LIANE HANSEN, host:
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It was the 11th hour. Kenneth Foster Jr. was about to be executed. Then came the phone call from the governor of Texas and Foster's sentence was commuted to life in prison. It was a rare turn of events in the state that put more prisoners to death than any other.
Mose Buchele of member station KUT in Austin reports on what last week's reprieve may mean for the tradition of executions in the Lone Star State.
MOSE BUCHELE: Kenneth Foster Jr.'s fate appeared to be sealed Thursday morning. He'd already been moved from his holding cell to the infamous death house in Huntsville Texas. When the call came from Governor Rick Perry to spare Foster's life, his family was outside the facility praying. Lawrence Foster is Kenneth's grandfather.
Mr. LAWRENCE FOSTER (Kenneth Foster Jr.'s Grandfather): Even the warden himself - then he laid in his joy - he jumped for joy and each one us is aware of that. It would not have been just a problem to execute Kenneth.
BUCHELE: The case attracted national attention because Foster had not murdered anyone. But a jury found him responsible because he drove the car for the man who shot and killed Michael LaHood Jr. in 1996. Now, many of Foster's defenders say sparing his life is a turning point, signaling the end of Texas' frequent executions.
Professor ROBERT OWEN (Law, University of Texas; Co-Director, Texas Capital Punishment Center): I'm not as quick as others to assume that things have taken a dramatic turn.
BUCHELE: University of Texas law Professor Robert Owen co-directs Texas Capital Punishment Center. He says it takes more than one case to alter the state's position as the country's execution leader.
Prof. OWEN: This year, we just topped 400 executions since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976. Most other states have executed fewer than 100 people.
BUCHELE: Still, Owen says, the Foster decision sets a new precedent in a state that rarely commutes death sentences. Governor Perry has resided over 163 executions and commuted just two people, not counting the Supreme Court's ban on executing juveniles.
Richard Dieter is with the Texas Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. He says a turn against executions has already started nationally and in Texas.
Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Texas Death Penalty Information Center): We've a 60 percent decline in death sentences and a 40 percent decline in executions in the past few years. And although Texas still has - believe in executions, there are fewer death sentences in Texas. And the Foster case is part of that larger picture.
BUCHELE: One effect the decision might have is the way Texas law is written. When he commuted Foster, Governor Perry said he was concerned the state allows capital murder defendants to be tried together - as was the case in Foster's trial.
Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): The real issue here is one of asking the legislature to look back at this issue of dual prosecution. I happen to think there's some real concern for that.
BUCHELE: UT law Professor Robert Owen believes the Texas legislature may try to change the law when it next meets in 2009, the first substantial revision to the Texas death penalty in more than 15 years.
For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.
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