Texas Concludes Record-Breaking Streak of Not Executing People

The death penalty is used less frequently in Texas than in the past.
The death penalty is used less frequently in Texas than in the past.

Texas concluded last night its impressive, record-breaking gap in executions, having gone a whole six months without killing a single person. It is the longest lull in executions since 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the legality of lethal injections, the manner in which Barney Fuller Jr. was put to death yesterday.

Fuller was convicted of capital murder in Houston County, about 100 miles north of Houston, in 2003 after ruthlessly killing his neighbors. In an angry rage, Fuller barged into their home in the middle of the night and shot to death the mother and father, then shot their 14-year-old son twice in the shoulder, though the boy survived. Fuller fortunately could not find their 10-year-old daughter. 

Fuller's bad relationship with the neighbors had dated back a few years earlier. In 2001, he was charged with making terroristic threats toward the neighbors, Annette and Nathan Copeland, who had called police on Fuller after they believed he had shot at their electric transformer. Fuller reportedly threatened the couple when they informed him they had called the sheriff's office. When he received a letter in 2003 reminding him of his trial date, Fuller apparently went into a rage, drank all day, then decided to kill the family in the middle of the night.

As Randy Hargrove, prosecutor on the case, told the Texas Tribune: “It’s just a heinous crime. The man doesn’t need to be on this earth.”

Somewhat ironically, the execution that breaks Texas's long, well, break from executions is the first execution originating in Houston County since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Tribune reports. 

While Fuller opted to waive his rights to challenge his execution, instead choosing to just get it over with, Texas Defender Service Executive Director Kathryn Kase pointed to several other death-penalty cases in which serious questions remain about whether the punishment is appropriate. And overall, Kase said, it appears that Texans are continuing to grow more and more uncomfortable about sending people to death row.

Kase talked to us from Washington, D.C., after attending a Supreme Court hearing regarding the validity of the death sentence of Duane Buck. Kase's organization argued that racist testimony from an expert since nicknamed "Dr. Death" contributed to a Harris County jury's decision to sentence a black man, Duane Buck, to death. As we wrote yesterday, Buck's guilt was never at issue. The problem was that a doctor his own defense counsel called to the stand during the sentencing hearing actually said, in the context of Buck's future risk level, that African-Americans and Hispanic people were more likely to commit crimes — apparently leaving the death penalty as the jury's best shot at protecting public safety.

"The case was the textbook example of an outrageous use of race in the context of an American death penalty case, and one that feeds into the most pernicious racial stereotype that you can have," Kase said. "And as Justice [Elena] Kagan pointed out today in the Supreme Court, it's inexplicable that the defense would introduce expert evidence that says their own client is more dangerous because of an immutable characteristic: his skin color."

Kase also pointed to other controversial cases in which either prosecutorial misconduct or the defendant's intellectual capacity or disability should have rendered the death penalty an inappropriate sentence. And that's aside from cases in which Texas killed possibly/probably innocent people like Cameron Todd Willingham. The more Texans become aware of issues like that, Kase said, the more they appear reluctant to impose the irreversible sentence. As evidence, Kase pointed to the fact that juries in Harris County — among the most notorious counties in the nation for its reputation for executing people — have not chosen the death penalty in any capital cases since November 2014. And Texas has only brought five new death penalty cases total in the last two years, she said.

"Increasingly, people say to me, why don't we just use life without parole? Then we're safe — and if we're wrong, we can undo our error. Which is, of course, not possible if you've executed someone," Kase said. "I just get this increasing sense that this is hitting people, at all levels. There seems to be greater and greater questioning of this punishment."

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