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Commentary: The Texas death penalty is dying


The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a statewide grassroots organization working to end the death penalty, recently published its annual death penalty report, which illustrates that some Texans are rethinking their views on capital punishment. The findings by the coalition, also known as TCADP, reveal that prosecutors and jurors are losing interest in sentencing defendants to die. Given that Texas’ death penalty has been plagued by inequity, inefficiency and inaccuracy, it makes sense that capital punishment is falling out of favor.

2016 marked the second year in a row of Texas juries sentencing the fewest number of people to death since 1976. Death sentences peaked at 48 in 1999, while there has been a total of three this year. Executions in Texas have also steadily declined to the lowest number in 20 years. Last year, there were seven.

Dallas and Harris counties have traditionally been known for their high number of death sentences. However, prosecutors in these counties have increasingly elected not to pursue that punishment, and jurors have chosen alternative sentences such as life without parole. Consequently, no one has been sentenced to death in either county in two years.

Moreover, when Texas has executed people, it hasn’t been pretty. Texas is America’s leading death penalty state, executing 538 individuals since 1982, and the state has faced a number of controversies.

Rather than punishing only the worst of the worst, the death penalty has disproportionately singled out poor, mentally handicapped and minority defendants. People who cannot afford a private attorney are at a higher risk of receiving a death sentence in Texas, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit national organization that provides information on the death penalty. The TCADP report found that almost half of those executed in Texas over the last two years had severe and mitigating impairments such as mental disabilities. The report also found that 80 percent of those executed in Texas over the last five years were people of color.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over the case of Duane Buck, who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to die. He is languishing on Texas’ death row, in part, because of allegedly tainted testimony that Buck presented a higher risk of future danger because he is African-American. When confronted by problems like these, capital punishment begins to look less like a solution and more like an injustice.

There were seven stays of execution in Texas in 2016, including one for a man named Charles Flores. The primary evidence against Flores was a hypnotized eyewitness. Jeff Wood also received a stay, and the case against him included testimony from a discredited psychologist who did not even bother to interview the accused. Another stay was issued for Robert Pruett, who was scheduled for execution despite the existence of unexamined evidence and conflicting DNA evidence from the crime scene.

Texas is no stranger to the high price of the death penalty. The cost of a single death penalty trial runs close to $3 million, according to some studies — and it is “we the people” who pay. Jasper County increased property taxes by 7 percent to pay for two capital trials, while Kaufman County is expected to pay $500,000 for expert witnesses in a single capital trial. In fact, it is only because Kaufman County is a part of the Capital Defense Fund Program that they are not expected to pay an additional $1.3 million.

We have poured millions into the death penalty, but the return on our investment has been minimal at best. Texas has wrongly convicted and sentenced at least 13 people. Others have been executed who might have been innocent. Meanwhile, studies show the death penalty doesn’t protect society, and many murder victims’ families say the complex and lengthy process doesn’t offer them the swift justice or closure that they seek. Some feel the system forces them to constantly relive the murders of their loved ones as they endure ongoing legal wrangling and incessant media attention.

Given the facts, it should not surprise anyone that Texans are losing faith in the death penalty. We like solutions that work. Capital punishment does not work — and that may be why Texas’ death penalty is in a steep decline.

Johnson is communications fellow at the Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.



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