According to news articles published today Texas juries are following a nationwide trend of sending fewer convicted criminals to death, but the state still leads the country in executions by a wide margin, according to a new study released today.
Both in Texas and across the country, death sentences declined for the seventh straight year, according to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital-punishment group.
Both in Texas and nationwide, the number of executions carried out rose this year. Out of 52 people executed by states in 2009, 24 occurred in Texas. Last year, there were 37 executions nationwide, with 18 in Texas. There was a four-month death penalty moratorium last year while the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of lethal injections.
"The fact is those 24 people will never murder anyone again," said William "Rusty" Hubbarth, an Austin attorney and vice president of Justice for All, a victims’ advocacy group. "That in itself is a real good deterrent."
Nationwide, 106 people were sentenced to death this year, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the report.
Texas also reached its lowest point in over 30 years, with juries giving just nine death sentences, including Erick Davila, who was sentenced in February for gunning down a 5-year-old girl and her grandmother during a birthday party in southeast Fort Worth.
Texas accounts for 8 percent of the country’s death sentences, an amount in proportion with the state’s population.
California, however, is bucking that nationwide trend. The state’s death sentences more than doubled, from 14 in 2008 to 29 this year.
Reasons for the drop
There is some disagreement over why the number of death sentences has fallen so sharply in most states in recent years.
Many in the legal community point to the introduction of life without parole as an option for juries in 2005. The change in state law altered the dynamics of capital cases. Before 2005, jurors were responsible for choosing either the death penalty or a life sentence in which a convicted killer could be eligible for parole in 40 years.
Several Texas prosecutors have said they are now less likely to pursue the death penalty. Capital cases are long and expensive, and defendants are often willing to plead to life without parole to avoid the death penalty.
Others argue that jurors have become less willing to agree to the ultimate punishment as more stories emerge of convicted offenders exonerated through DNA evidence.
Nine people sentenced to Death Row were exonerated in 2009, according to the report, including two Texans: Michael Toney, who was convicted of the 1985 bombing of a Lake Worth trailer and served nine months, and Robert Springsteen, who was convicted of the 1991 slayings of four teens at an Austin yogurt shop and served eight years.
"I think there are a large number of people who are on Death Row currently in Texas who most likely would not have been sentenced to death in the current climate," said Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The report suggests a third theory: The bad economy has prompted district attorneys to shy away from pursuing the death penalty because they are more expensive.
"The economics are a controlling factor on that," Hubbarth said. "It has nothing to do with public opinion."
While the death penalty is becoming more rare in Texas courtrooms, the state’s justice system is still working through the hundreds already sentenced to die.
Almost all of the offenders executed by Texas this year were sent to Death Row between 1993 and 1999, when the state gained international notoriety for its high use of the death penalty.
The Death Row facility at Huntsville will likely stay busy next year. Six executions are already scheduled through March 30.