Texas juries sentenced just eight people to death in 2010, the smallest number since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment here in 1976, according to a report published today by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
“Texas — along with the rest of the nation — is moving away from the death penalty,” said Kristin Houlé, executive director of the coalition.
The number of death sentences in Texas has fallen about 70 percent since 2003, according to the report. And over the last three years, juries in only 21 of the state's 254 counties meted out the death penalty. The drop in death sentences, Houlé said, reflects growing doubt among the public about the use of capital punishment in the wake of high-profile exonerations like that of Anthony Graves. And of ongoing questions about cases like that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004, accused of intentionally starting a fire that killed his daughters and that many experts now say was accidental.
According to the report, three inmates were granted last-minute execution reprieves in 2010, including Henry "Hank" Skinner, who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two sons. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay in March, less than an hour before Skinner was set to die. Skinner is asking the courts to allow DNA testing on evidence he says will prove someone else committed the murders, not him. A ruling from the high court is expected soon.
Houle said 2010 may go down in history as the "Year of Doubt," "when case after case exposed the flaws and failures of the Texas death penalty and shook public faith in the criminal justice system to its core.”