by Ed Lyon
Harris County, Texas is known for many things. The county seat is Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States and the largest in Texas. It has its own shipping channel and a modern port for ocean-going vessels. It is also known as “the death penalty capital of the world,” “the capital of capital punishment” and “the buckle of the American death belt.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that the death penalty, as then applied, was unconstitutional. Four years later the Court allowed capital punishment to resume; Texas restarted death penalty prosecutions in 1982.
There were 1,465 executions in the United States from 1976 through the end of 2017; 545 occurred in Texas, over a third of the total. Harris County alone was responsible for 126 of those executions.
Jeff Newberry, with the University of Houston Law Center, summed up the main reason for Harris County’s high death penalty and execution numbers: District Attorney Johnny Holmes. Holmes held the D.A.’s office from 1979 until 2000. Under his leadership, prosecutors secured over 200 death sentences. Holmes once told the Houston Chronicle, with respect to his efforts to obtain death penalty convictions, “This is what [prosecutors] are supposed to be – zealous in seeking justice.”
Most people who oppose capital punishment agree that the fact Holmes is no longer Harris County’s D.A. is one of the primary reasons for the decline in capital convictions in the county since 2000. His successors have been less eager in their pursuit of state-sponsored killing. Top prosecutor Devon Anderson believed death sentences were appropriate only “for the worst of the worst.” Her successor, Harris County D.A. Kim Ogg, a Democrat elected in 2016, is of the same mindset. Even so, Ogg sought the death penalty four times in 2017; each time the juries returned a sentence of life without parole rather than death.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also significant because they reflect the growing movement in the United States toward reform prosecutors who have pledged to use the death penalty more sparingly if at all,” said Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
In 2005, Texas enacted a law that provided the option of life without parole rather than capital punishment, which also helped reduce the number of death sentences.
“I believe this bill will improve our criminal justice system because it gives jurors a new option to protect the public with the certainty a convicted killer will never roam our streets again,” said then-Governor Rick Perry.
A poll conducted by Rice University in 2016 found only 27 percent of Harris County residents supported death over life in prison as a punishment for capital murder. That same year, a report by the Death Penalty Information Center discovered nationwide public support for capital punishment had ebbed to its lowest point since the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling that temporarily struck down the death penalty.
“With other sentencing options and with an increased knowledge of science and technology, Americans feel responsible as jurors in a way they didn’t in the past because there’s more information to be considered,” said District Attorney Ogg. “So I think attitudes toward the death penalty are changing.”
Recent cases concerning mentally-ill prisoners like Bobby Moore (whose death sentence was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in June 2018), and the racially-motivated case of Duane Black (whose death sentence was reduced to life in October 2017), are causing juries to think twice about imposing capital punishment. The fact that 163 death-sentenced prisoners have been exonerated since 1973 – including 13 in Texas – also may be a factor.
Whatever the reasons, 2017 was a milestone year for Harris County with respect to capital punishment: no prisoners sentenced to death by county prosecutors were executed, and no defendants received a death sentence.
Sources: www.csmonitor.com, www.houstonpublicmedia.org, www.chron.com, www.nbcnews.com, Texas Tribune, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org
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