Harris Co. not sending as many killers to death row

April 7, 2010 5:08:10 PM PDT
Harris County used to have a reputation as a fast track to death row. Just a few years ago, juries here sent an average of eight people to death row every year. It's down to two now and the last man convicted for killing a Houston police officer isn't one of them. He instead is serving life in prison. Serving on a death penalty jury was a tough assignment for Cindy Bradford.

"It's an experience I hope a lot of people really don't have to go through because it's a big decision," said Bradford.

And the decision was made even tougher for Bradford when her 11 jury colleagues decided against the death penalty for convicted cop killer Juan Quintero.

"I had a rough few days after that was over because that just did not feel right to me," said Bradford.

While handcuffed in the back of a Houston police car, Quintero shot HPD Officer Rodney Johnson seven times, killing him.

"In Harris County, I was a bit surprised by that. It clearly shows a shift," said Matt Alford, criminal defense attorney.

Since that verdict in May 2008, 99 people were convicted for new capital murders in Harris County, but not a single one of them has received the death penalty here.

Harris County used to send the most people to death row in Texas, but not anymore. In the last two years, Harris County juries sent just two killers to Texas' death row. The same number as two other counties, Cameron and El Paso, but less than both Tarrant (three) and Dallas counties (four).

"We had a terrible reputation," said Kathyrn Kase of the Texas Defenders Service where she defends people charged with capital murder.

A 2005 change in Texas law explains most of the change. Now juries can sentence a killer to life in prison without the chance of parole, and jurors can be certain convicted killers will die in prison without having to be executed.

"It means that someone is going to prison and stay there," said Kase.

Before the change in law, Texas' death row got an average of 23 new inmates every year. Today that number is just 11. The yearly number of capital murders is virtually unchanged.

However, there may be something else underway to explain the decrease - skepticism inside the jury box about the system and the potential for wrongful convictions.

"Jurors are more skeptical of evidence now. The Innocence Project's work and the crime lab scandals across the state have taken their toll," said Kase.

The District Attorney's Office isn't so sure.

"I don't know how much that is even discussed with jurors, how many jurors even bring that up. We have 4.5 million in this county to choose from and there a large number of them that really don't know what's going on at the police lab," said Roger Bridgwater of the Harris County DA's Office.

Whether it was those doubts or others, Cindy Bradford says inside her jury room, something other than evidence was tipping the jury.

"One person said,' How are we going to feel when that day comes? How are you going to feel the day that that man is executed?' And I don't know if I can deal with that," said Bradford.

It left her with nagging doubt about her service. When we asked her if she feels like he got away with something, Bradford replied, "Yes, I do."

Harris County isn't alone - the trend continues across the state. District attorneys are seeking death far less often and juries appear less willing to agree to it.


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