The Nation Notices Harris County Ain't Killing People Much These Days

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We first broke the news in October; the Houston Chronicle noticed it earlier this month, and now Time magazine has discovered it: There will be no one sent to Death Row from Harris County this year.

Which, in historical terms, is kind of like saying Texas high schools will not be sending anyone to big-name college football programs.

As we noted, 2008 was the first year since 1977 -- when the death penalty was reinstated -- without a capital murder conviction in Harris County. Time says its prime evidence of a softening towards the death penalty among juries and prosecutors.

As the magazine puts it:

But along with changes in sentencing guidelines, something else has changed in Texas, death-penalty opponents claim. In the past, both Democrats and Republicans for high office have embraced the death penalty as an issue, but in recent elections, Houle notes, the issue has been rarely raised. Improved access to better quality defense counsel and the realization that capital cases usually cost county government upwards of $2 million each, Houle says, have helped reduce the number of death penalty cases. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions striking down the death penalty in certain kinds of cases -- the rape of a child -- and concerns about the legality of executing mentally retarded or mentally ill individuals have also slowed the number of capital cases being brought. With broader legal options, the most execution-prone state of the union may increasingly be opting for some other punishment than a life for a life.

It wasn't like Harris County prosecutors didn't try to kill anyone this year.

There were two cases, and one was considered a slam-dunk for the Walls Unit: a cop-killer. But the jury gave the perp life without parole.

Another cop-killer case will likely be tried in 2009, unfortunately; we'll see whether 2008 was an outlier or a trend-setter.

-- Richard Connelly

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