‘Every Option Will Be on the Table’: Republican Leader of Texas House Justice Reform Caucus Says He Would Support Moratorium on Executions

Saying that recent events in Texas’ attempt to execute death-row prisoner Melissa Lucio had shaken his faith in the criminal legal system, an influential Republican state legislator has said that he would now support a moratorium on executions in the state.

In an April 29, 2022 interview on WFAA-TV’s Inside Texas Politics with Jason Whitely, Representative Jeff Leach (pictured), co-chair of the Texas House of Representatives’ bi-partisan Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said “every option [for death-penalty reform] will be on the table, every tool in the toolbox,” including potentially a moratorium on executions.

Leach, who was one of the founding members of the reform caucus, was the driving force behind a bipartisan legislative effort that resulted in majorities of both the Texas House and Senate signing letters calling for the commutation of Lucio’s sentence. On April 25, 2022, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Lucio’s scheduled April 27th execution and directed a Cameron County trial court to hear evidence on claims that she may be innocent of charges that she murdered her two-year-old daughter and that her conviction was the product of prosecutorial misconduct and false testimony. In the Inside Texas Politics interview, Rep. Leach said: “We’ve got to look at every part of our system, and Melissa’s case, where the system failed her at every turn, is a great example of that.”

A self-described “pro-life conservative,” Leach said that the near execution of Lucio without consideration of her strong claims of innocence “rocked” him and showed him that “it’s important going forward that we get this right for all other cases.”

One of the tools Leach said he intended to use would be legislative hearings at which “law enforcement and prosecutors and defense counsel and other legislators and experts” would be brought in to help the Texas legislature in “pursuing the right reforms.” He told WFAA reporter Jason Whitely that, after “going through what I just went through and seeing what I just saw” in Melissa Lucio’s case, he would support a moratorium on executions in Texas.

“I am, again, a supporter of the death penalty in the most heinous cases. But that is contingent upon the system working, the system being trustworthy, fair and reliable, us ensuring beyond a shadow of a doubt the guilt of the inmate,” Leach said. “And right now, I am unsure of that. My trust in the system is shaky.” Leach told Whitely that he believes several other conservative, pro-death penalty legislators also would support a moratorium on executions.

Leach has been vocally advocating reforms in the Texas capital punishment system since the scheduled execution of Jeffrey Wood in 2016. Wood was convicted and sentenced to death under Texas’ “law of parties,” which makes a defendant liable for the acts and intent of all other people involved in a felony. The undisputed evidence showed that Wood neither killed anyone nor intended for anyone to be killed and, his supporters say, was not even aware the robbery in which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur. At the time of Wood’s death warrant, Leach said, “I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence. I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything.”

Wood’s case led Leach to sponsor a bill, which passed the House in 2021, that attempts to end death-penalty eligibility for felony accomplices who neither killed nor intended that a killing take place and were minor participants in the conduct that led to the death of the victim. That bill stalled in a Senate committee.

Leach also advocated to halt the scheduled execution of Rodney Reed in 2019. Pointing to Reed’s strong claims of innocence, Leach, along with the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus’ Democratic co-chair, Rep. Joe Moody and 24 other house members from both parties, drafted a legislative letter asking Texas Governor Greg Abbott to commute Reed’s sentence. In November 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Reed’s execution and ordered an innocence hearing. After the Texas state courts denied Reed access to DNA testing of crime-scene evidence and the lower federal courts refused to review the issue on procedural grounds, the U.S. States Supreme Court on April 25, 2022 granted Reed’s petition for writ of certiorari to address the question of when the time clock begins to run on a state prisoner’s federal civil rights lawsuit seeking access to DNA testing.

Sources

Michael McCardel, My trust in the sys­tem is shaky’: Texas Republican says he would sup­port mora­to­ri­um on death penal­ty, WFAA-TV, April 29, 2022; Inside Texas Politics with Jason Whitely, WFAA-TV, April 292022.

Photo from WFAA-TV, Inside Texas Politics, used with permission.