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Texas House Votes to Limit Death Penalty for Mentally Ill Defendants

Texas' death chamber
Texas' death chamber
Texas Department of Corrections

Texas House Democrats banded together with some of the chamber’s most conservative members Thursday to pass legislation that would stop Texas juries from sentencing killers with severe mental illnesses to death.

Dallas Rep. Toni Rose's bill would require juries who find that a defendant convicted of capital murder was suffering from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or severe bipolar disorder at the time they committed their crime to sentence the defendant to life without the possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty.

"This bill is not about the morality of the death penalty," Rose said Thursday. "It does not change the punishment for capital murder in any way. Under this bill, like today, all murderers convicted of capital murder would be punished with the death penalty or life without parole."

Tea Partiers like Plano's Jeff Leach and Bedford's Jonathan Stickland, both proponents of criminal justice reform, voted for the bill. In addition to creating a more equitable justice system for the mentally ill, Rose said, the law also would save the state cash by ending the years-long legal fights that ensue when someone who struggles to understand what they did or the charges against them is sentenced to death.

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"This person is not evil. They may be dangerous. The person may be dangerous because of their inability to control their mental illness, but it does not make them evil," Rose said. "All I'm saying with this bill is, don't kill a person who's mentally ill. Give them life in prison without parole."

Rose, with help from groups like the National Alliance for Mental Illness, has filed similar bills in previous sessions of the Legislature without any success.

In 2016 and 2017, ahead of the 2017 legislative session, Texas executed just seven people, equaling the lowest total since the state killed three people in 1996. In 2018, however, Texas’ execution rate ticked back up, with 13 people being put to death. So far in 2019, Texas has executed two people.

The Dallas representative's bill still needs to pass the Senate and get signed by Gov. Greg Abbott to become law. 

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