Texas has lost the title of America's No. 1 death penalty state for the first time since 1996, with 17 executions in 2001 to Oklahoma's 18.
The number of inmates put to death in Texas this year was down 57 percent from 2000 and contributed to a national decline of 22 percent.
The drop is attributed to the usual ebb and flow of death row appeals, and Texas' numbers appear likely to rise again next year as a cluster of Houston-area cases works its way through the courts.
"I liken it to a boa constrictor that has swallowed a pig for dinner," said prosecutor Roe Wilson, whose office handles capital case appeals. "You watch the pig progress down the boa constrictor, and that pig is the big glut that is in the federal courts right now."
Harris County, which includes Houston, accounts for a third of the 450 or so inmates awaiting lethal injection in Texas. That is more than Oklahoma's entire death row population.
Texas topped the annual execution list from 1997 to 2000. Virginia led in 1996 with eight; Texas had three, tying it for fourth place.
Nationwide, the number of executions fell in 2001 from 85 to 66. After Oklahoma and Texas, the most were in Missouri, with seven; North Carolina with five; and Georgia, with four. No other state had more than two.
In Oklahoma, "there was such a backlog on death row and the cases were old," state Attorney General Drew Edmondson said. "We were working through the appeals process." He said he expects 10 executions at most next year.
Texas has also seen such bursts in recent years, as cases that were backed up in the legal system came to a conclusion all at once. In 1996, three executions were carried out, followed by 37 the next year. In 1998, there were 20; in 1999, 35. Texas sent 40 to the gurney in 2000, the most executions in a single year by any state in U.S. history.
Four Texas inmates are scheduled to go to the death chamber in January. Two more are scheduled for February and another in early March.
Death penalty opponents struck a cautious note over this year's numbers.
"While the past year had been a time of real progress in addressing the problem areas of the death penalty, the crisis continues," said Richard Dieter of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
By MICHAEL GRACZYK
©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.