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Why won’t Texas ban executions for people with severe mental illness?

The Legislature should pass Rep. Toni Rose’s bill because it’s the right thing to do.

By Dallas Morning News Editorial

This combination of undated inmate photos
This combination of undated inmate photos, provided Andre Thomas’ attorney Maurie Levin, shows bookings photos of death row inmate Thomas from Grayson County Jail (left) and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (center and right). The scheduled execution of Thomas, whose attorneys say gouged out both of his eyes — eating one of them — because of severe mental illness, was delayed by a judge on March 7.(Uncredited / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

For several years now, state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, has tried to get a bill passed that would ban the death penalty for people with a severe mental illness. That seems like an obvious decision in a decent society. We can’t believe it’s not the law already, but here we are, waiting to see the fate of Rose’s bill this legislative cycle.

Rose’s proposal, known as House Bill 727, tentatively passed in the state House on March 29, but a final vote has been postponed, the Texas Tribune reported.

The bill has passed the House before but hasn’t budged in the Senate. That’s disheartening.

In the 1986 case Ford vs. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to execute prisoners who are insane. However, it did not define insanity and left it up to states to develop procedures to determine whether prisoners are competent.


While the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders and people with intellectual disabilities, Texans with several mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are still ending up on death row.

“The natural abhorrence civilized societies feel at killing one who has no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity is still vivid today,” Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in the majority opinion in the 1986 case. “And the intuition that such an execution simply offends humanity is evidently shared across this Nation.”

Opponents of Rose’s bill such as Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, misleadingly claim that it would help murderers avoid punishment. Slaton argues that mental health examinations that diagnose people with mental illnesses are not medical science, according to the Tribune’s reporting.

Do those critics also challenge the existence of severe mental illnesses? How do they propose that Texas humanely deal with those offenders so mentally disturbed that they do not understand their actions?

Rose’s bill wouldn’t shield murderers with severe mental illness from consequences, only from the death penalty. They could still be sentenced to life in prison without parole.


We’ve written extensively in these pages about the case of Texas death row inmate Andre Thomas, who killed his estranged wife, their son and her daughter in 2004. Two days before the killings, Thomas went to the emergency room for treatment after stabbing himself in the chest. He would later gouge out his eyes and eat one of them while in prison. Thomas’ advocates want him to stay in prison for the rest of his life but be spared from execution.

HB 727 would protect from the death penalty people with schizophrenia, a schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder that impairs their capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions or exercise rational judgment. It lays out a pretrial procedure for a disinterested expert to examine the defendant and for a jury to determine whether the defendant is ineligible for execution.

We oppose the death penalty because of Texas’ uneven and unfair application of the ultimate punishment. But if our state won’t abandon the practice, it should at least exempt those people who have shown they have a severe mental illness.

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas- at the bottom.

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