Even after a wave of exonerations confirmed the fallibility of the criminal justice system, even after the state's supply of lethal-injection drugs has been all but cut off by squeamish pharmaceutical companies, even as national support for capital punishment steadily declines, Texas remains enamored with the death penalty. In 2013, it executed 16 inmates, far fewer than at its turn-of-the-millennium peak but still more than twice as many as any other state, according to a report released Wednesday by the Death Penalty Information Center.
Historically, Harris County has given the fullest expression to Texas' lust for capital punishment, with a U.S.-leading 116 executions since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. But in recent years Dallas has supplanted Houston as the death penalty capital of Texas.
A report released this week by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty shows that Dallas County sent 11 people to death row between 2008 and 2013, dwarfing Harris County's six. In 2013 alone, Dallas handed down three death sentences compared to Harris County's one. While this appears to put us behind Los Angeles and Riverside counties in California, Dallas is near the top of the national list.
It's an interesting development given that Dallas' ascension has been presided over by District Attorney Craig Watkins, who has made his name getting people off of death row, an irony that's highlighted by the folks at TCADP.
"While most of Texas is moving away from the death penalty, Dallas County has emerged as a major outlier in its pursuit of the ultimate punishment, particularly for defendants of color," the group's executive director Kristin Houlé said. "These troubling patterns directly counter Dallas's reputation as a leader in criminal justice reform."
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To be fair to Watkins, if anyone deserves to be executed, it's the three people his office got sent to death row. Franklin Davis, who murdered a teenage girl to keep her from testifying against him in a rape case, Naim Muhammad, who drowned his sons after telling them to "play like y'all swimming" in a Dallas creek, and Matthew Johnson, who killed a Garland convenience store clerk by setting her on fire. In each case, the evidence was overwhelming.
Then there's the fact that Dallas County now leads the state in death row convictions isn't due to an increase here so much as a decrease everywhere else. In 1999, the state sent 48 people to death row. In 2013, the number was nine.
Still, being the death-penalty capital of the most execution-happy state in the most punitive country in the first world is a dubious distinction.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.