Report: Dallas County's DA Cited as One Reason for Decline in Texas's Use of Death Penalty

The Associated Press this morning directs our attention to this year-in-review: The Death Penalty in 2010, released at midnight by the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. Says the report, Texas is still executing more inmates than any other state -- 17 in 2010, the lowest in almost a decade -- but far fewer than in years past (24 prisoners had their final meals last year). So, why the decline? Well, writes Richard Dieter, the center's executive director:

Texas, the country's perennial leader in executions, experienced a 29% drop in executions in 2010 as fewer dates were set and several cases were sent back for further review. The state's adoption of a sentence of life without parole in 2005, changes in the District Attorneys in prominent jurisdictions such as Houston and Dallas, and the ongoing residue of past mistakes have led to a sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in the state that drives national death penalty statistics. For the second year in a row new death sentences in Texas (8, as of mid-December) were 80% less than the peak experienced in 1999, when there were 48.

Evidence of critical errors made in cases where an execution has occurred continued to mount in Texas. A special court of inquiry examined whether Texas executed an innocent man in 2004 when Cameron Willingham was put to death for arson. Experts now believe the evidence used to convict him was highly unreliable. In another Texas case, new DNA tests have shown that misleading evidence was presented at the trial of Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000, just before then-governor George Bush left office. A strand of hair, the sole physical evidence placing Jones at the murder scene, has now been shown to have no connection to him and belonged to the victim instead.

Such examples have caused deep concerns about the death penalty not only in Texas but across the country. In the above national poll, the public found concerns about innocence to be the most convincing reason for replacing the death penalty (71% found this to be a convincing reason for repeal). There also was strong bipartisan support for doing everything possible to prevent the execution of innocent people. At least 80% of Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Moderates and Liberals all supported that premise.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky