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Texas Legislature 2019

Despite bipartisan support, Texas bill tackling intellectual disability in death penalty cases fails

Negotiators in the House and Senate couldn't come to an agreement on a bill addressing how Texas handles capital murder defendants who may be intellectually disabled. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Interior of Death Chamber

Texas Legislature 2019

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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A bill aimed at ending Texas' years of legal troubles around ensuring it is not administering the death penalty on people with intellectual disabilities died in the Texas Legislature this weekend after negotiators in the Senate and House failed to find common ground. The legislative session ends Monday.

House Bill 1139, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, was originally written to allow capital murder defendants to request pretrial hearings to determine if they are intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty. If the trial judges found they were intellectually disabled, they would be ineligible for a death sentence and instead receive an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

As the bill moved through the Senate, however, it was largely gutted, instead only stating that a defendant who has an intellectual disability can’t receive the death penalty and such determinations must be made using current medical standards. That language would have codified existing U.S. Supreme Court rulings but offered no direction on how to follow them.

Earlier this week, when the bill came back from the Senate amended, Thompson requested a conference committee in which members from both chambers could iron out the differences between the two versions. The committees had until midnight Sunday to file a report with a compromise version. The deadline passed without a report.

Thompson’s original version of HB 1139 passed out of the Texas House in an 102-37 vote and was supported by members of both parties. She could not be reached for comment Saturday night.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, but left it up to states to determine the definition of such disabilities. Texas has never passed legislation to regulate the process, leaving it up to courts to decide if a defendant is eligible for the death penalty.

However, Texas courts have still run into trouble with the higher court because of a test some judges have implemented to determine if a defendant is eligible for the death penalty. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ process as unconstitutional in a case involving Bobby Moore, ruling that it used outdated medical standards and non-clinical factors that advanced stereotypes, like how well a defendant could lie. The Texas court was asked to re-evaluate Moore using different methods. The court’s revised method, which still rejected Moore’s claim of intellectual disability, was again knocked down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

“There’s a disconnect between the U.S. Supreme Court and our court down here,” Thompson told the Tribune earlier this year. “We just want to make sure that we’re doing justice, that we’re following the law.”

State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who is vice-chair of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, opposed the version of the bill that passed the House, questioning whether the pretrial process would allow “activist judges” who were against the death penalty to use it as a way to limit capital punishment. State Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat who carried the bill in the Senate, later presented the much more limited version of the bill, which passed out of that chamber.

“As the legislation moved, I worked with my fellow members in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and passed a version of the bill to continue the discussion in a conference committee where we could craft language that would respect the US Supreme Court rulings,” Miles said in a statement Saturday night. “Unfortunately, the leadership would not allow HB 1139 to move forward, dooming the bill.”

A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not immediately respond to questions on the bill.

State Rep. Joe Moody D-El Paso, a member of the conference committee, said that the House members on the committee attempted to use the report to advance two other death penalty-related bills when it became clear that the Senate was not going to support addressing the issue of ensuring that Texas isn't executing people with intellectual disabilities.

The first, House Bill 1030, would clarify instructions to a jury when they are deciding whether to give a defendant the death penalty of life in prison. The second, House Bill 464, would allow evidence appeals that could lessen punishments, like a death sentence, instead of just overruling a conviction.

“The attempt of the conference was if they were going to zero out the base effort of (House Bill) 1139, then, let's see what other movement we can make on the death penalty as a whole, which included two bills that were voted out of the House with over 130 votes apiece,” Moody told The Texas Tribune Saturday night before the midnight deadline.

As the session is scheduled to wrap up another session on Monday with no resolution on the issue, Moody said he think Texas will continue to struggle with court cases involving individuals with intellectual disabilities until the Legislature takes the burden off the courts.

“The courts have been there, sitting there, making their best effort to get a system in place, but it keeps getting thrown out by the Supreme Court,” Moody said. “So this is our job. Our job is to legislate and not force this job on the judges and the courts.”

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