Texas Death Penalty Sentencing Declines

A new report shows sentencing on the decline – but Texas is still No. 1 when it comes to killing

The number of new death sentences imposed in Texas this year was the lowest since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, according to a report released Dec. 7 by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. There has already been another death sentence issued since the report was released, bringing the total handed out this year to nine; still, that number falls well under the previous low of 11 death sentences imposed in 2006. The decrease has taken hold across the state. Harris County has not sent a single inmate to death row since 2007, a stunning reduction for a county that's responsible for one-third of all defendants waiting in Texas' death house.

Still, while the number of new inmates sentenced to death declines, the state still leads the nation in the number of executions. Texas carried out 24 executions in 2009, nearly half of the national total. (Alabama put to death six people, making it the second most active.) In total, Texas has executed 447 people since 1982, when it resumed executions; 208 executions have been carried out under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry. And the execution chamber still favors minorities: Of the 24 people put to death this year, 14 were black and seven were Hispanic. Just three were white.

Not surprisingly, questions about Texas' death system continued to rage this year, notes the TCADP report, including in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution sparked a political storm this year and left open the question of whether the state executed an innocent man based on junk science. Indeed, the Rev. Carroll Pickett, who was the death row chaplain for nearly 16 years and counseled a number of Texas' condemned (including Charlie Brooks Jr. – the first inmate put to death after reinstatement), says he believes the state has wrongly executed other inmates, such as Carlos De Luna, executed for the 1983 knife murder of Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi convenience store. In that case, the prosecutors and police allegedly ignored information that another man, Carlos Hernandez – who, notably, had a penchant for knife assaults – was actually responsible for Lopez's murder. Pickett says Hernandez actually bragged about his guilt while in prison on an unrelated charge. Yet De Luna was executed in 1989, even though none of the physical evidence linked him to the crime.

In all, TCADP Executive Director Kristin Houlé said at a Capitol press conference, the death penalty is far more risky than it is effective, and it's time to end its use in Texas. "Concerns about innocence, arbitrariness, cost, and fairness generated unprecedented scrutiny of the administration of justice" this year in Texas, she said. "It is time for more elected officials to catch up with increasing public recognition that the Texas death penalty system is fatally flawed." Indeed, that's exactly what Rep. Lon Burn­am, D-Fort Worth, told reporters at the Capitol on Monday. He said when he first came to the Legislature in 1997, he wasn't sure that the death penalty should be abolished – but years of watching its administration has changed his mind. "I believe the state of Texas should abolish the death penalty because it cannot reconcile ... that it is both imperfect and irreversible."

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