Texas executed just 13 prisoners in 2011 (as of mid-December), the lowest number in more than a decade. And juries doled out only eight new death sentences this year, the same low figure as in 2010 – down from a high of 48 in 1999, according to information released Thursday by the Texas Defender Service.
“These numbers show that Texans have a growing discomfort with the chronic problems that infect the death penalty system, including the risk of convicting an innocent person, the costs, and its disproportionate use against people of color,” said Kathryn Kase, interim executive director of the Texas Defender Service. “Texas is part of a nationwide trend away from the death penalty.”
For the first time since the death penalty was reinstated, courts in the United States sentenced fewer than 100 people to death. There were 78 death sentences issued nationwide so far this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which issued its own report Thursday on executions nationally. The number of executions also fell to 43, a 56 percent decline since 1999, when there were 98 executions.
"This year, the use of the death penalty continued to decline by almost every measure," said Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center’s executive director and the report’s author. "Executions, death sentences, public support, the number of states with the death penalty all dropped from previous years."
There have been an increasing number of exonerations nationwide, including 12 death row exonerations since 1976 in Texas. That comes along with questions about whether Texas executed an innocent man when Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death in 2004 despite scientific reports that cast doubt on the arson evidence used to convict him of torching his house and killing his three daughters. Those factors, combined with the 2005 law that allows juries to sentence the guilty to life without parole, have contributed to a precipitous decline in executions, according to the Texas Defender Service.
“Texas jurors are learning that the law presumes a life sentence and that the law does not require them to vote for the death penalty,” said John Niland, attorney and founder of Texas Defender Service’s Capital Trial Project, which provides consulting and training to defense lawyers dealing with the death-penalty litigation.
Courts have also helped slow Texas' death penalty machinery. The U.S. Supreme Court this year stayed five executions in which the defendants presented questions about the adequacy of their representation. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also granted two stays to death row inmates who presented claims of innocence.
Kase said the numbers reveal progress, but the justice system in Texas needs further improvements.
“Several death penalty trials and executions are already scheduled for the first quarter of 2012," she said, "and that suggests that prosecutors are not heeding the public’s desire for decreased use of the death penalty.”