Life Without Parole Replaces Death Penalty in Houston

There were no new death sentences in Houston’s Harris County last year, but there have been 266 life without parole terms issued in 12 years, nearly 25 percent of Texas’ total.

Once known as the “capital of capital punishment,” Houston’s Harris County is now issuing more life without parole sentences than any other county in Texas, the Houston Chronicle reports. In 12 years since then-Gov. Rick Perry signed a life without parole (LWOP) bill into law, Harris County has handed down 266 of those sentences – nearly 25 percent of the state’s total. “It’s concerning, but this is like economics or engine performance, there’s no free lunch,” said defense attorney Patrick McCann. “We have far fewer death cases than we used to. That’s a tremendous win. But now we have a lot of LWOP sentences.”

The county’s reliance on the lengthiest sentence available in capital murder cases comes as Texas has shifted away from capital punishment. For the first time in more than 30 years, 2017 saw no new death sentences and no executions of Harris County killers. Andy Kahan, the city of Houston’s victim advocate, described life without parole as a “saving grace” for victims’ families. “Like it or not, there’s some really evil people out there that commit some horrible atrocities that deserve to be locked up for life,” he said. “In a utopian world it’d be great if we didn’t have to have it but that’s not reality.” Without more data to compare the percent of slayings seeking death or LWOP in Harris County before and after the introduction of the law, it’s difficult to evaluate whether the sentencing option has had any measurable impact on local death penalty charging practices.