Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Harris County sends nobody to death row in 2008

Rick Casey reported in his column last week in the Houston Chronicle that Harris County, where Houston is located, did not send anyone to death row in 2008:

"First I learn that Houston's air is getting cleaner.

Now I learn that we haven't sentenced a single scumbag murderer to death this entire year.

This is not the city I signed up for.

In 1999, Houston displaced Los Angeles as the smoggiest city in the nation. This year we set a record low with only 16 days exceeding federal standards for ground-level ozone, smog's main ingredient.

In 2003, the year I moved here, Houston sent nine murderers to death row.

That was 35 percent of the state's death sentences that year, an amount that is more than twice our 16.5 percent share of the state's population.

From 15 a year to zero

In 2004, we did even better, accounting for fully half of the 20 Texans who landed on death row.

Back in the 1990s, a less populous Harris County was even more prolific in sending murderers to meet their Maker — or not.

For the five years beginning in 1993, Harris County condemned more than 15 annually, contributing 39 percent of the state's migration to death row.

But this year, which for capital crime trial purposes is basically over, we've contributed precisely zero percent to the state's nation-leading cadre of dead men walking.

The Rosenthal factor?

I know what you're thinking: That's what happens when at the beginning of the year you banish the tough-on-crime likes of Chuck Rosenthal for minor indiscretions such as using his office computer for racist, romantic and obscene e-mails. (Separate e-mails, not racist, romantic and obscene all in one.)

And, oh yes, defying a federal judge's direct order by erasing a couple of thousand other e-mails that could have proved even more entertaining.

But acting District Attorney Ken Magidson declines to take either credit or blame for the county's paltry annual contribution to death row.

Magidson said he personally reviewed each capital crime to see if prosecutors could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they met "the standards set by law" for the death penalty.

Only two death-penalty cases were presented to juries. In one of them, prosecutors agreed a plea bargain of 60 years during the trial. In the other one, the defendant was acquitted, more on which below.

Statistics from the past three years agree with Magidson's suggestion that he wasn't the difference. From 2005 through 2007, Harris County condemned just seven men, or 15 percent of the Texas total.

Prosecutors throughout the state appear to be seeking the death sentence less often. This year only 16 cases have come to trial (and one currently under way).

In addition, juries appear to be showing more skepticism. One found the accused not guilty. One jury hung on the question of guilt. Four juries found the accused guilty but chose life sentences without possibility of parole.

One was the jury in the sole Harris County death penalty case — that of Juan Quintero, an illegal immigrant convicted of shooting a police officer four times in the head during a traffic stop.

"When you have a Texas jury refusing to give the death penalty to an illegal immigrant who killed a cop — if the significance of that doesn't speak volumes, nothing will, " said David Dow, an anti-death penalty activist and professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Dow believes that Texas juries have joined the national mainstream. The recent passage in Texas of the sentence of life without parole offers some jurors a satisfying alternative to death (which is why Rosenthal and other Texas district attorneys long opposed it).

What's more, say Dow and others, with the advent of highly publicized DNA-based exonerations, jurors across the country have become more concerned about imposing the death penalty.

In August, Michael Blair was released after 14 years on Texas death row. DNA evidence cleared him of the 1993 rape of a 7-year-old girl.

Dow notes that while Texas jurors seem to have joined the rest of the nation in increasing concern about the finality of the death penalty, state officials "seem to be uniquely stubborn."

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