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Analysis

Three decades of capital punishment in Texas

Since 1982, state has executed 477 men and women

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Thirty-five years ago today, the state of Utah executed Gary Gilmore by firing squad and restarted the death penalty in the United States. Texas followed suit, reinstating capital punishment in 1982 and quickly becoming home to the nation's busiest execution chamber.

A 1972 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that the states' use of the death penalty was arbitrary and capricious led to a de facto moratorium on the penalty across the nation. States began changing their death penalty laws, and the pause on executions ended with a subsequent high court decision in 1976. 

The first post-moratorium execution in Texas was in 1982. Charles Brooks Jr. was executed for the 1976 shooting death of a mechanic. Since 1982, Texas has executed 477 men and women, more than any other state. And there are more than 300 men and women in Texas awaiting execution now.

Executions in Texas — and nationwide — eventually peaked and then evened out in the 1990s. In 1994, there were 328 death sentences issued nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Starting in 1999, though, use of the death penalty began to drop off dramatically, and by 2009 there were 109 death sentences.

Last year, Texas executed 13 prisoners, the lowest number in more than a decade. And juries assigned eight new death sentences in 2010 as well as in 2011, compared with 48 in 1999, according to the Texas Defender Service.

Below, we've compiled some fascinating data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice about the last three decades of the death penalty in Texas.

In the first graph, we have charted both the frequency of executions and the racial makeup of the executed. The graph is broken into five-year segments starting in 1980 and going through 2011. An interesting trend that becomes visible in this graph is the growing number of Hispanic inmates who are executed. Although the number of executions of black inmates has declined, the number for Hispanic criminals has risen. In 2010 and 2011, more Hispanic criminals were executed than black criminals. The first person set to be executed in 2012 is a Hispanic inmate, Rodrigo Hernandez, from Bexar County.

Despite that trend, the number of black inmates on death row continues to exceed any other, as the graph below illustrates.

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There are 10 inmates who have been on Texas' death row for 30 years or longer. Of those men, six are black, including the longest-serving death row inmate, Raymond Riles, who was convicted in 1976 of robbing and murdering a used-car salesman. In 1985, Riles tried to commit suicide by setting fire to his death row cell, according to TDCJ records.

Like many death row inmates, Riles is from Harris County. That county has sent more Texans to death row and to the execution chamber than any other county in the state. Of the 477 people executed since 1982, 24 percent — 116 inmates — were sentenced in Harris County. More than one-third of the 307 men and women on death row are from that county, a total of 104. 

Polls indicate that Americans, and Texans in particular, continue to support the death penalty.

But Rick Halperin, director of Southern Methodist University's Embrey Human Rights Program, said in a news release that the drop in executions and death sentences shows that juries are less willing to impose capital punishment. High-profile exonerations and more public awareness of DNA science, he said, have made the public more willing to question the use of capital punishment.

"We're in the beginning stages of ending the death penalty in this country," Halperin said.

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1 comment on this story

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1465 comments
Jan 18, 2012, 11:44 am
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We here in Arizona could learn a lot from Texas’ example. We’ve been waiting a quarter-century for Frank Atwood to be executed, and his execution is no where in sight. Perhaps Arizona is now using natural causes as their preferred execution method.

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Ryan Murphy and Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

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