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Texas’ death row population at 36-year low, new report says

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MICHAEL COGHLAN / FLICKR
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Texas’ death row population has fallen to its lowest level since 1985, according to an annual study just published by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The coalition found the state’s death row population fell to 199 people this year. Kristin Houlé Cuellar, the coalition’s executive director, attributed the shrinking number in part to the dwindling number of new death sentences imposed by juries in Texas. Three Texans were sentenced to death this year — an annual tally that has been in the single digits for the last seven years, Houlé Cuellar said.

“The other factor is the re-sentencing of dozens of people who have been removed from death row based on various issues including evidence of intellectual disability, trial errors, and other issues that reflect our state’s legacy of injustice and the historic use of the death penalty in our state,” said Houlé Cuellar.

One county has also had an overwhelming impact in reducing the number of new death sentences, Houlé Cuellar said.

“The changes in the death penalty landscape in Texas and Texas’ movement away from the death penalty can largely be attributed to the declining use of it in Harris County,” she said.

Part of the reason Harris County has had such an outsized influence is because it has led the state for so long in sending people to death row. More than one-third of the 73 people currently on death row were convicted by the county, Houlé Cuellar said.

In fact, the report found that Harris County accounted for more executions than any other state in the country except for Texas itself: 130 executions since 1982 involved Harris County convictions, Houlé Cuellar said.

Of the three Texas prisoners executed this year, one — Rick Rhoades — was convicted in Harris County.

In the 1990s, Harris County sentenced as many as 15 people to death a year. But in the past five years, it has sentenced only three people to die. This year marks the first since 2017 that it has not handed down a single death sentence.

Of Texas’ three death sentences in 2021, one was from Bexar County, one from Smith County and one from Hunt County. That’s up from two death sentences in 2020. Much of the reason for the low level last year was the suspension of jury trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report finds that even though the number of new death sentences are declining, they are still disproportionately applied to people of color. Two-thirds of death sentences in Texas over the last five years have been imposed on people of color, with 40 percent imposed on Black defendants.

Texas’ death row population was at its highest in 2000 when 450 individuals were awaiting execution. Only California and Florida have larger death row populations than Texas.