HB 3054: improve the rights of juries serving death penalty cases

Mary Helen Russell

I’m testifying in support of HB 3054 on behalf of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. The Bishops are meeting today across the street in preparation for their advocacy day tomorrow, which is why the Executive Director, Jennifer Allmon, is unable to be here to deliver this testimony. However, the issue is too important to the bishops to allow a board meeting to stand in the way of this message.

This bill is critically needed as a matter of basic justice. The current criminal justice system has both the tools for life imprisonment without execution and has significant flaws in sentencing practices that undermine the ability for the public to trust that every convicted person on death row in Texas is actually guilty. A capitol jury has a tremendous burden of determining whether an inmate lives or dies. Jurors carry the weight of this decision and its impact for the rest of their lives.

This committee has the opportunity to improve the rights of jurors serving in death penalty sentencing cases. Texas law is intentionally misleading as it requires judges and attorneys to lie to jurors about the level of unanimity required for a death sentence. It only takes one juror to grant life without parole, yet sentencing instructions require the judge to tell jurors it takes two. It is unconscionable that a judge swears all witnesses to take an oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and then is instructed to lie to the jury. Even if one supports the use of the death penalty, jurors deserve the truth about the process.

The Texas bishops strongly support efforts to revise capital jury sentencing instructions to prevent this concealment of a juror's individual capacity to impose a sentence less than death. While we will continue our efforts to end the use of the death penalty in Texas, this legislation will at least interject a level of honesty and improve the fairness of the current system.