In 2016, the state of Texas executed seven members of its death row, marking the fewest people put to death in the state since just three were killed in 1996. Across the state, fewer people are being sentenced to death as well. According to a new report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Texas jurors condemned just three defendants in 2016. In Dallas County, as has happened in each of the last three years, no one received a death sentence.
Kristin Houlé, the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says that increased awareness of the faults in the criminal justice system among jurors, the high costs of putting someone to death and the increasing prevalence of life without parole sentences have all contributed to the state's death penalty slowdown.
"I think there are several reasons for the decline in death sentences at the county level," Houlé says. "First and foremost is the availability of life without parole as a sentencing option. That became available to prosecutors in 2005. Prosecutors are just not about to seek the death penalty in these capital cases because they have a true alternate punishment."
In cases where prosecutors do seek the death penalty, taxpayers pay a heavy price, Houlé says. In May, a Kaufman county jury convicted Charles Brownlow of capital murder for five spree killings he committed in Terrell in 2013. During that trial, the county incurred $475,000 in expert witness fees alone, Houlé says.
"What we're seeing is that many counties in Texas just don't want to bear the financial and human costs of the death penalty," Houlé says. "I think we're also seeing jurors demanding a higher standard of evidence and more persuasion than in the past."
The number of men and women exonerated around the state, and in Dallas County specifically, has inspired caution in everyone involved in the criminal justice system, Houlé says.
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According to the report, 26 people have left death row without being executed since 2012. Eighteen saw their sentences reduced, seven died in prison and one person was exonerated. During the last two years, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has issued 15 stays of execution. From 2012 to 2014, the same court issued three stays total.
"The rising number of stays suggests that the Court of Criminal Appeals is registering the concerns about the fairness and accuracy of our state’s capital punishment system,” says Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a team of attorneys that provides representation for those who face the death penalty. “These stays give the court opportunities to remedy the failures of past death penalty practices for which Texas has been roundly criticized."
If the state carries out death sentences as planned next year, the state's rate of executions will pick back up. Eight executions are scheduled for the first six months of 2017.