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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is Texas Changing Its Mind About the Death Penalty?

Texas has executed prisoners with a regularity and in record numbers that has earned the state worldwide attention. But, while Texas still led the U.S. in executions in 2008, juries in the state appear to have began to turn away from the ultimate punishment even for the most heinous crimes.

Ten men and one woman were sentenced to death in Texas in 2008, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. It was the lowest annual figure since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. Texas handed out more than 20 death sentences in each of 2003 and 2004. In 2005, the number fell to 14, and it has not risen above that annual figure since. "The need for revenge, for vengeance is being curbed, the appetite is no longer there," contends Robert Hirschorn, a nationally known Texas attorney and jury consultant who has helped pick juries for many prominent clients, including, most recently, millionaire real estate mogul Robert Durst, who was found not guilty of killing and dismembering his neighbor. 

"The tide has changed," Hirschorn says. "It used to be fashionable to say, 'I support the death penalty.' It used to be unfashionable to say, 'I am against the death penalty.'"

Nationwide, and particularly in Texas, anti-death penalty sentiment has usually been centered on college campuses and within the Catholic Church, Hirschorn says, but is expanding beyond those communities — a trend he sees reflected in his jury questionnaires as well as in nationwide political polls.

The number of people sentenced to death has been falling nationally since a peak of about 300 a year in the 1990s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, to 115 people in 2007. The reduction comes as more states, such as New York, New Jersey and Illinois have passed death penalty moratoriums; while some, like Maryland, are considering whether to abolish executions altogether. [Mark Godsey]

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