Capital murder and defendants under 18 in Texas

A very talented civil lawyer contacted me recently to discuss something in the news. Several juveniles in Oklahoma decided to murder a young baseball player for fun. This lawyer wanted to know whether the State could impose the death penalty, life imprisonment, or had some other options. Although I cannot practice in Oklahoma, Texas courts may have some issues if faced with similar issues in a capital murder case.

The states decide what an adult is under their law. However, the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution. The Eighth amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment. In 2005, the Supreme Court of the United States outlawed the death penalty for individuals who committed a murder prior to their eighteenth birthday. A person’s age at trial does not matter. The main consideration is the person’s age when the person committed the offense. The Court did not determine if other punishments may be unconstitutional for young offenders.

Last year, the Supreme Court also found that a court violates the rights of a person under age eighteen if the court imposes a life sentence without parole. At that time, Texas courts could only give a person a life sentence without parole or the death penalty for capital murder.

This summer the Texas legislature took action. The legislature changed the law to provide for a different punishment. If the person commits capital murder prior to their eighteenth birthday, a court can only impose a sentence of life with parole. If the person commits the offense on or after their eighteenth birthday, the court or jury can sentence a person to death or life imprisonment. The Eighth amendment, like other Constitutional provisions, is ever changing. These changes are coming in a number of fields including capital murder. The states and defense attorneys must adapt as each change comes.

To learn more about Texas Senate Bill No. 2 changing capital murder click here.

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