Explaining Texas Death Penalty Laws

Even though the numbers are declining, there is no state that utilizes the death penalty more than Texas. As of 2021, the state exclusively uses Lethal Injection to carryout executions. However in 2020 only two people were executed and that is symbolic of a downward state (and national) trend. We'll walk through the state law here.

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Once hotly debated, the death penalty in Texas has lost some interest over the years but is still talked about throughout the nation. The short answer is that Texas still carries out the death penalty but the state’s use of Capital Punishment has been on the decline (see history). However, that number was only two which is extremely low compared to certain years when Texas would routinely execute multiple people on the same day.

Also, note that there is a difference between the terms Death Penalty and Capital Punishment. The death penalty refers to the sentencing and Capital Punishment refers to the actual execution. Obviously far more people are sentenced than executed.

How Common is the Death Penalty in Texas?

Probably on the mind of everyone is how common the death penalty is in Texas. Many sites, will show executions by geographic region but have Texas by itself: South, Midwest, West, Northeast, Texas.

This is because Texas has more executions than any two states combined and it’s usually not particularly close. Dating back to 1976, Texas has executed 572 people with the next closest state being Virginia at 113. The entire country, including Texas, has only executed 1,534 people in that same time period.

That said, the state has only executed 14 people since 2019, including 3 in 2020 and only 2 in 2021 (a record low for the state).

Penalties That Result In Capital Punishment Texas

Under the Texas constitution, there are nine offenses that may result in the death penalty. Even if one has committed one of the nine offenses below, if the one committing the crime is under the age of 17 they are not eligible for the death penalty in Texas. Additionally, almost all of these points exclude the death penalty for someone that killed someone accidentally.

  1. Commits an act of homicide against a policeman (or firefighter) while the officer has been called to the scene. This doesn’t count bar fights where the officer is in plain clothes or anything of that nature. Laws have been proposed that attempt to give EMTs and paramedics the same level of cover.
  2. This one is a little more complex, it involves an incident where the perpetrator is attempting an illegal act (such as robbery or sexual assault) and then intentionally (cannot be an accident) murders someone while performing this act.
  3. This statute deals with remuneration or money paid for work or a service. This one is particularly targeting those that are paid to do something awful (or were promised money in exchange to do the act).
  4. If a fugitive murders someone while trying to escape from prison or if they escape and murder someone while they are outside the prison. A “fun” fact is that Texas’ first execution was done by George Brown for piracy. This execution took place in 1819.
  5. Similar to point #4, if they are in prison and murder someone that is not an act of self-defense.
  6. Again, targeting those already convicted, someone who commits a murder while already convicted of murder. Additionally, if the felon is serving 99 years for a violent offense such as (aggravated anything…kidnapping, sexual assault, or robbery).
  7. If, in the course of committing a crime or series of crimes related to the same scheme, the perpetrator murders multiple people.
  8. Murders someone who is under the age of fifteen at the time of the incident. Remember, again, that it cannot be an accident and the accused must be convicted before there is the option of the death penalty. Even then, there are still several appeals available to the convicted.
  9. So the last stipulation is attempting to target those that commit murder as an act of revenge against elected (or appointed) officials acting in that capacity. So someone may be sentenced to death in Texas if they murder someone in retaliation for the service (or the status) of someone who is a Judge or Justice in pretty much any capacity in the state of Texas.

However, another thing that makes Texas unique about its death penalty is that there has to be some expectation that the prisoner has some future threat to commit crimes again.

Texas Death Penalty Methods

Currently, Texas state law exclusively utilizes lethal injection when it exercises the death penalty. Originally only executing people by hanging, the method immediately prior to lethal injection was the electric chair. The electric became the method for capital punishment in Texas in 1923. Prior to the use of the electric chair, the method for execution was almost primarily hanging. The electric chair would be responsible for 361 executions in the state of Texas throughout its tenure but no one has been executed by that method since 1964 when 30-year-old African American Joseph Johnson, Jr. was executed for murder.

As the world has moved in one direction, the lone star state’s use of Capital punishment has moved in the same direction. In 2020, Texas executed the fewest number of prisoners since the death penalty became an option in the state. That said, the pandemic greatly impacted the use of the death penalty as Texas was only one of five states to use the penalty in the previous year, and the only one to execute multiple people.

Compared to the Other States

As we’ve discussed above, Texas uses the death penalty more than any other state. Though that trend has been consistent, the state’s use of the penalty has been on the decline. Below is a table, courtesy of Death Penalty Info, that nicely shows the year by year totals of executions by both state and year. We’ve limited it to 2010 and summed the years but feel free to visit the site and look at the totals.

Lest be accused of cutting the table off at a dishonest place, note that the year before 2010, Texas executed 24 people. As well as 18 in 2008, 26 in 2007 and 24 in 2006.

State202120202019201820172016201520142013201220112010
Texas2391377131016151317
Virginia000020101013
Oklahoma000000136623
Florida002231287321
Missouri0110116102010
Georgia013219521042
Alabama013232001065
Ohio000120013358
North Carolina000000000000
South Carolina000000000010
Arizona000000012641
Arkansas000040000000
Louisiana000000000001
Mississippi000000000623
Indiana000000000000
Delaware000000000110
U.S. Federal Gov’t3100000000000
California000000000000
Tennessee013300000000
Illinois000000000000
Nevada000000000000
Utah000000000001
Maryland000000000000
Washington000000000001
Nebraska000100000000
South Dakota001100000200
Idaho000000000110
Kentucky000000000000
Montana000000000000
Pennsylvania000000000000
Oregon000000000000
Colorado000000000000
Connecticut000000000000
New Mexico000000000000
Wyoming000000000000
Yearly Totals51722252320283539434346
Note that though Texas has sent the most to their death via capital punishment, the number is dropping.

Recent Texas Laws On The Death Penalty

In the 87(R) legislature, the legislature had one bill proposed, C.S.H.B. 252, that death with the death penalty. However, the bill, which failed to make it out of the Senate Committee, merely addressed the language jurors are told during jury instructions. We’ll update this section with relevant recent bills as they come in.