Texas prosecutors will be unable to convict 17-year-olds on capital murder charges for the next two years after a key criminal justice bill died in the House on Tuesday.
That means brutal killers could receive lighter sentences for their crimes, lawmakers confirmed Friday.
Prosecutors from around the state are demanding that legislative leaders fix the miscue, but there were no assurances a solution would be found before the session adjourns Monday.
“This is a big problem that needs to be fixed now,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, whose bill did not pass the House before a procedural deadline. “Right now, Texas has no valid punishment for these 17-year-olds, because our current statute was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. I’d say that’s a problem.”
Huffman’s bill, Senate Bill 187, would have allowed 17-year-olds convicted of capital murder to be sentenced to life in prison. It was needed after the high court invalidated the current sentencing law, which allowed those youths to face execution.
Huffman said the measure would have treated 17-year-old capital murderers the same as those who are 14 to 16 years old, with a maximum penalty of life in prison without parole.
Without the bill, Huffman and other lawmakers said, 17-year-olds can probably be charged with only murder — rather than capital murder — and face a maximum life sentence, under which they are eligible for parole in 40 years.
Prosecutors implored legislative leaders to fix the mistake. In a letter, they asked Gov. Rick Perry to add the fix to the agenda of an expected special session, seen as likely to begin soon after the regular session ends.
Crime victims’ groups also demanded action. “This is a no-brainer. You have four days. Fix it!” was the message of Cam Furman, a Houston advocate for crime victims.
Perry has not said whether he is planning to call a special session.
“Dozens of capital murder suspects who were 17 years old at the time of their alleged crime are still awaiting trial for an offense with no punishment, and other convicted capital murderers are now appealing their life-without-parole sentences” due to the Supreme Court decision, states the letter to Perry from Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson.
“The problem in these cases is that the courts have no permissible sentence to impose until the Texas Legislature creates one.”
The letter was signed by 18 other prosecutors, including Hays County Chief Criminal District Attorney Sherri Tibbe and Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza. Neither could be reached for comment.
The number of 17-year-olds accused or convicted of murder could not immediately be determined. In Houston, which historically has the state’s highest conviction rate for capital murder, Anderson said there are 12 youths awaiting trial or sentencing who are in legal limbo because of a lack of a sentence for the crime.
“Prosecutors and crime victims throughout the state are in the same situation as they await justice in their cases, some of which involve police officers killed in the line of duty or multiple homicides committed by the same offender,” Anderson said. “The only recourse for prosecutors around the state is to try (or retry) these offenders for lesser offenses with punishments of as little as five years in prison.
“The deceased victims are left without justice in those cases — and those victims’ surviving family members will continue to suffer — until the Legislature sends you a bill to remedy this problem.”
Alerted to the problem Friday morning, Senate and House leaders searched for a way to revive Huffman’s bill. But House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Abel Herrera, D-Robstown, whose committee passed it, was not optimistic.
“I supported it. I voted for it. But I don’t know whether the votes are there to bring up the bill and pass at this point, late in the session,” he said, noting that to bring up the bill now would take 120 votes to suspend the rules in the 150-member House.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, presiding officer of the Senate, which passed the bill weeks ago, had another view: “There’s time. It needs to get done.” He said he intended to discuss the matter with House Speaker Joe Straus.
House Corrections Committee Chairman Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, whose committee oversees prison matters in the House and whose voice carries clout on criminal justice issues, echoed that sentiment: “It’s possible.”