HOUSTON (AP) — Texas' death row is getting its first inmate of 2015, ending a 10-month hiatus in death sentences imposed by juries in the nation's most active capital punishment state.
A Brazos County jury decided after seven hours of deliberation Wednesday that 22-year-old Gabriel Hall should be executed for an attack that left a man dead and his wife injured at the couple's home in College Station, about 100 miles northwest of Houston.
The lull in death sentences in Texas is similar to what other capital punishment states have experienced in recent years. The Texas hiatus is believed to be the longest the state has seen since the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a Georgia case in 1972, effectively halted executions.
Statistics kept by the Death Penalty Information Center show 73 people nationwide were sentenced to die last year. In 1996, the nation's death rows swelled by 315 inmates.
"It's definitely slowing down, especially compared to the 1990s," Richard Dieter, senior program director for the Washington-based organization that opposes capital punishment, said Thursday. "It's reflected in almost every state."
He said Missouri, an active death penalty state, had no death sentences last year. Oklahoma had 15 of the sentences in 1998 but just two last year. North Carolina had 20 in 1998 and now is averaging a couple per year, he said.
"Certainly it's a national phenomenon, but the crime rates are lower, too," Dieter said. "So there's a lot of factors going into this."
Both executions and death sentences have declined since about 2000, he said, with cases undergoing more legal scrutiny and DNA testing becoming more prominent. He said there's "a whole range of things that has made the system more cautious when it comes to the death penalty."
In 1994, 49 inmates arrived on death row in Texas, nearly one a week. In 2000, the state executed 40 inmates. Since then, courts have narrowed some of the conditions for death sentences such as exempting inmates with mental impairment or those who were younger than 18 when their crimes occurred.
At the state level, juries considering death sentences in Texas in recent years have been given the option of life without parole.
"That does matter," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, California, organization that has supported the death penalty and focuses on crime victims. "If you have to choose between two penalties, that additional choice might make you accept life without parole when life with parole was not an acceptable choice.
"And it's not a bad thing," he said. "We are supposed to be choosing the worst of the worst for the death penalty."
Texas now has 253 inmates currently on its death row with the addition of Hall.
The last person sentenced to death in Texas before Hall was Eric Williams, convicted in December for the revenge-plot deaths of the Kaufman County district attorney, his wife and a top assistant prosecutor. Eleven convicted killers were given death sentences last year in Texas.
Jurors who convicted Hall of fatally shooting and stabbing 68-year-old Edwin Shaar and severely wounding Shaar's wife, Linda, rejected the option of sending him to prison for life with no chance of parole. In three other Texas cases this year in which the death penalty was on the table, jurors chose life without parole.
"It shows how disproportional Texas' use of the death penalty is," said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a legal group that handles capital case appeals for inmates. "Here we have in two of the three prior trials this year, there were multiple murders and those jurors came back with life sentences. This man killed one and yet the jury sentenced him to death.
"What this first death sentence of the year emphasizes for Texas is that the death penalty is like lightning striking," she added.
Three other capital murder cases in Texas are at or near trial.
The Supreme Court in 1976 upheld Georgia's amended death penalty law, clearing the way for executions in the U.S. to resume.
Since then, Texas has lethally injected 529 inmates. The state carried out the nation's first lethal injection in 1982.
Oklahoma is the next most active state, having executed 112 inmates since executions were allowed to continue — one more than Virginia.
Last year, seven of the 31 states that have the death penalty carried out 35 executions. So far this year, 23 inmates have been executed in six states.
Eleven inmates have been put to death this year in Texas, one more than in 2014. Three more are scheduled to die this year, including one next week.