Texas Vote May Lead to Fewer Death Sentences
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
The number of death sentences imposed nationally has declined over the past 10 years, except in Texas. Jurors there continue to condemn about 30 inmates a year to death. But over the weekend, the Texas Senate voted to add life without parole as an option in capital murder cases. Michael May of member station KUT in Austin has this report.
MICHAEL MAY reporting:
The jury in Texas had two options when they looked at the case of Christopher Simmons: death or life with parole. Simmons has broken into a woman's home, tied her up, threw her off a train into a river and bragged about it later. The jury chose death, not wanting to risk that the 17-year-old Simmons might someday walk out healthy and free. But in March, the Supreme Court barred executing juvenile offenders, and Simmons' life was spared. Texas Senator Eddie Lucio is a Democrat from Brownsville.
Senator EDDIE LUCIO (Democrat, Texas): As a result of this ruling, 29 Texas death row inmates convicted as juveniles will now be eligible for parole someday. That is a major concern of families that are the survivors of these victims.
MAY: Senator Lucio wasn't happy with the decision, but he saw an opening. For the better part of a decade, Lucio has been trying to convince the Texas Legislature to provide life without parole as an option, and so he introduced a bill within a week of the Supreme Court ruling, and it passed both chambers. It's a change that's been vigorously opposed by several powerful prosecutors, like Williamson County DA John Bradley.
Mr. JOHN BRADLEY (District Attorney, Williamson County): If you have reached the decision that someone is so evil that we need to treat them very seriously, then the proper sentence is to execute them. If you do not believe that and you believe that someday, somehow there might be some circumstances where that person could redeem themselves, then why are you taking away any chance of parole?
MAY: Much of the opposition evaporated after the sentence life with parole was eliminated. The final bill still gives jurors two choices: death and life without parole. Steve Hall directs StandDown Texas, which advocates for a moratorium on executions. He says it's more of a semantic change than a practical one.
Mr. STEVE HALL (StandDown Texas): The current life sentence in Texas is 40 calendar years before an individual becomes eligible for parole consideration. Very few people live in a prison setting for 40 years.
MAY: The change could still be significant. Rob Owen is the defense attorney at the capital punishment clinic at the University of Texas. He says some jurors want to know for certain that a life sentence really means the defendant's whole life.
Mr. ROB OWEN (Capital Punishment Clinic, University of Texas): They would choose it over the death penalty. But in the absence of that certainty, they'll opt for death.
MAY: And that is exactly why DA Bradley still opposes the change.
Mr. BRADLEY: Essentially, all that does is encourage the jury to sentence something other than death for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts of the case.
MAY: There's evidence that adding life without parole does reduce death sentences. Florida added life without parole in 1994, and death sentences have dropped by more than 50 percent since. Senator Lucio doubts it will lower executions in Texas, where most people support the death penalty.
Sen. LUCIO: If I were a DA, I would be worried about daily reports of wrongful convictions and tainted crime labs. Texans still support the death penalty, but I think they're a little bit more leery that DNA has come into play now.
MAY: Governor Rick Perry has until June 19th to sign or veto the legislation. For NPR News, this is Michael May in Austin.
CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.