On Sept. 21, 2006, Juan Quintero, an undocumented Mexican national, was arrested after a routine traffic stop in Houston. The arresting officer, Rodney Johnson, frisked and cuffed Quintero, who was driving without a license, before placing him in the back seat of his patrol car. But Johnson missed the gun that Quintero had hidden on him. Moments later, as Johnson sat in the front seat writing up a report, Quintero fired seven times, killing the officer.
Johnson’s murder shocked Houston. But what happened afterwards may have been just as startling. Juries in Harris County (where Houston is located) were once notable for handing down death sentences. They stood out even in Texas, long a pro-death penalty state. During the 1990s the county sent more than a dozen convicted felons a year to death row—a larger number than some states—and currently accounts for more than a third of the inmates on Texas’ death row (106 of 332).
Nevertheless, Quintero received a life sentence following his trial in May 2008. Even his gruesome attack on a police officer did not alter the change of heart that has apparently transformed Houston from what anti-capital punishment advocates once dubbed the “capital of capital punishment” into a death-penalty-free zone.
It has, in fact, been more than two years since any Harris County jury has imposed a death sentence. The Quintero case, says Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) was a graphic demonstration that Texas is no longer ”so reliant on the death penalty.”
Statistics bear that out. Last year, the number of new death sentences handed down in Texas dropped to nine, the lowest number since the state revived the death penalty in 1976, and down from nearly 30 in 2003. That’s a remarkable contrast to the peak years in the late 1990s, when as many as 48 people a year would be sent to death row, according to the TCADP’s annual report on the state of Texas’ death penalty.
Prior to 2005, the Texas criminal code offered a stark choice of sentencing options for capital crimes: death, or life with a possibility of release after 25 years. While the likelihood that a capital defendant would ever be released was slim, it was a factor that weighed on jurors. Life without parole offers a middle ground between “the risks of the death penalty – that you might find something out in 10 years” about a case that “you didn’t know” when first trying it, “and the chance of somebody getting out,” says DPIC’s Dieter. “Neither is appealing to juries.”
As life-without-parole options become available around the country, Dieter adds, prosecutors are seeking death a lot less than they used to.
The public seems to be in favor. In Houston, support for the death penalty dropped to just 59 percent in 2007, down from a high of just more than 79 percent in 1993, according to the Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.
However they respond in polls, “individuals are voting with their feet in the jury box,” says State Representative Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who was once a death penalty supporter. Burnam, a Quaker, says his change-of-mind arose from both moral and fiscal considerations. The death penalty “costs too damn much,” he says bluntly, noting that it ties up valuable resources that the state could put to better use.