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Michelle Lyons Introduces Death Row

Posted on 18th May 2018 by Martha Greengrass

As as a reporter and spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Michelle Lyons witnessed more than 300 executions in 12 years. In her new book Death Row, she explores the politics behind America's justice system and how her experiences made her question her firmly held belief in the death penalty. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, she explains some of the facts behind America's capital punishment system.

In 2000, 40 inmates were put to death in Texas, a record for the most executions in a single year by an individual state, and almost as many as the rest of the United States combined. In my role as a prison reporter for The Huntsville Item – my first year in the job – I witnessed 38 of them. 

Since Texas started carrying out executions again in 1982, after an 18-year hiatus, the state has put 550 offenders to death, 279 of those executions occurring during the governorship of Rick Perry, between 2001 and 2014. Having joined the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a spokesperson in 2001 and departed in 2012, I witnessed about the same number. Perhaps only one American, Associated Press reporter Mike Graczyk, has witnessed more.

Thirty-one states still have the death penalty on their books, but it would seem its use is dwindling. Twenty-three offenders were executed in the US in 2017 and 20 in 2016, the fewest since 1991. So far in 2018, only four states have carried out executions. California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, Illinois since 1999 and Wyoming since 1992. And there are signs that Texas, ‘the capital punishment capital of America’, is also losing its appetite for the ultimate bureaucratic act.

There are currently 229 inmates on Texas death row, the lowest number (according to research by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty) since the late 1980s. In 2017, Texas executed seven offenders, the same as the previous year. Harris County, which includes Houston, America’s fourth most populous city, executed none of its death row inmates for the first time since 1985, and did not sentence anybody to death for the third year in a row.

There are a number of reasons for the dip. In 2005, Texas introduced the option of life imprisonment without parole, and jurors seem to have found it a more palatable alternative to the death penalty, while also being assured that recipients would never be able to harm anybody else in the free world. The number of death sentences having peaked at 48 in 1999, there were 11 in 2006 and three in 2017. Meanwhile, the usage of life without parole has sky-rocketed.

The fact that murder rates in Texas decreased from 7.7 murders per 100,000 people in 1996 to 4.4 in 2013 (according to FBI figures) suggests that life without parole hasn’t only replaced the death penalty, it has also replaced less punitive sentences. If you’re thinking, ‘I’d rather be executed than locked up in prison for the rest of my life, with no possibility of release’, the counter-argument is that at least life without parole gives hope to the innocent, in that lawyers, in theory, have plenty of time to prove that innocence to the courts. 

While I don’t believe I saw anybody innocent die in Huntsville’s death chamber, where every execution in Texas takes place, there have been exonerations in recent years, including that of Anthony Graves, who spent 12 years on death row before being freed in 2010, having been wrongly convicted of murdering six people. After Graves’ release, the prosecutor who sent him to prison was disbarred for withholding evidence and using false testimony to secure the conviction. More usually, exonerations happen as a result of DNA testing, but whatever the reason, they are bound to shake the public’s faith.

Other reasons for the dip in death sentences and executions include reformist district attorneys and prosecutors; better defence lawyers; jurors who are more understanding of mitigating circumstances for an alleged killer’s crime, such as an abusive childhood or mental illness; the school of thought that it can’t possibly be a deterrent, given that there is more violent crime in Texas than in states without the death penalty; botched executions in other states; and the difficulty in acquiring the drugs necessary to carry out lethal injection.

There is also the huge cost of pursuing the death penalty. According to a study by the Dallas Morning News, the average death penalty case costs nearly three times more than locking up a convict for life. When Lawrence Brewer and John King were sentenced to death for the murder of James Byrd Jr in 1998 – the Jasper dragging case – Jasper County raised property taxes to pay for it.

While some people are aghast that Texas still has the death penalty –especially those from states without it, as well as from countries in the rest of the developed world – a 2017 Gallup poll suggested that 55 percent of Americans are still in favour. And the last major poll in Texas, in 2013, suggested that support for the death penalty was significantly higher in the state, at 74 percent. As such, no Texas politician in their right mind would campaign on an abolition platform.

In 2017, for the second consecutive year and only the third time since 1991, the US was not one of the five most prolific executing countries in the world (according to Amnesty International, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan filled the top five spots, while the US was seventh. Still, Huntsville’s death chamber is not likely to be decommissioned any time soon.

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