December 6, 2017
For the first time since 1985, no Harris County killers will be executed by the state of Texas this year, a landmark shift for a county once known as the “capital of capital punishment.”
Despite a slight uptick in executions nationwide, Harris County’s one execution this year was cancelled after a desperate death row plot led to a last-minute stay for serial killer Anthony Shore in October. Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings spared two other inmates.
“This has been an important year in terms of death penalty litigation,” said District Attorney Kim Ogg. “I view it as a positive thing. I don’t think that being the death penalty capital of America is a selling point for Harris County.”
Nationwide, executions reached a high water mark in 1999, and Texas executions topped out at 40 the next year. But it’s Harris County courts that have kept the death chamber busiest, with 126 executions since the state resumed capital punishment in 1982.
“Harris County has always symbolized America’s death penalty because it has executed more people than any other county and — apart from the rest of Texas — more than any other state,” said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center. “It is both symbolic and emblematic of the change in capital punishment in the United States. For the first time in a generation, the nation’s largest executioner has executed no one.”
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In part, that’s due to the long-range impact of the Lone Star State’s introduction of life without parole as a sentencing option starting in 2005. Before that, jurors on capital murder cases had to pick between death and the possibility of eventual release.
But it’s also due to the more immediate impacts of court actions this year. In October, death row inmate Duane Buck was given a life sentence after the Supreme Court granted him a new hearing in light of testimony from an expert who told the jury that Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black.
Then in November, Harris County prosecutors asked for a life sentence for Bobby Moore, months after the Supreme Court determined that Texas did not properly consider whether he was too intellectually disabled to face execution.
Falling murder rates and changing political tides have also contributed to the decline in capital punishment.
“Perhaps the most important change is that the public is substantially less supportive of the death penalty than it has been at any time since 1972,” Dunham said, citing a recent Gallup poll. The research group’s October findings showed that 55 percent of U.S. adults support capital punishment for convicted murderers, a low not seen since March 1972.
Outspoken death penalty supporter Dudley Sharp blamed the drop on the length of time between sentencing and execution.
“At this point it’s more than doubled since the 1980s, which would dramatically lower the execution rate,” Sharp said.
Even without Harris County, Texas regained its spot this year as the busiest death chamber in the nation with seven executions. Nationwide, 23 prisoners were put to death — three more than the year before — amid an otherwise downward trend.
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A generation ago, it was a different story.
A year before Karla Faye Tucker’s execution grabbed national headlines amid the tough-on-crime efforts of the 1990s, Harris County saw 11 killers in 1997 executed. Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the 1800s, was convicted of a brutal pickaxe slaying; she blamed the killing on drugs.
The next execution in Texas is Jan. 18, when “Tourniquet Killer” Anthony Shore is slated to die by lethal injection.
Shore’s execution on Oct. 18 was halted at the last minute after he told investigators of an abandoned confession plot with fellow death row inmate Larry Swearingen, a Montgomery County killer whose execution was also delayed.
A handful of other Harris County killers who are nearing the end of their appeals process could potentially net 2018 execution dates, including Carlos Ayestas, a Honduran man convicted in a 1995 slaying. The court heard oral arguments in the case in October and is expected to offer a decision next year.
No new death sentences, however, were imposed in Harris County this year — Ogg’s first to helm the district attorney’s office.
“I think it reflects both the new administration and the new skepticism about the death penalty and life without parole all combined with a dash of Harvey,” said local defense attorney Pat McCann. “And then of course there’s the simply bizarre continuing tale of Mr. Shore and Mr. Swearingen and the frankly inexplicable turn of events there.”
Next year could be different, however.
“When you have an historic low one year it’s not surprising to see the numbers rise slightly the following year,” Dunham said.
Death row exoneree Anthony Graves lauded local prosecutors for their role in the shifting tides.
“Kudos to the administration for being out front on criminal justice reform,” he said. “Because this is what it is, this is what it looks like.”