Friday, December 17, 2010

Texas: Death Sentences Down for Nation’s Leader in Executions

Texas — the nation's most-active death penalty state — sentenced only eight killers to death this year, the lowest number since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated in the United States. Seventeen killers were put to death in 2010, six fewer than last year for the lowest total since 2001, reported the Houston Chronicle.

Death penalty supporters, however, countered that fewer death sentences may reflect fewer killers and fewer killers who are eligible for execution. The Supreme Court shrank the pool of death-eligible killers by prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded offenders and those who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

"Texas murder rates have dropped about 67 percent, murders about 50 percent in Texas between 1991 and 2009," Dudley Sharp, death penalty advocate, told the Chronicle. "Nationally, I think that part of the reduction is due to state prosecutors knowing that judges in their state will not allow an execution to take place."

Prosecutors also cite long-term incarceration of violent criminals and programs to lower recidivism among released prisoners. Just as important, they claim, is a high degree of frustration over death sentences that never are carried out.

"Twenty-five years later, mothers and sons and daughters of victims are still waiting," Scott Burns, executive director of the National Association of District Attorneys, told the Chronicle. "It's the old cliche about justice delayed is denied. ... For a number of states, the death penalty means we'll talk to you in 25 years and see where we are."

Nationally during the last 20 years, death sentences have ranged from a high of 328 in 1994, to a low last year of little more than 100. Texas recorded an all-time high — 48 — in 1999 to eight this year, according to the Chronicle.

Since Texas' resumption of executions in 1982, 464 killers — 115 of them from Harris County (Houston) — have been put to death. According to the Chronicle, there are 105 Harris County killers await execution. Three of 17 killers executed this year were from Harris County. There are no executions scheduled in Texas before the end of the year.

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