Certain criminal offenses in Texas have the possible penalty of death
Since 1977, one-third of all executions in the U.S. were performed in Texas, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Although executions have significantly decreased in recent years, the fact remains that Texas is still infamous for doling out death sentences.
What crimes get the death penalty in Texas, and what rights do those charged with a capital offense have?
We’ll answer these questions and more below. In the meantime, it’s vital that you contact an experienced felony defense attorney if you or a loved one have been charged with a serious crime.
Texas death penalty list
In Texas, capital murder is the only felony that is eligible for the death penalty.
Section 19.03 of the Texas Penal Code describes some instances that may be classified as capital murder such as:
- The murder of a police officer or fireman while acting in an official capacity
- Intentionally taking a life in the course of another felony such as kidnapping, burglary or aggravated sexual assault
- Murder for hire
- Murder committed during a prison escape
- Any killing by an offender who is serving a life sentence
- The murder of a child less than 15 years of age
- Murdering a judge as a form of retaliation
- Multiple killings in a single act or series of related acts
Other types of murder in Texas
To be found guilty of any crime (including capital offenses), the prosecution must meet the strict standard of proving fault beyond a reasonable doubt. If even 1 element cannot be proven, charges may be reduced to lesser type of criminal homicide defined in the Texas Penal Code, including:
- Murder, which occurs when someone takes a life due to “sudden passion” rather than premeditation
- Manslaughter or recklessly causing the death of another
- Criminally negligent homicide, which involves causing death due to criminal negligence
Anyone who is charged with a capital felony should seek representation from an experienced defense attorney. Aside from knowing which crimes get the death penalty, a lawyer can ensure that the state proves every element of the crime like they are required to do. If a plea agreement is warranted, having legal representation can ensure you the best deal possible.
Defending the innocent
A number of other defenses exist for capital murder, including actual innocence. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that since 1977, 185 persons who have spent time on death row were later exonerated—some too late. Among those were 16 people who were sentenced to death in Texas.
According to the U.S. Constitution, all citizens are innocent until proven guilty. It’s the prosecutor’s job to show beyond a reasonable doubt that someone actually committed an act.
Furthermore, Texas law requires the state to turn over any exculpatory evidence, which is evidence that could prove someone’s innocence.
Individuals who chose to defend themselves in such serious cases are often unaware that such evidence even exists. When the death penalty is on the table, having a lawyer on your side could literally mean the difference between life and death.
In some cases, defendants may claim one or more affirmative defenses. An affirmative defense is one in which an individual admits guilt but claims there were mitigating factors that should lessen the punishment.
Some examples of affirmative defenses include:
- Mens rea, or the lack of criminal intent
- Lacking the mental capacity needed in order to form intent
Death penalty appeals process
All is not lost just because someone has been sentenced to death. Those who have received a death sentence are entitled to a rigorous appeals process. That process begins with an automatic appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. There, a panel of 9 judges will review the case and issue their verdict as a published opinion.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals may affirm the sentence, overturn it or order a new trial. An unsuccessful outcome at this stage is not final. Defendants may still petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.
They can also file a writ of habeas corpus in state or federal court. During this stage, the accused can raise issues that weren’t heard during the original trial. This is often because new evidence was discovered or certain evidence wasn’t allowed during the original trial.
Final appeals process
A series of final appeals often takes place once an execution date has been set. These appeals are complex and can involve everything from filing petitions with the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons, as well as the governor.
As a last resort, the governor can also grant a 30-day stay. This stay can be issued only once per offender and is typically granted only within a few hours of the scheduled execution.
Everyone has the right to a fair trial, regardless of the crime you’ve been accused of committing. With so much at stake, those facing execution need experienced lawyers who will put up a tough fight. The best possible chance of success requires early action, so contact the Law Offices of Matthew D. Sharp at once if you or a loved one faces the death penalty.