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Racial Pattern Found In Harris County, Texas Death Penalty Sentencing: Report

Race Death Penalty

First Posted: 11/15/11 09:41 AM ET Updated: 11/15/11 12:55 PM ET

The connection between race and capital punishment has been a hot topic this year, and it's likely to remain one after a new study found a shocking pattern in the way one Texas county sentences people to die.

Of the last 13 men that have been sentenced to death in Harris County, 12 of them are black, according to an analysis of prison and prosecution records by the Houston Chronicle. The discovery has prompted some local lawyers to ask for an investigation and calls for more debate around the administration of capital punishment.

"The more the defendant looks like you the harder it is to kill him — human nature being what it is," said Robert Murrow, one of the county's capital defense attorneys. "It's something we have to be thinking about. It's an issue we never should get too far out of the front of our consciousness."

The role of race in death penalty sentencing became a major issue in the county when the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of Duane Buck, after reviewing the testimony of a psychologist who said during the trial that black people were more likely to commit violence. Buck's appeal of his pending execution was rejected last week. Although the inmate's supporters pleaded with Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos, she told The Chronicle she has not yet made a decision.

"Before we take any action, we will carefully evaluate the arguments of Mr. Buck's lawyers and his supporters," she told the news source. "He will receive fair and thorough consideration of his claims."

It also isn't the first time questions have been raised about the role of race in the Harris County justice system. The county is known for aggressive prosecution and tendency of capital punishment sentencing. According the to The Houston Chronicle, more than a third of Texas' 305 death row inmates, and half of the 121 black death row inmates came from Harris County.

The last white man sentenced to death in the county was Anthony Shore, in 2004, for strangling and torturing four women and girls and raping three of his victims. Shore requested the death penalty.

The Chronicle also studied capital punishment cases from the 1980s and 1990s that were reviewed after successful appeals. It additionally discovered, that of the five men who have been re-sentenced to death since November 2004, three of them are white, one is black, and one Latino.

The Buck case follows a string of controversial, high-profile death penalty cases that have renewed the debate around capital punishment. A Texas man named Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and put to death in 2004 for killing his children in a fire, even as consensus in the fire science community found no evidence of arson and said the untrained police specialists used widely debunked forensic tactics. In September, Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis was put to death after he garnered international attention when most of the witnesses who testified against him in a trial recanted their statements.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed more people than any other state.

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Filed by Danielle Cadet  |