999 to none in the first 7 months of 2015, is "proving as a state that we can live without the death penalty." A Dallas Morning News editorial based upon Coles' comments described this as "part of a trend of the death penalty falling out of favor not only with juries but also with prosecutors who seek it." Only three death penalty cases have been tried in Texas this year, and all three resulted in life sentences. Cole said, "I believe it is happening because the problems with how the death penalty is assessed have become evident to everyone, including jurors." He particularly emphasized the inaccuracy of the death penalty, saying, "If you can show me a perfect system, I’ll give you the death penalty. But you can’t. You can’t show me a system that’s so perfect that you could show me we’d never execute an innocent person."
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Texas Death Row Continues to Shrink As No Death Sentences Imposed in First Half of 2015
Death row in Texas has shrunk from 460 men and women at its peak in 1999 to 260 today. The main reason for that drop, according to an article in The Texas Tribune, is the dramatic decline in death sentences imposed in the state. In 1999 alone, Texas sentenced 48 people to death. But in the first 6 months of 2015, no death sentences have been imposed in Texas. This development is unprecedented, according to the Texas Defender Service (TDS). “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” said Kathryn Kase, director of TDS. Kase said that a major factor contributing to the decline in death sentences is Texas' adoption of life without parole in 2005. “Life without parole allows us to go back and reverse our mistakes,” Kase said. “We can be really safe in these cases.” In the decade since life without parole became a sentencing option, Texas has averaged about 10 death sentences per year. In the prior decade, an average of 34 people were sent to death row each year. The Tribune reports that "Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96." Three death penalty cases have been tried in Texas so far this year, and all three resulted in sentences of life without parole.
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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.)
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Representation Improves, Death Sentences Dramatically Drop in Virginia
The number of people sentenced to death in Virginia has plummeted from 40 in the years 1998-2005 to only 6 from 2006 through April 2015. A recent study suggests that improvements in capital representation in the state may have played a significant role in that dramatic change. In 2004, Virginia established four regional capital defender offices, which are completely devoted to handling death penalty cases. The year before the defender offices opened, Virginia juries imposed 6 death sentences, but have not imposed more than 2 in any year since. This mirrors the experience in other jurisdictions in which defendants have been represented by institutional capital defenders. In addition to better outcomes at trial, "[a] capable and vigorous defense no doubt accounts — at least in part — for the increased willingness of prosecutors to resolve capital cases short of death," University of Virginia law professor John G. Douglass said in his study.
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Supreme Court to Review Florida's Death Penalty Scheme
On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurst v. Florida, a challenge to the state's unusual sentencing procedure. In a prior ruling, Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Court held that the question of whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty is entitled to a jury deteremination. Unlike almost every other state where unanimous juries are required for death eligibility and a death sentence, Florida only requires the jury to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge, who then makes the final decision on the existence of aggravating factors and the actual sentence. Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death by a judge, following a 7-5 recommendation for death by the jury. The jury's recommendation did not make clear which aggravating factors made him eligible for the death penalty or whether they found any aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida could affect pending cases and other inmates on the state's death row.
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Texas Case Illustrates Trend Away From Death Penalty
Midland County, Texas, District Attorney Teresa Clingman (pictured) recently accepted a sentence of life without parole rather than seeking the death penalty for Dan Higgins, a man who pled guilty to killing a Midland County Sheriff's Deputy. Clingman's decision was part of a larger trend of prosecutors choosing life without parole even for the most serious crimes. West Texas A&M criminology professor and former prison warden Keith Price said, "Capital death has so many requirements -- it's so expensive. Capital death: the convicted dies in prison by lethal injection. Capital life: the convicted dies in prison whenever his natural life is over. From an incapacitation standpoint, the DA has accomplished the same thing. That particular person will never see the Texas public again." As a result of similar decisions by other prosecutors, and juries preferring life without parole more often, death sentences in the U.S. have declined by about 75% since their peak in the mid-1990s. Clingman cited a request from the deputy's widow not to seek the death penalty, saying, "The reasoning is because we can't punish him any more than we're already punishing him. It saves the victim in that case from having to go through a trial. [The victim's widow] also took into consideration that Mr. Higgins will now spend his time in general population rather than on death row in a single cell by himself for the rest of his life." Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter supported the prosecutor's decision, saying, "I think saving the county money, saving the heartache for the families involved is the best solution for this particular case. The Midland County's Sheriff's Office not only lost a brother and a friend, this county lost a great employee. Only time right now can help settle the feelings right now."
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