2019 Sees Decline in Texas Executions
Still, concerns of the fairness and accuracy of the state’s death penalty system remain
Even in Texas – the execution capital of the country – the death penalty's popularity continued to decline in 2019, according to a new report from the Austin-based Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Released Tuesday, TCADP's year-end report shows a decline in both the number of people sentenced to death in the past 12 months, and the number of executions carried out this year (nine) in comparison to last year (13). Though the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's original execution schedule for 2019 was shockingly long, with a total of 18 men set to die at the hands of the state, nine of those received stays from either state or federal courts. (Three, the report notes, received multiple reprieves: Dexter Johnson, Ruben Gutierrez, and Patrick Murphy.)
The report notes, however, that despite its declining use, the cases scheduled for execution this year "underscored persistent concerns about the fairness and accuracy of Texas's death penalty system." It even quotes former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Elsa Alcala, saying, "The fact that some death penalty cases were stayed and others proceeded to execution despite similar errors and concerns demonstrates an uneven and arbitrary application of justice." Specifically, TCADP's report compares Rodney Reed, whose execution was stayed by the CCA to review his innocence claims, to Larry Swearingen, who was executed in August "despite a compelling innocence claim and substantial doubts about the circumstantial and faulty scientific evidence used to convict him." It also discusses Billie Wayne Coble, Robert Sparks, and Travis Runnels, all of whom were put to death despite the fact that A.P. Merillat, a recurrent state witness, provided false testimony in all three cases. Though Merillat testified in at least 18 death penalty trials, only two were granted new punishment hearings by the CCA; both of those individuals were removed from death row.
As for new death sentences, this year Texas juries rejected the death penalty in 50% of the cases presented to them, which TCADP Executive Director Kristin Houlé said "raises serious questions about the cost and efficacy of pursuing capital punishment when an alternative exists."