It’s official: for the second straight year, Texas will execute a grand total of three people. That became certain on October 20, when a Medina County district court rescheduled the execution date for convicted killer Ramiro Gonzales from November 17 to next July. Gonzales was the last person on the state executioner’s 2021 to-do list. The removal happened quietly; the Texas Department of Criminal Justice made no announcement.
Texas, of course, is accustomed to doing things in a much brasher manner. Once upon a time, we had a well-oiled execution machine that efficiently dispatched legions of the damned. From 1982 (when Texas restarted executions after getting the okay from the Supreme Court in 1976) through September of this year, we’d executed 573 people, far more than any other state (Virginia, which is number two, had executed 113). The execution heyday was 2000, when Governor George W. Bush was running for president. That year we executed 40; on August 9, 2000, we actually put 2 people to death in one day. Film crews, activists, and movie stars flocked to Texas to protest or just ogle this grim record.
Those days are over. The past decade has seen a steady decline in the number of executions, from the teens to the single digits. And now just six in two years? We used to do that many in a month! What is going on with the law-and-order Lone Star State?
One major factor is COVID-19, which has slowed executions everywhere. Over the past year and a half, nobody has wanted to get together in a courtroom or an execution chamber and go through all the complex, time-consuming legal motions required to execute someone. Only five states executed an inmate in 2020—and Texas was the only one that dispatched more than one person. So far this year, eight Americans have been put to death in all.
In spite of the pandemic, Texas had more killings planned. But the state has been deterred by legal complaints from inmates like Gonzales, who want to have their spiritual advisers at their side when they go to meet their makers. This rash of challenges began with John Henry Ramirez, set for execution September 8, who requested that his pastor be next to him so he could lay on hands and pray aloud; the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the pastor could enter the chamber, but had to keep his distance and remain silent. Ramirez filed for a stay, saying this violated his First Amendment right to practice his religion as he saw fit. The U.S. Supreme Court granted the stay and agreed to hear arguments about his claim. Those will take place on November 1, though a ruling won’t come for months. But this has put all Texas executions on hold. After the Supreme Court granted the Ramirez stay, five other inmates set to be executed this fall, including Gonzales, had their dates delayed too, all on religious-freedom grounds.
But there are bigger reasons for the decline in executions, and in that sense Texas is like a lot of states that just don’t use capital punishment that much these days. One of the crucial issues is expense. To investigate a capital murder, nab suspects, give them attorneys and experts, put them on trial, convict them, go through years of appeals while they sit in a maximum-security prison, then actually execute them—all that costs millions of dollars. Who foots the bill? The counties, all of which have other things they would rather spend their tax dollars on.
Another reason for the drop in executions is that, ever since 2005, Texas prosecutors have had a second option for punishing violent criminals convicted of capital murder: life without parole. They have used it often, and juries have followed suit. Since 2005, more than 1,200 men and women have been sentenced to essentially die in prison, while in that same period only 129 new death sentences were handed down. Back in 2000 Texas had 450 inmates on death row; today it has 198.
There’s also been a sea change in how Texans view our criminal justice system. We used to think it didn’t make mistakes. Now we know better, thanks to DNA. Since 1989 there have been 375 DNA exonerations in the U.S., and in Texas, sixteen men who were sentenced to death were exonerated. The fact is, the American public no longer automatically assumes that the cops got the right guy, the prosecutors played by the rules, the defense lawyers did their jobs well, or that the courts took a fair look at the case. When the ultimate penalty is at stake, we’re inclined to be a lot more careful.
And so, support for capital punishment has been steadily declining over the past generation—spurred by a steady decline in the murder rate since the bad old days of the eighties. (One exception was in 2020, when the Texas murder rate rose sharply for the first time in years.) All these factors combined have led to an ebbing of the old hang-’em-high mentality. While a bare majority of Americans still supports capital punishment, a majority also, for the first time, would rather see a person given life without parole.
The truth is, there’s no real rush to execute anyone anymore. In 2000, politicians like Bush made it one of their prime talking points, and starting as early as the 1980s, people argued about the death penalty like they argued about abortion. “I was sworn to uphold the laws of my state,” Bush said in a presidential debate with Al Gore. “I do believe that if the death penalty is administered swiftly, justly, and fairly, it saves lives.” Nowadays folks still argue about abortion—but no one really talks much about capital punishment. This cultural and political shift is reflected in the numbers. In the entire U.S. last year, only eighteen new death sentences were given—the lowest since it was brought back in the mid-seventies. In March, Virginia became the twenty-third state, and first in the South, to abolish the death penalty.
Texas will probably be the very last state to follow suit. But in the meantime, we might get to the point where it’s not worth the trouble to execute people anymore. In the end, it might be just that simple.