As the state prepares to execute its 13th person this year on Wednesday, the case of Harris County, where 124 offenders have been executed, reflects shift among juries and prosecutors in opting for life sentences instead of death penalty
texas death penalty
The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas, the state that executes more people than anywhere else in the US. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Yosselyn Alfaro was celebrating her 21st birthday at a friend’s apartment when the bullet went through her brain. Two 17-year-olds, Daniel Munoz and Veronica Hernandez, also died after shots to the head.
Two others were injured. One held his mutilated jaw in place so he could tell the authorities who did it: Jonathan Sanchez.
The 27-year-old had a string of previous arrests. Prosecutors alleged that at the time of the murders two years ago, he was a gang member on a drug binge who sent threatening text messages to a man who lived at the Peppermill Place complex in north-west Houston. Then he turned up, talked his way in and started shooting.
In the county that metes out more completed death sentences than any other in the US, in the state that executes more people than anywhere else in the nation, it seemed obvious that prosecutors would seek the death penalty for such a horrific crime and almost inevitable that they would get it.
Yet, as the Houston Chronicle reported, the jury that convicted Sanchez of capital murder last week opted to spare him from a lethal injection. He was sentenced to life without parole. It was an outcome at odds with Texas’s well-earned reputation.
On Wednesday, Raphael Holiday is set to become the 531st Texas inmate executed since 1976, and the 13th this year, for starting a house fire that killed three young girls, including his one-year-old daughter.
Some 124 offenders have been executed after convictions in Harris County, which includes Houston. If Harris were a state it would be second in total executions, behind Texas and 12 deaths ahead of Oklahoma.
Yet no one has been sentenced to death in Harris County this year. Across Texas there have been only three death sentences in 2015, and the first came as late as October. The previous low in a calendar year was eight.
“We now have more cases this year where jurors rejected the death penalty than where they imposed it,” said Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
“I think it’s the culmination of several things,” said Tim Cole, a former district attorney in Texas who tried death penalty cases. Cole believes that the rising number of DNA-based exonerations has made jurors more cautious and sceptical, that the introduction of a life without parole option for capital cases in 2005 has had a major effect, and prosecutors are seeking death less often.