ARBITRARINESS: In the Leading Execution State, Many Receive Probation for Murder

In a recent investigation published in The Dallas Morning News, researchers found that 120 defendants convicted of murder in Texas between 2000 and 2006 received only a sentence of probation. In Dallas County, twice as many convicted murderers were sentenced to probation as were sent to death row. Typically in these cases, a defendant pleads guilty to murder, receives probation, and, with good behavior, can have the murder charged wiped from his or her record.

The News began researching probation-for-murder sentences in 2006 after a white man from a “politically prominent family,” John Alexander Wood, received probation for the murder of an unarmed prostitute. Reporters examined government records and interviewed key people in the murder cases in order to obtain their data. Their research excluded capital murder and manslaughter cases.

Key findings of the News' research included:

  • The majority of the murderers in the study were minorities who killed other minorities, a pattern typical of murders overall in Dallas.
  • Many of the victims, like John Wood’s victim, were considered “unsympathetic,” especially in comparison to the defendant.
  • More than one third of the defendants in the study violated their probation with crimes other than murder and were subsequently sent to prison.

According to the News' sources, probation will not be a sentencing option for juries much longer. Under a recent Texas law, juries will not be able to sentence a defendant with probation if the murder occurred after September 1, 2007. Judges, however, will retain this power and prosecutors can continue to arrange plea bargains.

Texas leads the nation with 26 executions this year and 405 since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. Nationwide, probation accounted for 9% of the total murder sentences.

(“Unequal Justice: Murderers on Probation” by Brooks Egerton and Reese Dunklin, The Dallas Morning News).

See also Studies and Arbitrariness.