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Texas sent 7 people to death row in 2018 — all minorities

December 14, 2018

While leading the nation in executions, Texas sentenced seven men to death in 2018 — all people of color.

Only one — Ali Irsan — was sent to death row from Harris County, breaking a three-year stretch without any new death sentences in a place once known as the “capital of capital punishment.”

But despite the apparent racial disparities statewide and the return to capital punishment in Houston, the longterm decline in executions is continuing amid a number of legal “wins” for defense teams and death penalty opponents. This year saw the first Texas death row commutation in over a decade, six prisoners won last-minute stays, and another four men were taken off death row.

“Death sentences have been dropping over the course of the last 25 years and the hope always had been that as use of the death penalty declined, it would be imposed in a way that would be less arbitrary and less discriminatory,” said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center. “That hasn’t happened, and in many respects it’s gotten worse.”

In Harris County, every defendant sentenced to death since 2004 has been a person of color. And across the state, more than 70 percent of death sentences have been imposed on people of color over the last five years, according to a year-end report released by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

No longer the capital of capital punishment

Thirteen inmates— including eight men of color — were put to death in Huntsville, making up more than half of the total executions nationwide this year.

The first of those was Anthony Shore, a Houston-area serial murderer and rapist dubbed “The Tourniquet Killer.”

Originally, the 55-year-old —who was the last white man in Harris County sentenced to die — was scheduled for execution in 2017. But a judge called off the date after investigators uncovered an alleged confession plot that could have seen Shore take responsibility for the murder that landed another man on death row. Shore was executed in January.

Then, in June, Harris County serial killer Danny Bible was executed amid concerns that he was too ill to die without suffering a painfully botched procedure. The lethal injection went through as planned.

The two executions represent a far smaller number than in years past, but a slight increase over last year when —for the first time in more than three decades — no Harris County killers were put to death.

“I don’t think that being the death penalty capital of America is a selling point for Harris County,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said at the time.

In addition to the return to executions, Harris County once again sent a man to death row. Ali Irsan, a Jordanian immigrant, was sentenced to die in August for a pair of 2012 “honor killings.”

‘Mixed Messages’

Statewide, four men were taken off death row this year for reasons other than execution. One was Harris County killer Michael Wayne Norris, who was given two life sentences after the courts tossed out his original punishment in light of flawed jury instructions.

And, in February, Bart Whitaker of Sugar Land was given a rare commutation by Gov. Greg Abbott, the first such show of gubernatorial leniency in more than a decade. Statewide, six condemned men won reprieves, including two whose claims of intellectual disability got a second look in light of a Harris County case that went up to the Supreme Court in 2017.

But, given what Dunham called an “outlier” decision from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the man at the center of that case, Bobby Moore, is still on death row even though prosecutors and defense lawyers both agree that he’s too intellectually disabled for execution.

“There’s clearly mixed messages from the Court of Criminal Appeals this year,” Dunham said. “They’ve continued to grant stays of execution to require the lower courts to review new evidence and apply new decisions and they created an appropriate new standard for deciding intellectual disability — but then they didn’t apply it themselves in Moore’s case.”

And, he said, “several” Texas executions were “extraordinarily egregious.” Earlier this year, Dunham pointed out, the state put to death Juan Castillo “without looking at evidence of innocence.”

Then last month, Robert Moreno Ramos was executed amid claims of international treaty violations. And this week, Alvin Braziel was put to death even though defense lawyers alleged the state had come forward with a last-minute admission of prosecutorial misconduct.

Looking Ahead

Six death dates, including two for men from Harris County, are already on the calendar for 2019. And, one of the CCA judges who most consistently questioned the death penalty with fiery written dissents — Judge Elsa Alcala — leaves the bench at the end of the year.

Still, in light of recent elections and the upcoming legislative session, Kristin Houle of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty saw cause for optimism for capital punishment opponents.

“I think we will continue to see the reduced use of the death penalty particularly in light of the election of reform-minded district attorneys in places like Bexar County and Dallas County and Fort Bend County,” she said. “In those places, the candidates who won clearly acknowledge flaws in our death penalty system and they acknowledge the disproportionate imposition of the death penalty on people of color.”

keri.blakinger@chron.com

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