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McClatchy Newspapers, Published January 01 2012

Texas remains No. 1 in executions

FORT WORTH, Texas - With six executions scheduled for the first three months of 2012 - and more than twice as many executions as any other state last year - Texas continues to continue leading the nation in executions.

Despite dropping to a 15-year low in 2011, Texas continues to lead the nation in the number of executions with 13 even as questions are raised nationwide about the wrongful conviction of inmates and petitions call on the U.S. to abolish capital punishment. Last year, 43 prisoners were executed nationwide.

“Clearly, Texas is known as the capital of capital punishment,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

“Ultimately, this stems from strong public support for the death penalty in Texas,” he said. “In almost every other state, the death penalty is used more selectively, more cautiously and with greater protections for defendants.”

Alabama, which had the second-most executions, put six to death in 2011. Other states with more than one execution were Ohio with five, Georgia and Arizona each with four, and Oklahoma, Florida and Mississippi each with two, center statistics show.

The numbers are down from 2010, when there were 46 executions nationwide (17 in Texas) and from 2009, when there were 52 (24 in Texas), according to the center.

“Executions have dropped by about 50 percent since the late 1990s,” Dieter said. “With a growing concern about whether some of those convicted are actually innocent, jurors, prosecutors, judges and legislators (are) more cautious about the use of the death penalty.”

That gives some hope to opponents of capital punishment that Texas and other states at some point will end executions.

“I think that we are in the very beginning phases in Texas of the end of the death penalty,” said Rick Halperin, the coordinator of Amnesty International's campaign against state death penalties. “It won't happen in this state anytime soon, but we are reaching a point where, sooner or later, it is going to end.”

Texas has executed more people than any other state _ 477 since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. The states closest to Texas in total number of executions are Virginia, with 109, and Oklahoma, with 96, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Inmates were executed by hanging until 1923, when the state switched to using the electric chair. By 1977, Texas officials adopted lethal injection.

Recently, at least one drug used in lethal injections _ sodium thiopental, a sedative _ has been harder to obtain since the European Union began restricting the sale of the drug to countries that haven't abolished capital punishment.

While officials say the supply shortage has delayed some U.S. executions, many states such as Texas had already switched to a different sedative, pentobarbital. But recent reports show that the only U.S.-licensed manufacturer of pentobarbital is selling the product to a different manufacturer, which could affect the availability of the drug.

More than 30 states still allow the death penalty, although only 27 have put someone to death in the past decade. Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico are among the states that stopped executions in recent years, according to the death penalty information center.

At its peak in recent years, Texas executed 40 inmates in 2000. Since then, the number has fluctuated.

Some attribute the waning number of executions to Texas prosecutors’ offering _ and jurors choosing _ life-without-parole sentences, which became an option for those convicted of capital murder after Sept. 1, 2005.

Since then, nearly 400 people have been sentenced to life without parole, state records show.

In recent years, the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham prompted a renewed debate about the merits of capital punishment in Texas.

Willingham was executed Feb. 17, 2004, for setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three young daughters. Through the years, he maintained his innocence and reasserted his claims of innocence in his final statement just before he was executed.

Gov. Rick Perry, who described Willingham as a “monster,” and other officials said evidence supported the jury's decision. The state fire marshal has said the investigation was thorough and accurate; two arson experts who re-examined the investigation said it relied on outdated concepts and did not support a finding of arson.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed the case, concluding in 2011 that discredited scientific methods were used in the investigation, but an attorney general ruling stated that the commission had no jurisdiction.