Jake Evans, the Parker County teenager accused of killing his mother and sister last fall and then calmly calling 911 to report what he had done, was indicted on a capital murder charge in December and remains in jail.But because Evans was 17 at the time, his case is in legal limbo.Under Texas law, 17-year-olds are adults and thus subject to adult criminal penalties. In a Texas capital murder case, there are only two possible sentences: death or life in prison without possibility of parole.But the U.S. Supreme Court sets adulthood at age 18. In two cases, the high court has ruled that defendants younger than 18 may not be executed or sentenced to life without parole.That means that Parker County prosecutors may take Evans to trial on the capital murder charge, but if he is convicted, then what? There is no sentence to assess.There are 24 other cases of 17-year-old capital murder defendants pending in Texas, according to the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, which went to the Legislature hoping to get the law changed to get Texas in line with the Supreme Court ruling.In North Texas in addition to Evans, Dallas, Ellis and Collin counties have one case each. Harris County has 12.The prosecutors association supports a capital murder sentence for 17-year-olds of life with the possibility of parole in 40 years.“This is the sentence that is already in place for juvenile offenders under the age of 17,” Parker County prosecutor Jeff Swain said. “What this law would do is match the 17-year-old offender’s punishment to those who are younger than him rather than those who are older than him.”During the regular session of the Legislature, bills to establish such sentencing sailed through the Senate but were derailed in the House. The bills were revived in the special session, and last week, the Senate again unanimously approved the new punishment of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.On Wednesday, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed a similar bill 7-2 and sent it to the full House, which is expected to vote before the end of the 30-day special session next week.But its future there is uncertain. Some representatives said they will try to amend the law to make it harsher. But there is only a week left in the session.Stopped by chubbingIn the regular session, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, introduced Senate Bill 187 to establish the punishment. The bill passed Senate and House committees and was approved unanimously by the full Senate.But it didn’t make it through the House.“There was a long calendar of bills that day and the calendar was taken in order,” said Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford. “When SB187 was near the top, just 10 bills away from a vote, the bill to require drug testing of welfare recipients came up for final vote.”King said Democrats filibustered the drug-testing bill, a practice called chubbing, until time ran out at midnight and the bill calendar died.Swain said that 16 Texas district attorneys wrote Gov. Rick Perry a letter asking that he put the issue on the agenda for the special session. King said he delivered a letter from Parker County District Attorney Don Schnebly to Perry making the same request. And King filed a bill for the special session.Last week, Perry added the issue to the special session agenda.Again, Huffman’s bill authorizing the new punishment moved smoothly through the Senate, which approved it 27-0 on Friday night.On Tuesday, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee had a hearing on the bill. Some members said they felt conflicted about approving the proposed punishments, The Associated Press reported.Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, said she was “really torn here because we do only have eight days” to pass legislation.Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said that the Senate-approved bill is a short-term solution to a broader problem. “Closing the gap doesn’t solve the problem to me,” Canelas said. “It sounds like we have a problem with the law altogether.” Canelas filed a bill that to let judges sentence 17-year-olds in a range from 25 to 99 years.Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin told the committee that the state already has the tools to appropriately punish a 17-year-old who commits murder. He pointed out that a jury could sentence such a teen to 99 years in jail. “We have not restricted the prosecutors’ tools,” Bunin said. But “right now they want a sledgehammer.” On Wednesday, after approving the Senate bill, House members clarified that they will amend it on the House floor to include harsher sentences, such as life without parole, The Associated Press reported.Committee Chairman Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said such punishment should be kept as an option “especially for those heinous crimes.” Other lawmakers echoed the sentiment. “I'm voting aye, with the understanding that we are going to put life without parole back on the table. … That would allow the most heinous criminals to be put away forever,” said Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler. “But also to satisfy Supreme Court concerns.” Supreme Court cases The relevant Supreme Court cases were Roper v. Simmons, decided in 2005, and Miller v. Alabama, decided in June 2012.“The Roper case held that it was unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to juvenile offenders,” Swain said. “Miller held that it was unconstitutional to have a mandatory sentence for a juvenile offender of life without the possibility of parole.”Opponents of the proposed new Texas punishment argue that it does little to address the court’s key concerns in the Miller case, one of which was the mandatory nature of capital sentences. The court wrote, “The mandatory penalty schemes at issue here, however, prevent the sentencer from considering youth and from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.”Lauren Rose, a juvenile justice policy associate at the nonprofit advocacy organization Texans Care for Children, said the court opinion indicates that juries and judges ought to have more latitude in deciding sentences for young offenders. They should be able to consider whether factors such as age, home environment, peer pressure and other influences mean that an offender should receive a lesser sentence than life. They should also be able to weigh the greater likelihood of a young person to be rehabilitated, she said.“Individualized sentencing, I think, is really necessary to address the crux of the Miller decision,” Rose told The Texas Tribune. This report includes material from The Associated Press, The Texas Tribune and the Star-Telegram archives.
Lance Winter, 817-594-9902, Ext. 102 Twitter: @Lancewinter