No matter your opinion on the death penalty, it’s generally a good thing when the United States has less of them — which could mean either we have less of an appetite for the ultimate punishment or criminals are committing fewer crimes worthy of a drastic sentence. And as the year comes to a close, the Death Penalty Information Center has issued a report showing that executions in the United States dropped below 40 for the only the second time since 1994.
The report concludes that the inability to obtain the lethal injection drugs was one of the reasons the number of executions dropped during 2013. The report also notes that two states — Texas and Florida — were responsible for 59 percent of the executions in the nation. But, it also concludes that the famously death-penalty-prolific Lone Star State is seeking fewer death sentences at trial. In fact, the report notes that for the sixth year in a row Texas juries issued less than 10 death sentences, a stark contrast from 1999 when they issued 48 death sentences.The report also notes that the public’s opposition to the death penalty has reached 60 percent in some polls.
Toby Shook, a former Dallas County prosecutor who has handled numerous death penalty cases, says the reason death penalty sentences are dropping in Texas boils down to two things mainly — economics and the evolving nature of death penalty law.
“Smaller counties really can’t afford to prosecute a death penalty case and the life without parole option allows them to put a dangerous criminal away in prison for the rest of his life,” says Shook, a special prosecutor who will seek the death penalty in Kaufman County against a former Justice of the Peace judge who is alleged to have killed two Kaufman County prosecutors.
“I don’t think people’s general opinions about the death penalty has changed that much. The person on the street in Texas still favors it, but I think more [district attorney] offices are much more selective in the cases that they try for the death penalty than they used to,” said Shook, a partner in Dallas’ Shook Gunter & Wirskye. “The Supreme Court has put in such an emphasis on mitigation and mental health issues that prosecutors are less inclined to go for the death penalty and go for life if that option exists,’’ Shook notes that many offices reserve death penalty for “the worst of the worst” criminals.
— John Council