The Lone Star State does indeed stand alone. It holds the record for the most individuals executed by a state since 1976.
Prior to statehood in 1845, Texas executed 8 persons; all were by hanging. When it became a state, hanging was the method used for almost all executions until 1924. The only other method used at the time was execution by firing squad, which was used for three Confederate deserters during the Civil War, as well as a man convicted of attempted rape in 1863.
Texas changed its execution laws in 1923, requiring the executions be carried out on the electric chair. Five executions were the most carried out on a single day in the state, but Texas would conduct multiple executions on a single day on several other occasions up until 1951. Since then, the state has not executed more than one person on a single day, though there is no law prohibiting this.
The 1972 United States Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia, which declared Georgia’s death penalty to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it was a cruel and unusual punishment essentially negated all death penalty sentences nationwide. At the time of the decision 52 inmates in Texas had been given the death penalty; all were commuted to life in prison. The Furman decision led to a 1973 revision of the law, with the death penalty being formally reinstated in 1974. However, the first execution in Texas would not take place until 1982. That year, Charles Brooks, Jr. became the first person to be judicially executed by lethal injection in the world, and the first African American to be executed in the United States since 1967.
Since 1976, Texas has executed over four times more inmates than Virginia (the state with the second-highest number of executions in that time) and nearly 37 times more inmates than California (the state with the largest death row population). Also in that time, 136 of Texas’ 254 counties have never sent a single offender to death row. However, since 1982, Harris County has accounted for over 280 death sentences and 116 executions.
Current Texas death penalty regulations also include what is called a “Law of Parties,” which allows offenders to be sentenced to death if present while a capital crime is being committed based on the offender being “criminally responsible for the conduct of another.”
Although the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the application of the death penalty to persons with mental retardation in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Texas Legislature still has not enacted statutory provisions governing the standards and procedures to be followed in these cases. In addition, 13 juveniles were executed in Texas before the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons declared this unconstitutional. 29 juveniles awaiting execution at the time of the decision were sentenced to life in prison.
While governors in some other states have the authority to impose a moratorium on executions, the Texas governor is constitutionally precluded from doing so. To give the governor this power would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters. However, the governor has clemency authority on the advice of the Board of Pardons and Paroles but needs a favorable recommendation from the Board in order to be able to grant clemency. The governor is not obligated to follow the recommendation of the Board, however. The governor also has the power to grant a one-time 30 day reprieve. S/he also appoints the members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Texas’ active use of the death penalty has led death penalty opponents to claim that the state has executed persons who were, in fact, innocent. One notable case involves Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004 for murdering his three daughters in 1991 by arson. However, subsequent findings, have cast doubt on the evidence used in his conviction. In 2010, the Texas Forensic Science Commission released a report saying that the conviction was based on “flawed science” .
However, findings such as this, as well as the work of dedicated anti-death penalty groups may be having an impact. Support for the death penalty in the state seems to be decreasing and use of the penalty as a sentence has declined by more than 70% since 2003.
Kristin Houle with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Jeffrey Patterson from the Texas Catholic Conference explain the movement away from the death penalty in Texas.
Download the Texas Death Penalty Legislative Talking Points sheet here.
Resource Spotlight: Choose Life: Help Texas Jurors Know the Truth About Death Penalty Sentencing
Click here to download this helpful flyer created by the Texas Mercy Project, an initiative of the Texas Catholic Conference.
Read the Texas Bishops Statement calling for the abolition of the death penalty (October 10, 2016) – read it in Spanish here.