Year of doubt

In the past, Texas has appeared unwavering in its support for the death penalty.

Even as other states explored alternatives or abolished capital punishment altogether, Texas was resolute.

But new numbers tell a different story, suggesting that doubt is creeping into the state's psyche. While Texas is still No. 1 with a bullet, carrying out more than twice as many executions as any other state, the number of new death sentences has plummeted.

In 2010, only eight Texas juries sentenced someone to die — a record low since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Compare that with 1999, when 48 juries handed down death sentences.

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which detailed this downward shift in a new report, dubbed this the Year of Doubt.

In Texas, as in other states, multiple factors likely have contributed to the declining number of death sentences. Life in prison without parole has emerged as a viable punishment option. The exorbitant costs associated with death row also have made death by prison a more cost-effective approach.

Even more important, though, may be the advances in DNA that have laid bare the failings of the justice system. Exonerations have confirmed what many suspected: Texas doesn't always get it right — an unacceptable outcome when the punishment is irreversible.

Watching Anthony Graves walk out of the Burleson County Jail should shake the confidence of even the most ardent death-penalty proponents. He's an innocent man who spent 18 years in prison and 12 years on death row for murders he did not commit.

This year, six other condemned Texas inmates had their sentences reduced on appeal, as the missteps of prosecutors, judges and juries were revealed.

As Texans see these errors exposed in several high-profile cases, they understandably may be less inclined to risk making an irreparable mistake. Prosecutors can no longer count on juries to mete out a death sentence whenever one is sought.

In 2010, three Texas juries rejected the death penalty in capital murder cases and instead opted for life sentences without parole, according to the coalition's research.

This newspaper has highlighted the fallibility of the system as we've called for the abolishment of the death penalty. And while our state was one of only 12 that carried out executions in 2010, this new report signals some discomfort with Texas' machinery of death.

These findings should spur legislative efforts to fix the most preventable flaws in our justice system. Most lawmakers have shown little interest in ending capital punishment, but they should be able to agree on reforms that address weaknesses in our judicial process.

Texas still is a long way from leading justice reform efforts. But a look back at 2010 suggests that our state is at least inching in the right direction.

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