Earlier this year, Rick Perry disturbingly received soaring applause at a California Republican primary debate for having allowed 234 executions under his governorship. But despite Perry's best efforts to keep the death penalty alive, death sentencing nationwide is at a 35-year low. And it's even declining in Texas.
Across the U.S., there were 43 executions in 2011, down from 26 in 2010, and 78 new sentences, down from 112 last year.
Sadly, though these numbers are declining, they're largely buoyed by Texas' enthusiasm for execution. Texas was responsible for 13 of the 43 executions and 8 of the 78 new sentences in 2011. And since 1976, Texas has accounted for 37% of all executions in the country by killing near 500 people.
Not only are Texas' rates disproportionately high, but it's important to remember who exactly is being executed. In 2004, Perry ignored and actively suppressed mounting evidence of the innocence of Cameron Todd Willingham before eventually allowing his execution. Though few cases are as egregious as Willingham's, 2011 featured several highly questionable cases as well. This year's executions this year included Humberto Leal, who received pleas for a reprieve from President Obama, the State Department and his home country of Mexico because he was never informed of his right to receive assistance from the Mexican consul as a Mexican national. Duane Buck was sentenced to death after a trial in which race was explicitly cited as a sentencing factor. In three other Texas cases, the victims' families even requested that the state not go through with the executions.
But things are actually looking up. Texas' 13 executions in 2011 are actually 4 fewer executions than last year, and 11 fewer than the year before that. And fewer new sentences than in the past too. In 1999, for instance, Texas issued 48 new death sentences, but this year issued 8.
There's still a long way to go before Texas punishes its criminals justly. But it's a promising trend, and may really limit Perry's sick bragging rights in this department.