Legislative Activity - Texas

  • Victims' Advocates, Prosecutors Caution Against Expansion of Texas Death Penalty Victims' advocates and prosecutors are urging Texas legislators to exclude the death penalty from new legislation designed to toughen penalties for repeat child molesters. Those opposed to the measure fear that threatening death sentences for sex offenders could lead to fewer reported cases of sex crimes and might even give incentive to offenders to kill their victims to prevent the child from testifying in court. Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, noted that ninety percent of child-sex victims know their offenders. "We're definitely not concerned with the intent. We're concerned with the unintended consequences. . . . Imagine the pressure the family would experience if grandpa could be given the death penalty," Burrhus-Clay said. Shannon Edmonds, a former prosecutor and director of governmental relations for the Texas District and State Attorneys Association, added, "[J]ust being tough on crime doesn't necessarily advance the ball for public safety." Prosecutors also fear allowing the death penalty for repeat sex offenders will make offenders less likely to plead guilty, which could clog courts and force child victims to take the stand in extended jury trials. Sen. Bob Deuell, one of several legislators to file a bill that includes the death penalty for repeat child-sex offenders, said, "My goal, of course, is that there be no more victims. But I'm open-minded, and I don't have any delusions that mine is the perfect bill. These are the people we really want to do this for, so we need to hear from them." Victims' rights groups and prosecutors have vowed to work with legislators to craft a bill that protect child-sex victims without including capital punishment as a sentencing option. (Dallas Morning News, January 5, 2007).
  • Texas Lawmakers Receive Failing Grade from Criminal Justice Reform Leaders As the Texas legislative session came to a close, criminal justice reform advocates gave lawmakers a failing grade for their work in addressing problems in the state's legal system. Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston joined an array of legal experts to criticize the state legislators' inability to pass measures to end the execution of juvenile offenders, to strengthen the consular notification process for foreign nationals, and to require the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to hold a hearing when addressing clemency matters in a capital case. The advocates also chastised failed attempts to pass bills to allow the governor to issue multiple 30-day execution reprieves, to create an innocence commission to review and investigate the Texas death penalty and wrongful convictions, to offer the sentencing alternative of life without the possibility of parole, and to require a trial judge to determine if a defendant is mentally retarded before the trial of a capital case. Ellis noted that the only successful measure passed by the legislature was a bill mandating the temporary release of 12 Tulia residents who had been convicted during a controversial drug sting in 1999. The only evidence used to convict them was the later-discredited testimony of an undercover narcotics officer. While vowing to continue his fight for meaningful criminal justice reform, Ellis said, "There are problems in Texas. How many other Tulias are out there that we don't know about?" (Associated Press, June 18, 2003, and Houston Chronicle, June 18, 2003).
  • Texas Senate Passes Bill to Create Innocence Commission The Texas Senate passed legislation (S.B. 1045) to create a joint interim committee on post-conviction exonerations. The committee will study wrongful convictions in the state and identify appropriate improvements in the criminal justice system to prevent such errors in the future. The nine members of the committee will include a state's attoney, two members chosen from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, two members of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, a judge, and two law professors. (May 20, 2003). William Sessions, a former director of the FBI, recently endorsed the creation of the panel, which still must be approved by the Texas House. See Innocence.
  • Texas County is First to Call for Death Penalty Moratorium Travis County recently became the first Texas county to pass a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty and an in-depth study of the state's capital punishment system. The Travis County Commissioners Court passed the resolution as serious concerns about the state's death penalty, including the accuracy of crime lab findings in Houston and Fort Worth, continue to surface. County Judge Sam Biscoe said before the vote that it was "the right thing to do." He later stated that he supports the death penalty if there is no doubt that it is being administered fairly, but he doesn't believe that is happening. Commissioner Margaret Gomez noted, "We seem to take life very lightly...that it's OK to execute great numbers of people, and that bothers me." (Austin American-Statesman, April 30, 2003).
  • Governor Rick Perry signed the Texas Fair Defense Act. The legislation sets up regulations to ensure timely appointments, minimum standards, and fair methods of appointing defense lawyers. It also requires indigent defendants to be provided with counsel no later than 5 days after their arrest and provides research assistance to appointed attorneys handling serious felony and capital cases. The bill puts up nearly $20 million (compared to zero now) in state money to help local judges pay more for defense attorneys and criminal-defense investigations for poor clients. Finally, the bill sets up a statewide task force to monitor indigent defense systems around the state and suggest improvements.
  • A bill to prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded in Texas was vetoed by Governor Rick Perry on June 17. The bill would have prohibited the death penalty if jurors determine that the defendant is mentally retarded. Under the proposed law, if the jury decided that a defendant was not mentally retarded, the defense could petition the trial judge to order an evaluation by independent mental health experts. In vetoing the legislation, Perry stated that although their is no statutory prohibition, "we do not execute mentally retarded murderers [in Texas] today." Without a legislative ban, those with mental retardation can be sentenced to death because jurors are only required to consider a defendant's mental capacity as a mitigating factor during sentencing
  • On April 5, 2001 Gov. Perry signed a law giving inmates access to DNA testing. The bill will require the state to preserve DNA evidence and allow prisoners access to DNA testing if it was not available at trial. It would also require courts to provide attorneys for indigent inmates making such claims. "I hope it provides the greatest opportunity for people who have been convicted erroneously the chance to prove themselves innocent," said Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston). (NY Daily News, 4/6/01 and Associated Press, 4/4/01)