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Report: Death Penalty Applied Haphazardly in Texas

PHOTO: Death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, speaking at St. Edward’s University in October. Credit: Mo McMorrow.
PHOTO: Death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, speaking at St. Edward’s University in October. Credit: Mo McMorrow.
December 12, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas - While the use of capital punishment is declining, Texas still relies on it more than any other state - and implements it haphazardly, according to a report released today.

Striking variations exist between counties about how often prosecutors seek the death penalty, says report author Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. For example, in the past year, more than half the state's new death sentences were handed down in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. By contrast, there were no new death sentences in Houston.

"It really is subject to the discretion of individual prosecutors. Cases with individuals with comparable backgrounds - or who raised similar legal arguments - received vastly different treatment in the criminal justice system."

National surveys show support for the death penalty on the decline. It's now about 60 percent, down from a high of 80 percent. But support drops below 50 percent when alternatives, such as life sentences without parole, are included in polls.

Slowly but surely, Houlé thinks, the death penalty is on its way out because of a growing sense that the system is unfair and makes mistakes. The report says defendants with intellectual disabilities and people of color are more likely to receive death sentences in Texas.

So far this year, nine new death sentences have been handed down in Texas, a 75 percent decline from a decade ago. Texas also carried out 15 executions, three times more than any other state.

Houlé cites a practical reason that some jurisdictions are becoming less enthusiastic about pursuing capital punishment. With chronically strained county budgets, she says, the issue of cost is more relevant than ever.

"We see a vast difference between trials in which prosecutors seek the death penalty and those in which they don't - almost a three-times difference. It should give those who support the death penalty pause, considering the gross expense of the death penalty."

This year, Connecticut became the fifth state to reject capital punishment, and campaigns are planned in several other states next year. State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, is expected to introduce abolishment legislation for Texas soon, but it will likely be a symbolic effort; she's filed similar bills every session since 2007.

The report is online at

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX