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Column Ending the death penalty – a view from Texas

Former inmates are among those gathering to fight capital punishment at a world congress event that begins today, but Kirstin Houle from Texas says theirs is a daily struggle they know they will win.

The World Congress against the death penalty has opened in Madrid, and some former inmates have spoken about their thoughts on the issue. Here Kirstin Houle, the Executive Director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), says theirs is a daily struggle they know they will win.

ACCORDING TO AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, 141 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Momentum also is on the side of abolition throughout the United States and even here in Texas, the nation’s most active – and most notorious – death penalty state.

There now are 17 US states without the death penalty; last year Connecticut abolished it and Illinois did so in 2011. Other states have made significant progress toward passing repeal legislation, and last year California voters rejected the latest attempt to repeal California’s death penalty. Increasingly diverse voices, including those of law enforcement, religious leaders, murder victim family members and state legislators all have called for an end to this arbitrary and error-prone form of punishment.

Texas and the death penalty

Texas also is moving away from the death penalty, as new death sentences have declined more than 70 per cent since 2003.  To put that in real numbers, in 1999 juries imposed 48 new death sentences; in 2011 there were 8, the lowest since reinstatement in 1976.  Statewide, six new death sentences have been imposed to date this year.

The exorbitant cost of death penalty trials is one reason for the decline in new death sentences. Others include improvements to the quality of legal counsel for defendants, prosecutorial discretion, the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole, and growing awareness of the risks of wrongful convictions.

Out of 141 death row exonorees, 12 are from Texas.  In 2010, Anthony Graves was released and exonerated after spending 18 years in prison, including 12 years on death row and facing two execution dates for a crime he did not commit. A special prosecutor dropped all charges against him and declared him innocent after conducting her own investigation of the case and determining there wasn’t a shred of evidence connecting him to the crime for which he was unjustly convicted.

Wrongful executions

In addition, several cases have raised serious questions about the risk of wrongful executions in Texas. Issues related to mistaken eyewitness identification, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and false or misleading forensic analysis continue to plague our criminal justice system and undermine the reliability of the convictions of individuals such as Carlos DeLuna, Cameron Todd Willingham, Claude Jones, Gary Graham, and Ruben Cantu, all of who have been put to death in Texas.

Despite growing concerns about the risk of wrongful conviction and wrongful execution, Texas continues to lead the nation in executions. Our state carried out 15 executions last year, with six already taken place this year. Overall, Texas accounts for 487 executions to date, out of more than 1,300 nationwide.  The second state on the list, Virginia, has executed 109 people.

Media coverage

Many of these executions take place with little public awareness or attention, some generate less than a paragraph in the newspaper the next day. Others, like the execution of Troy Davis in the state of Georgia, spark international outrage and protest as they exemplify the doubts that surround too many cases. Davis’s execution created unprecedented dialogue about the reliability and fairness of the death penalty and served to further erode public confidence in this ultimate and irreversible form of punishment.

All of these recent developments have infused the public conversation about the death penalty with new energy and new urgency. We know that we will end the death penalty in this country and in Texas, as the public continues to embrace alternative means of confronting crime and achieving justice.  It’s not a question of if – but when.

Kristin Houlé is the Executive Director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), a statewide grassroots advocacy organization.  TCADP works to expose the flaws and failures of the death penalty system and engage the citizens of Texas and elected officials in a critical conversation about this arbitrary, discriminatory, and irreversible punishment. Visit to learn more and join our efforts.

Read: Colorado shooting suspect pleads not guilty by reason of insanity>

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