DALLAS (AP) - Known as the nation's busiest capital punishment state, few would consider Texas to be soft on convicted murderers.
But a newspaper investigation has found that at least 120 Texas killers since 2000 have received the lightest sentence of all -- probation.
The Dallas Morning News reports that many of the killers given probation were career criminals and that at least three freed murderers had previously killed someone.
Since 2000, 47 convicted killers in Dallas County have received probation; that's 9 percent of all murder sentences in the county.
During that time, Dallas County has put more than twice as many murderers on probation as it has sent to death.
Many of the cases involved deferred adjudication, in which the defendant admits guilt and a judge agrees there is enough evidence to convict. But the judge defers a decision on whether to convict, pending the outcome of the probation.
Experts say defendants favor deferred adjudication because there's no conviction record if they successfully complete probation. Prosecutors like it because if defendants violate their probation, it opens up a full range of sentences, including life in prison.
A change to Texas law no longer allows juries to give probation for those found guilty of murder. It went into effect in September, but doesn't apply to deferred adjudication.