UPDATE 3/30: A final vote on the bill has been delayed to Wednesday, April 5.
Legislation authored by Democrats, pushed through a Democrat-led committee, and unanimously supported by Democrats that some say could effectively abolish the death penalty was given initial approval by the Texas House, despite the objection of a supermajority of Republican lawmakers.
House Bill 727 by Democrat State Rep. Toni Rose of Dallas would exempt criminals who are found to have had a “severe mental illness” from capital punishment. According to the proposal, this is defined as a person who has schizophrenia, a schizoaffective disorder, or a bipolar disorder.
On their own motion, or by the request of either party, a judge can appoint a “disinterested expert” to evaluate the defendant.
Those opposed to the bill, however, argued this could lead to a massive drop in death penalty charges even being brought.
During debate of the bill, State Rep. Bryan Slaton (R–Royse City) noted that according to data from the Treatment Advocacy Center, 10 percent of all homicides in the United States are committed by individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. For mass killings, the percentage is approximately 33 percent.
This led State Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R–Arlington) to propose an amendment to the bill which would exempt mass murderers who kill more than three people.
State Rep. Jeff Leach (R–Plano), an avid supporter of the bill, called a “point of order” on the amendment—a method of killing an amendment on procedural grounds—arguing that Tinderholt’s proposal was not germane to the bill.
House Speaker Dade Phelan upheld the point of order, killing Tinderholt’s measure intended to ensure the death penalty was used in heinous mass murder cases.
A group of local police organizations, led by the Texas Municipal Police Association, stressed their opposition to the effort to members ahead of the vote.
“Special interest groups have worked diligently for years to outright ban the death penalty in Texas, which has failed time and time again,” the groups stated in a letter distributed to lawmakers Wednesday morning. “This statutory change is a change in direction that would ban the death penalty, as the original curator of this language knows the vague language will yield in either the jury being too confused to make the determination, or an appeals court overturning the case.”
Despite the opposition, the chamber approved the bill by a vote of 84-61.
Its approval was made possible by a minority of Republicans teaming up with Democrats to support the bill.
Currently, Republicans make make up 86 of the chamber’s 150 members. Eighteen Republican members joined with 61 Democrats to pass the legislation.
The bill has previously been unanimously approved by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which is chaired by Democrat State Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso. Moody himself has filed legislation that would completely eliminate the death penalty in Texas.
The bill is subject to one more vote on Thursday before being sent over to the Texas Senate for consideration.