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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…

Texas hasn't executed anyone in 148 days. That's a new record.

Polunsky Unit, Texas death row, Livingston, TX
Polunsky Unit, Texas death row, Livingston, TX
It's been 148 days since Texas executed someone - a remarkable lull in the use of the death penalty for a state that has killed far more people than any other.

In the nearly 5 months since Pablo Vasquez was killed by lethal injection on April 6, execution after execution in the state has been canceled. In fact, there hasn't been a gap between Texas executions this long since June 2008, according to state records. That gap happened when the Supreme Court temporarily halted the death penalty nationwide during a case on the constitutionality of lethal injection.

The 2016 hiatus is, in part, a sign of the decline of the death penalty in the Lone Star State. Since 1976, Texas has executed 537 people - more than the next top 6 states combined. At its peak in 2000, the state had 40 executions, more than 1 every other week. That's gradually declined over the years; in 2015, Texas executed 13 people.

The lull in executions also comes as more judges, public officials and ordinary citizens are speaking out about the questionable practices in some of the state's death penalty convictions.

"Texans are stepping back from this most irreversible punishment," said Kathryn Kase, the executive director of Texas Defender Services, a nonprofit law firm that defends death row inmates. "More and more people are expressing concerns about the way Texas has used the death penalty ... We all benefit from going more slowly on this."

The state's execution-free summer was caused by a string of scheduled executions that were stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in the state. Since Vasquez was killed, the Court has heard last-minute appeals from five men scheduled to be executed, and in each case ruled that the execution must be called off. "Cases that would have historically been given a green light with just a cursory glance are now being given more scrutiny," said Kristin Houle, the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

While each of the inmates' lives were spared for different reasons, each stay underscores the variety of flaws in the state's handling of the death penalty. The men were:

--Charles Flores, who was scheduled to die on June 2 and won a stay on May 27. His execution was stayed over his claim that police officers improperly hypnotized the key eyewitness in the case.

--Robert Roberson, who was scheduled to die June 21 and won a stay on June 16 because of new scientific evidence discounting the "shaken baby" theory that led to his conviction.

--Robert Pruett, who was scheduled to die August 23 and won a stay on August 11 while the court considered whether more DNA testing was necessary.

--Jeff Wood, who was scheduled to die August 24 and won a stay on August 19 due to improper expert testimony during his trial. His case attracted national attention because he didn't actually kill anybody; he was involved in a robbery when his accomplice shot and killed a store clerk.

--Rolando Ruiz, who was scheduled to die Wednesday and won a stay last week Friday based on his claim that his previous lawyer was incompetent.

In addition, Perry Williams, who was scheduled to die July 14, had his execution called off after the state failed to meet a deadline for testing of its execution drugs ordered by a separate federal court. 3 other inmates, Terry Edwards, Ramiro Gonzalez, and Tai'chin Preyor, had their executions postponed for procedural reasons.

While the Court of Criminal Appeals has historically had a reputation of being conservative and ruling against defendants, some observers say there has been a change in tone over the last few months. Anti-death penalty activists and lawyers point to the influence of Judge Elsa Alcala, who's become a strong voice criticizing Texas executions. In June, Alcala - the only nonwhite judge on the Court - wrote a powerful opinion questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty. She's been a part of the majority opinions staying all 6 of the recent executions.

"She is a thorn in the sides of all the [pro-death penalty] justices who sit up there in Austin," said Pat Hartwell, a longtime anti-capital punishment activist in Houston. "We have been waiting for years for a sitting judge to do this."

At the same time that executions in the state have flatlined, Texas juries have sent only 2 new inmates to death row so far in 2016, and sent only 3 inmates in all of 2015 - far fewer than in previous years.

"The innocence cases have really shaken people, the forensic science errors that have been discussed, and just the repeated drumbeat of stories about the overall of the failures in how the death penalty is carried out, it's caused people to stop and reflect," Kase said. "They don't like what they see."

Spokespeople for the Texas Attorney General's office and the state prison system declined to comment.

The decline in executions and death sentences in Texas mirrors a wider decrease in the use of the death penalty across the country. The number of death sentences in the U.S. in 2015 was the lowest since 1991, and will likely be even lower this year. Many other states are currently unable to execute anyone: Arizona and Arkansas lack any execution drugs, Oklahoma has enacted a moratorium following the botched execution, and Florida and Alabama are dealing with a Supreme Court ruling that seems to invalidate their policy of allowing judges to sentence a defendant to death instead of juries.

Still, Texas remains in many ways the center of capital punishment in America. 6 of the 15 people executed around the country so far in 2016 are from the Lone Star State, as were 13 of the 28 people executed in 2015. And polls still show that large majorities of Texans support the death penalty, although it's down from past years.

There are currently 4 executions scheduled to take place in the state over the next few months. The next inmate on the list, Robert Jennings, is scheduled to die September 14. Jennings' attorneys have already filed a motion asking the top court for a stay.

Source: fusion.net, Sept. 1, 2016

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