History of LWVTX Action on Capital Punishment

History of LWVTX Action on Capital Punishment

2003: The beginning of the 78th Legislative session looked very promising as legislators introduced bills that would reform the capital punishment system. LWV-TX supported many of the bills, including those that called for an official study and moratorium, prohibited the execution of the mentally retarded and juveniles, and required foreign nationals to be informed of their consular rights. As the session progressed, it soon became evident that most of these bills would not make it out of committee and none made it to the floor for a vote. The promising beginning of the session proved to be disappointing, even leaving Texas law in noncompliance with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the execution of the mentally retarded.

2005: The 79th session of the Texas Legislature ended without achieving any real reform to the criminal justice-death penalty system. While bills were introduced that would have achieved reform most sat out the session in committee. The Life without Parole bill signed by the governor had changed so dramatically from the original bill that its whole intent changed. The substituted bill added the sentencing option of Life without Parole, but removed life imprisonment as another option for capital cases, leaving juries with still only two sentencing options. Bills that would have brought Texas into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the execution of the mentally retard were shelved. Another bill, which sought to protect the consular rights of foreign nationals, was also shelved. All in all the session was a disappointing one.

2007: HJR 23 (Naishat), supported by LWV-TX, calling for moratorium on the execution of persons convicted of capital offenses. The bill would grant the governor the power to issue an order to prohibit the Department of Criminal Justice from performing executions on or after the effective date until the order is revoked. The bill did not pass.

2011: Capital punishment has a mix of wins and losses. With the loss of a life, it is important for the criminal justice system to get it right. For the first time ever, the House Criminal Jurisprudence had a hearing on capital punishment issues. LWV gave testimony in support of a moratorium.

The Legislature did well in adopting safeguards against wrongful convictions. HB 215, (Ellis, Gallego) sets standards for police agencies in conducting eyewitness lineups. SB 122 (Ellis) allows defendants new post-conviction access to DNA evidence. HB 417, (Anchia, Ellis) extends compensation eligibility to Anthony Graves, a death-row inmate who was exonerated last year, but denied his compensation for wrongful conviction.

Lawmakers left important unfinished business, including reforms to record confessions of felony suspects and to ban the offer of leniency in exchange for accomplice testimony in a death penalty case. Lawmakers did not create a special commission to study wrongful convictions and capital punishment.

2015: The League of Women Voters of Texas called for a moratorium on all Texas executions while the United States Supreme Court considered Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. In addition, the League called for an interim study committee comprised of members from the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Senate to study the issues involving the death penalty, such as: state secrecy in lethal injections; execution of the innocent; the cost of executions; the different standards being applied from one county to another resulting in the death penalty in some cases and not others for the same offense; unfair application of the death penalty to minorities; guarantees to avoid racial prejudice and economically disadvantaged as compared to other people in the population; prosecutors' roll in representing society; victims' family members' assistance; qualified defense attorneys; systems to prevent murders by mentally ill persons and those with intellectual and developmental differences; other solutions to keep society safe; and that reflect the magnificence of the State of Texas. The proposed interim committee could have brought recommendations for potential reforms to fix the death penalty system before the 2017 legislative session and encourage all Texans to engage in a long overdue debate that the Texas death penalty deserves and to ensure that Texas has the best judicial system in the world. The study committee would move closer to ensuring that mistakes will not be made. There is no ability to correct a mistake when somebody has, in fact, been executed while being innocent, the ultimate injustice. In addition, U.S. Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which was ordered after the botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett, was still underway. However, SB 1697 (Huffman) which relates to the confidentiality of certain information regarding procedures and substances used in executions passed into law and was signed by the Governor. The League opposed this bill.

No matter what one thinks of the death penalty, League members care about open and transparent government and accountability of government to the citizens of Texas. Legislation should not promote government actions to be hidden, but because of SB 1697 now Texas executions can be without the public being fully informed.

Removing death penalty information about chemicals used in the execution process and procedures from public view undermines open government and creates secrecy in executions. The public has a right to obtain public information and a responsibility to oversee government actions. Transactions affecting the death penalty involve the State paying a private entity for an item or service using taxpayer money to perform executions; yet, the Legislature approved withholding the procedure and substances names and provider from the taxpayers. This law allows confidentiality of any person who participates in an execution procedure, including a person who uses supplies or administers a substance during the execution and any person or entity that manufactures, compounds, prescribes, dispenses, or provides a substance or supplies used in an execution.

Transparency is a basic principle of democracy, but the law restricts transparency and access to public information. Since the State of Texas is going to continue to administer the death penalty, it is essential that the public have confidence that the State is performing state killing openly. The League's position is abolition of the death penalty. Cutting the public's access to information will only inhibit public confidence as state killings are carried out.

There is an ongoing lawsuit on "credible threats to the supplier," but several sources and one court have questioned the existence of these threats. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 29 against three death row inmates who had sought to bar the use of an execution drug they said risked causing excruciating pain. The majority of U.S. justices, in a 5-4 vote, concluded that a disputed drug used to render condemned prisoners unconscious as the first stage in the lethal injection process works sufficiently well that it does not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The court challenge failed, because an alternative means of execution was not identified by the plaintiffs.

The U.S. has seen a number of botched executions lasting between 20 minutes to one hour and fifty-seven minutes with prisoners being seen gasping for air, grimacing and convulsing during executions. Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the lethal injection protocol cannot "be trusted to render and keep a condemned inmate unconscious, leaving him open to pain at the later stages." With the passage of SB 1697, the public may not be informed of the drug and the procedure used in Texas executions.

Public oversight is a part of the checks and balances to ensure good government. A 2012 study published by the British Journal of American Legal Studies examined 9,000 executions that had taken place in the United States from 1900 to 2010 and found that 270 executions had involved "departures from the protocol of killing someone sentenced to death" and were therefore botched. The researchers found that the lethal injection method of executing Clayton Lockett had a higher botched rate than any other method.

Numerous other bills were filed relating to the death penalty which included abolition, but they did not get out of committee. HB 1527 did have a hearing. The League supported HB 53 (McClendon) which relates to the age of criminal responsibility and to certain substantive and procedural matters related to that age. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that children under the age of 18 cannot be executed. This bill would have codified that ruling in Texas. The bill was left in Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.

The League supported HB 267 (Miles) which relates to the joint or separate prosecution of a capital felony charged against two or more defendants for a capital felony for which the state seeks the death penalty, and the court shall order severance as to any two or more defendants who are jointly indicted or complained against for a capital felony if the state seeks the death penalty for any one of those defendants. HB 267 addresses the law of parties in criminal cases. The law of parties is a variation of the common law felony murder rule and states that a person can be criminally responsible for the actions of another if he or she aids and abets or conspires with the principal. The bill was left in the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

The "law of parties" is clearly about conspiracy and organized crime. Four states other than Texas have "law of parties" statutes, but Texas is the only state that applies it in capital cases, making it the only place in the country where people can face the death penalty even though they did not actually kill the victim.

2019. This term three bills were filed to abolish the death penalty (by Reps. Ferrar and Dutton and Senator Lucio). All were never given a hearing in committee. Two bills were filed to make a person ineligible for the death penalty if a pretrial procedure determined the defendant is intellectually disabled. HB 1139 (Thompson et al) actually passed the House and Senate, but died in conference committee. No other bills relating to capital punishment procedures were given a committee hearing, except for HB 3938, relating to considering the views of a close relative in a death penalty case. We testified against this bill on the grounds that it could be abused, and it was left pending in committee.