Sunday, March 6, 2005

DALLAS — Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court verdict determining that those who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes cannot be executed for murder has sent shock waves through the vast Texas penal system.

The recent 5-4 decision by the high court affects 72 juvenile murderers. Twenty-nine of them are on Texas’ death row in the Pulansky Unit, a few miles outside Huntsville — along with 448 others there scheduled to die.

The looming problem is not that these 29 now must be integrated into the system’s main population, but that some of them actually might be considered for parole soon.

Texas, which leads the nation — and world — in meting out death sentences, is one of only three states without a specific criminal penalty called “life without possibility of parole.”

Under current law, one given a life sentence must be considered eligible for parole after serving 40 years — counting off for “good time.” For those convicted before 1993, that minimum was 15 years.

Last week’s decision set off alarm in Tarrant County, where Mauro Barraza, 17 at the time, brutally murdered an elderly woman in her home in 1989 in Haltom City. Later this year, Barraza, now 32, will have served 15 years and must be considered for parole by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Few think Barraza will be released soon, but several others are similarly affected. Gov. Rick Perry has asked the parole board to examine closely each of the 29 who have been given reprieves from death by the high court and to recommend how to move those affected into the prison system’s general population.

Reaction to the Supreme Court decision is mixed, not only to the ruling, but as to the course of Texas jurisprudence; specifically, about whether the state should enact a firm “life without parole” standard.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville, already had introduced such a bill in the state Legislature. Twice defeated in his try to make such a change in the law, Mr. Lucio says, “Maybe the time has come.”

He has asked for committee hearings on the bill within 10 days.

He is not against the death penalty, but says present law does not assure society that dangerous killers will be kept inside the walls.

“This legislation is not for anyone soft on crime,” the senator says.

Although such a new legal definition might lessen the number of death-penalty verdicts, he says he doesn’t think that’s the most important consideration.

“We should begin to listen to the people,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about how many people we can put to death.”

Recent polls, he says, showed that 78 percent of Texans wanted “the third option.”

“It might sound absurd that any of them [under present law] would be paroled,” says Andy Kahan, a Houston advocate for crime victims, but “you just don’t know. This decision could be the catalyst that brings it over the hump.”

District attorneys in the state’s major counties — in which more than 75 percent of the state’s murderers are tried — generally have lobbied against such a sentencing option for juries. They argue that jurors are less likely to decree the death penalty if there is an option for life without parole.

All agree the key word in the phrase “eligible for parole” is “eligible.” . Eligibility does not necessarily mean parole. In fact, the Texas parole board seldom is lenient.

“There is no mandatory release in any of these cases,” says Jim Marcus, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which handles appeals of capital crime offenders. He, too, thinks there’s little chance of Barraza’s actually being released soon.

Charles Baird, a former justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and presently a visiting professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, says the present law amounts to “life without parole.”

“Prison is a very dangerous place,” he says, “and the odds of being murdered by another inmate is very high. It’s a sedentary lifestyle and that means short life spans. Just the stressful nature of trying to exist every day severely reduces one’s life span.”

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