The Controversial History and Practice of the Death Penalty in Texas

Texas and the Death Penalty

While most Texans say that they support the death penalty, a significant number believe that Texas has executed innocent people. This finding is especially strong among Blacks, other ethnic groups and younger respondents.

In the state of Texas, convicted death row inmates can appeal their sentence through the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor has the power to grant clemency.


From gripping courtroom dramas to heart-pounding moments of redemption, Texas’s history with capital punishment is a rollercoaster ride of emotions. It’s a story of wrongful convictions, botched executions and countless tales of innocence that defy belief.

From the start of the modern era of capital punishment in 1976 until 1998, Texas executed more people than any other state—and more than four times as many as Virginia, the second-highest executioner.

The state’s first execution using lethal injection was performed in 1982. Today, 184 inmates remain on Texas’ death row, including seven women. Although the death penalty is now at historic lows across the country, Texas still hands down and executes more death sentences than any other state—and it applies those sentences more disproportionately to racial minorities.


In Texas, as in most states, individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s the prosecutor’s job to show that someone committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and it’s the defense attorney’s job to challenge evidence and raise any possible points of innocence.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that juries should be allowed to consider mitigating evidence when they decide whether a defendant should live or die. But juries are only given three limited questions, so they can’t truly take into account factors like mental retardation or child abuse.

When lawyers for a condemned prisoner exhaust all legal appeals, they can file a petition with the Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend clemency. The governor has clemency authority but is not obligated to follow the board’s advice. If he or she grants clemency, the offender’s execution is delayed for 30 days. The board members are appointed by the governor. For more information about the judicial system in Texas, visit FindLaw’s Texas Law section.


The Texas criminal justice system allows for several avenues of appeal after a conviction and execution. Depending on the case, this can include filing a petition with the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the governor, or a one-time 120 day reprieve from an upcoming execution.

The prosecution can also choose not to seek the death penalty for a capital crime. This can be for a number of reasons including family members requesting that the death penalty not be sought, prosecutors believing they could not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or evidence that the offender was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense (i.e. the victim was a child).

The use of DNA evidence is also becoming more common, though DNA testing has not proven innocence in any case. Nonetheless, many people who are convicted of a crime in Texas might not be there had mitigating factors such as mental illness or youth been considered.


Once a date for an execution is set, the prisoner’s legal team will file a series of final appeals. These are typically reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Many of these cases also go to a federal district judge, who can grant a 30-day stay of the execution.

If no stays are granted, the execution is carried out. Usually, friends and family of the victim witness the process. Prison officials will allow media witnesses to view the execution, although they can not have direct contact or voice vocal prayers during the procedure.

Recently, TDCJ officials have released documents that show the department is woefully unprepared to execute an inmate. The documents reveal that the agency has trouble sourcing the drugs needed for the lethal injection. This may have contributed to the recent drop in executions. It is also believed that the lower number of executions could be related to better-trained indigent defense lawyers, and the ability to raise mitigating circumstances for an alleged killer’s crime.

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