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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…

U.S. on track for fewest executions since 1991


With public support for the death penalty at its lowest point in more than 4 decades, the U.S. is on track for its fewest executions in a quarter century. 

So far in 2016, 17 inmates have been executed, according to a database maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center. 3 additional executions are scheduled for this year. If all 3 proceed as planned, the year's 20 executions will be the fewest since 1991, when 14 were recorded. The U.S. has executed at least 28 people in each year since 1992. 

Just 5 states - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas - account for the 17 completed and 3 scheduled executions this year. This represents the fewest states to carry out executions in any year since 1983. In 1999, by comparison, 20 states conducted executions. 

1 reason for the national decline in executions has been a decrease in Texas, which is scheduled to execute 8 inmates this year, a 20-year low. Texas has long been the nation's leader in executions, carrying out nearly 5 times as many as any other state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. During that span, Texas carried out 538 executions, compared with 112 in Oklahoma and 111 in Virginia. 

Legal and practical challenges have prevented some states from carrying out executions this year. Ohio, for example, has not executed anyone since 2014 amid difficulties acquiring the drugs needed to conduct lethal injections. The state announced this month that it will resume executions next year, using a new protocol. 

The number of states with the death penalty on the books - currently 30 - also could decline this year. Voters in California and Nebraska will decide Nov. 8 whether to eliminate or retain their capital punishment laws. 

In California, which has the nation's largest death row, Proposition 62 would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without parole. The measure would apply retroactively and, if approved, resentence the more than 700 people on death row to life without parole. A competing measure, Proposition 66, would retain capital punishment but change legal procedures related to death penalty appeals. (If both measures pass, the one with more "yes" votes will prevail.) 

In Nebraska, voters will revisit a May 2015 decision by the state Legislature to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a maximum penalty of life without parole for the crime of murder. Referendum 426 asks whether to retain or repeal the state law that eliminated the death penalty. 

A 3rd state, Oklahoma, will also vote on a proposal related to capital punishment. Question 776 would solidify the state's death penalty against legal or legislative challenges by adding provisions to the state constitution, including a declaration that capital punishment "is not cruel and unusual punishment." 

A Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 2 found that 49% of Americans support the death penalty for those convicted of murder, compared with 42% who oppose it. While the share of supporters reached a 4-decade low, voters remain divided along party lines. Nearly 3/4 (72%) of Republicans favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder, compared with 34% of Democrats

Both major-party presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, favor the death penalty. The federal government has not executed anyone since 2003, carrying out just 3 executions in the modern era of capital punishment. 

Source: Pew Research Center, October 22, 2016

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