Texas led the U.S. in the number of executions in 2019, carrying out nine of the 22 that occurred nationwide. A new report reveals Texas is more on par with national trends, however, when it comes to the use of the death penalty.
The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) found there were just four new death sentences this year, marking the fifth consecutive year where the number remained in the single digits.
Kristin Houle, the executive director of TCADP, says the trend has been a long time in the making.
“We’ve seen a precipitous decline over the last two decades with the number of death sentences for the State of Texas," she said.
The drop is due largely to the introduction of the option of a life sentence without parole, which became state law in 2005. (More than half the 214 people currently on death row were sentenced before the law took effect.) Houle says that while four men were sentenced to death in 2019, juries rejected the punishment in four other capital murder cases.
“So that means that 50% of the cases in which the death penalty was the sentencing option sought by prosecutors – juries rejected the death penalty in those cases,” she said.
Of the four men sentenced to death, two are white and two are people of color. During the last five years, 70% of death sentences have been imposed on people of color – African Americans account for more than half of that figure.
In recent years, Houle says, only a handful of counties have sent people to death row.
“The death penalty has never been uniformly imposed across the state of Texas, half of our 254 counties have never sent anyone to death row,” she said.
Seventeen counties imposed death sentences between 2015 and 2019. More than one-third of all death sentences imposed by juries during that period come from just four counties: Harris, Smith, Tarrant, and Walker. But none of those counties have imposed more than two death sentences over the last five years.
While Texas led the nation in executions, an equal number of death row inmates received reprieves, according to the report.
One of the most high-profile cases involved 51-year-old Rodney Reed, who had been on death row for more than 21 years. Reed, who is African American, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites. Reed has long maintained his innocence.
Efforts to halt his execution drew the support of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and celebrities such as Oprah and Kim Kardashian. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution last month, five days before it was set to take place.
State Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, is one of the lawmakers who spearheaded a bipartisan effort to halt Reed’s execution. Over the summer, he founded the new Criminal Justice Reform Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives. Their first official action was to push for a reprieve in the Reed case.
Moody says he'd like to see the death penalty phased out in Texas.
“I’m also encouraged that we might and in the relatively near future,” he told KUT.
He says he's seen a lot change over the 10 years he's been in the state Legislature and that abolition is starting to be discussed as a bipartisan issue.
“I know that a lot of Texans are already making the same journey I did through the moral, economic and procedural issues surrounding the death penalty,” he said.
Houle says she also thinks the use of the death penalty will continue to decline here.
“I certainly expect the number of death sentences to remain at historic low levels," she said. But "we’re going to continue to see challenges based on long-standing issues."
That includes claims of innocence and ineffective representation at trial.
“All of the problems that Texas has experienced with the death penalty for the last few decades continue to haunt its implementation now," Houle said.
The only way to address these issues, she says, is to get rid of the death penalty once and for all.
The state of Texas already has seven executions set for next year, with the first set for Jan. 15.