Texas Is Falling Out of Love With the Death Penalty

Texas' death chamber
Texas' death chamber Texas Department of Corrections
Texas prosecutors aren't giving juries the opportunity to put people to death and, even when they do, jurors aren't going for it. Those are the big takeaways from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's annual roundup of Texas' death row development.

Only nine of the 21 executions scheduled by the state this year actually took place. The other 12 were withdrawn or stayed by state or federal courts, including, notably, the date given to Rodney Reed, whose status on death row became a cause célèbre in 2019. In 2018, 13 Texans were put to death. As recently as 2000, Texas executed 40 people.

Across the state, eight juries were given the opportunity to put someone on death row. Only four elected to do so.

"Over the past five years, 40% of trials involving death-qualified juries have resulted in sentences other than the death penalty. This year, the rejection rate was 50%." — Kristin Houlé

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“It is clear that prosecutors and jurors are turning away from the death penalty,” Kristin Houlé, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's executive director, said in announcing the new reports. “Over the past five years, 40% of trials involving death-qualified juries have resulted in sentences other than the death penalty. This year, the rejection rate was 50%. This raises serious questions about the cost and efficacy of pursuing capital punishment when an alternative exists.”

In 2019, as has been the case for the last five years, Texas' application of the death penalty was concentrated in certain areas. Three of the four death sentences handed out in Texas in 2019 and more than half of death sentences handed out in the state since 2015 have come from juries in four counties — Harris, Tarrant, Smith and Walker.

As recently as 2013, the report identified Dallas County as the death penalty capital of Texas, after the county sent 11 people to death row between 2008 and 2013. Since 2015 only one person — Kristopher Love, the man hired to kill Dallas dentist Kendra Hatcher by her boyfriend's estranged lover — has been sentenced to death in Dallas County.

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot has pledged only to seek the death penalty in cases in which he believes the alleged murderer would be a danger to fellow inmates or prison guards or personnel.

Despite the decreases in both death sentences and the death penalty being carried out in Texas, Houlé says cases like Reed's are proof that the state still has further to go.

“The death penalty landscape in Texas has changed significantly over the past 20 years, but it is still rife with error, arbitrariness and bias,” Houlé said. “At this critical moment in our state’s experience with the death penalty, it is imperative for concerned citizens and elected officials to examine the realities of this irreversible and costly punishment and embrace alternative means of achieving justice.”
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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