Press Release from State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
May 26, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Legislation to Ban Execution of Mentally Retarded Sent to Governor
Texas Legislature approves strengthened Florida plan

(Austin)// The Texas Legislature today took a stand for compassionate justice with the approval of legislation to ban the execution of the mentally retarded. The legislation, HB 236 by Representative Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) now goes to Governor Rick Perry.

The Texas House and Senate approved the Conference Committee Report on SB 236, a new plan to ban the execution of the mentally retarded. The proposal is a slightly modified version of a law recently signed into law by Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

"This is an historic day for Texas," said Senator Ellis. "This legislation is a major step forward that proves we can be tough on crime and still have compassionate justice, even in the Wild, Wild West."

Opponents of the legislation have said that Texas should wait for the Supreme Court --which is scheduled to rule on the constitutionality of executing offenders with mental retardation -- before taking action. But the Supreme Court has already directed the states to act. In 1989, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor ruled in Penry v. Lynaugh charged states endorsing the death penalty with determining if it sufficiently offends the citizens of these states to allow executions of the mentally retarded to continue. Currently, 15 states -- Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Washington -- and the federal government have passed laws prohibiting the execution of people with mental retardation.

"The Supreme Court is simply going to tell us if we can execute the mentally retarded," said Ellis. "The Legislature -- backed by an overwhelming majority of Texans -- says we should not. It is time for Texas to take a stand, not hide behind the Supreme Court, to do what's right. We've waited long enough."

The compromise proposal for HB 236 provides two safeguards against executing the mentally retarded. First, if the defendant has asked for submission of a special issue and if raised by evidence, a special issue is submitted to the jury during the punishment phase of the trial. The jury is specifically asked: "Whether the defendant is a person with mental retardation." If the jury finds that the defendant has mental retardation, then the court will sentence the defendant to life imprisonment.

Second, if the jury finds that the defendant is not mentally retarded, the defendant may immediately petition the court for a judicial hearing on the issue of mental retardation. The court will appoint two disinterested experts to determine if the defendant is mentally retarded. If the judge finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is mentally retarded, then the court shall sentence the defendant to life imprisonment. As a final safeguard, the legislation contains a provision that prohibits a person determined to have mental retardation from being sentenced to death.