THE DEATH PENALTY IN TEXAS began in 1835 with a piece of five-strand manila hemp rope. Under the administration of Stephen F. Austin, a man by the name of Joseph Clayton was hanged for the murder of Abner Kuykendall. Executions were a public affair at this time, so crowds of people would gather to witness the noose deliver “the hangman’s fracture,” said to cause instantaneous death by forcefully snapping the jaw and rupturing the spinal cord. It was not until 88 years later that capital punishment laws were seriously revised. State Senator J.W. Thomas passed a bill in 1923 that changed the means of capital punishment from hanging to electrocution, outlawed public executions, and required the state, rather than the county, to be responsible for carrying them out. One year later in 1924, Charles Reynolds from Red River County was the first person to be put to death by electrocution.
Over the next few decades, electrocution became the mandated method of execution throughout most of the country. It was deemed more humane and ultimately considered a more civilized means of putting a criminal to death. Electrocution was far from perfect however, and suffered its share of aspersions. Eventually gruesome stories about burning flesh and eyeballs popping out of their sockets began to circulate, and electrocution was seriously questioned. The last offender to be executed by electrocution in Texas took place on July 30, 1964. Between the years of 1924 and 1964, a total of 361 inmates were electrocuted in Texas.
Capital punishment was at an all time low throughout the late 1960’s. Numerous cases made it to the Supreme Court arguing that the death penalty inflicted cruel and unusual punishment and was therefore in violation of the 8th amendment of the Constitution. In 1972 the debate culminated in the Supreme Court case of Furman vs. Georgia, in which the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty, in its current state, to be cruel and unusual punishment. This landmark case resulted in a moratorium on the death penalty. It was ruled that states had too much discretion when handing down death sentences, and so states were forced to revise their capital punishment laws. In 1973 the Texas Penal Code was revised and the death penalty was reinstated in Texas one year later, in 1974.
It was during this time that lethal injection was introduced as an alternative to electrocution. California Governor Ronald Reagan was one of the first American politicians to suggest lethal injection as a means execution. He likened it to his experience of having a horse put down by the veterinarian. He explained the animal was simply given a shot and put to sleep.
Four years later, in 1977, Oklahoma was the first state to make the switch from electrocution to lethal injection. Texas followed suit that same year although it was not until 1982 that Charlie Brooks of Tarrant County was executed by lethal injection for the kidnapping and murder of a Fort Worth auto mechanic. Like hanging and electrocution before it, lethal injection has suffered severe criticism. Arguments pointed to stories of botched executions as in the case of Texas offender Raymond Landry. As the drugs were being administered, the syringe came out of Landry’s arm and the deadly chemicals were sprayed across the room toward the witnesses. Nevertheless lethal injection remains the preferred method of execution in Texas as well as in the rest of the country.
Texas has witnessed significant changes in capital punishment over the past two centuries as state lawmakers have attempted to both modernize and humanize a very controversial practice. Despite significant changes it remains a passionately debated topic and Texas continues to make headlines by leading the nation in executions. Out of the 38 states authorizing the death penalty, Texas has the dubious honor of carrying out the most executions since the 1974 reinstatement. We are considered the most execution-active state in the U.S., sentencing 2-3 convicts to death each month. Of the 807 executions in the U.S. since 1976, 285 of those have taken place in Texas.