This was the year that Houston may have finally shed its nickname as the capital of capital punishment, says the Christian Science Monitor. In recent decades, no county has been as prolific in its application of the death penalty as Harris County, Texas. If the county were a state, only Texas itself would have executed more people since 1976, the year capital punishment was reinstated in the U.S. But no one from the county was executed in 2017 for the first time in more than 40 years, and no one has been sentenced to death there since 2014. Experts see that as a symbol of shifting attitudes toward the death penalty both in Harris County and around the country.
“We’ve been experiencing a generation-long decline in the use of the death penalty [nationwide], and the numbers in Harris County reflect that,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. There were 23 executions in the U.S. this year, the second lowest total since 1991. (Only 2016 had fewer, with 20.) The DPIC projected a total of 39 new death sentences nationwide this year, the second-lowest in more than 40 years. There is no single reason why executions and death sentences have suddenly become rare in Harris County, but many link the decline to the retirement of Johnny Holmes, a death penalty enthusiast who served as district attorney from 1979 to 2000.