Committee Hears Legislation on the Death Penalty and Community Pretrial Review Panels

On Monday, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence met for over seven hours to hear testimony on 25 different bills, covering subject matter such as prohibitions on imposing the death penalty in certain circumstances, prohibitions on specific behaviors with respect to firearm use and procedures involving criminal defendants with mental illness or an intellectual disability.

April 23, 2021

Legislative News

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On Monday, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence met for over seven hours to hear testimony on 25 different bills, covering subject matter such as prohibitions on imposing the death penalty in certain circumstances, prohibitions on specific behaviors with respect to firearm use and procedures involving criminal defendants with mental illness or an intellectual disability.

The hearing began with House Bill 869 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). HB 869 prohibits a person with an intellectual disability from being sentenced to death. A defendant in a capital case, within one year of his or her indictment, could request a hearing for the judge to determine whether the defendant is a person with an intellectual disability. The bill lays out a timeline for when that hearing must occur. On motion of either party or on the judge’s own motion, the judge must appoint a qualified expert to examine the defendant and determine whether he or she is a person with an intellectual disability.

First Assistant District Attorney Chris Gatewood of Smith County testified against the bill, stating that it does not give enough guidance as to which party has the burden of proof to establish that the defendant is a person with an intellectual disability. He further explained that competency determinations are historically reserved for juries and voiced concerns that this legislation would put the intellectual disability determination in the hands of the judge and remove it from the jury. Gatewood voiced similar concerns about House Bill 140 by Rep. Toni Rose (D-Dallas), also heard on Monday, and testified that HB 140 lacked clear guidance to the courts and did not include necessary term definitions. Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) has the companion to HB 869, Senate Bill 80.

Also heard on Monday was House Bill 2436 by Rep. Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas), establishing mandatory community pretrial review panels by counties for the resolution and diversion of certain misdemeanor cases. Shannon Edmonds, Director of Governmental Relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, testified as a resource on the bill, expressing concerns that mandating these review panels in a county would constitutionally overstep what the Legislature may do. He explained that once an individual has been convicted of a crime, it’s within the Legislature’s power to set the punishment range for the offense. However, from the point when the case is initially brought to the prosecutor through to the finding of guilt, it is the prosecutor’s constitutional purview and option to offer a plea bargain or to dismiss or divert the case. The state has many pretrial diversion programs and specialty courts; however, all the enabling statutes for those programs and courts require prosecutorial discretion in order for cases to be diverted.

Two other bills county officials engaged on were authored by Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City). The bills were House Bill 4485, relating to the release of a defendant arrested for a Class C misdemeanor, and House Bill 4486, relating to procedures for identifying defendants suspected of having a mental illness or intellectual disability. Brazos County Justice of the Peace Rick Hill, President of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas, testified in support of both bills.

For more information about this article, contact Amy Befeld.