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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Death sentences in Texas in 2015 hit a 4 decade low

Holding cells adjacent to the death chamber, Huntsville Unit, Huntsville, TX
Holding cells adjacent to the death chamber, Huntsville Unit, Huntsville, TX
The high cost of capital punishment and the option of life in prison without parole has led Texas to issue 3 death sentences in 2015, the lowest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, a study released on Wednesday said.

Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any state since capital punishment resumed, sentenced 3 men to death in 2015 while juries that had the option rejected the death penalty in 4 other capital murder trials this year, according to the study from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), which opposes capital punishment.

In those 4 cases, the convicted murderers were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, it said.

"The death penalty landscape has shifted dramatically in Texas over the last 15 years, mirroring national trends. Texas has gone from a peak of 48 new death sentences in 1999 to the fewest sentences on record," said Kristin Houle, TCADP executive director.

The costs of a death penalty prosecution, including appeals and investigations, can be at least double those of housing an inmate for life and are usually far higher, according to data cited by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsgroup that focuses on U.S. criminal justice.

Nationally, the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center said in a separate report on Wednesday, the 28 executions so far in 2015, with no more scheduled, was the lowest number in the United States since 1991. A legal fight over drugs used in a series of botched lethal injections contributed to the continued decline in the number of executions in the country this year.

Texas' Republican leaders have said the death penalty is an appropriate way to punish offenders whose crimes have caused enormous pain for the families of murder victims, and surveys show that the majority of Texans still support capital punishment.

The last time Texas imposed no death sentences was 1974, when a national moratorium was in effect. Since then, Texas has led the United States in the number of convicts put to death at 531, or about 37 % of the national total.

But the number of death sentences started declining after 2005 when Texas added the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Between 2006 and 2014, 513 people have been sentenced to life in prison without parole while 83 have been sent to death row, according to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Meanwhile, the number of people on death row has dropped to 252, well below the 460 in 1999, the group that conducted the Texas study said.

Source: Reuters, December 17, 2015

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