AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas may end 2015 without imposing a sentence of capital punishment, a milestone that parallels declining public support for capital punishment in a state that had been sending the most prisoners to the death chamber.
So far this year, the state’s courts have sentenced no defendant to execution. Even if all three capital cases still on the docket end with the death penalty, this would be Texas’ lowest number for any year since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, according to public defenders.
The last time the state imposed no death sentences was 1974, when a national moratorium was in effect. Since then, Texas has led the United States in the number of convicts put to death at 528, or about 37 percent of the national total.
The state’s Republican leaders have said the death penalty is an appropriate way to punish offenders whose crimes have caused enormous pain for the families of murder victims, and surveys show that the majority of Texans still support this punishment.
“Folks support the death penalty for the same reason they support all sanctions - justice,” said Dudley Sharp, a death penalty advocate from Houston.
But in Texas and the rest of the United States, executions and death penalty convictions have been dropping for years.
Even so, the high cost of prosecuting capital cases, with years of appeals, has caused cash-strapped prosecutors to proceed with caution in seeking the death penalty. Legislation that makes life in prison without the possibility of parole an alternative has also influenced sentencing decisions.
“You let people know about the option of life in prison without parole, and death sentences drop,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. While the group opposes the death penalty, both sides on the debate use its data.
Across the United States, new death sentences hit a 40-year-low in 2014, and the 35 executions were the fewest in 20 years, it said.
Texas has allowed for life in prison as a sentencing option since 2005. Previously, capital murder convicts were eligible for parole after 40 years.
“It really boils down to public safety,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which specializes in defending those facing capital punishment. “If you can lock somebody up for life and know that they are not going to get parole, why wouldn’t you do that?”
Under former Governor Rick Perry and with the support of the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, Texas enacted a series of reforms designed to level the playing field in the courtroom. The state increased support for public defenders for murder defendants and provided greater oversight of prosecutors.
This piece of legislation and other laws came after years of complaints from capital punishment opponents, who said some of court-appointed defense lawyers were incompetent, drunk or indifferent, or that a few prosecutors hid evidence that could vindicate the accused.
The state was also prompted to move by the 2011 exoneration of Michael Morton, who spent a quarter-century in prison after being wrongfully convicted of killing his wife.
From 2005, when life without parole became a sentencing option, through last year, Texas averaged 10.5 new death penalty sentences. That is down from 48 in 1999, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The death row population has dropped to its current size of 253 inmates from 460 in 1999, the group said.
Meanwhile, the number of inmates serving sentences of life without parole nearly tripled to 96 last year from 34 in 2007.
Surveys show that public support for the death penalty among Texans has declined even in traditional bastions.
In Harris County, which produced the most death sentences in the nation, support has dropped from 75 percent in 1993 to 56 percent in 2015, according to surveys conducted by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
Kase, of the Texas Defender Service, said life without parole was both cheaper and more palatable to juries.
“If you make a mistake, we can undo it,” she said. “You can’t do that with the death penalty.”
Additional reporting by Marice Richter in Dallas; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn