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Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Supreme Court to Rule on Judge’s Role in Death-Penalty Case

U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court
Justices weigh whether judge who had helped prosecute the case should have recused himself

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court appeared ready on Monday to raise ethical standards for state courts, with some justices clearly troubled that an elected Pennsylvania justice who voted to uphold a death sentence previously had helped prosecute the case as a district attorney.

“At what point do we give meaning to the constitutional command that you can’t be prosecutor and judge?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “The judge here actually signed his name to his review of the facts and his decision to seek the death penalty.”

Monday’s case came from Philadelphia, where Terrance Williams, then 18 years old, and an accomplice were convicted of the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, 56. The victim was taken to a cemetery, robbed and beaten to death with a tire iron and a socket wrench. The corpse, later set afire, was identified through dental records.

Ronald Castille, as Philadelphia’s elected district attorney, authorized trial prosecutors to seek the death penalty, one of 45 obtained during his tenure. He cited that record in 1993 during his successful campaign for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and eventually served as chief justice.

In 2012, a state court found prosecutors had withheld evidence that could have influenced jurors to spare Mr. Williams the death penalty and ordered a new sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where then Chief Justice Castille denied a defense motion to recuse himself and joined a unanimous decision reinstating the death sentence.

In a concurrence, the chief justice called the Williams claim “frivolous,” branded the lower-court decision as “lawless” and castigated the federal public defender’s office, which had taken up the case, for “an obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” designed to “unsettle and undermine Pennsylvania law.” He left the court two weeks later, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

On Monday, several justices at the U.S. Supreme Court probed for a legal standard that could clarify how much prior involvement in a case should trigger a justice’s recusal. Justice Samuel Alito, for instance, asked about whether the situation violated the Constitution. “It’s really not enough to just say what happened here was bad,” he said.


Source: The Wall Street Journal, Jess Bravin, Feb. 29, 2016

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