STUDIES: "What's Messing with Texas Death Sentences?"

A recent study by David McCord, Professor of Law at Drake University Law School, titled What's Messing with Texas Death Sentences?, found five significant causes for the recent decline in death sentences in Texas.  McCord sought to explain a 65% drop in Texas death sentences from their peak five-year period of 1992-1996 (when there was an annual average of 40 death sentences) to the recent five-year period of 2005-2009 (when only 14 death sentences were handed down on average each year).  The study pointed to numerous developments in Texas that have likely contributed to this decline, including changes in the legal landscape and changes on the county level.  McCord cited the advent of life-wthout-parole sentences in Texas as the strongest legal factor in reducing death sentences, and the political changes in Harris County (Houston) as a significant contributor on the county level.

McCord's list of contributing factors were:

  1. Fewer capital murder convictions: the number of capital murder convictions (a necessary conviction in order to seek the death penalty) declined by 21% between the earlier five-year period and the more recent five-year period. (modest effect)
  2. Availability of life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option: in 2005, the option of a life sentence without the possibility of parole became an option in capital cases in Texas.  Prior to 2005, juries were presented with two options in capital cases: death or life with parole after 40 years. (large effect)
  3. U.S. Supreme Court exemption of juveniles and defendants with intellectual disabilities: in 2002 and in 2005, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons (respectively) that defendants with intellectual disabilities and juvenile defendants were ineligible for the death penalty. (modest effect)
  4. Less populous counties seek the death penalty less frequently: death sentences originating from Texas’s less populous counties declined from an average of 15 sentences per year between 1992-1996 to an average of four death sentences per year between 2002-2005.  McCord attributed this decline in part to the financial costs that death penalty prosecutions incur, a strain that smaller counties are unable to withstand. (large effect)
  5. A sharp decline in death sentences originating from Harris County: a significant decline in death sentences from Harris County, the most active death penalty county in Texas and in the nation.  Between 1992-1996, 66 death sentences originated from Harris County, in contrast to the 12 for the later time period.  McCord attributed this decline to the retirement of District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who was staunchly pro-death penalty and successfully sought the death penalty in many murder cases. (large effect).

(D. McCord, "What's Messing With Texas Death Sentences?" Drake University Law School, 2010; posted by DPIC Nov. 15, 2011).  See Sentencing and Studies.