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State Rep. Dutton Renews Uphill Fight To Abolish The Death Penalty

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Andrew Schneider
/
Houston Public Media
State Representative Harold V. Dutton Jr. (D-Houston).

Until last year Texas had for decades executed more inmates annually than any other state.  Last year, Georgia executed more and the number of inmates being put to death here was the lowest in 20 years.  This week public radio reporters in Texas are looking at the history of the death penalty and whether public opinion is changing in our state.  Here's a look at the death penalty through the lens of a lawmaker who has filed bills to end capital punishment every legislative session since 2003.

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Harold Dutton's law office sits two stories above the Main Street rail line in Midtown. One morning in 2002 he was drinking a cup of coffee and reading his daily paper.

"....and it talked about an execution that had taken place. And it said that it did in the name of Texas. And I thought, 'Oh, that's me.' And so they did it in my name."
 
The idea really bothered him.
 
"And I said, 'I really don't want them doing it in my name.'"
 
Dutton offered his first bill to abolish the death penalty the next year...and never stopped.
 
He began to bring former inmates to testify at the Capitol. Some had been sentenced to die, but were exonerated after DNA or other evidence proved their innocence. Others had pled guilty, even though they weren't, in order to avoid a death sentence. Dutton says their stories have changed minds - but rarely votes.
 
"There are members who have said to me privately, 'Harold, you know, I like the idea you file that bill every year, but I just can't vote for it, cause I don't think I'd get reelected.'"
 
Harold Dutton is not the only reason Houston is at the epicenter of the death penalty debate. Kristin Houlé heads the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She's tracked the number of death sentences in Texas over the past four decades and broken them down by county.
 
"At the top of that list is Harris County, which has sentenced nearly 300 people to death and accounts for 126 executions. That's more executions than any other state except for Texas as a whole. But even in Harris County, use of the death penalty is declining. No one has been sentenced to death out of Harris County for the last two years," Houlé says.
 
In fact, last year, executions in Texas reached a two-decade low. One of the reasons is that jurors have more choices than they used to.
 
"I think there has been more of a tendency for juries to opt for the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole when they have that opportunity," Houlé says.
 
Jack Roady is criminal district attorney for Galveston County. Before that, he was a prosecutor with the Harris County DA's office, and worked on many death penalty appeals. He notes the state legislature only made life without parole an option in Texas in 2005. Roady says that's fine.
 
"But there are some cases where the sentence of death is the appropriate punishment, and juries in Texas, in fact juries in the country, need to have that ability to impose that punishment if the evidence supports it," Roady says.
 
He feels most of his constituents aren't ready to give up the death penalty as a way to punish what he calls, "the worst of the worst." Though, he says abolition could happen if enough Texans decide that's what they want. Representative Harold Dutton is counting on that.
 
"Now that the public is also beginning to have a clearer view of the issues related to this whole issue of capital punishment, that has made even legislators now have to stop and take a look," Dutton says.
 
Dutton's already filed his bill for the 2017 legislative session. He's hoping, this year, more of his colleagues will join him.
 
​Texas is set to carry out its second execution of the year this week, barring a last minute reprieve. There are another seven planned by July. Tuesday we'll look at what it means to be elderly on death row.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited to accurately reflect changes by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as to the number of executions in the state and the number of scheduled executions.