September 1 marked the 10-year anniversary of the availability of life without parole as an alternative to capital punishment in Texas.
While this may seem like a strange milestone to celebrate, the option of life without parole has made an enormous difference in the state that has long been known as the national leader in capital punishment.
Before life without parole, juries were faced with a difficult decision in capital cases: sentence a convict to death, or worry that he or she may be released on parole in around 40 years. With the thought of a dangerous criminal again walking the streets in the back of their minds, juries usually opted for the death penalty.
In 2005, I finally passed SB 60, a triumph six years in the making. SB 60 gives juries the opportunity to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole. This option has allowed juries and prosecutors to ensure that Texas’ most heinous criminals will spend their entire lives in jail, without having to resort to capital punishment.
This bill benefits the state in many ways. Due to the extensive legal process required before a prisoner may be executed, sentencing a criminal to life in prison is less costly to state and local governments. The prosecutors and the victim’s family can rest easy knowing that the perpetrator is behind bars forever rather than have to undergo the repetitive testifying at multiple trials involved in ruling for capital punishment. Decreasing the prevalence of capital punishment also makes it less likely that an innocent life will be ended for the crimes of another, whether as a result of inadequate legal representation or unscrupulous investigational procedures.
Since the option of life without parole has given juries more flexibility in recommending sentences for Texas’ criminals, we have seen significant shifts in the application of capital punishment. In the last ten years, executions of prisoners have steadily decreased from about 20 per year to about 10 per year. The number of new death sentences per year have similarly decreased from an average of 30 in the years 2000-2004 to an average of 10 in the years 2005 to 2014. Only two criminals have been sentenced to death in this state so far this year, both within the last month.
However, there is still work to be done to ensure that justice is offered everyone who enters the Texas legal system. Today, 251 inmates remain on death row in Texas, and many of those awaiting execution were convicted in trials that left some doubt as to their guilt. This number includes Julius Murphy, whose execution was stayed by the Court of Criminal Appeals within the last week after his attorneys raised doubts about the veracity of testimony brought against him.
On Friday, October 23, I will join the Texas Catholic Conference in hosting Journey to Mercy, a series of discussions on how to move toward a fairer criminal justice system in our state. The panels will focus on topics related to the death penalty, including fiscal cost, risk of wrongful conviction, and moral issues.
As a pro-lifetime legislator, I believe that we all have a responsibility to protect life at all of its stages – even the lives of those convicted of heinous crimes. I look forward to hearing from criminal justice experts on ways we can work together to develop solutions that minimize the use of capital punishment in Texas.