Many murderers in Texas are put on probation, says the Dallas Morning News in a five-part series. It happened in Texas at least 120 times from 2000 through 2006. Dallas County leads the way. It put more than twice as many murderers on probation as it sent to death row. Nine percent of all murder sentences in the county resulted in probation – 47 people released to the streets. Call them “misdemeanor murders.” You can plead guilty to killing someone in cold blood and never have a conviction appear on your record; you can have a violent criminal history and get the lightest of all sentences. Evidence against some killers was weak, but about three-fourths of the time, evidence was strong.
The issue was sympathy. Not that the killers were terribly sympathetic figures, but their attorneys had a way to make them look better than the victims. The News began investigating the probation-for-murder phenomenon last year after the case of a man from a prominent family was charged with murder for shooting an unarmed prostitute in the back. He claimed that he was merely trying to scare the victim and shot him accidentally. As jurors struggled to decide whether to convict him, he pleaded guilty to murder in exchange for probation. He went on to violate the terms of his probation repeatedly but avoided prison. Was the case a fluke? Or did it reflect larger patterns? Most of the murderers in The News’ study were minorities who killed minorities. Sympathy matters because Texas, unlike most states, lets juries determine sentences.