A legislative push to plug a loophole in state law to punish 17-year-old capital murderers faced vigorous scrutiny on Tuesday over whether a proposed minimum sentence of 40 years in prison would withstand court challenges.
The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee took up the issue after the Texas Senate last week approved a bill that would have allowed for 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder to be sentenced to life with parole. The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that youths under age 18 cannot be sentenced to life without parole.
The Senate passed a bill, supported by prosecutors, under which 17-year-olds wouldn’t be eligible for parole until they serve 40 years — which in Texas is a life sentence. No mitigating factors would have to be considered under Senate Bill 23.
House Bill 72 proposes a 25- to 99-year sentence for youths younger than 17, and it would require the sentencing court to consider any mitigating circumstances of the crime.
Both bills are before the House panel, as time grows short in the Legislature’s 30-day special session, which ends June 25. The committee took no votes Tuesday.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said HB 72, which he authored, is designed to cover “children who are caught between politics and justice” — killers who might be rehabilitated after years in prison, where an adult who committed the same crime cannot be.
“Juveniles do have a diminished capacity” for perhaps understanding their crimes, he said. “This bill creates a mandatory minimum of 25 years, at which time the parole board can review their case to determine whether they should be paroled. … The other bill does not.”
Katherine Mattes, a criminal law expert at Tulane University, warned that a 40-year mandatory sentence before consideration of parole likely wouldn’t withstand court challenges. A proposal could pass court muster, she said, “as long as you remove life without parole and have life with parole with a meaningful opportunity for release. I think that’s key.”
Marleah Baird, a Houston prison chaplain, cited the case of a murderer who was serving life plus 10 years for killing a woman during a robbery at her home, when he was 17. He was originally charged with capital murder, she said.
After serving 26 years in prison, “Lonnie” was paroled — and has since reintegrated into society successfully, has a job and will soon be married, she said. “There are other people like Lonnie,” she told the House committee.
While other members of the panel expressed interest in Canales’ bill, state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, appeared unmoved. “I’d rather have a guilty person spend too long (in prison) than have a violent person get out and kill again,” he said.
Shannon Edmonds, governmental relations director for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said prosecutors across Texas strongly support the Senate bill and believe it is constitutional.
Edmonds presented the committee with details of 23 murders across Texas that were committed by 17-year-olds, including an Austin slaying in which Terrell Maxwell was convicted of shooting a man in the head during a 2007 robbery in a North Austin apartment complex parking lot. Edmonds said the toll exacted by the young killers should be reason enough to want to keep them behind bars longer.
“We need Senate Bill 23 to pass … so that these victims can get the justice they deserve here in Texas,” he said.
Committee Vice Chairwoman Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, said she favors a sentencing review of mitigating factors, but not the 25-year minimum.
Committee Chairman Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said the committee will decide Wednesday which bill to approve.