Texan House Delays The Vote On Removing Death Penalty For Mentally Ill Defendants

A measure to bar the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness hit an unexplained snag in the Texas House of Representatives Thursday, one day after the chamber had initially approved the bill.

House Bill 727, by state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, tentatively passed Wednesday on a 84-61 vote. But a final vote scheduled for Thursday was postponed until next week without a given reason. Lawmakers will sometimes postpone votes on their bill if they do not expect it to pass.

Rose passed similar measures out of the House in the last two legislative sessions, but is having more difficulty this year as hardline conservatives oppose the measure, arguing it will make it too hard to impose the death penalty, and that defendants could fake mental illness.

Facing opposition from one of the House’s most conservative members on the floor Wednesday, Rose emphasized that under her bill, severely mentally ill capital murderers “would still be punished, they would just not be sentenced to death.” Instead, they would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In recent months, high-profile cases of schizophrenic prisoners facing execution have focused renewed attention on Texas’ long-standing habit of sentencing people with mental illnesses to death.

In October, attorneys for the state of Texas admitted that Scott Panetti is severely mentally ill, but still attempted to persuade a federal judge that he is sane enough to be executed. In his infamous 1995 murder trial, Panetti, repeatedly diagnosed as schizophrenic, represented himself, calling to the stand witnesses like Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy. He questioned himself on the stand as “Sarge,” using a distorted voice when speaking as the spirit inside him he claimed was responsible for the murders of his in-laws.

Before going to prison, Panetti had been hospitalized 14 times for psychotic behavior and was found to be severely disabled, according to court records. The federal judge has not yet ruled whether Panetti can get a new execution date.

This month, Andre Thomas narrowly avoided death after a Texas court withdrew his execution date to allow his attorneys more time to argue he is not competent to be killed. In 2004, Thomas immediately confessed to killing his estranged wife and two young children, according to court records, telling police God told him to kill his family.

Thomas, who began experiencing hallucinations as a child, went to the hospital for help with his delusions the day before the murder. In jail awaiting trial, Thomas gouged out his right eye. In prison, he gouged out his remaining eye and ate it.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent prohibits states from executing people who don’t have a “rational understanding” of why the state plans to kill them, but it does not specifically ban killing those with severe mental illness, as it does those with intellectual disabilities. And as is documented in nearly 30 years of attempting to execute Panetti, the state of Texas still seeks to carry out death sentences of the severely mentally ill.