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Faces of Death Row: A New Tribune Data Tool

To add transparency to the state's capital punishment system, the Tribune is unveiling a new tool for readers: Faces of Death Row. It profiles all 261 inmates facing execution, summarizes their crimes and allows filtering by race, age, sex and years spent on death row.

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Editor's note: Correction appended. 

What's often called death row isn't really a row. There are far too many men and women awaiting execution in Texas to fit along one prison hallway. Instead, the condemned take up a large section of the sprawling, maximum security Allan B. Polunsky Unit, about 75 miles northwest of Houston.

The six women sentenced to death live at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, and a few inmates with the most severe mental illnesses reside in Richmond, at the Jester IV Unit

But most of the 261 facing death by lethal injection reside at Polunsky, where they spend about 22 hours a day in single cells not much bigger than a bathroom. There is no television, and inmates are let out only to shower and exercise in the caged recreation yard.

In Texas, the death penalty remains as much about politics as it does about criminal justice. Voters here still heavily favor capital punishment, and few lawmakers can win election expressing anything less than full support for it. 

This despite a drop in support for capital punishment nationally. According to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet poll conducted a year ago, 71 percent of Texas voters supported it.

So who are all those inmates warehoused out in East Texas? What did they do? And which have spent more than 30 years awaiting their fate? 

To add transparency to the state's capital punishment system, The Texas Tribune is unveiling a new tool for readers: Faces of Death Row.

It profiles all 261 inmates sentenced to death for the crime of capital murder, and allows readers to filter by race, age, sex and years spent on Texas death row, at the Polunsky Unit, Mountain View Unit or Jester IV.

Brief summaries detailing the crime for which each inmate was convicted are included, as well as the county where the conviction took place.

Of the 261:

  • 41 percent are African-American.
  • 28 percent are Hispanic.
  • 23 percent are over the age of 40.
  • Nearly half have been on death row for 15 years or more.
  • 11 inmates have lived on death row for 30 years or more.

The number of executions carried out each year in Texas has fallen dramatically in recent years, from an all-time high of 40 in 2000 to 10 last year. So far this year, eight men have been executed

There are several reasons for the slowdown. Since 2002, a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings have limited the way the death penalty can be applied. For example, 29 inmates left Texas death row after the high court ruled in 2005 that juvenile offenders could not be executed. Texas and other states have also been grappling with shortages of the lethal drugs used for injectionswhich began in 2011 after manufacturers refused to sell some of the drugs to U.S. prisons.

Also beginning in 2005, Texas became the last of the death penalty states to offer prosecutors the option of pursuing a life-without-parole sentence against a capital murder defendant, slowing the number of those sent to death row. The lifer's row in the Texas prison system has now outpaced the number of those waiting to be executed.

It may seem surprising that decades, even as many as three, can pass between a capital punishment conviction and an execution, but the appeals process for death penalty — and non-death penalty cases — takes time.

"There are two competing, important governmental objectives," explains Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that tracks trends and statistics about capital punishment in the United States. "The first is fairness and the second is finality. But a finality that is achieved by denying an individual a fair process is a miscarriage of justice."

Since 1970, there have been 154 people sentenced to death who have been exonerated, he said.

In Texas, 12 inmates have been released from death row as the result of DNA testing, confessions from other parties, shoddy investigative work or legal errors that were uncovered during appeals of capital murder convictions.

In 2010, Anthony Graves was released from death row after serving 16 years. His release came after another inmate confessed to the crime, and last week the prosecutor who won the case that put him on death row was disbarred for "professional misconduct." 

Earlier this month, Alfred Dewayne Brown was released from death row after spending 10 years there. Last year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out his conviction and death evidence because his defense team was not given evidence that could have supported his alibi at trial.  

Correction: A previous version of this story said there were 12 inmates on Texas death row for 30 years or more. There are 11.  

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Courts Criminal justice Politics Death penalty Texas Department Of Criminal Justice