HOUSTON (AP) — The state of Texas, long the nation's leader in executions, lost that distinction in 2016 and its two most populous counties didn't send a single convicted killer to death row, according to a new report.
The change is because of growing legal and public hesitance to impose the ultimate punishment, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"The death penalty landscape in Texas continues to change dramatically," Kristin Houlé, the advocacy group's executive director said in a year-end report. "Prosecutors, juries, judges, and the public are subjecting our state's death penalty practices to unprecedented scrutiny and, in many cases, accepting alternatives to the ultimate punishment."
Texas juries sent only three convicted killers to death row this year and none of them came from the two most populous counties — Harris including Houston, and Dallas including Dallas-Fort Worth. Those two Texas counties have accounted for more people put to death than any other counties in the nation since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Seven convicted killers were given lethal injection in Texas this year, the lowest number since three were executed in 1996. For the first time since 2002, Texas did not lead or tie for the state with the most executions. Georgia has that distinction for 2016, with nine, as only five states — Georgia, Texas, Missouri, Alabama and Florida — accounted for the 20 executions nationwide.
None of the seven Texas inmates given lethal injection this year was African-American, although all three prisoners arriving on death row this year are black. Over the past five years seven of the 35 people sentenced to death in Texas were white, according to the coalition's report, which contended the statistics showed "patterns of racial bias" in imposition of the death penalty.
The group also said in Texas' highest sentencing counties, all nine men sentenced to death in Dallas or adjacent Tarrant County since 2012 are African-American, as were 15 of the last 18 defendants from Harris County.
The overall numbers reflect a downward trend in capital punishment both in Texas and across the country. A significant impact in Texas has been a change in the law that gave juries in capital cases beginning in September 2005 the option of deciding between a life sentence without parole and a death sentence. In some other states, a shortage of lethal injection drugs has reduced executions.
Besides the seven executions carried out in Texas, 12 other inmates were scheduled to die in 2016 but at least temporarily avoided the death chamber. Seven lethal injections were halted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and one by a federal court to more fully examine appeals in the cases. The other inmates either had their dates withdrawn by their trial courts or were rescheduled for 2017.
While the number of executions declined in 2016, it could pick up next year when at least nine Texas inmates already are set to die, including three in January.