A Closer Look at Texas's Death Row

What data on executions since 1972 reveals

Texas stands out when it comes to capital punishment, executing more prisoners over the course of its history than any other U.S. State. Since the nation reintroduced the death penalty in 1972 after a four-year suspension, Texas has executed 544 prisoners, roughly a third of the 1493 total executions in all fifty states.

Public support for the death penalty is on the decline in Texas, mirroring a nationwide shift in opinion, and as a result, execution chambers in the state haven't been quite as busy in recent years. But other patterns have remained more or less constant, including the demographic profile of those executed on death row.

Time

An animation showing the number of executions in Texas over time

In 1976, the Gregg v. Georgia decision overturned an earlier ruling by the Supreme Court that deemed the death penalty unconstitutional. But it wasn't until eight years later that convicted murderer Charles Brooks, Jr. was put to death, inaugurating a new post-Gregg era of capital punishment in Texas. Brooks’ death was also the first in the United States to be carried out by lethal injection. Since then, every single execution in Texas has been carried out by this method.

The use of the death penalty slowly climbed throughout much of the 1990s, in particular under George W. Bush's term from 1995-2000. The number of executions peaked during his last year in office, when the state executed a record 40 prisoners, the highest number since 1977.* After campaigning on a "law and order" platform, Bush embraced the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. His constituents celebrated this approach too—80 percent of Texans strongly favored the use of the death penalty at that time. In the years since, this number has plummeted to just 42 percent, which could account for the steady decline of executions since Bush left office in 2000.

Reasons for declining support for the death penalty across the political spectrum include religious objections, fiscal conservatism, the fact that it is not impost equitably, and the growing awareness of wrongful convictions, including in Texas. There have been several cases of wrongful execution in the state, and 13 people have been released from Texas death row since 1972. At least a few weren’t as lucky: Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, and Cameron Todd Willingham were all exonerated after they had already been put to death.

*Bush, however, does not hold the record for the highest number of executions carried out under his term. That distinction belongs to Rick Perry, who served as Governor of Texas from 2001 to 2014, during which time 279 inmates were executed. No American governor has put more people to death.

Age

A pie chart showing the age when Texas inmates were executed

Although Texas hasn't executed anyone under 18, it has executed 13 people who were juveniles at the time of arrest. The last was Napoleon Beazley in 2002, who was only 17 years old when he shot a 63-year-old man in a robbery. He was executed at age 25.

Most people on Texas's death row would have lived much longer lives if not for their convictions. Over 45 percent were between the ages of 30 and 40 when they were executed. Less than 2 percent were 60 or older, and none were over 70 years old.

Gender

pie chart showing women executed in texas

Only six women have been executed in Texas since 1972. All but one of these women were convicted of domestic crimes, meaning they had a personal relationship with their victims—wife, mother, intimate partner, or neighbor.

Why are there so few women on death row in Texas? One likely explanation is that people on death row are murderers who also commit other violent crimes, such as robbery or rape, and women are less likely to commit these sorts of crimes in general. In addition, it has been argued that juries are less likely to sentence women to death due to gender biases. However, despite the ongoing perception of women as  “fragile” and prone to “hysteria,” there seems to be no evidence that these women suffered from mental health issues at a higher rate than their male counterparts on death row.

Geography

A map showing executions in Texas by county

There are 254 counties in Texas; 136 of them haven't sent a single prisoner to death row since 1982. The top four counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar, and Tarrant) account for nearly 50 percent of all executions.

Harris County alone accounts for 126 executions since 1982 (23 percent of Texas's total executions in this time). Harris County has imposed the death penalty more times than any other county in the nation since 1976.

In 2016, a report from the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School investigated the use of the death penalty in Harris County and found evidence of racial bias, inadequate defense, procedural misconduct, and overzealous prosecution. Specifically, it found evidence of misconduct in 5 percent of death penalty cases in Harris County since 2006. In that same time period, 100 percent of defendants in Harris County were non-white, a jarring overrepresentation given Harris County's 70 percent white population. Additionally, the report found that 26 percent of defendants had an intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage. Three Harris County inmates have been exonerated from death row since 2006.

It's unclear exactly why the use of the death penalty is so unevenly split across Texas's geography, but comparing the map above to this map of the distribution of slaves in Texas in 1840 and this map of lynchings in the state (zoom in on Texas) can provide some insight into how the legacy of slavery has manifested itself in the state. The descendants of slaves have faced increased violence, lynchings, and capital sentences in some counties in East Texas compared to the rest of the state.

Race

Bar chart showing race of people executed on Texas death row

It's not just Harris County where Black people are overrepresented on death row In the state overall, Black prisoners represent 37 percent of those executed but less than 12 percent of the state's population. Many reports have backed up what many people have guessed, that racial bias is hard at work in Texas’s judicial system. Researchers have drawn clear lines from the current justice system to the​ racist legacy of slavery. (See graphs above for more details on this.)  

In Texas, a jury decides whether or not a person should be sentenced to death, inviting their individual racial biases into the equation and compounding those already at work in the criminal justice system. In 2016, for example, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Duane Buck after the jury that convicted him was told by an expert psychologist that his race made him a bigger threat to society.

Foreign Nationals

On November 8, 2017, Texas executed Mexican national Ruben Cárdenas amid fierce protest across the globe. Texas has notoriously executed 15 foreign nationals, including 11 Mexican nationals, since 1982—an action that has sparked international controversy over its potential breach of international law, specifically the right to representation from a person’s country of origin when that person is arrested abroad.

Although Texas is once again an outlier in this regard, executing 16 of the 36 foreign nationals who have been put to death in the United States since 1976, it is not the only state with this problem. More than 50 Mexican nationals have been sent to death row without being informed of their rights as international citizens since 1976, a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice concluded. Their executions, according to the report, violate an international treaty that guarantees a defendant arrested in a foreign country the right to representation from their country of origin.

Executions Currently Scheduled in Texas

Juan Castillo (12/14/2017)

  • Age at time of offense: 24
  • Years on Death Row: 12
  • American Citizen
  • County: Bexar
  • Race: Hispanic
  • Education Level (Highest Grade Completed): 10
  • Summary of Crime: Along with three other men, Juan Castillo was convicted of the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old Hispanic man in a robbery. 

Anthony Shore (1/18/2018)

  • Age: 42
  • Years on Death Row: 12
  • American Citizen
  • County: Harris
  • Race: White
  • Education Level (Highest Grade Completed): 12
  • Summary of Crime: Shore is convicted of home invasion, kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, and other crimes, all of which he committed over the course of nine years. His victims were all women: two white, two Hispanic, and two others.  

William Rayford (1/30/2018)

  • Age: 47
  • Years on Death Row: 16
  • American Citizen
  • County: Dallas
  • Race: Black
  • Education Level (Highest Grade Completed): 12
  • Summary of Crime: Rayford is convicted of the murder (by strangulation) of a black woman. 

John Battaglia (2/1/2018)

  • Age: 46
  • Years on Death Row: 15
  • American Citizen
  • County: Dallas
  • Race: White
  • Education Level (Highest Grade Completed): 12
  • Summary of Crime: Battaglia is convicted of killing his two young daughters (white females), age 6 and 9. 

Thomas Whitaker (2/22/2018) 

  • Age: 27
  • Years on Death Row: 10
  • American Citizen
  • County: Fort Bend
  • Race: White
  • Education Level (Highest Grade Completed): 12
  • Summary of Crime: Whitaker was convicted of a murder that was part of a home invasion. His victims were a white couple: one woman, who died, and her husband, who survived a gunshot wound to the chest. 

Rosendo Rodriquez, III (3/27/2018)

  • Age: 28
  • Years on Death Row: 9
  • American Citizen
  • County: Lubbock
  • Race: Hispanic
  • Education Level (Highest Grade Completed): 12
  • Summary of Crime: Rodriguez was convicted of sexual assault and murder of a white female. 

You can view a full list of the inmates on Texas's death row at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Website. 

All other data used in this article comes from the Death Penalty Information Center. 

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Lockwood, Beatrix. "A Closer Look at Texas's Death Row." ThoughtCo, Nov. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/texas-death-row-inmates-4123190. Lockwood, Beatrix. (2017, November 21). A Closer Look at Texas's Death Row. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/texas-death-row-inmates-4123190 Lockwood, Beatrix. "A Closer Look at Texas's Death Row." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/texas-death-row-inmates-4123190 (accessed November 23, 2017).