Shared from the 1/3/2021 San Antonio Express eEdition

Report says death penalty in decline

Prosecutors seeking criminal justice reform; health concerns tied to pandemic are cited


Geronimo Gutierrez, sent to death row over a 1999 slaying, had his sentence cut to life in prison in 2020.

Use of the death penalty in Texas has dropped sharply in recent years, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the election of prosecutors focused on criminal justice reform, a new report found.

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales is one of several prosecutors in Texas who have vowed to curtail use of the death penalty, according to the year-end report by the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, a statewide advocacy group.

The pandemic largely halted executions because of public health concerns. Texas, which typically carries out the highest number of executions nationwide, executed three people in 2020, the report found. It was the lowest number statewide in nearly 25 years.

None of the men executed were from Bexar County.

While executions in the Lone Star State were at an all-time low, Texas was one of only two states — besides the federal government — that carried out executions during the pandemic.

“It is shameful … to put anyone to death during a global pandemic,” said Kristin Houlé Cuellar, executive director of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, referring to the July execution of Billy Joe Wardlow.

Wardlow was sentenced to death in 1995 in the killing of 82-year-old Carl Cole during a botched attempt to steal Cole’s truck at his home in rural Morris County in East Texas. At the time, Wardlow was 18.

In July, in a last-ditch effort to halt Wardlow’s execution, attorneys representing him asked the Texas Supreme Court and Gov. Greg Abbott to halt his execution because of the pandemic. The court denied the motion, and Abbott took no action.

The report shows that Texas juries sentenced two people to death last year — one in February and the other in March — before the coronavirus suspended most court proceedings.

The number of death sentences and executions in Texas and across the U.S. has steadily decreased over the last two decades. Texas executions peaked in 2000, when 40 people were put to death, the report states. In 2019, nine inmates were executed.

The decrease comes as public support for the death penalty has waned, especially as alternative sentences, such as life without the possibility of parole, have become available.

“It is shameful … to put anyone to death during a global pandemic.”
Kristin Houlé Cuellar, executive director of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty

Prior to 2005, when then-Gov. Rick Perry signed a law allowing juries to sentence defendants to life without parole, the alternative was life in prison with the chance of parole after 40 years.

Opponents of capital punishment argue that the sentence is unfairly applied based on race and poses the risk of killing individuals with claims of actual innocence. According to the report, 70 percent of death sentences over the last five years have been imposed on people of color.

Of those, 38 percent were Black defendants. In comparison, roughly 13 percent of Texas’ population is Black, according to 2019 estimates from the Census Bureau.

“As Texas moves away from the death penalty, what remains is an arbitrary, unfair and racially biased punishment,” Cuellar said. “At this critical moment of reckoning with systemic racism, elected officials and the public must continue to confront our state’s deeply troubling legacy of injustice reflected in the death penalty.”

Cuellar said executions will likely continue to decline in the coming years, partly because several district attorneys — including those in Dallas, Harris and Nueces counties — having vowed to curtail use of the death penalty.

Gonzales, who took office in 2019, has said he will seek the death penalty in only the “worst of the worst cases.”

So far, he has chosen to seek the death penalty twice: for Brian Flores, then accused in the 2015 deaths of two teenagers, and Otis Tyrone McKane, who is suspected in the 2016 killing of San Antonio Police Detective Benjamin Marconi.

Flores’ case was resolved after he pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Last year, Gonzales helped lead the charge to reduce Geronimo Gutierrez’s death sentence to life in prison. He was one of six men whose sentences were changed after prosecutors and judges agreed there was evidence the men had intellectual disabilities, the report states.

Gutierrez was the first person convicted in Bexar County to receive relief under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2017 in Moore vs. Texas, which found that Texas courts were using outdated, nonmedical criteria to assess intellectual disability claims.

When his sentence was reduced, Gutierrez had spent more than 18 years on death row for the abduction and slaying of Rick Marin in 1999 in San Antonio.

“The appeals of death penalty cases are lengthy and costly for taxpayers,” Gonzales said at the time, explaining his recommendation to reduce Gutierrez’s sentence. “This court ruling means this defendant will spend the rest of his life in prison.”

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