The New Yorker Looks at the Decline in Texas Death Sentences

In the May 9 issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin examines the drop in death sentences in Texas and focuses particularly on the mitigation work being done by the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) in Houston, headed by Danalynn Recer. Toobin cites a number of possible reasons for the drop in death sentences in Texas, including “the increasing use of mitigation, a strategy that aims to tell the defendant’s life story.” The article provides a number of examples where Recer’s organization presented evidence from a defendant’s background, such as childhood abuse or brain damage, and convinced a jury to choose a life sentence over the death penalty, even for the murder of a police officer. Recer summed up her work, “The idea was to improve the way capital trials were done in Texas, to start an office that would bring the best practices from other places and put them to work here….It is possible to persuade a jury to value someone’s life.”

Toobin also describes the changes brought about by the new Harris County (Houston) District Attorney Patricia Lykos. Unlike her two predecessors, whom Toobin described as “two of the most zealous death-penalty supporters in the nation,” Lykos said of her policy, “in the vast majority of cases, we don’t seek the death penalty.” Lykos has undertaken internal investigations into wrongful convictions, and encourages defense attorneys to share mitigation evidence before her office decides to seek a death sentence. In 2010, Harris County prosecutors sought the death penalty in only two out of 28 death-eligible cases. Death sentences were handed down in each. The D.A. in Dallas, Craig Watkns, the first black D.A. in Texas history, has also initiated investigations into possible wrongful convictions by using DNA testing.

(J. Toobin, “The Mitigator” (subscription required), The New Yorker, May 9, 2011). See Arbitrariness and Texas.