As push to abolish death penalty gains momentum, advocates prepare for annual conference in Fort Worth

dfwnewsa | February 28, 2024 | 2 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

As push to abolish death penalty gains momentum, advocates prepare for annual conference in Fort Worth

Students walking outside the Nick and Lou Martin University Center at Texas Wesleyan University Feb. 7, 2024. (Camilo Diaz | Fort Worth Report)
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Forty-five people have been executed for crimes committed in Tarrant County since 1982 — more than in every county except Harris, Dallas and Bexar. 

Eleven people prosecuted in Tarrant County currently wait on Texas’ death row. While the imposition of death penalties has steadily declined in Texas, executions continue. Texas led the U.S. in executions last year, when the state executed eight people. Ivan Cantu became the first person executed in 2024 on Feb. 28, despite doubt cast on his conviction by recanted testimony.

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Support for the death penalty remains fairly strong in Texas, even as that support has slowly decreased in the past decade, according to polls conducted by the University of Texas. Its proponents argue capital punishment deters crime, though the U.S. Department of Justice found little evidence to support such a conclusion. Former Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson sought the death penalty in multiple cases during her tenure. 

“The decision on whether or not to seek the death penalty is a crucial decision this office makes,” Wilson said in a May 2022 press release. “The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst criminals.”

But a growing number of individuals and organizations are advocating to end the death penalty in the state. Kristin Houlé Cuellar is the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a grassroots organization that has worked to reduce its use over the past few decades. Deciding to advocate for abolition, she said, was an easy decision.“It just comes down to the fact that I do not think that the state should be allowed to make determinations of life and death and kill its own citizens in the premeditated way that executions happen,” she said. 

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The latest proponent of the cause is Texas Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, an organization launched in September 2023 to advocate against the death penalty based on conservative values. The organization’s director, Nan Tolson, previously worked in Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. 

“Opposition to capital punishment has always been stereotyped as more of a liberal or progressive issue, but for us that could not be further from the truth,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that our values as conservatives, when it really boils down to it, are not aligned with capital punishment.” 

Houlé Cuellar, Tolson and fellow advocates will converge March 2 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Texas Wesleyan University for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s 26th annual conference. Opal Lee will give the keynote address. Registration for the conference is open through March 1 — those interested can register here. Attendees can participate in four workshops:

“Junk Science and the Texas Death Penalty,” which will feature two capital defense attorneys and innocence experts.

“Finding Common Ground: Understanding and Engaging Conservatives on the Death Penalty,” which will feature Tolson as director of Texas Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

“The Trauma of the Death Penalty Process,” which will feature a capital defense attorney, a United Methodist minister who lived in Huntsville, where Texas executions take place, and the daughter of an Oklahoma City bombing victim.

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“Pursuing Justice in Tarrant County,” which will feature two local defense attorneys and a faith leader who is a longtime criminal justice advocate.

The conference, Houlé Cuellar said, gives advocates from all across the state the opportunity to come together, get updates and learn from one another.

“It gives folks who are working on this very challenging, daunting issue, a sense of solidarity,” she said.

Legislative progress on limiting or abolishing the death penalty has been slow. Three bills were filed to abolish capital punishment in the 2023 legislative session, but none progressed past their initial filing. More than 10 other bills that focused on limiting the applicability of death sentences passed the Texas House, but stalled in the Senate, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s annual report. 

“There are a lot of states where the death penalty is on the books, but it’s an abstraction because they have very few people on death row to carry out executions,” Houlé Cuellar said. “But in Texas, that is not our reality. Our reality is the state is actively executing people.” 

The workshop featuring Texas Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty will explore how conservative values interact with the death penalty. Conservative lawmakers have been historically split on the issue; some, like state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, are in favor of reforms that would prohibit executing people with severe mental illness. Others, like former state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, have characterized such reforms as letting mass murderers avoid punishment.

As a conservative, Tolson believes there are four core concerns: the death penalty is fiscally irresponsible, an ineffective deterrent to crime, poses a risk of wrongful execution and is at odds with pro-life values, she said. 

“We believe that we can keep people safe, we can secure justice, we can enact punishment, all while respecting the value of all life and actually honoring the culture of life in Texas,” Tolson said. “The death penalty doesn’t do that. We think that Texans deserve better than the death penalty, and we want to see a future for Texas where we have actual solutions to public safety that represent our values.”

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or @_wolfemily

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