Press Release from State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
June 6, 2001
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Senator Rodney Ellis Counters Opponents Claims, Renews Call for Governor Perry to Sign Bill to Ban Execution of Mentally Retarded
Ask Governor to back strengthened Jeb Bush plan

(Austin)//Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today countered critics statements on the impact of a ban on execution of the mentally retarded and repeated a call to Governor Rick Perry to sign the legislation.

The House and Senate approved HB 236, sponsored in the House by Rep. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), a new plan to ban the execution of the mentally retarded. The proposal is a strengthened version of a law supported by Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

"This is a very simple issue -- you are either for executing the mentally retarded or you're not," said Ellis. "The eyes of the nation are upon Texas. Texas is the world leader in executions, behind only China and the Republic of Congo. The legislature showed leadership and took a stand for what is right. It is time to end this discussion and put into law a ban on the execution of the mentally retarded."

Currently, 14 states -- Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, 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. Several other states, including Florida and Missouri, are on the verge of passing legislation to ban the practice.

Opponents of the legislation have claimed that Texas should wait for a dictate from the U.S. Supreme Court before acting. That argument was at least partially undermined this week by a 6-3 ruling that Texas' mitigating factors in the Penry decision were unconstitutional. Opponents have stated that Texas' jury system would be overturned by HB 236. Ironically, the legislation improves upon the Bush Plan by adding in the district attorney's own model for a special issue consideration by the jury in the first instance.

Opponents have made the claim that Texas does not execute the mentally retarded. In fact, at least six persons with mental retardation have been executed in Texas. The latest, Oliver Cruz, was executed late last year by then Lieutenant Governor Perry. Finally, opponents have argued that a ban would derail the death penalty in Texas. House Bill 236 is closely modeled on commonalities across all states with a ban, including the methods for determining mental retardation. None of the states passing the ban have been forced to end capital punishment.

"When we needed a compromise, we looked to Florida for several reasons. One, it is a large southern state that is seen as very tough on crime. It is a tough death penalty state, trailing only us and Virginia in carrying out the death penalty. And because there was a Bush in the Governor's mansion who showed leadership and told his legislature that this was a top priority for him. I don't think anyone can claim that Jeb Bush is soft on crime.

A recent Houston Chronicle poll showed 68% of Texans support the death penalty, but 76% oppose the execution of the mentally retarded. Under HB 236, life imprisonment would become the maximum penalty an offender found to be mentally retarded could face if convicted of a capital crime. In Texas, six offenders with mental retardation have been executed since 1976.