Other Voices

This year, Texans live without imposing new death sentences

A microphone hangs over the gurney in the Texas death chamber in Huntsville.
A microphone hangs over the gurney in the Texas death chamber in Huntsville. AP

A jury verdict in a death penalty case earlier this year in Fort Worth is a microcosm of what is happening all over the state.

In a trial moved from Young County to Tarrant County, a jury returned a shocking life-without-parole verdict in a case I had predicted was an “automatic” death penalty.

In April 2011, Gabriel Armandariz murdered his two young sons — one was 2 years old, the other 6 months old — by strangling them. He then hung the younger child’s body from a closet clothes rack, snapped a picture and sent it to the children’s mother.

The facts were as bad as any I’ve seen, but after just eight hours or so of deliberation the jury rejected the death penalty and gave Armandariz life without parole.

The lawyers were crying. The jury was crying. Trial observers were crying. What happened?

Ten years ago this would have been a swift death penalty decision. But no longer. Something is changing.

Since the Armandariz trial, two more cases in which prosecutors sought the death penalty have resulted instead in jury verdicts of life without the possibility of parole.

Both of these trials occurred in Nueces County (Corpus Christi). In one case, the jury deliberated for just 10 minutes before returning with a non-death-penalty verdict.

These cases raise all kinds of questions: How much taxpayer money was spent on these “failed” attempts to get death? Could these cases have been resolved years ago with a plea?

Have these outcomes set a new standard for the death penalty? And, is there such a thing as an “automatic” death penalty in Texas anymore? Perhaps not.

Media outlets are starting to take note of the fact that more than seven months have passed since the Texas Department of Criminal Justice “received” a new inmate on Death Row.

Considering the fact that Texas juries sentenced 48 people to death in 1999, this is an astonishing shift. According to legal experts, this also is the longest Texas has gone in a calendar year without a new death sentence.

Why the change? I believe it is happening because the problems with how the death penalty is assessed have become evident to everyone, including jurors.

The ultimate punishment simply cannot be administered fairly, because it is run by human beings. And human beings make mistakes.

Even those who support the death penalty in theory surely would not argue that keeping it is worth the state taking even one innocent life.

We have to be perfect when it comes to the death penalty or we compound one great injustice with another — the execution of an innocent person. There is no acceptable margin of error when it comes to the death penalty.

The rising number of condemned men being shown to be not guilty and then released from Death Row around the country makes it painfully clear that we have not been perfect.

Since life in prison without the possibility of parole was adopted in Texas in 2005, prosecutors and jurors have increasingly begun to accept it as a viable way to punish those who are guilty of committing heinous crimes, protect public safety and provide justice to victims’ families.

Texas should join the 19 U.S. states where the death penalty has been abolished.

Jurors across this state are sending the message that Texas can live without it.

Tim Cole was elected to four terms as the 97th district attorney (Archer, Clay and Montague counties; 1993 to 2006) and served as assistant district attorney in the 271st District (Wise and Jack counties; 2010-2014). He is a criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth.