Texas sees uptick in executions, death sentences in 2018

The state put to death 13 men this year. That's more than half the total number of people executed in the entire country: 25. Still, the death row population — both here and nationwide — is at a historic low.

The clock nears 6 p.m. at the "Walls" unit in Huntsville, where Texas executes its prisoners, on Jan. 26, 2017.
The clock nears 6 p.m. at the "Walls" unit in Huntsville, where Texas executes its prisoners, on Jan. 26, 2017.  Jolie McCullough

Texas again executed far more inmates than any other state in 2018, according to year-end reports released Friday by two groups critical of the death penalty.

With no other executions scheduled for the year, tallies from the Death Penalty Information Center and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty show the state will have put to death 13 people in 2018 — all men, as usual. That's more than half the total number of executions that took place in the United States this year — 25.

The number of people Texas put to death increased substantially from the last two years as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted far fewer executions. Seven men died in the state’s execution chamber in both 2016 and 2017, when the state's highest criminal court stayed at least twice as many executions as it did this year.

At the same time, the death row population in Texas — and the nation at large — reached historic lows this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center report, which noted that the total number of people with active death sentences nationwide is at a 25-year low.

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The number of inmates living with a death sentence in Texas has dropped consistently since 2003. There are currently 224 inmates awaiting execution, according to the state's prison system.

Texas usually leads the nation every year in the number of prisoners it puts to death and has executed far more people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 — more than 550. The state with the second-highest number of executions, Virginia, has racked up 113, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In the last twenty years, Texas has had fewer executions than another state only twice.

Here are some of the big changes that happened with the Texas death penalty this year:

Executions, new death sentences went up, but remain low

The rise in executions this year in Texas also coincides with an increase in new death sentences. In 2018, seven men — all people of color — were added to Texas’ death row, according to the report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. That’s a jump from last year, when four men were sentenced to death. In 2015 and 2016, only three men got the punishment.

But the relative increase comes at a time after both executions and death sentences in Texas and the nation reached historic lows. By comparison, Texas juries handed down 48 new death sentences in 1999, and executed 35 people.

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The parole board, governor reduced a death sentence for the first time in more than a decade

In February, the Texas parole board unanimously voted to recommend clemency for Thomas Whitaker, who was convicted in the death of his mother and brother in an inheritance money scheme. Minutes before his execution was scheduled to proceed, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott accepted the board's recommendation and changed Whitaker’s sentence to life in prison.

It was the first time the board recommended the lesser sentence since 2009, and the first time a governor signed off on that change since 2007. Still, Abbott emphasized his support of the death penalty, noting that he had allowed more than 30 executions to take place since he took office in 2015.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped fewer executions

The state’s highest criminal court stopped significantly fewer executions in 2018 than other years in recent history. Of the three executions the court halted, two were specifically tied to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the Texas court’s method of determining whether a death row inmate is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

In 2017, the state's Court of Criminal Appeals stopped six executions during late appeals, and in 2015 and 2016, it halted eight and seven respectively, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The court, consisting of nine Republican judges, is also losing its most vocal death penalty critic, Judge Elsa Alcala, at the end of the year. She did not run for re-election and will be replaced by Republican Michelle Slaughter, who defended the death penalty in February during her primary campaign but said any reforms should stem from legislation and not court rulings.