Texas Legislature 2019

Texas House OKs bill to ban death penalty for those with severe mental illness

Under the measure, defendants who have active psychotic symptoms of certain mental illnesses at the time of the crime would be ineligible for capital punishment. The bill now heads to the more conservative Senate.

Interior of the Texas death chamber.
Interior of the Texas death chamber.  Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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For the second time in two weeks, the Texas House moved to change death penalty law.

On Wednesday, the chamber tentatively passed a measure that would prohibit handing down a death sentence to someone with a severe mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. House Bill 1936 by state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, would let a capital murder defendants present evidence at trial that he or she was severely mentally ill at the time of the crime. If the jury agrees, the defendant would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if found guilty.

The measure passed on a quick voice vote with no discussion after being delayed several times in the last week. (Update: the bill finally passed Thursday morning on a 77-to-66 vote. It will now head to the Senate.)

"When those offenders are under an active psychosis, that makes them unable to understand or be rational about the offense, so they should not be subjected to the death penalty," Rose said on the House floor Thursday.

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Rose’s bill would allow defendants with mental illness to be ineligible for the death penalty if they had schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder, and had active psychotic symptoms at the time of the crime that impaired their rationality or understanding of the consequences of their actions. Rose brought a similar bill to the Legislature in 2017, but it never made it to the House floor for debate.

Last Monday, the House moved to create a pretrial process for determining if a capital murder defendant had an intellectual disability and, therefore, would be constitutionally ineligible for execution. Another bill passed last month to clarify juror instructions in death penalty cases. Neither of those bills has made it out of Senate committees yet.

There is currently no law that restricts issuing a death sentence for mentally ill defendants, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held that inmates must be able to understand that they are about to be put to death — and why — to carry out executions.

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The most well-known inmate with mental illness is Scott Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed his wife’s parents in 1992 and has lived on Texas’ death row for nearly a quarter-century. At his trial, Panetti — who represented himself — dressed as a cowboy and tried to call witnesses such as the pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.