Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer News -- /Dallas County / Capital punishment, which is also known as the death penalty, is legal in the majority of states, including Texas. Currently, 31 states permit capital punishment, while 19 states plus the District of Columbia prohibit it. The death penalty is also permitted under federal law for certain crimes.
Texas, which has the second-highest population of any state — with California ranking first — has executed more people than any other state since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty as constitutional. Across the country, however, the number of capital punishment sentences has gone down dramatically. In 1998, for example, there were 296 capital sentences. In 2017, there were just 39.
Because each state has its own laws regarding capital punishment, death penalty cases can vary a great deal from state to state. For example, many states now only permit lethal injection as the sole form of capital punishment. States also have their own rules regarding which types of crimes can rise to the level of capital cases.
Temporary Halt of the Death Penalty Under Furman v. Georgia
The death penalty has often been a source of controversy and political disagreement throughout the United States history. For a time, the U.S. Supreme Court even held that capital punishment was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which meant there were no executions of convicted persons between 1972 and 1976 when it was reinstated.
In the Furman case, the defendant had been convicted of sexual assault and murder and sentenced to death. The defendant, who was mentally challenged, appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court, which decided the case in 1972, ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Marshall wrote that “the death penalty is likely unconscionable to most Americans.”
However, the Court reinstated the death penalty just four years later in Gregg v. Georgia. In that case, the defendant had been convicted of armed robbery and murder. In a 7-2 decision, the Court overturned Furman, holding that Georgia’s capital punishment law was not unconstitutional because it didn’t violate the Eighth Amendment and acted as a deterrent for those who might commit similar crimes.
History buffs might be interested to know that the defendant, in that case, Troy Leon Gregg, escaped from prison with three other inmates in the first ever death row breakout in the state’s history. Gregg was killed in a bar fight the same night he escaped.
Capital Crimes Under Texas Law
Like other states with capital punishment laws, Texas imposes the death penalty in only the most serious murder cases. Under Texas law, an individual can be sentenced to death in murder cases involving:
- A victim who is a police officer or firefighter killed on duty
- The defendant was carrying or attempting to carry out a kidnapping, arson, aggravated sexual assault, robbery, or burglary at the time of the murder
- A contract killing
- The defendant killed more than one person
- The victim is under 10 years old
- The murder happened in connection with a prison break or attempted prison break
In Texas, the only permitted form of execution in a death penalty case is lethal injection. Just a handful of states allow alternatives to lethal injection. In Utah, for example, individuals convicted of capital offenses can choose to be executed by way of a firing squad. In Mississippi, the law allows execution by gas chamber, electrocution, or firing squad if lethal injection isn’t available.
Death Row Exonerations
When someone is convicted of a capital offense, the evidence can seem insurmountable, and it might be difficult for people to believe that any innocent person could be sentenced to death.
However, there have been many cases in which someone was wrongly convicted of a capital offense. Between 1973 and 1999, for example, an average of three people were exonerated each year. Between 2000 and 2011, that number went up to five exonerations per year.
According to a study, “Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 in 25 people sentenced to death are innocent. To put it another way, that means 4.1 percent of all death row inmates are not guilty. Based on that data, the study’s authors, who are law professors at the University of Michigan, say it’s certain that states have executed people who were innocent.
As the study states, its purpose “seeks to put to rest the conventional wisdom that wrongful criminal convictions are extremely rare.” The authors point out that wrongful convictions are actually much more common than many people realize. In the case of capital convictions, the stakes can’t get any higher.
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Prior results cannot and do not guarantee or predict a similar outcome with respect to any future case.
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