The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal has published a series of articles under the heading, "Ultimate Punishment: The Death Penalty in Lubbock and the South Plains." The series is written by Walt Nett. There are infographics at the link.
They are four men from Lubbock, connected by a single three-digit number, who may think more than most people about how long they have to live.
The number Joe Garza Jr., Rosendo Rodriguez III, Vernon Ross and Michael Yowell have in common is 999 — the first three digits of a Texas death row inmate’s identification number since mid-1991.
Execution by lethal injection, the punishment Texas law allows a jury to recommend to deal with “the worst of the worst,” has quietly re-entered the South Plains legal environs.
It’s back, nearly five years after Lubbock County prosecutors last tried a death penalty case and four years after the last execution of a capital murder defendant from the South Plains.
It’s also arriving when fewer prosecutors across the state are asking jurors to recommend a death sentence, and more death penalty juries are choosing to sentence convicted capital murderers to life without possibility of parole.
Since Texas resumed executions in 1982 — six years after the death penalty law was reinstated in the state — seven men won back a portion of their lives through successful appeals.
All had killed; none contested the verdict on appeal.
Instead, each successful appeal turned on some aspect of Texas’ capital murder law, and whether it had been applied properly during the punishment portion of their trials.
Six were commuted as a result of decisions in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, including three who said prosecutors had insufficient evidence for the jury to determine if the defendant would be a continuing threat to society.
The seventh commutation — also the most recent — arose from a spectacular “inadequate representation” ruling in U.S. District Court in Lubbock with a bizarre element.
Rather than going back for new punishment trials, six defendants accepted prosecutors’ offers of life in prison, while the seventh received a 55-year sentence.