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Texas killing fewer people

Is the death penalty on death row?

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Huntsville, Texas

The scene outside the Huntsville unit of the Texas state penitentiary last Wednesday evening was a familiar one.

Police officers stood casually outside the imposing red-brick walls as a small group of passionate opponents of the death penalty railed against a punishment they say has no place in modern America.

Inside, a death row inmate, Hank Skinner, was due to be executed by lethal injection.

But with half an hour to go, word emerged that the Supreme Court in Washington had issued a last-minute stay of execution.

Skinner, convicted of the 1993 killing of his girlfriend and her two adult sons in Pampa, has always protested his innocence.

His French wife, Sandrine, expressed relief, but spoke of her anger at a process that could still result in her husband's execution.

"This system has got to stop," she told the BBC. "We are not going to stop until it's over."

The death chamber at Huntsville, which carries out all Texas death penalties, is still the busiest in the nation. Twenty-four prisoners were executed last year.

But across Texas, there has been a steep decline in the number of new death sentences handed down. There were just nine last year. In the late 1990s, as many as 48 people a year were sent to death row.

The statistics have led some campaigners to hope that the death penalty may itself be on death row.

To the south of Huntsville, Harris County, which includes the sprawling metropolis of Houston, used to be known as the nation's death penalty capital.

But after sending about a dozen murderers to death row each year for a decade, it has been two years since it sent a single one.

The county's district attorney, Pat Lycos, rejects the notion that Houston has become a death penalty-free zone.

In an office adorned with photos of Margaret Thatcher, Barry Goldwater and John Wayne, she admits that some things are different.

"What has changed is the availability of life without parole," she says, highlighting a law that came into effect in 2005. Before this, the system offered two options for capital crimes: the death penalty and life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

But there are other factors at work here too. Take cost.

In the countryside west of Houston sits quiet, rural Austin County. Its district attorney, Travis Koehn, is busy enough at the best of times.

But Austin County saw two gruesome murders in four months last year. Mr Koehn and his small team have two hugely expensive capital murder cases to prosecute. Seeking the death penalty is the costliest option. The impact on the community could be huge.

"This is just like if a hurricane or tornado came through our community or if a 747 crashed outside our town," he says.

Koehn says the current economic crisis will not dictate how he pursues the two cases, but he has yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty.

"We're still going as best we can. We're seeking justice and we're going to do that with what we have."

As he weighs up the pros and cons, he could do worse than heed the words of one former county judge.

"We're all looking at things more closely than we did 40 years ago," says Gene Terry, executive director of the Texas Association of Counties.

Mr Terry says lawyers are better trained and juries harder to please. He puts some of this down to what he calls "the CSI effect", by which jurors make unfavourable comparisons between what they see in the courtroom and the sort of forensics they watch on popular TV shows.

The dramatised version may be highly unrealistic, but "it makes juries more demanding", Mr Terry says.

Better training. Smarter juries. Life without parole. And economic difficulties. But is there perhaps one more reason why the death penalty is on the wane?

Texas itself is changing. Its huge and growing Latino population opposes the death penalty on religious grounds. Americans of all stripes have moved here from other parts of the country too.

In this less homogenous environment, the old certainties are being more widely questioned.

But old habits die hard in Texas and the death penalty will not be disappearing any time soon. Back in a cafe in rural Bellville, Harley Thomason puts me straight.

"It's a zero-tolerance state," he says. "They'll just kill you in the state of Texas if you mess up."

Tags: capital punishment, texas

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