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Death Row Population at Its Lowest Since 1989

Mirroring a national trend, death sentences in Texas have declined over the last decade. Death sentences have fallen 75 percent since 2002, according to a new report. And the Texas death row population is the lowest in more than 20 years.

This gurney is used to perform executions at Terre Haute by lethal injection.

The population on Texas' death row is at its lowest in more than 20 years, and the number of new death sentences, though slightly up in 2012, continues a downward trend even in the nation's busiest death penalty state, according to a report released Wednesday by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

As they have nationally, death sentences in Texas have declined over the last decade. The state has seen a 75 percent drop in death sentences since 2002. And according to the coalition, the Texas death row population, at 289, is at its lowest point since 1989. According to the coalition's report, juries in the state issued nine new death sentences in 2012, a slight increase from the number issued in each of the two previous years.

But the distribution of new death sentences is uneven, the coalition reported. For the third time in five years, there were no new death sentences out of Harris County, which once sent more people to death row than any other Texas county. Meanwhile, the Dallas-Fort Worth area accounted for four of the new death sentences in 2012, and Dallas County alone contributed nearly 20 percent of death sentences in the last five years, according to the report. Dallas County also led the state in executions: Five of the 15 Texans executed in 2012 were from there.

"While most of Texas is moving away from the death penalty, the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex was a major outlier both in new death sentences and executions this year," said Kristin Houlé, executive director of the coalition. 

A spokeswoman in the Dallas County district attorney's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although Texas is using the death penalty less, Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said it is still used disproportionately on people of color. "This is a recurring problem, and Texas' failure to fix it demonstrates how broken its capital punishment system is," Kase said.

Seven of the nine new death row inmates are black, and according to the coalition, nearly 75 percent of death sentences imposed in the last five years were on people of color. Of the 15 men executed in 2012, seven were black and four were Hispanic.

The coalition said the executions also raise questions about punishment of those who are mentally ill. This year, while the executions of Steven Staley and Marcus Druery both were stopped because of questions over their mental competency, the execution of Jonathan Green proceeded despite reports that he was schizophrenic.

Texas executions accounted for more than a third of the total performed in the U.S. in 2012, nearly three times more than any other state. Six inmates who were scheduled for death received reprieves, and three execution dates were withdrawn. 

Houlé urged Texans and lawmakers to reconsider the efficacy and cost of the death penalty as a means to achieve justice.

But few expect a halt to the death penalty in Texas. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll this spring found significant support for the death penalty among Texas voters. More than 70 percent said they were either somewhat or strongly in support and only 21 percent opposed the punishment. And more than half of the respondents said they believed the death penalty in Texas is fairly applied.

"They're pretty strong proponents of the death penalty," Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll, said when the results were published

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has already filed a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Texas, but such proposals have failed in recent legislative sessions. 

And during his failed presidential bid last year, Gov. Rick Perry emphasized his support of the "ultimate justice," saying during a debate that he had lost no sleep over the more than 200 executions that have occurred during his tenure.

"The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place,” Perry told the crowd at the debate. “When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that’s required.” 

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