Executions in Texas drop as death penalty concerns persist

AUSTIN – When convicted Fort Worth killer Quintin Jones visited the death chamber in Huntsville on May 19, there were no media witnesses to watch him die. It was the first time out of 570 executions carried out in Texas since 1982 without any reporter first describing an inmate’s last moments or jotting down the last words on a notepad.

It wasn’t because the media had grown tired of covering the country’s busiest death chamber. In fact, two reporters were awaiting their grim assignment at a building next door to the Texas Prison System Walls Unit in Huntsville. Instead, it was because the execution team had become so unfamiliar with the process that no one remembered that state law requires selected members of the media to be given the opportunity to watch it happen. unwind.

Inside the Texas Execution Chamber in Huntsville.

Jones, who was 45 when he was put to death for clubbing his 83-year-old great-aunt with a baseball bat in 1999 and then stealing $ 30 from her purse to buy drugs, was the first person in Texas in nearly a year and only the fourth to die since 2019.

Texas in 2021 continued to be part of the growing national trend to move away from not only execution, but also imposition, according to a report released Thursday by the Texas Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. death sentences even for some of the brutal murderers who have been brought to justice.

Following:U.S. executions and death sentences fall in 2021 to lowest level in decades, report says

Only two inmates followed Jones to the Texas execution chamber in 2021, and Texas juries have sent just three killers to death row all year. The numbers follow closely those for 2020, but unlike last year, the current statistics are not a by-product of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the coalition report.

“Texas is moving in the right direction and this movement is moving away from the use of the death penalty, as evidenced by the drop in death sentences and the slowdown in executions,” said Kristin Houlé Cuellar, executive director of the coalition. “I think the challenge we continue to face is the legacy of the death penalty in this state.”

This legacy, she said, includes sending people of color to both death row and execution chamber at a disproportionate rate. And, she added, downplaying factors such as decreased mental acuity during capital murder trials and appeal and clemency processes.

These factors, Cuellar said, “should force Texans to conclude that it is time for the state to drop the death penalty altogether.”

Even as the use of the death penalty declines in Texas, the state is showing few signs that Cuellar’s recommendation will be acted upon. More than six in ten Texans support retaining the death penalty, polls show. And, although at least four separate bills that would have abolished the death penalty in the 2021 legislature, none of them received as much as a committee hearing.

This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows Quintin Jones.  Jones, convicted of beating his 83-year-old great-aunt to death more than two decades earlier, was executed on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, without media witnesses because prison agency officials failed to inform reporters that it was time to apply the punishment.  (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

Ray Hunt, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union, said the death penalty remains an essential tool for police and prosecutors when it comes to punishing those responsible for capital murder.

“Our union definitely supports the death penalty,” Hunt said. ” And me too. Absoutely ; 100%. “

However, he said the backlog caused in part by the pandemic likely contributed to more plea deals that took the death penalty off the table.

In addition, the 2005 law that gives juries the ability to send a killer to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole has likely reduced the number of death sentences, he said.

“I knew that when we instituted life without parole, fewer people would be executed because it’s easier for juries to make that decision,” Hunt said.

“The law on the death penalty has evolved”

However, several counties – including heavily urbanized Harris, Dallas and Bexar – which for decades have been enthusiastic champions of promoting the death penalty in capital murder cases have all but abandoned the practice.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is Harris County, the largest in the state and home to Houston. Since capital punishment was authorized to be resumed by the United States Supreme Court in 1976, Harris County juries have sentenced more than 200 inmates to death and 136 of them have been executed. It’s more than any state other than Texas.

However, only three death sentences have been handed down in Harris County since 2018. And in September, Harris County’s first inmate in nearly two years was sentenced to death. Rick Rhoades, convicted of killing two brothers in a burglary attempt, has spent nearly three decades on death row.

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Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who was first elected in 2016 on a promise to only seek the death penalty sparingly, in February took what would have been an unheard of step for anyone from his office. She recommended that Texas’ longest-serving death row inmate not be sentenced to death in 1976 because the then jury had not been assigned to assess his mental illness.

The inmate, Raymond Riles, is no longer on death row and is serving a life sentence.

“The death penalty law has evolved and now requires jurors to be able to meaningfully review and assess mitigating evidence about an offender, such as child abuse and trauma. Ogg said. “In 1976, the jury for the capital murder of Riles did not have this opportunity.”

Travis County District Attorney José Garza

No inmate in Travis County, where Austin is located, has been executed since 2010. This trend is likely to continue. Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza was elected in 2020 promising not only to never seek the death penalty, but also to review the cases of the county’s five death row inmates “to make sure he there are no medico-legal, evidentiary or legal issues that should cause the conviction to be called into question. “

Strong public support, but declining

Richard Dunham, who heads the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said executions in 2021 remained at the lowest of the modern era and that Texas is one of five states to carry out executions. executions this year. The others are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Dunham also noted that Virginia, the second state after Texas in number of executions since 1976, abolished its death penalty this year. The federal government executed three inmates this year.

“The death penalty has become increasingly geographically isolated in 2021 and public support has fallen to its lowest level in half a century,” said Dunham.

But this decline in public support nationwide is only modest, according to a mid-year poll by the Pew Research Center. The non-partisan think tank found that 60% and adults in America support the use of the death penalty in at least some cases. That’s a drop of 5 percentage points from 2019 in the Pew Center poll.

The death penalty remains more popular in Texas than across the country, according to an April 2021 University of Texas and Texas Tribune poll. But that support declined much more in Texas than in the country as a whole: 63% of all Texans expressed support for the death penalty, but in 2015 the UT / TT poll showed support for the death penalty at 75%. Five years earlier, nearly 80% of Texans favored the death penalty.

The drop in public support follows the drop in executions. During the five-year period ending in 2006, Texas executed 123 inmates. This works out to an average of just under 25 per year. During the next five-year block, 98 inmates, an annual average of around 20, went to the death chamber.

But the average between 2012 and 2016 has fallen to less than 10. The average number of executions for the five-year period ending this year is seven.

Racial disparity

Cuellar, of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said despite the drop in executions, she expects its patchwork application to continue. Four of the 10 most recent inmates sent to death row are black, she said.

And, of the 199 inmates on Texas death row, 90 of them are black. That’s about 45% while blacks make up less than 12% of the state’s total population. And of the 573 inmates put to death in Texas in modern times, 36% were black.

“The death penalty in Texas is a mess,” Cuellar said, noting the racial disparity. “And this is a mess of its own making.”

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

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