|"The Walls" Unit, Huntsville, where Texas carries out its executions.|
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted an unprecedented number of execution stays in 2015, the 1st year on the court for 3 judges elected in 2014.
"There's absolutely been a change, and we're still seeing where the splits are," said Scott Henson, author of Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast.
An analysis of data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and annual reports from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which tracks executions and stays, shows that Texas courts halted 14 executions this year. 2 of those were later rescheduled and carried out. That's nearly twice the number of stays granted most years.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, long known as one of the most conservative, tough-on-crime courts in the nation, gave 8 death row inmates more time to appeal their sentences in 2015. That is more than double the number of stays the court has granted in any year since at least 2007. Trial courts or prosecutors withdrew the remaining execution dates in 2015.
Legal experts say the increased number of stays from the state's top criminal court might be the result of its changing membership. In 2015, 3 new judges joined the bench: Bert Richardson, a former state and federal prosecutor; Kevin Yeary, who worked as a defense lawyer and prosecutor; and David Newell, a former prosecutor.
But the change could also reflect the increasingly skeptical attitude of the public nationwide toward the death penalty, experts said. The number of executions in the United States hit a 24-year low in 2015, dropping to 28. Nearly 1/2 of those took place in Texas.
"You're seeing a national trend show up in state-level decision-making," said Lee Kovarsky, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law who works on Texas death penalty cases. State and national polls show public support for the death penalty on a steady decline over the last decade. At the same time, the number of new death sentences and executions in Texas and other death penalty states has also decreased.
Appeals court orders granting the 8 execution stays in 2015 provide something of a window on divisions among the 9 judges. Just 1 of the 8 stays was granted unanimously. All 9 judges agreed to stay the execution of Julius Murphy, whose lawyers argued that prosecutors coerced false testimony from 2 witnesses who were key to his 1998 conviction in a robbery that turned deadly.
Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who has been on the court since 1994, and Judge Lawrence Meyers, who joined in 1992, partnered to dissent in 1/2 of the stays granted this year. Meyers disagreed with the majority in all the remaining stays.
In the case of Randall Mays, Keller and Meyers wrote the lone dissenting opinion objecting to a stay of execution. Mays was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008 in the fatal shooting of a sheriff's deputy. The majority of the court chose to stay his execution, allowing more time to determine whether Mays is mentally competent to face the ultimate punishment.
Keller and Meyers disagreed with the majority's decision. While Mays' lawyers had shown he was mentally ill, the 2 judges believed his attorneys failed to prove he did not understand how and why he was being punished.
"Mental illness and incompetence to be executed are not the same thing," Keller wrote in the dissent.
In the other stays the court granted last year, lawyers for death row inmates sought clemency for a variety of reasons. Some said they needed more time to investigate new evidence. Others argued that new scientific developments could help prove their innocence. A few contended they had shoddy legal help.
Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said the new judges might have been more likely to agree to stays out of a desire to be more cautious.
Since 1989, there have been 240 exonerations in Texas, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, including 11 men who had been on death row.
"For lack of a better term, [the judges] might not be as jaded as they might be in the future after they see these kinds of claims brought up time after time after time," Edmonds said.
But Kovarsky said the increase in stays might have less to do with the makeup of the court than with the general shift away from the death penalty nationally and in Texas.
According to Gallup Poll data, the number who don't favor the death penalty for murderers grew from about 28 % of respondents nationally in 2000 to more than 37 % in 2015.
In 2015, Texas courts issued just two new death sentences, the lowest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after a 1972 Supreme Court decision led to a de facto moratorium on capital punishment.
"I strongly suspect that the [Court of Criminal Appeals] would still rank very close to the pole representing the least hospitable areas, although the spectrum itself may have shifted a little," Kovarsky said. "I think the drift of the court is certainly toward a little bit more caution in allowing executions to go forward."
Source: Dallas Morning News, January 1, 2016
Record low number of killers sent to death row in 2015
Only 2 death sentences were handed down in Texas in 2015.
This is the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated nearly 40 years ago.
Texas was responsible for nearly 1/2 of the nation's death row executions this year, but death penalty cases are becoming more rare.
One reason for this change is the amount of money that goes into death penalty cases.
Randall County District Attorney James Farren says the judicial process is the biggest expense in these cases.
That is in large part because inmates can sit on death row for decades before being executed.
Juries are also more likely to opt for life in prison without parole "if they believe the person will actually die in prison," said Farren.
A majority of the population still favors the death penalty, but Attorney Dean Boyd said that belief is tested in court.
"You don't really know if you believe in the death penalty until you are sitting there in judgment on someone's living or dying," said Boyd. "That is a hard, hard thing to do. It's easy to have an opinion, hard to actually do. They'd better be right, and the evidence better be crystal clear."
Nationally, there were 49 new death sentences in 2015. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, this is a 33% decline from the previous low of 73 in 2014.
The next execution in Texas is scheduled for January 20, 2016.
Source: newschannel10.com, January 1, 2015