We’ve all heard accounts that horse thieves have, in the past, been sentenced to death by courts in Texas or legally hanged by vigilantes. The demise of Jake and his compatriots in the movie Lonesome Dove is a depiction of one such vigilante hanging in Texas. All kidding aside, verifiable accounts of capital punishment for horse theft (both after a trial and by vigilantes) come not only from Texas, but also from other U.S. states and even other from other countries.
Photo: Per Wikipedia, this photo is of a horse thief's hanging in Oregon, circa 1900 [Source]
According to a BBC news story from May 2011, some folks in Scotland even reenacted the events surrounding the 1811 hanging of a fellow named George Watson for horse theft. Watson was described in the BBC article as a “tinker-traveller” who made off with a “distinctive grey Clydesdale mare” belonging to a man who offered shelter to Watson and his family. Watson is alleged to be the last man hanged in Scotland for horse theft.
Urban legend has it that horse thieves can still be hanged or sentenced to death in Texas. But unfortunately for those who still wish to see horse thieves put to death, horse thievery is no longer a capital felony in Texas. Under Texas Penal Code Section 31.03(e), horse theft is a third-degree felony (2 to 10 years in prison) if the value of the horses stolen in a single transaction is less than $100,000. Horse theft in Texas is punishable as a second degree felony (2 to 20 years in prison) if the horses stolen in a single transaction are worth $100,000 to $199,999, and a first degree felony (5 to 99 years in prison) if the horses stolen in a single transaction are worth $200,000 or more. See also Chapter 12 of the Texas Penal Code.
Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the power of any U.S. state to impose the death penalty against an individual for committing a crime that did not result in the death of a human victim is now limited to crimes against the state (i.e., espionage, treason).
But vigilante justice for horse thieves is not completely dead in Texas. As discussed previously, there are still circumstances under which a person in Texas could legally shoot or otherwise kill a horse thief if the person, for example, is a witness to horse theft in progress and the circumstances warrant the use of lethal force. See these prior posts:
Facts revealed in the recent Jaci Rae Jackson case may cause some to wish capital punishment were still available for horse theft. As you have probably read by now, Jackson is a now 19 year-old Southern Arkansas University student who was charged this week with a number of felonies in Arkansas and Oklahoma for the theft of 5 college rodeo horses and a horse trailer. Jackson cannot (if convicted) be sentenced to death for her actions. Ms. Jackson has also been charged with related post-theft crimes which, according to reports, include allegedly participating in the killing and dismemberment of one stolen horse, and tying the 4 others to trees without sufficient food or water. Ms. Jackson’s arraignment is expected to occur on December 15, 2011.
Photo: Jaci Rae Jackson [Source]
Apropos, how can we all take steps to prevent the theft of our horses and trailers and make sure thieves are brought to justice? Dr. Pete Gibbs, Texas A & M University professor and Extension Horse Specialist, published an informative article entitled “15 Steps to Minimizing Theft of Horses and Equipment”, which can be downloaded here.