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Temporary change in execution policy in Texas

Texas’ largest county, Harris, in the Houston area, leads the nation in carrying out death sentences, but the county’s chief prosecutor said on Thursday that his office will withdraw all execution dates and seek no more until the Supreme Court rules in a pending case on lethal injections.

Because of Harris County’s prominent role both in seeking the death penalty and in performing executions, this approach was the strongest sign yet that the Supreme Court’s willingness to block some executions while it prepares to review lethal injections this Term (in Baze v. Ress, 07-5439) is leading to a significant interruption, if not a halt, to planned executions. Texas is the leading state in executions, and Harris County is the most active in the state — with no other state even close to the rate in Harris County alone, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said he was withdrawing execution dates as a “tactical decision” because it did not make sense to schedule an execution date only to have it stayed by a court. “It is better to withdraw a date and then reset it than to have a stay,” he added. “It’s silly and improvident to have stays granted.”

His decision was first reported earlier Thursday in the Houston Chronicle, in a story that said prosecutors in other Texas counties were doing the same. Rosenthal confirmed his intention in a telephone interview.

This is in no way a moratorium, the Harris County prosecutor said. “We are still seeking death penalties in cases that are in trial now, and, if the Supreme Court rules against [the lethal injection protocol], we’ll just find another way to execute them,” he said.

The Chronicle story said that prosecutors in two other counties — Dallas and Bell — where executions have been scheduled early in 2008, were moving to withdraw those dates.