Prior to 1923, counties carried out their own executions, by means of hanging. In 1923, the state of Texas ordered all executions to be carried out by the state, in Huntsville, by means of the electric chair. The state executed its first inmate by electrocution on 8 February 1924. Five prisoners were electrocuted on that date.
Death row and the execution chamber were located in the Huntsville unit from 1928 to 1965. The last electrocution was carried out on 30 July 1964. Texas electrocuted a total of 361 inmates from 1924 to 1964.
In 1964, judicial challenges to capital punishment resulted in a de facto moratorium on executions in the United States. On 29 June 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that every state death penalty law in the U.S. was unconstitutional because the death penalty was being unfairly and arbitrarily assigned. At that time, there were 52 men in Texas with death sentences. Governor Preston Smith commuted all of their sentences to life, and death row was clear by March 1973.
In 1973, Texas passed a new statue to standardize the way the death penalty was assessed. Juries quickly began imposing death sentences under the new statute, and death row began filling up again in 1974.
In 1977, Texas adopted lethal injection as its means of execution, adopting a three-drug protocol developed by medical examiner Jay Chapman and anesthesiologist Stanley Deutsch for the state of Oklahoma. The first lethal injection was given on 7 December 1982.
During the moratorium years, death row was moved from the downtown Huntsville unit to the brand-new Ellis unit, which opened in July 1965. The execution chamber remained at the Huntsville unit. When Texas resumed executions in 1982, prisoners were transported from the Ellis unit, 12 miles north of town, to be executed.
Although executions resumed in 1982, they were rare at first. One execution was carried out in 1982, and none in 1983. For the next eight years, executions were carried out at the average rate of five per year. Thus, in the first ten years of capital punishment in Texas, there were 43 executions.
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Penry v. Lynaugh that juries had to be allowed to hear and consider mitigating evidence, such as a defendant's history of mental retardation and child abuse, when imposing death sentences. Some prisoners' death sentences were vacated as a result of this decision. The Texas legislature modified the sentencing instructions given to juries in 1991, resulting in the three-question format that is in use to this day.
In 1992, the number of executions jumped dramatically. Over the next four years, 62 prisoners were executed, an average of fifteen per year.
In 1995, the Texas legislature passed a law requiring certain death-row appeals to be filed concurrently. The intent of this law was to reduce the amount of time prisoners spent on death row waiting for their legal appeals to be pursued. The short-term effect of this new law was that executions virtually stopped while it was being appealed. From March 1996 to January 1997, there was only one execution in the state. However, after the law withstood legal challenge, executions resumed at double their old pace. Over the next three years, there were 92 executions.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1998, seven death-row prisoners attempted to escape from the Ellis unit. Six were captured on prison grounds, but one prisoner, Martin Gurule, successfully made it outside. However, Gurule was mortally wounded in the attempt, and on 3 December he was found dead in the Trinity river, not far from Huntsville. Because of this incident, Texas began moving the men on death row from the Ellis unit to the Terrell unit. The Terrell unit, opened in 1993, was considered more secure than the Ellis unit. It is located just outside the town of Livingston, about 45 minutes from Huntsville. By law, prisoners are still transported to Huntsville to be executed. The Terrell unit was renamed the Polunsky unit in 2001.
In 2000, several factors caused the death penalty to come under scrutiny unprecedented since the late 1960's to early 1970's. In additon to the long-standing charges that the death penalty is cruel, unfair to minorities, and a barbaric, inhumane instrument unfit for a civilized society, opponents of capital punishment began pressing their belief that innocent people were being executed in the United States. In January 2000, after several well-publicized exonerations of death row inmates in Illinois, Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in his state until a study could be undertaken to evaluate the practice of capital punishment.
Texas came under especially strong national scrutiny in 2000 for two reasons: one is because it led the nation in executions -- more than all other 37 death-penalty states combined. The other reason is because Texas Governor George W. Bush was running for President, and by March, he had effectively won the Republican Party nomination.
One of the main weapons death-penalty opponents weilded in the attack on capital punishment was the availability of DNA testing. DNA testing methods were much more sophisticated in 2000 than when most death-row inmates at that time were convicted, so the argument was that DNA evidence should be retested in cases where the defendant's guilt was in doubt. On 1 June, Gov. Bush issued a 30-day stay of execution to convicted murderer Ricky McGinn, for DNA testing. McGinn was convicted of raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter in 1993. McGinn was executed in September after the tests came back positive. The legislature passed a law in 2001 guaranteeing DNA testing to any condemned prisoner whose innocence might be secured as a result.
The other principal issue of the early 2000's was whether prisoners who are mentally retarded should be executed. Several states passed laws banning the execution of the mentally retarded. The Texas legislature passed such a law in 2001, but Governor Rick Perry vetoed it, noting that Texas law already protected the mentally incompetent from execution, and that juries should be allowed to decide whether a convicted killer deserves the death penalty. On 20 June 2002, however, the U.S. Supreme Court found in Atkins v. Virginia that a "national consensus" had developed that executing mentally retarded prisoners is cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore the Court ruled it unconstitutional. The Court left it to the states to determine how mental retardation would be determined.
Between 2000 and 2005, the average number of executions per year in Texas declined from the high 30's to the low 20's. The reaons for this decline could be debated, and may have little to do with the above changes in death penalty law. As of this writing, no Texas death row prisoner has been exonerated by DNA evidence, and the number of prisoners who have had their sentences overturned on the basis of mental retardation has been small. One feasable explanation for the rather marked drop in the pace of executions after 2000 is that laws and court decisions in the 1990's that were designed to reduce a building backlog of death penalty cases accomplished just that, and after that backlog was cleared, the number of executions per year resumed at a more moderate pace.
The Supreme Court further restricted the application of the death penalty in 2005, when it ruled that prisoners who commited their capital offenses when they were under age 18 could not be executed. Following this ruling, 29 prisoners who were 17 at the time of their offenses were removed from death row.
In 2005, Texas changed the law so that capital murderers sentenced to life in prison instead of given the death penalty would be ineligible for parole. Advocates of this law hoped that jurors would be more likely to sentence an offender to life, knowing that he could not be paroled in the future, and that the number of death sentences imposed would be reduced. So far, this appears to be the case. Prior to 2005, jurors were typically sending 30 or prisoners per year to death row, but since then, the highest number of death sentences imposed in a year has been 15.
In every year since 2005, the number of prisoners removed from death row by execution, natural death, or resentencing has been larger than the number of new death sentences imposed. Therefore, the population of death row has dropped from 446 prisoners at the beginning of 2005 to 235 prisoners at the beginning of 2018. The number of prisoners currently on death row is the lowest it has been since 1987.
In 2011, Texas and other states using lethal injection changed the chemical makeup of the lethal injection, due to a worldwide shortage of one of the drugs that had been used since 1982. The injection now consists of a single dose of pentobarbital, a fast-acting barbituate also used in animal euthanasia. Drug companies that manufacture pentobarbital for commercial sale do not permit its use for execution of criminals (but they do allow it for physician-assisted suicide), so state prisons obtain their supplies from compounding pharmacies.
Also in 2011, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice stopped providing special last meals to condemned inmates. This long-standing policy was changed at the request of state senator John Whitmire after inmate Lawrence Brewer declined to take a bite of the lavish feast he had ordered. Condemned inmates are now given a last meal from the same menu available to the rest of the prison unit.
In 2019, Texas ceased its tradition of allowing a chaplain to stand next to the condemened prisoner during his execution. This change in policy came after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay for a prisoner who requested a Buddhist chaplain at his execution. The state only allows prison employees in the death chamber, and the only chaplains on its staff were Christian and Muslim. The Supreme Court stated that either chaplains of all religions must be allowed in the death chamber, or none, so the state chose the latter option.
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