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May 15, 2001     (512) 463-0300

Senate Considers Banning
Execution of Mentally Retarded

AUSTIN - The Senate moved a step closer today to approving a ban on the death penalty in capital crimes committed by the mentally retarded.

The Committee Substitute for House Bill (CSHB) 236 would make imprisonment for life the maximum sentence in cases in which a mentally retarded person is convicted of a capital offense. The bill would apply only to new convictions.

Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, the bill's sponsor, said 15 states and the federal government prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded.

"The death penalty simply is not an appropriate sentence for people who lack the mental capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions and it does not serve justice to execute those people," Ellis said.

Under CSHB 236, a judge would hold a pre-trial hearing to determine if a defendant is mentally retarded. The determination requires three tests: significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, deficits in adaptive functioning and onset of retardation before maturity.

"I support the death penalty, but I know that prohibiting the death penalty against the mentally ill is the right thing to do," Ellis said.

Palestine Sen. Todd Staples rose to oppose the bill during floor debate, arguing that deciding whether a defendant in mentally competent should be left to a jury.

"I certainly concur with that opinion that we should not execute the mentally retarded. I would think that each and every senator on this floor shares that opinion," Staples said. "I think the real issue here, though, is: how is that determination made?"

Staples said the current legal safeguards in place are sufficient to protect against the execution of individuals who do not comprehend the consequences of their actions.

"I truly believe that we have a system in place that affords those accused of a crime several different phases and steps of protection in order to make certain that they are in the mental, culpable state where they can be held accountable for their crimes," Staples said.

During the debate, an amendment was added that would ensure that the sentencing options reflect what is available to juries under law. The Senate passed a bill earlier this session, Senate Bill 85, that would allow juries to impose a sentence of life without parole in all capital cases -- an option which does not exist under current law. The House of Representatives is considering the Senate bill.

Ellis did not make a motion for final passage. The bill could be considered for final passage as early as Wednesday.

Also in today's session, the Senate passed a bill that would require the Texas Department of Transportation to consider aesthetic, safety and environmental factors in construction planning. The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 1128, authored by Beaumont Sen. David Bernsen, would also ban billboards on some sections of new state highways, such as scenic Hill Country stretches.

The Senate also considered House Bill (HB) 1027, a measure sponsored by Lake Jackson Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown that is intended to encourage the cleanup of contaminated land.

"Many properties in Texas known as brownfields are abandoned or underused because of the liability associated with contamination from old industrial activity," Brown said. "The TNRCC (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission) has provided initiatives to encourage the cleanup of contaminated property, but many of these still exist."

HB 1027 would allow sales and use tax proceeds to be used for the cleanup of brownfields, which Brown said would eliminate barriers to cleaning up contaminated land.

The Senate could vote on passage of HB 1027 as early as Wednesday.

The Senate stands adjourned until 9 a.m. Wednesday.

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