The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Execution in Texas called off as death penalty continues to dwindle nationwide

The death chamber in Huntsville, Tex. (Pat Sullivan/AP)
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In 2000, the United States carried out 85 executions, nearly half of them in Texas. The national figure was down slightly from a year earlier, when 98 inmates were executed, but the number of executions in Texas had increased from the year before. Nationwide, death sentences also declined in 2000, and although it was not immediately apparent, this marked the beginning of a consistent trend, as the country’s use of the death penalty had peaked around the turn of the century and would decline dramatically over the next 15 years.

Today, executions and death sentences are infrequent. Fewer states have the death penalty, and just a handful utilize the practice each year. In 2000, Texas put 40 inmates to death, more executions than the entire country carried out in each of the last three years, according to statistics kept by the Death Penalty Information Center. It appears almost certain that executions this year in the United States, which have declined or held steady every year since 2010, will reach their lowest total in 25 years.

Texas, far and away the nation’s most active practitioner of capital punishment, regularly accounts for an outsize proportion of these executions, but even the Lone Star State is not immune to the trend. Since April 6, when authorities in Texas executed Pablo Vasquez, the state has not carried out an execution. Four executions have been stayed during that period, most recently that of Jeffery Wood, who was scheduled to be killed by lethal injection on Wednesday. (Other inmates have also had their dates changed or withdrawn, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.)

Why executions are on the decline in the United States

Wood’s story has drawn more national attention than most death-row cases, largely because he was facing lethal injection despite not having been convicted of killing anyone. He was convicted under what is known as the law of parties, a Texas statute allowing people to be charged and sentenced even when they are not directly responsible for a crime.

In Wood’s case, he was sentenced to death for the 1996 shooting death of Kris Lee Keeran, a gas station service attendant. Daniel E. Reneau, convicted of killing Keeran, was executed in June 2002. As my colleague Kristine Guerra reported:

Wood has been on death row since 1998, when his daughter, Paige Rowan, was a toddler.
If executed this month, Wood will be the “least culpable person executed in the modern era of death penalty,” said Scott Cobb, president of Texas Moratorium Network, a group that advocates against capital punishment. …
Wood’s death sentence, [his attorney Jared] Tyler said, was based on “false and misleading” testimony from a psychiatrist who did not personally examine his client.

On Friday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Wood’s execution. In its two-page order, the court said that Wood’s “claims that his sentence was obtained in violation of due process because it was based on false testimony and false scientific evidence” were enough for them to remand the case back to a trial court. Wood’s case involved a psychiatrist nicknamed “Dr. Death,” who had a large, still-reverberating impact on numerous capital cases in Texas.

(Update: The Texas District and County Attorneys Association replied at length to this story on Twitter, disputing our description of Wood as not having been convicted of killing Keeran, because he was still convicted for the killing even if he was not sentenced for pulling the trigger himself. The entire thread is worth reading, starting here.)

There are currently five executions scheduled in Texas for this year, beginning with one next week. While active death-penalty states across the country struggle with a shortage of lethal injection drugs, Texas officials say they will have enough chemicals to carry out all of these executions.

Americans believe an innocent person could be executed

Executions have become increasingly rare nationwide, and while this trend has been ongoing for years, it has sharpened in 2016. Six inmates have been executed in Texas — tied with Georgia for the most this year — and the last execution there was more than four months ago, the longest such lag in the state since 2014.

All told, the country has carried out 15 executions so far this year, down from 19 at the same point in 2015. (At this point last year, Texas had executed 10 inmates.) Last year, there were 28 executions in the United States, the fewest since 1991, while death sentences also dropped to lows unseen for decades.

Support for the death penalty has also declined nationwide, though polls show a majority of Americans remain in favor of the practice. In 1996, nearly four out of five Americans (78 percent) said they supported the death penalty, according to the Pew Research Center. That number fell to 56 percent last year. A Gallup poll released released last fall said that 61 percent of Americans supported the death penalty, down from 80 percent in 1994.

States other than Texas have halted or postponed executions for a variety of reasons, something that has effectively frozen capital punishment in some of the most active death-penalty states. Many states have been unable to obtain lethal injection drugs, as has been the case with Ohio, which delayed all executions until at least 2017. That would be three years after it last carried out a lethal injection. 

Supreme Court Justice Breyer: California embodies the death penalty’s ‘fundamental defects’

In other cases, uncertainty stemming from court orders has halted executions. Florida, home to the second-largest death row in the country (after California’s), is still weighing whether a Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s death penalty statute invalidates the sentences of nearly 400 condemned inmates. While the death penalty statute was rewritten, the state Supreme Court is considering whether the court’s ruling was retroactive for people sentenced under the prior law.

Oklahoma, which has carried out more executions than any state but Texas in the modern era, halted executions after officials there used the wrong drug to carry out one execution last year and nearly used an incorrect drug months later. A grand jury investigation excoriated authorities as careless and reckless, and no new lethal injections have been scheduled.

With these states effectively unable to carry out executions, just a few others around the country are still putting inmates to death. So far this year, five states have executed inmates, down from 11 states in 2010. Since 2010, only Texas and Florida have carried out at least one execution each year.

Only one state other than Texas — Missouri in 2014 — has executed at least 10 inmates in a single year during that span. Texas has carried out a double-digit number of executions each year for two decades. If more executions there are delayed and others are not added to the schedule, it is possible that Texas could end up carrying out fewer than 10 executions this year, the first time the state would fail to cross that threshold since 1996.

Further reading:

‘It was fundamentally unfair.’ A prosecutor apologizes for his role in putting an innocent man on death row

What it was like watching a botched execution