Wednesday, May 02, 2018

One in three murder charges in TX a capital case

Now that the new Annual Statistical Report for the Texas judiciary is out, let's take a quick look at data on capital murder cases in Texas from FY 2017. (See p. 111 of the linked pdf from the Office of Court Administration.)

Texas prosecutors filed capital-murder charges in 446 cases last year, and gained capital convictions 249 times, including 162 by plea bargain and 74 by jury trial.*

Almost all of these resulted in LWOP sentences. The OCA reported that prosecutors announced plans to seek the death penalty in only three cases in 2017.

Six defendants were acquitted of capital murder at trial last year. Charges were dismissed in another 84 cases. (That'd be an interesting subset to review - that's a pretty high number.)

There were 897 capital murder cases pending statewide at the end of the year.

By comparison, there were 854 "regular" murder charges filed in 2017, with prosecutors generating 536 convictions. In addition, 31 murder defendants were acquitted at trial, with another 187 having charges dismissed.

One thought from these data: If prosecutors filed capital murder 446 times in 2017 and murder 854 times, then capital charges are not being reserved for the "worst of the worst." Not unless one believes one in three killers deserves that moniker. This overcharging is fueling an unnecessary shortage of capital-qualified trial attorneys statewide. While some have seen that shortage as a reason to reduce qualifications for capital-qualified attorneys, to me the better solution is for prosecutors to rein in this overcharging penchant and only use capital charges in truly exceptional cases.

*Obviously, these aren't all the same cases. Few capital murder cases are resolved within 12 months, and many if not most convictions were from cases filed in previous years. I'm analyzing overall patterns here, not claiming the cases in the "indicted" column are the same as those "convicted" in the same year.


Lane Thibodeaux said...

As far as capital murder being reserved for the "worst of the worst" in Texas, soon-to-be-retired Judge Alcala said it better than I ever could in Ex parte Murphy, 495 S.W.3d 282, 283 (Tex.Crim.App 2016) (Alcala, J., dissenting):

The capital-murder statute provides for around one hundred different ways that a person can be convicted of capital murder. The
list of ways in which a person may commit capital murder is twice as long when one considers that a defendant may be convicted
not only as a principal actor, but also as a party by, for example, aiding or attempting to aid another person to commit the
offense. And the list is thrice as long when one considers that a defendant may be convicted of capital murder even if he lacked
any intent to commit that offense but was part of a conspiracy to commit a felony under certain circumstances. (citations

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Great catch, Lane, thanks! Man, are we going to miss Elsa Alcala. In many ways these last five years she's been the Conscience of the State, and certainly the Texas GOP, on criminal-justice topics.

James S. said...

A couple of questions:
First, isn't the capital-appointment list you're referring to just for death penalty cases? At least in my jurisdiction, attorneys defending in capital-life cases are required to have no more qualifications than any other first-degree felony attorney (which makes sense as there are no punishment issues).
Second (and similarly), isn't the "worst of the worst" moniker reserved for cases where the State seeks death? It seems to me that the problem isn't really overcharging (though I'm sure that happens), but that the Legislature keeps expanding the list of capital-punishment level offenses.
(With regard to overcharging, that may be what many of those 84 dismissals are -- dismissals of capitals and refiling as vanilla murders. You're right it would be nice to confirm what those are for).

Anonymous said...

In theory, courts are required to appoint death-qualified lawyers to capital murder cases until the state declines to seek death. So, the sheer volume of capital murder cases should be driving the scarcity of qualified counsel. But you're right, in practice, many jurisdictions deviate from this requirement.

Frank A. said...

In my opinion tow of the factors driving the number of Capital Murder charges are: 1. The ability to threaten the defendant with a death sentence and getting him to plea to a LWOP sentence, and , 2. The counties that have bought into the "murder insurance" program offered through the Regional Public Defenders Office for Capital Offenses no longer have to bear the full cost of the defense. It has become more affordable to seek death!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@James S, 2:05's understanding reflects my own.

James S. said...

Y'all are probably right. Though the statute (CCP 26.052) refers to appointing counsel in cases "in which the death penalty is sought." It doesn't make much sense (to me, anywau) to jump the gun and appoint death qualified attorneys in all capital cases (before any decision is made to seek death) - especially as so few cases end up as death ones anyway.