Texas may lead the nation by far in the number of executions carried out each year, but figures released last week suggest that support here for the ultimate punishment may be on the wane.
Over the last 10 years, the number of death sentences imposed in the state has dropped 65%, from 40 in fiscal 1996 to 14 in 2006, according to statistics compiled by the Texas Office of Court Administration. In that time, murders have remained about the same: State crime statistics show 1,476 murders in 1996 and 1,405 in 2005.
The figures are in line with a national decline in death sentences, and show that "Texas is catching up with the trend," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
A growing number of wrongly convicted inmates across the country and the use of DNA evidence to exonerate the innocent have made jurors increasingly reluctant to impose the death penalty, Dieter said.
Because of the large percentage of death sentences that come out of Houston's Harris County, the drop in Texas could be traced in part to a scandal at the Houston Police Department crime lab in which botched test results were used to bring suspects to trial.
In addition, a law was passed last year that gave Texas juries the sentencing option of life without parole in death penalty cases, he added.
"There has always been the idea of Texas being tough on crime, but I think as people see how much potential there is for mistakes, they're less inclined to be so heavy handed," said Vicki McCuistion, program director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
But Lyn McClellan, head of the felony trial section at the Harris County district attorney's office, said observers shouldn't read too much into the figures.
In Houston, the number of crimes committed that are eligible for the death penalty has declined -- not prosecutors' commitment to get a death sentence when the case calls for it, McClellan said.
"We are trying fewer cases, and the only way I can attribute that is fewer cases meet our criteria for what we think is a death-appropriate case. It's not like we're getting those cases and saying, 'We don't want to seek death,' " McClellan said.
Harris County sends more defendants to death row than any county in the state. In fiscal 1996, Harris County jurors gave the death sentence to 16 defendants. But in fiscal 2006, three people were sent to death row from the county.
The drop was enough to bring down the state average, said Angela Garcia, judicial information manager for the Office of Court Administration.
Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based victims rights group Justice For All, said the decline had more to do with U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the kinds of cases eligible for the death penalty than a major shift in thinking.
"We have the death penalty on the books and it's obvious that Texas uses it," she said. "I don't see it as anything to be ashamed of."