Guest Column from
State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
June 7, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Time for Leadership in the Wild, Wild West

By Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis

Texans are proud of our tough on crime reputation. We have one of the busiest death chambers on Earth and some of the toughest criminal laws in the nation. But being tough doesn't mean you have to be bloodthirsty. By enacting a ban on the execution of the mentally retarded, Texas has a golden opportunity to prove that you really can have compassionate justice, even in the wild, wild, West.

The legislation, now on Governor Rick Perry's desk, is a compromise based on the bill spearheaded by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The Texas bill passed the Democratic House and the Republican Senate with strong bipartisan support. House Bill 236 provides both jury and judicial input in determining mental retardation after the trial and prior to sentencing. If the defendant is found to be mentally retarded by either the jury or the judge, life imprisonment is the maximum penalty he or she would face. It is a strong, morally responsible plan that the overwhelming majority of Texans support. I hope and pray that Governor Perry will sign this important piece of legislation. I fear he will not.

Finding common ground on this difficult and emotional issue was not easy. When we needed to find a compromise, we looked to the Jeb Bush plan for several reasons. First of all, Florida is a large southern state with a tough on crime tradition. It is also a tough execution state, trailing only Texas and Virginia in carrying out the death penalty. We also chose Florida because there was a Bush in the Governor's mansion. I don't think anyone can claim that Jeb Bush is soft on crime. In fact, the Florida Prosecuting Attorney's Association even supported the bill. They said the Bush Plan is, and I quote: "a safety net at the back end that will ensure that we do not execute the mentally retarded."

There are people who are saying this bill is simply a backdoor attempt to banning the death penalty. Let me be perfectly clear: this is in no way an attempt to ban the death penalty. I support the death penalty and have throughout my career in public service. There are only a handful of people in this state who have voted for death penalty bills, authored death penalty bills, and carried out the death penalty, and I'm one of them. As Acting Governor, I presided over three executions and one stay. I don't believe I have to prove my credentials to anyone.

This is not an issue being debated in ivory towers, it is an issue heard in courtrooms -- and on Death Row -- across the country. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 35 offenders with mental retardation have been executed nationwide. Again, Texas leads the way, having executed six mentally retarded offenders. Around the globe this simply makes Texas look barbaric and out for revenge, not justice.

Governor Perry and some opponents have said we should wait for the Supreme Court, but Texans want us to act now. According to a recent Houston Chronicle poll, most Texans -- 68% -- support the death penalty, but few -- 19% -- support executing the mentally retarded. I see little point in hiding behind the Supreme Court's robes when Texas can join 14 other states -- including Southern states such as Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, Tennessee and, soon, Florida and Missouri -- in banning the execution of the mentally retarded. It is time for Texas to show leadership now, not wait for the Supreme Court to tell us to do the right thing.

Over the last couple of years, the spotlight has been on the Texas criminal justice system and, let's face it, most of us didn't like what we saw. That atmosphere, however, pushed Texas to seek change and we have made significant progress. We've passed a law allowing inmates access to DNA testing; we've passed a law to increase compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned; we've outlawed racial profiling; we've overhauled our indigent defense system, and we finally passed the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. We've taken many steps in the long journey for justice. If Governor Perry vetoes legislation to ban the execution of the mentally retarded, we will have taken a major step backward.

(Rodney Ellis is a State Senator from Houston, Texas and serves as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In 1999 and 2000, Ellis served as Governor of Texas for 50 days and presided over 3 executions.)