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A deep dive into 120 executions reveals the erratic ways Texas, the US deals justice



Texas – For five and a half years, The Marshall Project has tracked every execution in America. Despite the trauma suffered in these cases — all of them marked by profound losses — they are all too often invisible to most of us.

By recording each story and noting every death, we could show how the machinery of capital punishment quietly grinds forward while few are watching. In the process, we hoped to better understand how our courts and prisons dispense their most severe punishment.

To do this, we created The Next to Die and built a national network of news organizations, including the Houston Chronicle, to help us cover individual cases. On paper, the federal government and 27 states allow juries to impose death sentences for the worst crimes. In practice, fewer than half carry out such sentences. Alabama planned to put to death Willie B. Smith III on Thursday in its first execution of the year, but the U.S. Supreme Court blocked it by upholding a lower court’s ruling. But the decision only came after Smith had waited more than five hours.

Even for those on death row, executions are rare. Since The Marshall Project began tracking cases in August of 2015, the courts set death dates for more than 230 people in these active death penalty states, a small fraction of the nearly 2,600 people sitting on death rows across the country. Many prisoners convinced courts to allow them to pursue additional appeals or were granted reprieves by governors. Yet 120 were executed in that time.

They were sentenced to die for crimes that led to the deaths of many others. In Corpus Christi, Police Lt. Stuart Alexander was run down and killed while trying to stop a freeway chase. Harriet Smith was shot in a drug robbery in Missouri in 2002. Charles Estep was stabbed more than three dozen times in his Tennessee prison cell in 1985. Three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans was raped and beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend in Ohio.

After marking these cases, we are winding down The Next to Die and beginning a new series of stories on capital punishment, Death Sentences. More than five years of immersion in the death penalty allowed us to unearth new truths about the criminal justice system and the erratic ways it metes out punishment. We learned that very often a death date is not final — and many of those awaiting execution find the day scheduled and rescheduled. We saw that even once that date arrives, appeals and bureaucratic delays mean that the condemned and the victims’ families can wait hours and hours before someone is put to death. And we saw that even as capital punishment waned overall in the U.S., enough states pursued it that someone has been executed every two and a half weeks on average since the summer of 2015.