HOUSTON (AP) – Texas sent far fewer prisoners to death row in 2015, marking the lowest number of new-condemned inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s capital punishment statute nearly four decades ago, according to a Texas-based group opposed to the death penalty.
Three convicted killers were sentenced to death this year, the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said. Last year, there were 11 new death sentences in Texas, in the nation’s most active execution state. That was the most since a dozen in 2008.
The decline reflects lower murder rates and the effect of recent changes in sentencing laws that have given juries the life-without-parole option in capital cases. Legal scrutiny in death penalty cases also has intensified and DNA testing has become more prominent.
In an annual summary released Wednesday, the Texas group said 2015 also is the first year since 1976 that jurors in the state’s three most populous counties – Harris, Dallas and Tarrant – sent no new inmates to death row.
In Dallas and adjacent Tarrant County, prosecutors this year did not seek the death penalty in any capital murder case. A Harris County jury chose life without parole as punishment in one case where prosecutors had sought the death penalty. It was one of four cases in Texas this year where jurors decided on life without parole rather than death for a capital murder defendant they convicted.
“Over the last 15 years, use of the death penalty has dropped significantly in Texas, mirroring national trends,” said Kristin Houle, the Austin-based coalition’s executive director. “Texas has gone from a peak of 48 new death sentences in 1999 to the fewest sentences on record.”
Since 1993, when 315 inmates were sent to death rows around the country, seven states also have abolished capital punishment, leaving 31 with the death penalty.
Statistics cited by the Texas group show nearly 60 percent of all new death row inmates in Texas over the last five years were Black. But of the three new prisoners condemned in 2015, none was Black – the first year since capital punishment was upheld that no Black person was sent to death row in Texas.
Harris County jurors did return one convicted murderer to death row in a retrial after his 1991 death sentence was vacated by the Supreme Court.
Some states have been forced to hold off on executions because of difficulties finding suppliers of the drugs for lethal injections. Texas is not among them, executing 13 prisoners, up two from 2014, and accounting for nearly half of the 28 executions nationally in six states. Missouri was next with six executions.
At least six Texas inmates have execution dates scheduled for the early months of 2016, including two in January.
Over 10 years beginning in 2000, when a record 40 executions were carried out, Texas averaged nearly 25 lethal injections per year. Over the past 10 years, that average has declined to almost 18 per year.