Press Release
From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
March 1, 2005
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Ellis Praises Supreme Court Decision on Death Sentences for Juveniles

(Austin)// -- Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today praised the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling outlawing death sentences for juvenile offenders and urged the legislature to be ready if it is necessary to pass legislation to bring Texas in compliance with the ruling.

"I am very pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has taken this significant and important step toward justice," said Ellis. "Until today, the United States stood alone in executing juvenile offenders, and Texas was at the front of the line. For too long the Texas criminal justice system has tilted toward the hang 'em high mentality. This will take a little of the wild out of the wild, wild west."

"As a matter of public policy and basic morality, the State of Texas should not be in the business of executing offenders who are not fully developed members of our society," said Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston). "Given the problems we have experienced with the death penalty in this state, I believe we should move for a temporary moratorium."

The Court held in Roper vs. Simmons that sentencing juvenile offenders to death is cruel and unusual punishment and thus violates the Eighth Amendment. The majority stated:

"The differences between juvenile and adult offenders are too marked and well understood to risk allowing a youthful person to receive the death penalty despite insufficient culpability. An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as matter of course, even where the juvenile offender's objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less than death. In some cases a defendant's youth may even be counted against him."

SB 226 would bring Texas into compliance with the Court's ruling by prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty on any defendant less than 18-years of age at the time of the offense. Senator Ellis has long advocated this criminal justice reform, filing legislation, SB 218, in 2003.

Texas has been the leading state when it comes to handing out -- and carrying out -- death sentences for juvenile offenders. Since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1972, Texas has carried out 13 of the 22 executions of juvenile offenders, nearly 60 percent of all such executions in America. There are currently 29 inmates on Texas Death Row who were juveniles when sentenced. According to Amnesty International, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States are the only nations believed to have carried out death sentences for juveniles since 1990, yet each of those nations has either abolished capital punishment for juveniles or has publicly disavowed the practice.

"We simply can't ignore the U.S. Supreme Court on this," said Ellis. "Three years ago the Court ruled executing the mentally retarded was unconstitutional yet we are still debating it here in Texas. There is no room for argument on this issue so I hope we move forward with all speed."

"Today's U.S. Supreme Court decision is a victory for fairness and for humane justice," said Michael Lowenberg, Chair of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest law center that spearheaded passage of the Texas Fair Defense Act.

"Executing juveniles only compounds the failure of our society to provide our youngest citizens with those intangibles that nurture a healthy social conscience and a respected place in our community. Today's decision is a milestone in the maturing of a more equitable justice system. I applaud the Court for showing the wisdom and maturity to extend mercy where mercy is due."