Harris County is known as a pipeline for Death Row, but that changed this year. The county hasn't had a death penalty conviction in 2008, the first time that's happened since 1977, the year capital punishment was reinstated and Chuck Rosenthal was hired as an assistant district attorney.
The departure of Rosenthal or the arrival of interim District Attorney Ken Magidson probably doesn't have much to do with the absence of death sentences, but in a place once called the death penalty capital of the world , it's certainly an interesting coincidence.
"I could have a DA sitting over here that says, 'We're seeking death on every capital case there is.' He can seek it, he isn't going to ever find it until you get a jury," Lyn McClellan, felony trial bureau chief for the district attorney, tells Hair Balls. "It's not that death is being sought on fewer, but until the judge calls it to trial, it can't go."
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Death convictions have dropped in Texas during the last several years, partly because the state implemented life-without-parole as an alternative sentence. According to McClellan, the county also has less money for visiting judges to clear dockets for capital trials. Still, Harris County sentenced four defendants to death in 2007.
At the beginning of this year, there were 13 death penalty cases that were pending, and one went to trial. The jury sentenced the defendant to life without parole.
The county technically has two-and-a-half months to convict someone to death, but McClellan estimates about a zero percent chance of that happening, since none of the pending cases are ready for trial.
-- Paul Knight