It’s always nice to hear good news about the decline of the death penalty, and even nicer when that news is coming out of Texas. According to a recent report, while Texas officials continue to carry out executions at a high rate, the number of Texas juries that opt for the death penalty has dropped remarkably in recent years. In 1999, Texas sentenced 48 prisoners to death, but over the last decade that number has plummeted; so far in 2009, only 9 death sentences have been meted out. The drop has come about partly because a life-without-parole option has reassured juries that convicts will never be released, partly because in a troubled economy the sky-high financial costs of the death penalty are particularly daunting, and mostly because of what Texas state Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., calls “a growing lack of belief that our system is fair.”
Well-publicized exonerations, some based on irrefutable DNA evidence, have woken many Texans up to the reality that the legal system is often quite flawed, and more and more jurors are unwilling to risk being complicit in the execution of an innocent person. Tarrant County’s lead criminal prosecutor, Alan Levy, has said that said groups like the Innocence Project have done an excellent job of raising the profile of innocent convicts, and have made sure that the topic of wrongful conviction (and potential wrongful execution) is not forgotten.
With the year (and by some definitions the decade) drawing a close, it’s good to look back on the progress that has been made toward an end to the death penalty. While there were more executions this year than last, there were still barely half as many as there were ten years ago. And, with death sentences continuing to fall throughout “The Aughts” (or “The 2000s” or whatever this current decade will eventually be called), there should be a corresponding decline in executions over the next decade.
There were nine exonerations from America’s death rows in 2009 (including two from Texas), and there is good reason to believe that as awareness of the problems with the death penalty increase the number of death sentences will continue to drop. There is still a lot of work to be done, but with every individual realization that the death penalty is simply unacceptable we move a bit closer to total abolition.