SB 226 is a new bill being considered by the 84th Texas Legislature regarding the appropriateness of the death penalty for persons with intellectual disability. Before we discuss the details of the proposed bill, we will briefly review the history of the death penalty in the US and how it currently functions in 2015.
Brief History of the Death Penalty
Capital Punishment, also known as the death penalty, dates back to the founding of our country and the first American colonies (Banner, 2002). Historically, executions were public events, believed to deter criminals from engaging in criminal activities. Over time, enforcement of the death penalty has become increasingly private (Banner, 2002). Further, there is no evidence that capital punishment is currently a deterrent for committing crimes or capital murder (Roeder, O., Eisen, L. B., & Bowling, J., 2015).
In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in light of the 8th Amendment, which prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ (Bill of Rights Institute, 2015). However, in 1976, the US Supreme Court case Gregg vs. Georgia upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment under certain circumstances, and reinstated the death penalty (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015). The Supreme Court created two, broad guidelines for states to follow in terms of capital punishment enforcement and sentencing:
1) objective criteria to determine and limit capital punishment in addition to an an outside review of each person sentenced to capital punishment;
2) adequate context, like the defendant’s character and previous criminal record, need to be provided in order to account for aggravating or mitigating factors
Gregg vs. Georgia also introduced the idea that two trials were required: one to determine whether a defendant was guilty of capital murder, and if found guilty, whether they should be sentenced to death or a lesser sentence (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015).
In 1986, the US Supreme Court case Ford vs. Wainwright upheld the law that people who were “insane” could not be executed (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015). Therefore, all defendants are entitled to a competency evaluation and hearing regarding their mental stability (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015).However, a defendant could be diagnosed with a mental illness and not necessarily deemed ‘insane.’
Finally, in 1994 the Death Penalty Act was passed by President Clinton, which expanded the number of crimes eligible for capital prosecution (Gould & Greenman, 2010).
The Death Penalty in 2015
Today, 32 states continue to enforce the death penalty (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015). There are 5 approved methods of capital punishment: lethal injection, hanging, firing squad, electrocution and a gas chamber (American Civil Liberties Union, 2015). Lethal injection is the most prevalent method of execution, although some jurisdictions allow the prisoner to decide which method to use(American Civil Liberties Union, 2015). There are currently 269 people on death row in the state of Texas, of which 41.6% are African American (Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 2015). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2013), Texas was the #1 enforcer of capital punishment, executing more than twice as many offenders as the #2 enforcer of capital punishment, Florida.
Death row inmates are kept in a maximum security prison, referred to as the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston TX. Prisoners are housed in single cells, on 22-hour lock down, and are kept separate even during ‘recreation hour’ (Ridgeway & Castella, 2013).
Texas Legislation, SB 226: The applicability of the death penalty for a capital offense committed by a person with an intellectual disability
According to the US Supreme Court, defendants who are found to have an intellectual disability are also exempt from capital punishment (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015). However, the Texas Penal Code does not include this exemption (State of Texas, 2015). Therefore, a current bill is being presented to the Texas State legislation this session regarding the addition of intellectual disability as an exemption from capital punishment (Ellis, 2015). This new policy would require that defendants be entitled to a hearing regarding their intellectual ability. Intellectual disability would be assessed by a qualified institution and an IQ score of 75 or less would be considered intellectually disabled (Ellis, 2015). If the defendant is found to have an intellectual disability, and found guilty of a capital crime, then they will be sentenced to life without parole.
Banner, S. (2002). The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bill of Rights Institute. (2015). Gregg. vs Georgia: 1962. Retrieved from http://billofrightsinstitute.org/resources/educator-resources/lessons-plans/landmark-cases-and-the-constitution/gregg-v-georgia-1962/
Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2013). Capital Punishment, 2013- Statistical Tables. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cp13st.pdf
Death Penalty Information Center. (2015). Constitutionality of the Death Penalty in America. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/part-i-history-death-penalty#const
Ellis, R. (2015). Texas Legislation, SB 226: The applicability of the death penalty for a capital offense committed by a person with an intellectual disability. Retrieved from ftp://ftp.legis.state.tx.us/bills/84R/billtext/html/senate_bills/SB00200_SB00299/SB00226I.htm
Gould, J. B., & Greenman, L. (2010). Report to the Committee on Defender Services Judicial Conference of the United States Update on the Cost and Quality of Defense Representation in Federal Death Penalty Cases. Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/AppointmentOfCounsel/Viewer.aspx?doc=/uscourts/FederalCourts/AppointmentOfCounsel/FDPC2010.pdf&page=37
Ridgeway, J. & Castella, J. (2013). America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Polunsky. Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/05/10-worst-prisons-america-allan-polunsky-unit-texas-death-row
Roeder, O., Eisen, L. B., & Bowling, J. (2015). What Caused the Crime Decline? Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved from https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/what-caused-crime-decline
Texas Department of Criminal Justice. (2015). Gender and Racial Statistics of Death Row Offenders. Retrieved from http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/death_row/dr_gender_racial_stats.html
State of Texas. (2015). Penal Code: Title 2, General Principles of Criminal Responsibilities, Chapter 8, General Defenses to Criminal Responsibility. Retrieved from http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/PE/htm/PE.8.htm#8.07