Texas Led U.S. In Executions In 2023 Despite Decline In Death Penalty Use, Report Reveals

Despite declining death penalty usage, Texas still led the nation in executions this year, according to a new report that highlights the continuous failures of the state’s capital punishment system.

Texas has the third-largest death row population in the country, after California and Florida. In 2000, the Texas death row population peaked with more than 450 people facing execution. That year, the state executed 40 people.

Over the decades, however, the state has greatly reduced its reliance on the death penalty. As of Monday, there are 180 people on death row in Texas, according to a report released Thursday by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP). That number is the smallest death row population in Texas since 1985, when there were 188 people facing the death penalty.

For the past nine years, the annual number of death sentences handed out in Texas has remained in the single digits. This year, juries sent three people to death row. Since 2019, Texas juries have rejected the death penalty in a third of capital murder cases that have proceeded to trial with death as a potential verdict.

But despite the years of progress Texas has seen in moving away from the death penalty, the state continues to be an outlier on executions.

Texas was one of just five states to carry out executions this year, and led the country by carrying out eight executions. The state scheduled 13 executions for this year, but three were withdrawn by trial courts, one man received a last-minute stay, and one man died on death row from a medical condition.

The state executed Robert Fratta on Jan. 10, Wesley Ruiz on Feb. 1, John Balentine on Feb. 8, Gary Green on March 7, Arthur Brown on March 9, Jedidiah Murphy on Oct. 10, Brent Brewer on Nov. 9, and David Renteria on Nov. 16. The men who were killed spent an average of more than 22 years on death row, according to the report.

“Receiving a death sentence or being executed amounts to a ‘lethal lottery,’ one that does nothing to deter crime or promote public safety.”

– Kristin Houlé Cuellar, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

“Their trials, many of which took place decades ago, were plagued by egregious flaws ― including racial bias, junk science, testimony confusing jury instructions, and inflammatory testimony ― and their post-conviction appeals raised troubling concerns about the fairness of the death penalty system,” TCADP said in its report.

Harris County in particular has executed more people than anywhere else in the U.S., a distressing statistic that some lawyers attribute to the county’s deficient defense system for people involved in capital cases. More than a third of the people on death row this year ― 67, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ― were convicted in Harris County.

For most of the county’s cases resulting in a death sentence over the last two decades, defense lawyers failed to find and present important evidence that could have saved their clients from being put on death row, according to a separate report published Monday by Wren Collective, a group of former public defenders who conduct criminal justice research and policy.

Some of that evidence, according to the Wren report, included cases where the defendant had a mental illness, intellectual disability, or a history of physical and sexual abuse. People who have intellectual disabilities are not eligible for the death penalty.

Since 2019, the sentences of 14 people in Texas have been reduced due to evidence they had an intellectual disability.

Six of the eight men that Texas executed this year had intellectual or mental health impairments, according to the TCADP report. The impairments ― which included intellectual disability, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, brain damage and suicidal ideation, among others ― were often made worse by yearslong neglect and abuse.

Robert Fratta sits in the courtroom during his retrial on May 5, 2009, in Houston. Fratta was convicted in 1996 in a murder-for-hire scheme to kill his estranged wife, Farah Fratta, in 1994. The conviction was overturned in a ruling that inadmissible testimony was used to put him on death row. He was executed in January.
Robert Fratta sits in the courtroom during his retrial on May 5, 2009, in Houston. Fratta was convicted in 1996 in a murder-for-hire scheme to kill his estranged wife, Farah Fratta, in 1994. The conviction was overturned in a ruling that inadmissible testimony was used to put him on death row. He was executed in January.

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

“What is even more appalling is that most of their jurors never heard about these impairments, or the traumatic life stories of the men they sentenced to death,” TCADP Executive Director Kristin Houlé Cuellar said.

“Now, after hearing compelling mitigating evidence about these impairments from appellate attorneys, jurors in several cases said they would have changed their verdict or at least supported a stay of execution for further review,” she continued. “It is obvious that many of these executed individuals never would have received a death sentence if they were charged or tried today.”

This year, the state’s death row population decreased by six people for non-execution reasons. One of those people is Syed Rabbani, who spent 35 years under an unconstitutional death sentence until a judge overturned it in September. That ruling said that the trial court in Rabbani’s initial sentencing in 1988 failed to inform jurors about how to weigh mitigating evidence, like the defendant’s mental illness.

“In 1988, when Syed Rabbani began serving his death sentence, he was a physically healthy 23-year-old ― slight, round-faced, with jet-black hair and a hesitant smile. Today, he is in a near-vegetative state, crippled by a variety of illnesses,” tweeted Sister Helen Prejean, an activist who has fought against the death penalty for decades.

“Rabbani’s legal appeal challenging his death sentence, which would ultimately prove successful, languished in the Harris County courts for decades,” she continued. “His defense attorneys neglected to pursue it, effectively abandoning Rabbani and leaving unrepresented for years.”

Rabbani was resentenced to life in prison on Nov. 14 after the Harris County district attorney’s office said it would not pursue the death penalty again. His attorneys have asked for him to be transferred to hospice care or parole into the custody of his family in Bangladesh.

“Receiving a death sentence or being executed amounts to a ‘lethal lottery,’ one that does nothing to deter crime or promote public safety,” Cuellar said. “The randomness of capital punishment ― coupled with the egregiously flawed cases of those who remain on death row ― should compel Texans to abandon the death penalty altogether.”

Texas’ capital punishment system also disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. Despite Black people making up 11.8% of the Texas population, they comprise almost 46% of the state’s death row population, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Two of the three people sentenced to death this year are people of color, and five of the eight people executed were Black, Hispanic or Native American.

“Texas’ use of the death penalty continues to tarnish our state’s reputation as a stronghold for life, liberty and limited government,” said Nan Tolson, director of Texas Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

“Texans deserve better than the broken, ineffective system of capital punishment,” Tolson continued. “It’s time for the Lone Star State to invest in real solutions that will keep our communities safe and truly uphold our values.”

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