The number of death sentences handed out by Texas juries has declined sharply in recent years, with the new life without parole (LWOP) sentence being one reason why.
While the debate over capital punishment rages anew in Texas, new inmates going to Death Row have hit a 35-year low as prosecutors are pushing for fewer death sentences and, many believe, juries have become less willing to give them.
Various factors have contributed to a stark decline in death sentences and a dramatic shake-up in the ranking of counties that use it the most.
The biggest game-changer appears to be the introduction of life without parole as an option for juries in 2005, according to several prosecutors and defense lawyers. The change in state law represented a huge shift for jurors in capital cases, who previously were responsible for choosing either the death penalty or a life sentence in which a convicted killer could be eligible for parole in 40 years.
“With life without parole being a viable option now, [juries] feel a lot more comfortable that that person is not going to be let out back into society,” Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon said. “We are probably waiving the death penalty more times than we used to because we’re trying to forecast the outcome of the case.”
There were nearly 50 executions in 1999. From the mid-eighties through that year, the annual total dipped below 30 only twice. But from 2005, the year that the LWOP law was passed, onward, the annual total has been 15 or fewer. I don’t know how much effect the LWOP law has had on that – as the story notes, juries may just be more leery of the death penalty now thanks to all of the high-profile DNA exonerations of recent years – but I think this is a good trend. It would be fine by me if the death penalty were only used in the most exceptional situations.