January 7, 2009

Breakdown in Lone Star death machine?

Drop in Texas executions has folks wondering

Texas is the death penalty capital of the United States, and perhaps the world. So a decline in both executions and new death sentences there has some wondering whether this is the beginning of the end for capital punishment in our prison nation.

"I think we are seeing the leading edge of that national transformation,” said Rob Owen, co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin.

Whoa, Cowboy, says Michael Casillas, chief prosecutor of the appellate division of the Dallas County district attorney's office. Not so fast: "Things are, even in the criminal justice system, kind of cyclical."

Most startling of last year's statistics were those coming out of Harris County (Houston), the epicenter of the death penalty capital. The year before last, that one COUNTY alone had surpassed the annual execution rate for the next-highest STATE (Virginia). But last year, that usually prolific killer did not sentence a single person to die. Not even an illegal immigrant who went to trial for killing a police officer!

As the Dallas Morning News reports, a number of factors may be contributing to the decline. These include:
  • A big drop in the murder rate
  • Better quality legal representation
  • A wave of exonerations
  • The high costs of capital case prosecution
  • The availability of life without parole as an option
Or perhaps Harris County is just looking over toward neighboring Dallas County, usually number two in executions, where maverick prosecutor Craig Watkins (whom I featured on this blog last September) has called a halt to all executions pending a thorough review.

In a sign of the times in which Barack Obama could be elected as President, Watkins' crusade has earned him the honorary title of "Texan of the Year" from the Dallas Morning News:
He is actively pursuing a range of reforms that would protect the wrongly accused and appropriately punish the guilty. Not only does he want to clear the innocent, but he also hopes to extend the statute of limitations in DNA cases to ensure that the right person does the time.

He has reinvented his office by creating a conviction integrity unit, an operation that has freed prisoners who were wrongly locked up for murder, robbery and rape. Not content to just notch wins in the courtroom, Mr. Watkins deserves credit for vigilantly pursuing justice – a distinction with an important difference.

Dallas County leads the country in DNA exonerations (19 and counting), and Mr. Watkins has seized upon the attendant acclaim, taking his fight for social justice to statewide and national stages. In his sudden fame, he sees an opportunity to change the way district attorneys do business.
Further resources:

Texas Department of Criminal Justice schedule of executions

Execution statistics

Craig Watkins: Texan of the Year

Is the death penalty a dying breed? (Dallas Morning News)

Hang 'em high county to reverse course (blog post, September 2008)

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