DALLAS — With the number of people sentenced to death row nationally reaching a 30-year low in 2003, according to a Justice Department study, all eyes are on Texas — the one state that executes far more convicted murderers than any other state.
Last year, 144 inmates in 25 states were given the death penalty, 24 fewer than in 2002 and less than half the average of 297 between 1994 and 2000, according to the Justice Department.
But the drop in numbers doesn't apply to Texas. In fact, there are more men on death row in Texas from Harris County, the area around Houston, than from most other states.
It appears the public is growing more wary of putting criminals to death, but there are still plenty of executions planned in the Lone Star State.
In fact a recent Texas poll conducted by the Scripps Research Center found that 7 out of 10 Texans believe the state has executed innocent people, but three-quarters of those surveyed still support capital punishment. And the same poll found that only 44 percent of them want a moratorium on executions while the authorities figure out ways to fix the system.
Cracks in the system beginning to surface
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing in. On Monday the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of convicted Texas killer LaRoyce Smith because his trial did not consider his learning disability and low IQ of 78.
The vote was 7-to-2. It was the latest rebuke delivered by the nation's highest court to the criminal justice system in Texas.
Questions have also been raised lately about a Houston police crime lab that has been closed since a 2002 audit found problems including evidence contamination, poor record-keeping and problems with DNA evidence.
The Houston district attorney’s office has ordered DNA retests of about 400 cases so far.
This has prompted Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt to call for a moratorium on executions of Harris County convicts until their cases involving the lab’s work can be reviewed. Other calls for a moratorium on executions have come from prominent death penalty supporters on the bench and in the Texas Legislature.
Reduction to life sentence significant
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is now taking a harder look at death row cases. Just last week, the court ordered two men removed from death row because they are mentally retarded.
The Texas judges ordered the sentences for Walter Bell Jr. and Alberto Valdez reduced to life in prison. Bell had been on death row for 29 years. His school records show he has an IQ in the mid-50s. The usual threshold for execution is above 70.
But just the fact that a Texas court has ordered death penalties reduced to life in prison is a significant change in Texas.
More than 40 percent of those on death row are now imprisoned in three states — California, Texas and Florida — while more than two-thirds of the executions were carried out in Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina, according to the Justice Department.
During the 1990 race for governor in Texas one candidate in a campaign commercial walked down a gallery of pictures of men, boasting they were put to death while he was attorney general. Other candidates responded they would be even tougher on crime.
As long as public opinion polls in Texas continue to show strong support for the death penalty, executions are likely to continue in the Lone Star State.
Two more are scheduled, for Wednesday night and Thursday night. Numbers 23 and 24 this year. The same number for all of last year.
Jim Cummins is the NBC News bureau chief and lead correspondent in Dallas, Texas.