Texas is on track to see fewer death sentences handed down in 2015 than in any other year since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
In the past two weeks, two new inmates arrived on Texas’ death row — the state’s first two death sentences of 2015. A jury sentenced a man to death in a third case, but he is awaiting a competency trial, so that sentence is unofficial.
Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Services, a nonprofit organization of death penalty attorneys, said that there is one new death penalty trial underway and another case “threatening to go” for a death penalty.
“That’s a very low number [of cases] for Texas," Kase said. “We see fewer cases overall going to the death penalty across the country, and that’s no different in Texas.”
In 2011, eight people were sentenced to death in Texas, currently the lowest number for any full calendar year, according to TDCJ.
Kase said that there had been three other death penalty cases this year, all ending in sentences of life without parole.
Experts often point to the 2005 introduction of a penalty of life without parole in the state as a reason for the decline in death sentences in recent years. In 2015, however, there has been a drastic drop from even last year, when there were 11 death sentences handed out.
There are many theories on the cause of this year’s drop, including new legislation from 2013 on criminal discovery reform and prosecutors pursuing the death penalty less often, Kase said.
“You see prosecutors who are more concerned about innocence, more concerned about intellectual disabilities,” Kase said.
Robert Kepple, executive director of the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, points to a simpler reason for the decrease: a lower crime and murder rate.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that death penalty cases are going down when there have been less murders,” Kepple said. “That’s a success story.”
The three death sentences handed down by Texas juries this year were all within the last two weeks.
The sentences came 10 months after Eric Williams was sent to death row in December for the 2013 killing of the Kaufman County district attorney's wife, Cynthia McLelland. It was the state’s longest stretch between new death sentences since the death penalty was reinstated, Kase said, adding that the timing of the three cases is “purely coincidental."
This month, Gabriel Hall and James Calvert joined the 251 other inmates living with a death sentence in Texas. Mark Anthony Gonzalez’s death sentence is pending a competency trial, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Hall was sentenced to death on Oct. 7, convicted in the 2011 murder of Edwin Shaar Jr., in an attack that left Shaar’s wife, Linda, seriously wounded, according to The Eagle.
Calvert received his sentence a week later, on Oct. 14, after being convicted in the murder of his ex-wife, Jelena Sriraman. After the murder, authorities said, he kidnapped his 4-year-old son, Lucas, before being found in Louisiana, according to KLTV.
A jury sentenced Gonzalez to death on Tuesday after he was convicted in the shooting death of Bexar County Sheriff's Sgt. Kenneth Vann, the Express-News reported. But the sentence is unofficial pending a competency trial that begins Thursday.