May 27, 2008
Is the death penalty declining in Texas?

This Chron story asks a provocative question: If a Harris County jury declines to give the death penalty to Juan Quintero, is it the case that a taste for the death penalty is on the decline here?

The jury decided to spare him, despite the brutal killing of Houston police officer Rodney Johnson, which raises the question of whether any death case -- even in the nation's death penalty capital -- is a slam-dunk anymore.


Quintero's jurors also had the benefit of a sentencing option not available in Texas until 2005: life without parole. Criminal justice experts, especially those focusing on capital punishment, say the landscape has been altered in recent years, in part by life-without-parole options in 35 of the 36 states with the death penalty and in part by shaken confidence arising from the significant number of people removed from death row after DNA testing.

It's not so much that juries are eschewing death, as they did with Quintero, but that prosecutors are pursuing fewer death cases, reserving those for their most heinous murders.

"There are fewer of these cases going to trial," said John Niland, director of the Capital Trial Project for the Texas Defender Service, which assists indigent defendants in capital cases. "I think there's a willingness to plead cases that, just from a statistical standpoint, wasn't there before."


Over the past few years, death sentences have declined by almost two-thirds in Texas and the rest of the country. There is no pat explanation for the drop, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an information clearinghouse opposed to capital punishment.

"I wouldn't attribute it to one reason," Dieter said. "Life without parole has to be included. The emergence of DNA testing and innocence cases has been a factor, maybe even a bigger factor. So many cases were highlighted in the media and on television shows and movies. There has been quite a pronounced effect that has given some skepticism to jurors when they are asked to impose a death sentence."

I agree that the items suggested here - the life-without-parole option, and the recent spate of DNA exonerations - have had an effect. My unscientific opinion is that LWOP satisfies the main condition that the death penalty used to - ensuring that the killer never gets out to kill again - without the defendant's condemnation being on anyone's conscience. You can debate, as AHCL and Grits do as to whether death or LWOP is "worse" (see also here), but I don't think anyone would deny that it's a generally fitting sentence. I'm not at all surprised by this, and will not be at all unhappy if it's a trend that continues.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 27, 2008 to Crime and Punishment