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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 executes Barney Fuller Jr.

Barney Fuller Jr.
Barney Fuller Jr.
Six months after the Texas death chamber held its latest execution, Barney Ronald Fuller Jr. was executed Wednesday for the 2003 shooting deaths of his neighbors in rural East Texas.

Laid out in the Texas death chamber with an IV in his arm, Fuller declined to give a last statement.

Fuller avoided eye contact in the death chamber with witnesses, including two children of the slain couple.

At 6:23 p.m., a lethal dose of pentobarbital started running through his veins, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Fuller took a deep breath as officials injected a lethal dose of pentobarbital into each arm.

"Hey, you fixin' to put me to sleep," he said.

After a couple of breaths, Fuller began snoring and all movement stopped within 30 seconds.

He was pronounced dead 38 minutes later, at 7:01 p.m, taking longer than expected to die.

Fuller's execution breaks the longest gap between executions in Texas since 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of lethal injection. It also marks the first time Houston County has put someone to death since the penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976.

Fuller, 53, was sentenced to death for killing Annette and Nathan Copeland, his neighbors on the outskirts of Lovelady, a small town with around 600 residents at the time about 100 miles north of Houston. 

In the early morning of May 14, 2003, he fired into their home with an assault rifle before breaking in and killing them both with a pistol, according to court documents.

“We got a call in the middle of the night that our family had been murdered,” said Ona Presto, Annette's older sister who became guardian of the Copelands’ two children.

The tension between the neighbors began several years earlier. In 2001, Fuller was charged with making terroristic threats against the Copelands after he allegedly shot and damaged their electric transformer, then threatened them when they called the sheriff’s office, according to testimony from the sentencing trial. The Copelands called deputies to their home several other times claiming Fuller was firing weapons, but no action was ever taken.

'The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, Texas
The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas
On May 13, 2003, more than two years after charges were filed, Fuller received a letter from the Houston County courthouse about his upcoming trial, sending him into a rage, according to testimony from Fuller’s wife, Linda. He drank through the day and night and eventually sent Linda and their children from the house.

At around 1:30 a.m., he walked the 200 yards to the Copeland’s home and fired 60 rounds into the house with an assault rifle, according to court documents. He then broke down the back door, and first went into the bedroom of the Copeland’s 10-year-old daughter, but left when he couldn’t turn on her light. He went into the master bedroom and fatally shot both Nathan, 43, and Annette, 39, with a pistol before heading to their son’s room. Cody, 14, was shot twice in the shoulder, but survived.

During the initial gunfire, Annette managed to crawl into the bathroom to call 911. During the call, the operator heard a man say, “Party’s over, bitch” before hearing pops, then silence, according to court testimony.

“It’s just a heinous crime,” said Randy Hargrove, an investigator for the Houston County District Attorney’s Office and former sheriff deputy who worked the crime scene in 2003. “The man doesn’t need to be on this earth.”

Fuller was arrested at his home several hours later, and pleaded guilty to the murders in court. After a sentencing trial, the jury handed down the death penalty.

Hargrove said he couldn’t remember another case in Houston County where the death penalty was pursued. Fuller was the only inmate on death row from the county, and no executions from the county are on record. Hargrove said he believes the death penalty is right for Fuller but hopes there will be no future cases.

“It’s really sad for both families,” Hargrove said, adding that he feels for Fuller's mother as well as the Copelands. “But you reap what you sow. If you plant corn, you don’t harvest peas ... That’s just the way it is.”

Presto has always believed the death penalty was the right punishment for her sister’s killer, she said.

Texas' death chamber
Texas' Death Chamber
“I do believe that God made this determination, and that he is getting justice done for what he did to two innocent people,” she said.

Fuller’s direct appeal was denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court, and the one other appeal he filed was also denied.

Among the appellate claims was his incompetence to stand trial or enter a guilty plea because he acted irrationally and removed himself from the courtroom for most of the jury selection process and trial.

Fuller waived all further review of his case in May, according to his lawyer, Jason Cassel.

Last year, Fuller wrote to his attorney saying that he wanted proceed with the execution.

"But I also really do not care and do not want to go on living in this hellhole," he wrote. "Do not do anything for me which will prolong my appeals and time here on Texas death row."

At hearing in the spring, a federal judge ruled Fuller competent to waive his right to appeal.

"What's the point of sentencing someone to death, you know, if you're not going to carry on through with what you ordered," he said at the hearing.

The execution is the seventh of the year. Two other executions are scheduled for 2016.

Fuller becomes the 7th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Texas and the 538th overall since the state resumed capital punishment on December 7, 1982.

Fuller becomes the 16th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1,438th overall since the nation resumed executions on Januuary 17, 1977.

Sources: Texas Tribune, Twitter feed, October 5, 2016

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