By early October, observers of the state’s criminal justice system were buzzing about something extraordinary: not a single death sentence had been handed down in Texas during the first nine months of the year. If the trend continued through the end of December, many noted, it would mark the first year that Texas hadn’t sentenced anyone to death since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
As it turns out, that didn’t come to pass; by the end of October Texas juries had approved three death sentences (one pending a competency ruling), with at least one more possible before year’s end. Even four death sentences, though, would represent a major shift for a state that, between 1985 and 2002, averaged 36 a year. But it’s a shift that began more than a decade ago, and was accelerated in 2005 by the introduction of a new sentencing innovation: life without parole.