Texas is set to carry out its second execution of the year this week, barring a last minute reprieve. There are another seven planned by July. The use of the death penalaty has been on the decline in Texas in recent years. But one state representative from Houston has made it his mission to end it all together.
Harold Dutton’s law office sits two stories above the Main Street rail line in Midtown. One morning in 2002 he was drinking a cup of coffee and reading his daily paper, “and it talked about an execution that had taken place. And it said that it did it in the name of Texas,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ And so they did it in my name.”
The idea really bothered him. “And I said, ‘I really don’t want them doing it in my name.’”
He had already tried to stop new death sentences in Texas, after seeing states like Illinois take similar steps.
“The way the death penalty works in Texas now,” Dutton says, “is your case is automatically appealed from the lower trial court all the way up to our Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the highest criminal court, and if they deny your appeal, they send it back to the lower court for setting an execution date.”
In 2001, Dutton proposed a bill that would keep the appeals court from sending back any death penalty cases to the lower court for two years. That one made it to the House floor.
Then one of Dutton’s opponents spotted what he was doing. “He got up and went to the back mic and said, ‘Representative Dutton, this looks an awful lot like a moratorium.’ And I said, ‘That’s because it is.’ And the whole House stopped, and of course the bill died at that point.”
That was before Dutton’s fateful cup of coffee. Dutton offered his first bill to abolish the death penalty in 2003. He’s filed at least one bill to that end every legislative session since.
Dutton also began to bring former inmates to testify at the Capitol. Some had been sentenced to die, but were exonerated after DNA or other evidence proved their innocence. Others had pled guilty, even though they weren’t, in order to avoid a death sentence. Dutton says their stories have changed minds but rarely votes.
“There are members who have said to me privately, ‘Harold, you know, I like the idea you file that bill every year, but I just can’t vote for it, because I don’t think I’d get reelected,’” he says.
Dutton is not the only reason Houston and surrounding Harris County are at the epicenter of the death penalty debate. Kristin Houlé heads the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She’s tracked the number of death sentences in Texas over the past four decades and broken them down by county.
“At the top of that list is Harris County, which has sentenced nearly 300 people to death and accounts for 126 executions,” Houlé says. “That’s more executions than any other state except for Texas as a whole. But even in Harris County, use of the death penalty is declining. No one has been sentenced to death out of Harris County for the last two years.”
There are several reasons why death sentences have been falling in Texas. The use of DNA testing, for one. Another is negative publicity over botched executions. Then there’s the cost. Because of the lengthy appeals, it often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars more to execute someone than it does to keep them in prison for life.
“I think there has been more of a tendency for juries to opt for the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole when they have that opportunity,” says Jack Roady, criminal district attorney for Galveston County.
Before his election, Roady was a prosecutor with the Harris County DA’s office, and worked on many death penalty appeals. He notes the state legislature only made life without parole an option in Texas in 2005. Roady says that’s fine, “but there are some cases where the sentence of death is the appropriate punishment, and juries in Texas, in fact juries in the country, need to have that ability to impose that punishment if the evidence supports it.”
Roady feels most of his constituents aren’t ready to give up the death penalty as a way to punish what he calls “the worst of the worst,” though he says abolition could happen if enough Texans decide that’s what they want.
Dutton is counting on that. “Now that the public is also beginning to have a clearer view of the issues related to this whole issue of capital punishment,” he says, “that has made even legislators now have to stop and take a look.”
Dutton’s already filed his bill for the 2017 legislative session. He’s hoping, this year, more of his colleagues will join him.
— Andrew Schneider, Houston Public Media
This story originally aired on the Texas Standard.