Texas House passes bill banning the death penalty for some mentally ill defendants

This year, the measure faced increasing opposition from conservative lawmakers.

Austin, Texas – (The Texas Tribune) In a state where mental illness is rampant on death row, the Texas House of Representatives has again passed a measure to eliminate the death penalty for some people with serious mental illnesses.

House Bill 727, by State Assemblyman Toni Rose, D-Dallas, finally passed the chamber Wednesday by a vote of 97 to 48, a week after the measure was provisionally passed. The final version of the bill excludes the death penalty for defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.

In a statement released on Saturday Rose said the bill has been delayed “due to ongoing discussions, which we are engaging in to present the Senate with a strong level of support for the proposal.”

Rose passed similar measures from the House of Representatives in the last two terms, only to have them fail in the more conservative chamber.

“I think the third time is the charm,” Rose said during the debate at the House last week.

The Democrat faced backlash in her own chamber this year when hardline conservatives opposed the measure, arguing that it would make imposing the death penalty too difficult and that those accused could feign mental illness.

In the face of opposition from one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives last week, Rose stressed that under her law, capital killers with serious mental illnesses “would still be punished, just not sentenced to death.” Instead, they would be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

In recent months, high-profile cases of schizophrenic prisoners facing execution have drawn renewed attention to Texas’ long-standing practice of putting people with mental illnesses to death.

In October, Texas state attorneys admitted that Scott Panetti has a serious mental illness, but still trying to convince a federal judge that he is sane enough to be executed. In his infamous 1995 murder trial, Panetti, who was repeatedly diagnosed as schizophrenic, represented himself and called witnesses such as Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy to the stand. He questioned himself on the witness stand as “Sarge” and used a distorted voice when he spoke when the spirit inside him he claimed was responsible for the murders of his in-laws spoke.

Before going to jail, Panetti had been hospitalized 14 times for psychotic behavior and was found to be severely disabled, according to court records. The federal judge has not yet decided whether Panetti can be given a new execution date.

This month Andre Thomas narrowly escaped death after a Texas court withdrew his execution date to give his attorneys more time to argue that he is unfit to be killed. In 2004, according to court documents, Thomas immediately confessed to killing his estranged wife and two young children, telling police God told him to kill his family.

Thomas, who had hallucinations as a child, went to the hospital the day before the murder because of his delusions. In the prison awaiting trial, Thomas has his right eye gouged out. In prison, he gouged out his remaining eye and ate it.

US Supreme Court precedent prohibits states from executing people who do not have a “rational understanding” of why the state plans to kill them, but it does not specifically prohibit the killing of people with serious mental illnesses, as it does for people with mental disabilities disability is the case. And as documented in nearly 30 years of trying to execute Panetti, the state of Texas is still trying to carry out death sentences on the severely mentally ill.

Rose’s bill would outlaw the death penalty for those sentenced to death who were found to have a serious mental illness at the time of their crime and address the issue before the trial. A person with a serious mental illness would be defined as someone with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder with active psychotic symptoms that completely limit the person’s ability to function. The law was originally intended to apply to people with bipolar disorder as well before it was changed on Wednesday.

In Texas, a person can be charged with capital murder, the only felony worthy of death, for certain types of killings — including those involving a child, a police officer, or multiple people — or when the accused allegedly killed someone while committing it became another crime, like a robbery. After conviction, the killer is sentenced to either life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.

HB 727 would set up a pre-trial process for those accused of capital murder to first present evidence of serious mental illness. If there is enough evidence to warrant a hearing, a jury would decide whether the defendant’s mental condition made him unfit for the death penalty.

If the jury found a defendant to be classified as having a serious mental illness and the person was convicted of capital murder, the judge would automatically award a life sentence without parole. Otherwise, a separate sentencing hearing would be held to decide either life or the death penalty, as is common in Texas death penalty trials.

The law only applies to future capital murder defendants, meaning it would not change the sentences of Panetti, Thomas or others who have already been convicted.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where its future is uncertain. Since Rose began submitting versions of the legislation in 2017, the Senate has yet to respond to her bills. But there was increasing progress in the house.

In 2017, the bill failed to make it to the floor of the House of Representatives. In 2019, she was narrowly eliminated from the House of Representatives in the final vote. In the last session in May – late in the legislature – an identical bill to the current version of the House of Representatives was passed with significantly more support in the House of Representatives.

This year, after State Assemblyman Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, designated the bill as one that would allow mass murderers to escape punishment, the bill was tentatively re-passed with a narrower margin. The riotous Conservative has been known to incite members of both parties with his uncompromising opposition. In the final vote, the measure was accepted with more support.

Slaton maintained that mental health research, which diagnoses people with mental illness, is not a medical science. He also said that mass murderers are regularly diagnosed as mentally ill and therefore exempt from a death sentence.

Investigations into mental capacity are already ingrained in capital punishment cases, since one must be capable to carry them out, but typically this process takes place in expensive post-sentence appeals.

“It has to be decided on a case-by-case basis,” Rose said. “And it requires a pre-trial determination of a serious mental illness, which saves millions of dollars because in most cases when you have a death penalty case, the appeals process goes through multiple trials.”

A longtime Conservative proponent of death penalty reform, State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano echoed this sentiment, saying, “The reason is that we have some death row inmates who are in solitary confinement 23.5 hours a day, many cases 10 , 20, 30, 40 years are due to the fact that these issues are being dealt with in our courts.”

Leach also objected to what he said were attempts to mislabel the bill as one to abolish the death penalty.

“As a supporter of the death penalty, I am opposed to the execution of people who were suffering from a serious mental illness at the time of the crime. And that’s well-established constitutional law, and other states are passing that law, and it’s time for Texas to do the same,” said Leach, standing next to Rose.

“We cannot, we should not, especially as pro-life conservatives, execute people who did not have the requisite ‘mens rea’ at the time of the offence. Period,” he said, using the legal term for intent to have wrongdoing.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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https://www.kvue.com/article/news/politics/texas-legislature/texas-house-again-moves-to-halt-death-sentences-mentally-ill-defendants/269-cbf4bc99-970b-4fb8-85e6-28f2357dc637 Texas House passes bill banning the death penalty for some mentally ill defendants

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