Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Releases Report on Death Penalty Developments in 2007
Questions Regarding the Constitutionality of Lethal Injection Protocol Cap Year of Dramatic Developments in Nation’s Most Active Death Penalty State
(Austin, Texas) — The State of Texas accounted for 62% of all executions that took place in the United States this year, according to a new report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), a statewide, grassroots organization based in Austin. Only a U.S. Supreme Court decision to hear a Kentucky case challenging the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocol (Baze v. Rees) forced the state to put its death penalty apparatus on hold.
On December 7, 1982, Charlie Brooks was the first person executed by the State of Texas under its revised statute – and the first person executed by lethal injection. His execution ushered in a new era in which Texas emerged as the uncontested leader in the use of the death penalty in the United States.
“In a year when most other states proceeded cautiously with their administration of the death penalty, Texas continued to carry out executions at an alarming rate,” said Bob Van Steenburg, Vice President of TCADP.
“The majority of our elected officials failed to recognize the many flaws that characterize the Texas death penalty system – flaws that include an unacceptable rate of error when it comes to convicting the innocent, a crime lab scandal that drew national attention, and continued questions regarding the quality and competency of defense counsel, both during the trial and appellate stage of capital cases. Twenty-five years ago, Texas carried out the first execution by lethal injection in the United States. Today we mark this somber occasion by acknowledging twenty five years of a fatally flawed process.”
Fourteen DNA exonerations from Dallas County, the ongoing review of cases implicated by the Houston Police Department crime lab scandal, and investigations into potentially wrongful executions continued to raise questions about the reliability of the state’s criminal justice system. Such concerns about the risk of error led the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board this past spring to reverse its more than 100-year-old position of supporting the death penalty and instead call for its complete abolition in Texas.
Here are some highlights of TCADP’s report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2007:
- In 2007, the State of Texas accounted for 26 out of the 42 executions that took place in the United States. Only nine other states carried out executions in 2007; none executed more than three people.
- Harris County [Houston] now accounts for 102 executions, more than any state in the country except Texas as a whole, which has carried out a total of 405 executions since 1982.
- Texas’ last execution of the year took place on September 25, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Baze v. Rees. The appeal of Michael Richard was denied when the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Sharon Keller, failed to grant his attorneys a 20-minute extension to deliver the appropriate paperwork. All scheduled executions – both in Texas and around the country – have since been stayed pending the outcome of Baze v. Rees.
- Seven inmates scheduled for execution in 2007 received last-minute stays, due to concerns about their possible innocence, the fairness of their trial, or issues related to lethal injection. The execution warrant for an additional inmate was withdrawn after the discovery of suppressed evidence.
- According to data available from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Office of Court Administration, 14 men were sentenced to death in Texas in 2007 (as of December 7). Over the last five years, the number of new death sentences in Texas has declined by approximately 50%, which mirrors national trends. The decline in new death sentences is particularly noteworthy in Harris County.
One person who was not executed as scheduled was Kenneth Foster, whose sentence was commuted to life in prison by Governor Rick Perry upon his receipt of a rare recommendation for clemency from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Foster had been convicted under the controversial law of parties for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood, even though he was sitting in a car 80 feet away at the time of the crime. This was only the third such recommendation for clemency from the Board in 25 years, and the first such decision for Governor Perry in a case where the inmate faced imminent execution.
TCADP’s report also recaps the activities of the Texas Legislature, including the passage of House Bill 8, which expands the scope of the death penalty to repeat child sex offenders. “In a year when numerous states gave serious consideration to abolishing the death penalty altogether, some in the Texas Legislature pursued a bill that actually ran counter to the wishes of victims’ advocates and prosecutors throughout the state,” said State Representative Dora Olivo (D-Fort Bend).
While efforts to improve the system met with mixed success in 2007, many remain optimistic about recent developments. “There is promise for the future as increasing numbers of Texans express concerns about the reliability, fairness, and morality of our state’s death penalty system,” said Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of the Catholic Diocese of Austin. “The Church truly looks forward to the day when our state embraces a culture of life.”