Press Release from State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, May 16, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-8393

Texas Senate Approves Ban on Death Penalty for Mentally Retarded
House must review changes before legislation is sent to Governor

(Austin)// For the second consecutive session, the Texas Senate has approved legislation that will ban the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders. The Senate today finally approved HB 236 by Representative Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), which will now return the bill to the full House for final approval.

"Over the past two years our criminal justice system has been under the microscope, and Texans have not liked what they have seen," said Ellis. "With this bill, Texas -- the global leader in executions -- can send the world a signal that we can be both tough and compassionate."

A recent Houston Chronicle poll showed 68% of Texans support the death penalty, but 81% oppose the execution of the mentally retarded. Under HB 236, life without parole would become the maximum penalty a mentally retarded offender could face if convicted of a capital crime.

"I support the death penalty, but I know that prohibiting the death penalty against the mentally retarded is the right thing to do," said Ellis. "An overwhelming majority of Texans agree that it is time to ban this practice."

Last session, similar Ellis legislation, SB 326, passed the Senate 22-8 but died in the House Calendars Committee. Currently, 15 states -- Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee, and Washington -- and the federal government have passed laws prohibiting the execution of people with mental retardation.

In Texas, six offenders with mental retardation have been executed since 1976. Under HB 236, prior to trial, a hearing will be held by the judge to decide whether an offender is mentally retarded. A finding of mental retardation requires three stringent tests: significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, deficits in adaptive functioning, and onset before maturity. If the judge finds that the defendant does have mental retardation, the trial proceeds but the death penalty is excluded as a potential punishment. Experts have maintained that, in most cases, mental retardation is professionally diagnosed early on in an offender's life, well before the issue is raised at trial.

"Justice is not served when we put someone to death who does not understand the consequences of their actions," said Ellis.