Capital punishment–i.e., the death penalty–has been a feature of criminal justice systems dating back to ancient times. While over 100 countries across the world today have abolished capital punishment entirely, many parts of the United States, including Texas, still employ the death penalty for certain persons convicted of murder.
Texas Leads the Nation in Executions
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively halted the death penalty when it ruled a number of state capital punishment laws unconstitutional. By 1976, however, states had revised their laws to satisfy the Supreme Court’s objections and executions resumed. Today, 31 states and the federal government maintain the death penalty.
Texas reinstated its death penalty in 1974. Texas presently carries out more executions than any other state. Harris County alone accounts for more than 280 death sentences imposed in Texas since 1982.
While popular in Texas, the death penalty remains controversial. Amnesty International, a leading international nonprofit organization that opposes the death penalty worldwide, notes that at least 150 people who were sentenced to death were later exonerated, while “others have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt.” Amnesty also points to evidence that a defendant is more likely to receive capital punishment if they are “poor or belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority” that lacks access to adequate defense counsel.
Commuting Death Sentences Difficult in Texas
A death sentence is not always the last word in a capital case. Aside from the appeals process–which can take decades in death penalty cases–there is always the possibility of executive clemency. For example, just before leaving office in January 2017, former president Barack Obama commuted the death sentences of two federal inmates. In one case, Obama granted clemency because there was evidence the defendant was a foreign citizen an “intellectual disability.”
A commutation is not the same thing as a pardon. The latter absolves a defendant of guilt and, in effect, erases his criminal record. A commutation is merely a reduction in sentence. In most cases, the commutation of a death sentence simply means the defendant must still spend the rest of their life in prison.
The President of the United States has the sole power to grant clemency in cases involving federal or military crimes. In Texas the law is a bit more complicated. The governor has the final say on commuting death sentences, but he can only act on the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The governor can decline to commute a death sentence on the Board’s advice, but he cannot grant a commutation over its objection.
Taking Felony Charges Seriously in Houston and League City
The death penalty is a criminal prosecutor’s ultimate weapon. But even if you are not facing a capital charge, you still need to have experienced counsel at your side. If you are facing any type of serious felony charge and need a Galveston criminal defense lawyer to assist you, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates right away.