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Alpine Penn Field under the water tower check our site for monthly calendar It’s unclear how much of the decline in death sentences in Texas can be linked to the life-without-parole option, or whether it’s more a symptom of growing public uncertainty about the ultimate punishment. “Whether you can chalk that up to the life-without-parole statutes that have gone on the books in Texas and other states in recent years remains to be seen,” Dieter says, pointing out that death sentences across the nation are down about 60 percent over the past five years. “But all indications are that people, and juries, want that option. “When you present life without parole to juries, it lifts any confusion they might have about whether someone is ever going to walk the streets again. Even though a traditional life sentence in Texas meant there was no possibility of parole for at least 40 years, there’s always that misapprehension that someone could be out in a matter of a few years. So there might not be any difference in the eye of a juror who’s just seen those 8×10 glossy photos of a horrible murder scene who wants to be assured that the person responsible never walks free among us again.” Juan Quintero’s trial was a powerful example. When Harris County jurors began deliberating his punishment for killing Rodney Johnson, defense lawyer Danalynn Recer laid a foundation to show that despite her client’s heinous act, his life still had value. Jurors were told that he had no record of past violence and was both deeply religious and deeply remorseful. The prosecution painted a starkly different picture. “You look for some humanity in this defendant. You look for some emotion, some heart, some soul in this defendant:’ said prosecutor John Jordan. “You can watch [his videotaped confession] 20 times and you won’t find it.” Despite pleas from Johnson’s family and police colleagues that Johnson’s killer be sentenced to die, the jury sided with the defenseand clearly responded to Recer’s arguments. “I believe he has value,” juror Letty Burkholder told the Houston Chronicle. “He’s loved by many of his family and friends, and that was number one. I felt like he has potential.” Added Tiffany Moore, another juror: “I still feel we came to the right decision. We could never bring Rodney back. I feel very sad for the family, losing a loved one.” Recer declined to be interviewed for this story, but after the trial she told Scott Henson, an Austin activist who blogs about criminal justice issues at , that she had seen an obvious shift in attitudes about capital punishment during jury selection. Five times as many potential jurors were excluded for saying their consciences would not allow them impose a death sentence, she said, than were scratched for ruling out consideration of life without parole. She also told Henson, a consultant for the Texas Innocence Project, that Quintero was so guilt-ridden, he had considered abandoning his defense and waiving his appeals, essentially volunteering for the death sentence. But he had changed his mind, she said, when his children intervened, reminding him that “his life is not over, he’s still a dad.” In the two decades before the Legislature enacted the life-without-parole law, Texas courts were sending an average of 35 murderers per year to death row. In 2005, 14 death sentences were handed down. For Texas prosecutors, the increasing appeal of the life-without-parole option might have as much to do with basic economics as with an evolution in opinions about the fairness of the death penalty. “The dirty little secret about life without parole is that it gives the DAs peace with honor, so to speak,” says Henson. “Death penalty cases are getting so expensive, especially when you add in all the appellate costs, that it just decimates their budgets. But with life without parole, they still get a capital conviction without all that cost.” The cost issue weighs heavily on county governments, says Larry Fitzgerald. Since his retirement from the prison system, Fitzgerald has been engaged by defense lawyers as an expert witness in several cases where prosecutors have pushed for the death penalty, assuring jurors that life without parole is really for life. “Basically, taxpayers are paying for both sides of the freight,” says Fitzgerald, who supports the death penalty but believes that it has been overused in Texas. “The vast majority of the defendants are indigent, so they get court-appointed lawyers. Plus, with every death sentence, there’s an automatic appeal, so that means the taxpayers are on the hook for that one, too.” The cost to the state of lifetime lock-ups is far less by comparison, experts say. Since the mid-1990s, when lawmakers enacted sweeping get-tough-on-crime legislation that tripled the size of the prison populationto more than 150,000 nowthe Texas Department of Criminal Justice has added 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 28, 2008