Lege Wrap-Up

Criminal justice

Lege Wrap-Up
Illustration By Doug Potter

Capital Punishment: Arranging the Deck Chairs

It was a mixed bag for capital punishment reformers this session. Legislators finally agreed to send a life-without-parole sentencing option to Gov. Rick Perry's desk. But the version before the Guv is a painful compromise for those devoted to meaningful death penalty reform. Instead of adding life-without-parole to the current sentencing scheme – where the options are life with the possibility of parole (in effect a life sentence, since convicted capital murderers rarely get a pass from the state parole board) or death – the compromise means that the life with parole option will be erased from the books, leaving capital case jurors again with only two sentencing options, life-without-parole, or death. Interestingly, the compromise has revealed at least a portion of the opposition's hypocrisy – whereas the argument has generally been that three sentencing options would confuse the poor, ignorant jurors – with whom prosecutors have generally used the life-with-parole option as a hammer to suggest that a heinous criminal may one day go free – the logic that would erase life-with-parole from the sentencing scheme posits that with the addition of a life-without-parole option, the life-with-parole option is simply superfluous. Go figure.

A bill by Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis, SB 603, that would have codified the consular notification provisions of the Vienna Convention languished in the House Law Enforcement Committee. Perhaps the lawmakers there considered the legislation unnecessary, since President George W. Bush earlier this year ordered state courts to revisit 52 capital cases of Mexican nationals who were sentenced to death before their consular officials were ever notified that one of their citizens was in trouble. Of the 52 defendants in question, 18 are on Texas' death row. While the courts may indeed offer relief to those already incarcerated, Ellis' measure would have ensured that Texas was on the forefront, ensuring that foreign nationals are treated with the same courtesy that Texans expect while traveling abroad. Better luck next session. – Jordan Smith

Search Me

With bipartisan support, legislators have sent Gov. Perry a bill that would restrict police use of so-called consent searches. The law allows police to search a vehicle without probable cause if the driver agrees to the search. Critics of the practice say that consent searches are merely a tool for racial profiling and that police often use intimidation to convince motorists to agree to a search, thereby eliminating any real consent from the process. Despite vociferous objection from law-enforcement lobbyists, the Lege agreed to restrict consent powers; SB 1195, by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would allow police to conduct consent searches only if the search is videotaped or if the driver has signed off on a consent-to-search form. – J.S.

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