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Capital Punishment: The State of the Death Penalty in Tarrant County and Texas

Seeking the death penalty is an enormous expense, particularly after fairly recent changes in the law that require the testing of all the evidence in a death penalty case – a change that came about after DNA and other scientific evidence led to exonerations.

Since 2015, Tarrant County juries have been asked to sentence someone to death five times. Only two juries have elected to do so.

Despite the costs, lack of success in jurors returning a verdict of death, and ongoing concerns about jury safety in light of the global pandemic, the Tarrant County District Attorney Office currently has three pending cases in which it plans to seek the death penalty.

Over the summer, Tarrant County prosecutors attempted to move forward with jury trials in two of these cases – Reginald Kimbro and James Earnest Floyd – but were unable to proceed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Death Sentences Drop Statewide

Statistics show the imposition of the death penalty has sharply declined in the Lone Star state over the past two decades. Death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 90 percent since 1999, when juries sent 48 defendants to Death Row.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped most in-court proceedings  which, in turn, significantly curtailed capital murder trials. Texas juries only gave two defendants the death penalty in Collin and Harris Counties, respectively – trials that occurred before disaster declarations were issued on March 13, 2020, according to the annual report recently released by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP). The two new death sentences were the fewest recorded since 1974.

Tarrant County Death Penalty Cases

Despite this downward trend, Tarrant County continues to seek the death penalty at a significant cost to taxpayers, even though juries have rejected 60 percent of the death cases tried in Tarrant County since District Attorney Sharen Wilson took office in January 2015.  The Dallas Morning News estimated in 1992 that a death penalty case costs Texas $2.3 million, which translates into about $4.2 million today.

“It is discouraging that the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office continues to pursue new death sentences and set execution dates at a time when many Texas prosecutors have moved away from the use of the death penalty,” said Kristin Houle, executive director of TCADP.

Houle said Tarrant County is second only to Harris County in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries since 2016. In contrast, juries in Dallas County have imposed just one new death sentence since 2013.

“It is clear the application of the death penalty depends more on geography than any other factor,” she said. “It’s time for Tarrant County prosecutors to reconsider the efficacy and cost of the death penalty as a means of achieving justice, particularly when the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole is increasingly palatable to jurors.”

Here’s a look at the death penalty cases prosecuted in Tarrant County since 2015, as well as other recent death penalty developments in Texas and nationwide.

Death Penalty Trials in Tarrant County since 2015:

Since 2015, Tarrant County juries have been asked to sentence capital murder defendants to death on five separate occasions. Only two juries have elected to do so. Here’s a look at the cases:

Death Penalty Rejections:

Burnches Mitchell
In November 2019, a Tarrant County jury rejected prosecutors’ request to sentence Burnches Mitchell to death and instead opted for life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mitchell was convicted of capital murder for the Jan. 27, 2017, robbery and fatal shooting of Khrystophir Scott, who was a customer in the Quik Sak Store in White Settlement when Mitchell attempted to rob it. During his trial, jurors also learned that Mitchell stabbed a man to death when he was 13 years old.

Miguel Hernandez
In October 2017, jurors sentenced Miguel Angel Hernandez to life in prison without parole, rather than sending him to Death Row, for attacking two men during a violent robbery inside their home, leaving one dead and the other wounded. Hernandez was convicted of capital murder for the July 27, 2014, slaying of James Bowling, who was strangled during a violent fight during a burglary attempt. Bowling’s roommate, Don Keaton, was assaulted and doused in drain cleaner but survived.

Gabriel Armandariz
In March 2015, a Tarrant County jury rejected the death penalty for Gabriel Armandariz, who was convicted of strangling his two young sons in April 2011 in Graham. He was instead given life in prison without the possibility of parole. The case was moved to Tarrant County on a change of venue, so it was decision of the Young County District Attorney (not the Tarrant County DA) to seek the death penalty in this particular case.

Death Sentences:

Hector Acosta
In November 2019, a Tarrant County jury sentenced Hector Acosta to death for killing two people in Arlington in 2017, beheading one of the victims and mutilating their bodies with a machete and a two-by-four. Acosta, a Mexican drug cartel hit man, was convicted of capital murder fatally shooting Erik “Diablo” Zelaya and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Iris Chirinos.

Amos Wells
In November 2016, a Tarrant County jury  sentenced Amos wells to death for killing his pregnant girlfriend, Chanice Reed; her mother; and Chanice Reed’s 10-year-old brother. The three were fatally shot on July 1, 2013, after an argument at the family’s home in southeast Fort Worth.

Death Penalty Trials on Deck in Tarrant County

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office has publicly announced their intentions to seek the death penalty in several  pending capital murder cases. They include:

Paige Terrell Lawyer
In April 2019, Tarrant County prosecutors filed notice of their intention to seek the death penalty against Paige Terrell Lawyer, who is accused in the 2018 strangulation of his ex-girlfriend, O’Tishae Womack, and her 10-year-old daughter, Kamyria, in an east Fort Worth apartment.

Reginald Gerald Kimbro
Reginal Gerald Kimbro is facing the death penalty in connection with the April 10, 2017, strangulation of Molly Matheson, a 22-year-old woman who was found dead in her apartment near TCU. Kimbro is also suspected of raping and killing another woman, Megan Getrum, in Plano and is a suspect in two other sexual assault cases in which the victims reported being choked.

James Earnest Floyd Jr.
James Earnest Floyd is accused of killing a 69-year-old man in west Fort Worth and wounding his wife in a home invasion. Officials said Floyd is accused of beating John Porter with a metal table, demanding his wallet and shooting him in the head. Officials said Floyd also shot Porter’s wife, Diane, during the robbery but she survived.

Texas Juries Rejected the Death Penalty in 50 Percent of all Capital Trials in 2019

In 2019, Texas juries rejected the death penalty in half of the cases in which prosecutors sought capital punishment, according to the Coalition report. Eight death penalty trials were conducted in Texas, resulting in four death sentences and four sentences of life in prison without parole. Two of those death penalty trials were in Tarrant County, resulting in one death sentence and one sentence of life in prison without parole, mirroring the statewide trend.

In addition to Tarrant, the three other counties responsible for death sentences were Harris, Smith, Tarrant and Upton.

Texas Counties with More than One Death Sentence in the Last Five Years

According to TCADP, a total of 17 counties have imposed death sentences in the last five years. Of these, only four counties accounted for more than new death sentence in this time period. More than one-third of all death sentenced imposed by juries in the last five years came from these four counties. Notice, Dallas County is not on the list.

2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total 2016-2020 Total Since 1974
Harris 0 0 1 1 1 3 297
Tarrant 1 0 0 1 1 2 75
Walker 0 1 1 0 0 2 10
Total 1 1 2 2 1 7 382
All Counties 3 4 7 4 2 10 1112

Source: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Why is the Texas Death Penalty Declining?

The reduction in capital punishment can be attributed to a combination of factors, including prosecutors waiving the death penalty in capital murder cases, jurors opting to assess life in prison without parole instead of a death sentence, and the state’s highest criminal appeals court staying, withdrawing or post-phoning death warrants. Not to mention, it is extremely expensive, costing millions of dollars and six to eight weeks of court time. If a defendant gets the death penalty, their case is automatically appealed –  a process that can go on for decades. Many counties simply cannot afford to seek the death penalty or don’t want to pass the expense on to taxpayers.

What Constitutes a Capital Offense in Texas?

A capital offense in Texas is punishable by either life in prison without parole or death. The following crimes constitutes capital murder in Texas:

  • Murder of a peace officer or fireman in the line of duty;
  • Murder during the commission or attempted commission of the following felonies: kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or terroristic threat;
  • Murder-for-hire — that is, killing for payment or promise of payment;
  • Murder during an escape or attempted escape from a penal institution;
  • Murder, while incarcerated, of a correctional employee;
  • Murder, while incarcerated, in conjunction with organized criminal activity;
  • Murder while already incarcerated for capital murder or murder;
  • Murder while serving a life sentence or 99-year sentence for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault or aggravated robbery;
  • Murder of more than one person during the same criminal transaction or during different transactions but under the same common scheme;
  • Murder of a child under age 10;
  • Murder of a judge or justice or in retaliation for the services of a judge or justice

More Facts about Capital Punishment and Texas Death Row:

  • The death penalty has been carried out in Texas 571 times since 1982. This includes 62 people who were convicted in Dallas County and 42 people convicted in Tarrant County.
  • Texas put nine people to death in 2019, compared to 13 in 2018.
  • More than half of the 213 inmates on Texas Death Row come from the state’s most populous counties – Harris (78 inmates), Dallas (22 inmates) and Tarrant (16 inmates).
  • Six women are on Texas Death Row. Arguably the most infamous condemned inmate is Darlie Routier, who was convicted in the June 1996 of murder of her 5-year-old son, Damon, inside the family’s suburban Dallas home. Damon’s 6-year-old brother, Damon, was also stabbed to death. Routier, now age 46, has been on Texas’ Death Row for 23 years. No execution date has been set.
  • The average amount of time spent on Texas Death Row is 10.87 years, but two inmates, David Lee Powell and Lester Bower, each spent 31 years.
  • On June 29, 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment “cruel and unusual,” resulting in 52 men in Texas having their death sentences commuted to life in prison. The death penalty was reinstated in Texas in 1973.
  • Texas Death Row inmates no longer get their requested “last meal.” The long-standing practice was terminated in 2011 after prison officials honored an elaborate meal request from Lawrence Russel Brewer, who was convicted in 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper. Before his execution, Brewer received two chicken-fried steaks; a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers. The meal outraged State Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, who wrote a note to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice asking them to immediately stop the practice or he would pass a bill to do so.

The Death Penalty Nationwide

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