Number of death sentences, executions continue decline

No death sentences handed down in Harris County in 2017

HOUSTON – Texas, and specifically Harris County, have long been known as the epicenter of capital punishment in the United States.

Over the last 20 years, 438 people have been executed in the state, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. However, the number of yearly executions nationwide has dropped steeply since the turn of the century.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were 98 executions in the United States in 1999. Last year, there were 23. During the same time in Texas, the number of executions dropped from 35 to seven.

“People are more reluctant to give out death sentences,” said city of Houston victims rights advocate Andy Kahan.

He said there are several factors contributing to the trend. The most significant impact came in 2005, when juries were given the option to hand down a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Kahan said the effect on the death penalty was immediate.

“(Juries) feel as long as that person will remain behind bars for the rest of their life, they're not going to be so inclined to give out the death penalty,” Kahan said.

Before the law, sentencing someone to life in prison for capital murder meant they still had a shot at getting paroled after serving 40 years in prison.

“(Juries) knew that if they did not come back with the death penalty, eventually that person might be released,” Kahan said.

According to TDCJ, 1,067 criminals have been sentenced to life without parole since 2006. Harris County had the highest number at 266.

Not only is the number of executions dropping, the number of times prosecutors seek the death penalty is also going down. The Death Penalty Information Center shows nationwide in 1998 there were 295 death sentences handed down. In 2017, the number was 39.

In Harris County, not a single death sentence was handed down in 2017.

“Is what the person has done so heinous (that) it's really beyond forgiveness?” said Tom Berg, first assistant in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Berg said that is one of the main benchmarks when deciding whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

“We have to save death for the most heinous of cases,” Berg said.

He added that another factor is whether a person constitutes a continuing threat to others, even in prison.

One example where the death penalty was taken off the table involves Deputy Darren Goforth's killer, Shannon Miles. Issues of Miles’ mental competency and a troubled investigation led prosecutors to seek life without parole in exchange for a guilty plea.

Maytham Alsaedy was given life without parole for the murder, kidnapping and rape of Kella Bracken. Her family agreed with prosecutors’ decision to seek the sentence in exchange for a guilty plea and the chance to avoid a painful trial. However, before pleading guilty, Alsaedy committed suicide in his jail cell.

Berg said another factor on potential jurors minds is the number of innocent people freed from death row or prison over the years due to mistakes, advances in science and newly discovered evidence.

“I think it becomes very difficult for a jury of 12 to agree to execute somebody,” Berg said.

Berg said life without parole still leaves somewhat of an out if a mistake or new evidence is discovered years later. Plus, he said, many jurors see life without parole as a tough punishment.

“They realize that's not insignificant, that can be worse than death,” Berg said.

Even with declining numbers, five executions are scheduled in Texas during the first three months of the year. Anthony Allen Shore, the so-called "Tourniquet Killer," is scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday.