AUSTIN — Responding to constitutional issues raised by the U.S. Supreme Court, the House gave final passage Monday to legislation designed to overcome a legal impasse that has blocked the prosecution of 17-year-old defendants accused of capital crimes.SB23 would create a new sentencing option for 17-year-old capital defendants, establishing a punishment of life with the eligibility of parole after 40 years in prison. But some lawmakers said the House invited further legal problems by allowing judges and juries to also consider life without parole in “mitigating circumstances.”Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said the proposed changes will allow the Parker County district attorney’s office to move forward with trying Aledo teenager Jake Evans, who has been in jail since October after being charged in the killing of his mother and sister.“It’s going to let them proceed with trial and give the jury the option of life without parole,” said King, who filed a similar version of the legislation at the request of the Parker County district attorney’s office.The 95-9 vote in the House sends SB23 back to the Senate, where members must either concur with amendments or negotiate differences with the House before lawmakers end their special session on today.The original Senate bill did not include the option of life without parole, but King predicted that the Senate may concur with the House in order to speed the bill’s chances for passage before lawmakers go home.Prosecutors across the state have asked for the new law after Supreme Court decisions they said effectively left them with no available punishment for a person convicted of committing capital murder at age 17.In Texas, 17-year-old capital murder defendants are considered adults and currently face the same punishment available to all other adults charged with capital murder — death or life without parole. But Supreme Court rulings prohibit the courts from sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole and ban the death penalty for those 18 years old and younger.The original version of the Senate-passed bill would impose a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving 40 years in prison. House members, during preliminary consideration last week, included an amendment by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, that would allow judges and juries to also consider life in prison without parole in “heinous” cases, such as a school massacre or slaying of police officer.Schaefer said he was confident that the amendment complied with the Supreme Court requirements, but Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, expressed concern that the amended measure would be ruled unconstitutional.“It’s not legislation that should pass out of here because it’s going to be struck down,” Canales told House members.King said he supports the amendment. “I think we need the option [of life without parole] when the death penalty is not available,” King said.Parker County District Attorney Don Schnebly approached King to help pass the measure, which was on track to approval in the regular session before being caught in a crush of bills during the session’s final days. Gov. Rick Perry later agreed to include it in the special session that began May 27.Evans was 17 when he called 911 to say he had killed his mother, Jami, 47, and sister Mallory, 15, on Oct. 4, according to authorities. Robert DuBoise, assistant district attorney in Parker County, told the Star-Telegram last week that prosecutors have been unable to take the teen to trial because of the constitutional issues.Majority Republicans beat back Democratic amendments, including several that would have lowered the amount of prison time before an inmate would be eligible for parole in capital cases. Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, sought to reduce the 40-year requirement to 25 years.
Dave Montgomery, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery