Friday, October 14, 2011

Texas death sentences plummeted during Bush, Perry tenures

The number of Texas executions may draw cheers for Rick Perry on the campaign trail, and certainly it's been a big applause line for the governor that, "in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed." That's tough talk, but is it true? At Courtex, Office of Court Administration chief Carl Reynolds says that "imposition of the death penalty has gone down fairly dramatically in recent years," and yesterday published this remarkable chart to prove it:

Carl adds, "one thing I find interesting about this graph is the fact that life without parole was not adopted until 2005 (S.B. 60 by Lucio), but the downward trend was well established well before then." I agree, and that's one reason Grits opposed the 2005 LWOP law, believing that death-penalty abolitionists were throwing their clients under the bus in deference to ideology by eschewing the "capital life" option. In the future, as the use of LWOP broadens (it's already been extended to certain non-capital cases) and geriatric healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, IMO that decision will increasingly appear foolish and ill-advised, contributing to the Californication of Texas justice. (About 6% of Texas prison inmates are lifers, compared to 20% in California.)

Other charts at Courtex demonstrate a similar drop in new death sentences in Harris County, which is responsible for 106 of 308 offenders on death row, Reynolds reports.

MORE: A prison-guard commenter at agrees with criticism of the LWOP law for a different reason: "because they have no incentive to behave. Look at the last Polunsky escape attempt. All LWOP."


Anonymous said...

Although the largest drop occurred before 2005, if the rate dropped from 5% to 2.5% since 2005, that is still a significant decrease. Maybe the juries are getting better at narrowing down the people who should face the death penalty, but there is still some core of very severe crimes where juries impose it. If so, the 2005 law might have a significant effect on this smaller slice of defendants.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes, 11:46, but that also means that 95% of capital defendants in 2005 got life with the possibility of parole, and now 97.5% get LWOP and will never get out. That's why I said the abolitionists threw their clients under the bus. The overwhelming majority of capital defendants were worse off because that law passed. And since many death sentences are eventually overturned anyway, I'm not so sure it "helped" very many people at all.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but I always thought that one of the measures of a judicial system was how well (or how poorly) the sentence fits the crime. From that perspective, a greater range in sentencing options is de facto a good thing because it gives the judicial system more granularity in trying to fit the penalty to the crime. The fact that there are additional costs associated with having a better judicial system is neither here nor there.

And I don't get the critique of dp abolitionists for throwing defendants under the bus. That critique equates the abolitionist movement with a leniency in sentencing movement. But the dp abolition movement has never been about leniency in sentencing in order to benefit the defendents in capital cases. That is a mis-characterization if ever there was one.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to see a percentage of how often the jury chooses death compared with how often the prosecution seeks death. If the prosecutors are seeking death in fewer cases, it is even more significant that juries are choosing life sentences even for this more narrow slice of cases. I would expect the prosecutors to "save" their death cases for the most severe crimes, so that if they are seeking death half as often, that half is more likely to contain worse crimes. This would cause the rate of death sentences to rise, since less borderline cases are being presented to juries. If the condemnation rate is falling despite prosecutors seeking death much less often, the drop is even more dramatic than the chart makes it seem.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:16, I agree the DP abolition movement is not about "leniency" in sentencing. But if you're concerned about "how well (or how poorly) the sentence fits the crime," then the LWOP bill still misses the mark by limiting the array of punishments.

Take the example of somebody accused of capital murder under the law of parties who didn't actually pull the trigger. Before the LWOP bill that person would eventually be eligible for parole. Now, because of that bill, that person will die in prison. This gives prosecutors too big a bludgeon and limits available sentences in a way that may be unfair.

If the new bill had merely added LWOP to the existing punishments, you'd be right that "it gives the judicial system more granularity in trying to fit the penalty to the crime." But since the bill ELIMINATED the capital life (with the possibility of parole) option, it actually did the opposite.

Petra said...

I am an abolitionist and I have one "client" (friend) on Death Row in Texas who would (if he could) definitely choose LWOP over the death Penalty. If I am not mistaken, LWOPers are housed in General Population. There is a vast difference between conditions on Death Row (nothing but torture) and in Gen Pop...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Petra, wouldn't your client prefer capital life WITH the possibility of parole even more?

Obviously most people sentenced to death would prefer not to be, but the thinking error is focusing solely on those 10 or so people per year to the exclusion of all other considerations: My question when evaluating the law is: Would the 95-97.5% of clients that did NOT get a death sentence prefer LWOP to capital life? I imagine not, and as with the law of parties example I don't think it's a fair sentence in every capital case.

I'd have been fine with adding the LWOP option if they'd left capital life on the table, but as it stands IMO it's a bad law, was a bad deal, and resulted from abolitionist lawyers at the Lege putting an absolutist ideology over the interest of the overwhelming majority of their clients.

Pe said...

I don't know none on death row who would like to die in prison, but without death over your head the fight for freedom could be easier.

Petra said...

The answer to your question is of course "yes" and I think I agree with your point. And I think and hope that support for the Death Penalty will continue to decline until it is finally considered outdated and obsolete...

johnny phenothiazine said...

The thing that annoyed me about Perry's line was the part about "if you come into our state..." Are we supposed to imagine that Texas imports all its murderers? I'll bet more than half of Texas's murder convicts are natives, and further, that Texas, as a whole, exports criminals to the rest of the world rather than importing them.

Of course, the only reason I make that second accusation is due to decades of looking at the politicians they send to Congress. Perhaps this was an unjustified slur against Texan common criminals.

Daniel Simon said...


I take it you are a defense attorney?

Would you be interested in how a Houston Attorney named W.W. Holland saved the life of his Black client in 1946 after his client was found guilty at trial and his death sentence effectively affirmed three times by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas?

Back in those days there were not years of Federal Appeals...and the condemned normally were executed within a few months.

However in this case a unanimous Board of Pardons and Paroles committed fraud and along with a sitting Governor (all white) commuted the condemned to life in prison. Of course there was no life without parole in those days so life meant a shot at parole in a few years.

The reason I focus on race above is because in 1945-45 Texas, everyone involved except the defendant was white. The cops, the prosecutor, the jury, the defense attorney, all white.

And powerful white men on the BPP lied to save a black man at a time when with impunity whites could walk up to a black on the streets and call him a n-worder to his face!!

Would you like to know what happened and how this issue is still very much alive? It is possible it could save your friend!

Daniel Simon

Elmas Mallo, the last Texas Hero said...

What's wrong in Texas? Hell fire friend, it's the same thing wrong everywhere in the world...greed...not caring and scaredee cat politicians. Put Elmas Mallo in as Governor and this state will prosper again like it ain't prospered since Perry took office...
It don't take long for us thinkers to figure out who's farting in the hen house and who's playing fox...and it for sure don't take long to create a road of prosperity for Texas but the fools in Austin can't and won't ever do it cause they are gettin rich on one rich making scheme after another....even Perry's a millionaire now...and it can be truly done friends....i guarantee it...What I would do as Governor in Texas...
1. Create jobs for graduating college students.
2. End the cherry hole road jobs.
3. End the testing of all students in Texas except for mental abnormalness. These tests are useless and keep kids from getting a diploma and a future job which is pure CRAP in a CRAP HOUSE...
4. Sales Tax the internet.
5. No Texan Revenue Tax.
6. Bring in more world commerce.
7. Stop the High School drop out rate in its tracks.
8. Broadcast every Texas High School game on tv.
9. Make sure all senior citizens are not forgotten by at least one hot meal a day at their home.
10.Make sure all politicians get off their butts and visit all Texans and stop trips to talk to kindergardeners....ain't that some to the kids but not the moms and dads who make up this state.
11.Make it mandatory that if you serve for six years in the military or public service job, you get six years of college or trade school for free in Texas.
Friends, you want change, then put Elmas Mallo in the Governr's Office of Texas...GO TEXAS!
12.Hold bankers personally responsible for any actions that can be lodged as pure greedy dogshipness...GO TEXAS!
Write Elmas Mallo in as your choice for the Governor of Texas...MAKE A CHANGE without the political party Bull Crap...tell all your frends and post it everywhere...before Texas is lost forever...

Anonymous said...

Grits: I think you should re-word the post. It's confusing where "death penalty abolitionists threw their clients under the bus by ESCHEWING the 'capital life' option." That seemed backward, until I understood the term capital life.

Elmas Mallo: what is a Cherry hole road job?

Daniel Simon: can I guess, the board listed him as "white?"


P.S. Why does the anonymous line always give me a blank for word verification?

Anonymous said...

Lots of death penalty abolitionists opposed LWOP when it was filed and still oppose it. And I am not sure if the legislative sponsors of the LWOP bill have ever taken a position that the death penalty should be abolished. Also, the bill originally maintained the option of life with the possibility of parole (so there would have been three options). The life with parole option was taken out I assume at the request of prosecutors, not death penalty abolitionists and probably not even death penalty retentionists or those criminal justice reform advocates for whom the death penalty is not their main concern and many of whom are not opposed to the death penalty.

The drop in death sentences during the Perry years (it did not drop during the Bush years except perhaps from 98-2000 but I would have to check that) is because the public is in front of the politicians on the issue of the death penalty. The public serves on juries and they have grown very suspicious of the death penalty because of all the exonerations and so they increasingly choose the only available sentencing alternative to the death penalty in capital cases.