Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Texas DAs to Blame for High Execution Rate

The New York Times has an article today "Executions Decline Elsewhere, but Texas Holds Steady" that explains why district attorney elections in 2008 in Travis County and Harris County, as well as other Texas counties, are so important in the effort to slow down or stop executions in a flawed Texas capital punishment system that puts innocent people at risk of execution.

Unlike other states where the number of executions have declined, in Texas execution dates are set by aggressive district attorneys asking convicting courts to set the date. If we want to slow down the number of executions in Texas, we need to elect district attorneys who will pledge to impose a moratorium on seeking new death sentences and a moratorium on setting execution dates for existing death sentences.

Adam Liptak writes in the NYT:

This year’s death-penalty bombshells — a federal moratorium, a state abolition and the smallest number of executions in more than a decade — have masked what may be the most significant and lasting development. For the first time in the modern history of the death penalty, more than 60 percent of all American executions took place in Texas.

Over the past three decades, the proportion of executions nationwide performed in Texas has held relatively steady, averaging 37 percent. Only once before, in 1986, has the state accounted for even a slight majority of the executions, and that was in a year with only 18 executions nationwide.

But this year, enthusiasm for executions outside of Texas dropped sharply. Of last year’s 42 executions, 26 were in Texas. The remaining 16 were spread across nine other states, none of which executed more than three people. Many legal experts say that trend is likely to continue.

Indeed, said David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented death row inmates, the day is not far off when essentially all executions in the United States will take place in Texas.

“The reason that Texas will end up monopolizing executions,” he said, “is because every other state will eliminate it de jure, as New Jersey did, or de facto, as other states have.”
The article goes on to point out that death sentences are declining here in Texas as they have been across the country:
In the 10 years ending in 2004, Texas condemned an average of 34 prisoners each year — about 15 percent of the national total. In the last three years, as the number of death sentences nationwide dropped significantly, from almost 300 in 1998 to about 110 in 2007, the number in Texas has dropped along with it, to 13 — or 12 percent.
The big difference though is that in Texas execution dates are set by convicting courts at the request of district attorneys and in Texas there are some DAs who set lots of execution dates.
“Any sane prosecutor who is involved in capital litigation will really be ambivalent about it,” said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. He said the families of murder victims suffer needless anguish during what can be decades of litigation and multiple retrials.

“We’re seeing fewer executions,” Mr. Marquis added. “We’re seeing fewer people sentenced to death. People really do question capital punishment. The whole idea of exoneration has really penetrated popular culture.”

As a consequence, Mr. Dieter said, “we’re simply not regularly using the death penalty as a country.”

So while the number of executions in Texas been relatively constant, averaging 23, the state’s share of total executions nationwide has steadily increased: from 32 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2006 to 62 percent in 2007.

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