Are Death Penalty Convictions on the Decline in Texas?

Texas might have a reputation for high death penalty rates – but it looks like the trend is shifting.

By Alain StephensJune 3, 2015 1:15 pm

Convicted killer Lester Bower will be slated for execution Wednesday. Bower was convicted of killing four men in 1984, two of whom were law enforcement officers. After being on death row for nearly three decades he will be the first execution in Texas this year.

Texas is known for its tough-on-crime stance, and perhaps for our high number of executions. But is that really the case today? Steve Blow, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News says that perception may be a little different from reality.

What is the current trend in Texas capital punishment?

“I think our ‘hang ‘em high’ reputation is still in tact in Texas, but in fact something pretty remarkable has been happening,” Blow says. “Far fewer people are receiving the death penalty. In ‘99, Texas courts sent 39 people to death row, last year that number dropped to 11, and for this year it’s zero, even more amazing. We’ve had two death penalty cases in Texas so far and in both cases jurors opted for a life without parole instead of death penalty.”

What has shifted in the state’s mindset? “It’s a variety of things,” Blow says.

“The polls show that Texans very much support the death penalty and so I don’t think politically you’re going to see it go away anytime soon. But as a practical matter I think Texans like the rest of the country have deep reservations now about the ability of our justice system to get it right,” he says.

In the past few years the state had more than 150 people come off of death row, and with the load of mismanaged DNA cases circulating the media, Blow says prosecutors and jurors are more tentative to dole out convictions.

“No one at this point can contend that we’ve never executed an innocent person and that gives everyone deep pause,” he says.

What are some of the reasons there’s been a change in convictions?

“It starts with the prosecutors,” Blow says. “The number of death penalty cases that they are bringing to present to jurors has dropped dramatically and there are other factors that come into play. One is that Texas, just a few years ago, for the first time legislators gave jurors and prosecutors the option of life without parole. Up until that point, even in Texas if you had a life conviction, life sentence there was still the option of parole out there.… That gives both prosecutors and jurors a lot more sense of comfort that we can send a bad person away permanently without the worry that in 20 to 25 years they will be eligible for parole.”

Blow says cost is also a factor. Many counties can’t afford the money required for a death penalty or capital penalty case. The review and appeal process can often exceed $1 million.

When will Texas cease to be the busiest execution chamber in the country? Blow says “It’s already happened.”