Yesterday, Democratic state Rep. Toni Rose moved to postpone hearing HB 727, a bill that would rule out the death penalty for people with “severe mental illness.”
The bill specifically points out “schizophrenia, a schizoaffective disorder, or a bipolar disorder” as eligible conditions and also notes that the symptoms would need to be severe enough to impair rational judgment.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Rep. Rose’s push to reform the death penalty began in the Legislature’s 85th Session, with a bill that looked a lot like the one currently being debated in the House.
The main difference: it was much broader in scope.
Filed in 2017, HB 3080 included schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, and bipolar disorders, but it also included more common mental health disorders like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
That bill never made it out of the Texas House of Representatives. Subsequent versions of the bill have been more narrowly tailored.
“I think probably part of the reason Rep. Rose has narrowed the scope is to try to get something that could have bipartisan support,” says John Litzler, Director of Public Policy for the Baptist General Convention of Texas – an association of 5,000 churches across the state.
A self-styled pro-life advocate, Litzler has supported a multitude of bills that would further raise the bar for death sentences, including Rep. Rose’s.
He offers an alternative way of thinking about punishment for people experiencing severe mental illnesses: “The solution is that we give them the treatment they need and probably should have had all along, and that they remain confined in some type of psychiatric care as opposed to being executed.”
In more recent legislative sessions, Rose’s efforts have been more successful.
“House bill 727 is the bill that we have passed out of this chamber twice,” she said on the floor of the House on Wednesday. “I believe that the third time’s the charm.”
Building a base of support
The changes proposed in HB 727 are minor enough that Rep. Rose has managed to find some surprisingly conservative allies.
Defending the bill on the House floor earlier this week, Republican Jeff Leach told the Legislature that, “I am a supporter, a strong supporter, of the death penalty.” But he added a caveat: “but I am, as a supporter of the death penalty, against executing people who at the time they commit the offense had a severe mental illness.”
On Wednesday, Leach joined Rose’s effort as a joint author of HB 727 – joining Democrats Senfronia Thompson and Ana Hernandez. Democrats Erin Zwiener and Penny Morales Shaw also showed support for reform, joining the bill as co-authors.
“I believe this is a good bill that law and order, death penalty-supporting Republicans and Democrats should vote for,” added Leach.
Rep. Rose has had success in reforming the death penalty in the House before, but in a state where most people still support capital punishment in some capacity, opposition to HB 727 has ramped up.
Opponents have rallied around concerns of mass shootings and the belief that people facing capital punishment could exaggerate their mental states to avoid the death penalty.
Ray Hunt is executive director for the Houston Police Officers’ Union and he told the Texas Standard he believes that, “there are lots of folks out there who are serious dangers to the public, know right from wrong and have some type of mental illness. And we believe that a person should be subject to the death penalty, just like the other people who know right from wrong but don’t claim to be suffering from a mental illness.”
Hunt also offered up a much simpler defense of capital punishment: “Different people have different opinions on what ‘criminal justice’ is.”
On the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Tony Tinderholt offered up an amendment to the bill that would exempt crimes where there’s an attempted murder of more than three people – though it didn’t end up being voted on.
Still, in a conservative-led state like Texas, any reform on the death penalty is an uphill battle.
HB 727 didn’t end up passing the House and was rescheduled to be heard on Thursday, but before a final vote could be taken, Rose motioned to postpone things until next week.
A tough road ahead
Whether or not HB 727 will pass the Texas House next week is still an open question, but it will almost certainly face more opposition – or indifference – in the Senate.
Jim Arnold is principal of Arnold Public Affairs, a lobbying firm, and a professor of government at Austin Community College. While he won’t speculate specifically on HB 727’s survival odds, he notes a political dynamic that exists for controversial issues.
“If you’re going to introduce a piece of legislation that has some opposition to it, you just have to continue to work on it session after session and hope that you can finally get enough votes to move the bill,” Arnold said.
He also points out that the Senate is, “certainly a more conservative body.”
Despite Rep. Rose’s success on death penalty reform in the Texas House, she has yet to get any traction in the Legislature’s upper house.
Even if HB 727 does officially make it to the Senate, the bill, “may not even get a hearing,” says Arnold.
This session, HB 727 has sped through the legislative process.
Headwinds aside, the bill sailed through the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence without a single “no” vote earlier this month and has already been heard on the House floor twice.
In the perhaps unlikely chance that the bill makes it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, it could have a shot at becoming the law of the land.
“I don’t think it would impact him politically to sign something like that. I don’t know where he is on the bill, but I think he has certainly established his conservative credentials in the state with a good portion of the Republican voters,” Arnold said.
HB 727 is scheduled to be heard once again on the House floor next Wednesday, April 5, at 9:00 AM.