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Texas Senate rejects life-without-parole option

Houston Chronicle, April 22, 2003

The Senate today rejected a bill that would have allowed juries in the country's No. 1 death penalty state to sentence a convicted murderer to life without the possibility of parole.

After little discussion, the bill failed to receive enough votes for it to come to the floor for a full debate. Current law allows a jury in a capital offense trial to sentence an offender to death or to life in prison. With a life sentence now, a convicted murderer can become eligible for parole in 40 years.

The bill would have given juries all 3 options for sentencing a convicted murderer. The life without parole option also would have been available in cases where the prosecution did not seek the death penalty. "Like many of you I support the death penalty," said bill sponsor Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

"I also believe giving Texas juries all of the available tools to make these important issues."

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-College Station, argued that juries could be receiving a false choice because if the bill was approved, future lawmakers could later change the law and reject the life without parole measure.

Heading into a scheduled execution Tuesday evening, Texas had put to death 301 inmates since 1982. Tuesday's planned execution would put at 13 the number of inmates executed this year. During the 2001 legislative session, the Senate approved a bill that would have allowed juries to sentence a murderer to life without parole but the bill died in the House.

No-parole bill looks dead - GOP votes condemn measure to committee; many DAs oppose plan

Dallas Morning News, April 23, 2003

The option of sentencing murderers to life without parole appeared Tuesday to be locked in the Senate without the possibility of leaving the chamber.

The bill narrowly failed to summon the votes necessary for Senate debate, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he doubted he could sway the additional vote he needed.

The measure, which passed the Senate last session but failed in the House, would amend the state's death penalty law to allow juries to sentence an offender to life without the possibility of parole. Current capital murder law limits the penalty to either death or a life sentence, which is 40 years served before parole can be considered.

"This is a tough-on-crime measure because it enhances the ability of juries," Mr. Lucio said. He said his bill also provides a victim's family "with a sense of closure" because they know "the person who took their loved one will never walk the streets again."

Prosecutors especially in Houston and Dallas, where the death penalty is most frequently sought opposed the measure, sometimes questioning whether it would open the state to more death-row appeals and constitutional challenges.

Mr. Lucio said that hasn't happened in the 46 states that have the option of life without a parole.

After the vote, Mr. Lucio said prosecutors feared that juries would avoid meting out the death penalty if given the option of life without parole.

"They don't want anything that will in any way handicap them in the future from being able to seek the death penalty and convince a jury that that's what the defendant should be getting. And they're missing the boat entirely," Mr. Lucio said.

He said prosecutors will sometimes try a capital case but waive the death-penalty option. In those cases, his bill would allow juries the option of locking an offender away forever, he said.

Other senators also raised objections, including fear that a lifetime sentence would sap the incentive of an inmate to behave while in prison.

Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, said most of the prosecutors with whom he spoke were against bill. He also said that he believed that a 40-year sentence was a sufficient alternative to the death penalty. A life-without-parole sentence would mean the state would be left caring for geriatric prisoners, he said.

"I think we're taking a step backward from our accountability system," he said.

Texas leads the nation in executions, conducting 302 since 1982.

Senate procedures dictate that 21 of the 31 members must vote for a bill to be considered. Mr. Lucio's bill garnered 20 votes. All "nay" votes were Republican.

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