From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
April 21, 1999
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Votes to Ban Death Penalty for Mentally Retarded

(Austin)// By a 4-2 vote, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee today passed SB 326, by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), to ban the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders.

"As a supporter of the death penalty, I know that prohibiting the death penalty against the mentally retarded is the right thing to do," said Senator Ellis. "We do not execute children in Texas; we should not execute those that have the mental capacity of a child. The ultimate penalty should be reserved for those that can clearly comprehend why they are going to die. It is time for Texas to do the right thing and stop executing the mentally retarded."

A statewide poll showed 86% of Texans support the death penalty, yet 73% of those same respondents said they oppose the execution of the mentally retarded. Under SB 326, life without parole would become the maximum penalty a mentally retarded offender could face if convicted of a capital crime.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Penry v. Lynaugh that, although mental retardation and mental disabilities may constitute mitigating circumstances and evidence of its existence must be included in jury deliberations, it was up to legislative actions of the states and the federal government to ban the practice of executing people with mental retardation. Since the Penry decision, twelve states -- Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, 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, five offenders with mental retardation have been executed since 1976.

The legislation creates a rebuttable presumption of mental retardation for an offender with an IQ of 65 or below. Prior to trial, a hearing will be held to decide whether an offender is mentally retarded. A judge may take other factors into consideration when determining whether the defendant is mentally retarded.