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Texas Still Leads Nation in Executions

New death sentences continue to decline & exonerations keep coming
Jordan Smith, 1:07pm, Tue. Dec. 18, 2012

Only nine new death sentences were handed out in Texas this year, a 76% decline since 2002, according to the annual report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The new sentences were given to defendants in just seven of the state's 254 counties. Since 2008, just 22 counties have delivered 46 death sentences for defendants. Dallas County leads the pack with eight, followed by Tarrant County with six, and Harris County with five new death sentences during the five-year period. Combined with Travis County and Brazos County, which each delivered three new death sentences, the five counties account for 54% of all death sentences imposed since 2008. Although Harris County did not imposed a new sentence in either 2011 or 2012, the county still leads the state overall, having imposed 289 death sentences since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated.

The death penalty continues to be primarily a sentence for minorities: Since 2008, 75% of those sent to death row has been people of color; 46% of new sentences were imposed on blacks, 28% handed out to Hispanics. The trend is even more pronounced in the state's leading death penalty counties, with five of Dallas County's last eight death sentences being imposed on blacks and two on Hispanics. In Harris County, 12 of the last 13 sentences were given to blacks.

Meanwhile, the pace of executions increased slightly in 2012, with 15 executions versus 13 in 2011. Still, overall the number has declined markedly, from 26 executions in 2007. Texas still leads the nation in the number of executions, in 2012 far outpacing the next most active state, Mississippi, which executed six inmates. In total, 43 people were executed in the U.S. in 2012.

Indeed, in its year-end report, released today, the Death Penalty Information Center notes that the number of executions this year was the same as in 2011, but that overall executions have declined 49% since 2000. Moreover, while the number of new death sentences imposed nationwide in 2012 wasn't as low as it was in 2011, the number of new death sentences has declined 75% from the high of 315 new sentences imposed in 1996. Among those sent to death row in the mid-Nineties was Damon Thibodeaux, who confessed to the rape and murder of his cousin, a crime he did not commit. In September, Thibodeaux became the 300th person exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Network's's report on 2012 exonerations.

On the heels of the release of the TCADP report, former Texas district attorneys Grant Jones and Sam Millsap penned a Houston Chronicle editorial suggesting the time is right to reconsider the state's dance with death. "As district attorneys in the 1980s, we believed that the death penalty was the best punishment for certain crimes," the editorial begins. "We no longer believe that today. We haven't gone soft. We have come face to face with some hard truths. Both of us have been involved in the execution of men who may well have been innocent."

As Nueces County D.A., Jones was in office when Carlos DeLuna was sentenced to die for the murder of Wanda Lopez in 1983. An exhaustive reinvestigation of that case by law professor James Liebman was published earlier this year in the Columbia University School of Law's Human Rights Law Review, suggesting strongly that DeLuna was convicted and later executed for a crime he did not commit.

Similarly, Sam Millsap was Bexar County D.A. when the office prosecuted Ruben Cantu. Cantu was executed in 1993 for the robbery and murder of Pedro Gomez based on the testimony of an alleged accomplice, David Garza, and of an eyewitness, Juan Moreno, who was with Gomez when he was killed and who also barely survived the shooting. A reinvestigation of that case by the Houston Chronicle strongly suggested that Cantu was wrongfully convicted and that the state sent to death an innocent man.

"Next month, when the legislators convene for a new session, they should seriously reconsider the death penalty," Jones and Millsap wrote. "The professionals who administer our justice system cannot guarantee that they will never be without fault. Once we accept that fact, we have to ask ourselves, as a civilized society, whether we can live with a system that promises nothing more than to get it right most of the time in death penalty cases."

Read their editorial here.

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