Front side of Alamo in downtown San Antonio TexasThe Dallas Texas city skyline at night

Executions in the Lone Star State

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According to PBS, Texas now executes a great deal more people than any other state in America, although Virginia actually holds the record for most executed overall. The very first execution ever held in what would come to be the United States of America took place in Virginia in 1608. The state has since executed 1,384 people. Texas did not start their count of executions until 1819, since which there have been 1,274 people to be put to death by legal means. There are said to be many reasons, both legal and cultural as to why the Lone Star State is performing executions “at a pace that has no parallel in the modern era of the death penalty in the U.S.” Wikipedia shares that almost thirteen hundred people have been executed in Texas since 1819…and only nine of them were women. There were 262 executions held in Texas between 1819 and 1899. From 1900 to 1999, there were 692. Since the year 2000, there have been 320 executions in the Great State of Texas.

When Did Texas Jump Ahead of the Pack?

Texas has executed people for a variety of crimes since the 1800s. Most of these were for the crime of murder, but others were executed for cattle rusting, piracy, desertion, treason, and rape. The number of executions in the state of Texas began to grow quickly after a short reprieve in the death penalty all over the United States. As Wikipedia explains, “Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) was a United States Supreme Court decision that ruled on the requirement for a degree of consistency in the application of the death penalty.[1] The case led to a de facto moratorium on capital punishment throughout the United States, which came to an end when Gregg v. Georgia was decided in 1976.”

How Were the Criminals Executed?

Wikipedia also shares, “Between 1819 and 1923, 390 people were executed by hanging in the county where the trial took place.[1] During the American Civil War, three Confederate deserters and a man convicted of attempted rape were executed by firing squad.[1] The law was changed in 1923 requiring executions to be carried out in the electric chair at the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas. From 1924 to 1964, 361 people were executed in this way.[2] After an eighteen-year gap following Furman v. Georgia, executions were resumed following new capital punishment laws passed by the State of Texas (and upheld in Gregg v. Georgia, which also included a companion case from Texas), among them changing the method of execution to lethal injection.

Since 1982 and as of January 21, 2015, 519 individuals (all of whom were convicted of murder) have been executed by lethal injection at the Huntsville Unit.[3] The number is over four times as many as Oklahoma[4] (the state with the second-highest total of executions in the post-Gregg era) and over 37 times as many as California (the state with the largest number of death row inmates;[5] California has not executed anyone since January 2006).

Why So Many Texas Executions?

According to PBS, there are three main legal reasons why “Texas has become ground zero for capitol punishment.” According to the report;

“1. Texas’ appellate judges are elected to office and hence serve according to the pleasure of the public. Not surprisingly, they require a record of toughness on criminals in order to win re-election. Also, there are many indications that elected appellate judges generally are of a lesser quality than their appointed counterparts in other states. Newton even claims that these elected judges do not carefully consider the complexities of each specific death penalty case. As evidence, Newton argues that “[e]specially during the past few years…the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has refused to publish most of its decisions in death penalty cases, including many cases that discuss important issues of first impression. Often these opinions take positions entirely inconsistent with prior decisions by the court and fail to mention the conflict. Generally speaking, there is a hit-and-mostly-miss quality in the Court of Criminal Appeals’ death penalty decisions. Only a few judges during the past decade have been capable of or willing to write thoughtful, scholarly decisions, whether granting or denying relief.” Additionally, Newton notes that these judges tend to dismiss habeas corpus appeals even in cases where there appears to be glaring unanswered questions about the defendant’s guilt.

2. Texas does not have a public defender system for indigent defendants, and instead relies upon court-appointed lawyers who likely do not have experience in capital murder defenses or appeals. Newton notes that incompetent defenses in capital murder cases are legion in Texas, and that, even in a death penalty appeal, bad lawyering is hard to prove. One decision, which turned down a defendant’s habeas appeal due to bad lawyering, concluded that “[t]he Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake” during trial proceedings. Furthermore, Texas was not obliged to provide lawyers free of charge to post-conviction habeas appeals until September 1, 1995, and the amount the state is willing to pay lawyers for these appeals is sufficiently low that most defendants still do not receive counsel for their appeals.
3. Until the early 1990s, Texas did not permit jurors to adequately consider mitigating evidence in the sentencing phase of a trial. Thus, there are a number of people currently on death row that may well not be there had information about their mental illness or youth been weighed.”

Who and Where Are They?

Currently, all female inmates who are on death row in Texas are held in the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas. They are held in single person cells with one window each. Those women on death row are not placed with other prisoners, and do not have any individual recreation other than earned television privileges and a radio. The very first female to be executed in Texas since 1863 was Karla Faye Tucker, who died on February 3, 1998. The last female to be executed in the Lone Star State so far was Suzanne Basso, on February 5, 2014.

Almost all males who are on death row in Teas are held at the Allan B Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. The death row inmates are held in a separate building from other prisoners. They also reside in single person cells with one window each. They are not allowed to work, and may or may not have radios. The state of Texas does not lay out any specific laws for the conditions in which a death row inmate must live.

All Texas executions are performed at the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas. It is the oldest prison in the state of Teas and was opened in 1849. An interesting note: Duane Chapman, AKA “Dog The Bounty Hunter”…from the reality television show by the same name, was held at Huntsville where he served 18 months for a murder which took place in 1977.

Sources:

PBS – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/texas.html

Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_people_executed_in_Texas

Execution Watch – http://www.executionwatch.org/

Texas Executions – http://www.txexecutions.org/

USA Today – http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/01/23/supreme-court-execution-drug/22212827/

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