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GOP Judge on Texas' Highest Criminal Court: I Oppose the Death Penalty

A Republican judge on Texas’ highest criminal court says he now opposes the death penalty.

Outgoing Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tom Price.

*This story has been updated throughout. 

A Republican judge on Texas’ highest criminal court says he now opposes the death penalty.

Judge Tom Price of Dallas, one of nine members of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, wrote Wednesday that he has “given a substantial amount of consideration to the propriety of the death penalty as a form of punishment for those who commit capital murder, and I now believe that it should be abolished.”

That statement came in a six-page dissent after the court, in a 6-3 vote, rejected the latest effort to stay the looming execution of Scott Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who is on death row and scheduled to be put to death on Dec. 3. 

Price, whose term expires in January, could not immediately be reached for comment. But Kristin Houlé, the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Price is the first statewide Republican judge she is aware of who has publicly opposed the death penalty.  

"My conclusion is not reached hastily," Price wrote in the dissent. "Rather, it is the result of my deliberative thought process from having presided over three death-penalty trials as a trial court judge and having decided countless issues related to capital murder and the death penalty as a judge on this court."

That thought process included the Panetti case.  

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mentally ill inmates can be executed only if they understand what is about to happen and why. Panetti’s attorneys have argued – so far to no avail – that he is too incompetent to legally be put to death and that his mental health is deteriorating.

The Wisconsin native was sentenced to death for the 1992 shooting deaths of his in-laws. At the time, Panetti – who represented himself at trial and dressed up in a cowboy outfit in court – was a diagnosed schizophrenic and collected federal disability checks because he could not work. 

“Yet, unless and until a federal court or the Supreme Court grants his application, [Panetti], who few dispute is severely mentally ill, will be executed,” Price wrote. 

Price added: “Evolving societal values indicate that the death penalty should be abolished in its entirety.”

Highlighting Texas’ wrongful convictions over the years, Price also wrote that he is growing more convinced that the criminal justice system is prone to human error.

“I have voted to grant numerous applications for writs of habeas corpus that have resulted in the release of dozens of people who were wrongfully convicted,” he wrote, “and I conclude that it is wishful thinking to believe that this state will never execute an innocent person for capital murder.” 

Houlé said the news of Price's change of mind came as a huge surprise to the anti-death penalty community. "I was really thrilled to see Judge Price’s strong statement in support of ending the death penalty," she said. "He joins a growing chorus of voices." 

Price, who was first elected to the court in 1996, did not seek re-election this year. He is being replaced by Bert Richardson, who is currently the visiting judge presiding over the abuse of power case against Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

This is not Price’s first public critique of Texas’ justice system. In 2000, the judge said the case of Roy Criner – freed from prison after serving 10 years for a rape he didn’t commit – made his court a “national laughingstock.”

And during his failed bid that year to be the court’s presiding judge, Price asked, according to a 2004 story in Texas Monthly, “How far to the right is this court going to be? Even Republicans want there to be fair trials."

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Courts Criminal justice Death penalty