Death Penalty Declining – Even in Texas

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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.  


About Author

Emily Cadik

Emily is a Texas ex-pat and proud Longhorn living in Washington, DC, where she remains connected to the Lone Star State through her work on BOR and her enthusiasm for breakfast tacos. She works on affordable housing policy, and writes about health care, poverty and other social justice issues.


  1. Life Without Parole
    The big drop in number of death sentences correlates strongly with the change made by the Texas Legislature to allow the option of life without parole for capital crimes.  To me, it confirms that even staunch death penalty advocates are very uncomfortable imposing the penalty themselves, and that there is a growing distaste for the penalty, as well as greater awareness of the huge flaws in the system.  Seeing how Texas has actually reduced the number of sentences so significantly and quickly, I could see the US moving to abolish the penalty in all states within my lifetime.

  2. The path to zero death sentences in Texas
    A good place to fight to stop executions is at the local level in Texas, because decisions to seek death sentences are made by elected district attorneys. This year, only 6 counties sent anyone to death row: Harris (3 people),Tarrant, Travis, Harrison, Fort Bend and Galveston. Large counties missing from the list of ones with new death sentences include Dallas, Bexar and El Paso, all of which sent zero people to death row in 2011. Altogether 249 counties in Texas sent nobody to death row this year. If we are already down to only 8 new death sentences a year in Texas, as in 2011 and 2010, it is conceivable that we could soon see a year in which zero people are sent to death row in Texas. If we get to the day when zero people are sent to death row, or even if we just get to almost zero, then a very strong argument could be made that the U.S. Supreme Court should abolish the death penalty as a punishment  because it is such an unusual punishment.

    While it may still be politically untenable to ask DA candidates to pledge not to seek death sentences in all cases, we should definitely elect district attorneys whom we can trust to make wise decisions about seeking death sentences, so that we can continue to edge closer to the year when Texas sees zero new death sentences.

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