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Monday, January 08, 2007

Pitts and the death penalty for 11-year-olds

If Rep Jim Pitts becomes Speaker of the Texas House, let's hope he has become a bit more mature and level-headed since 1998 when he advocated sentencing 11-year-olds to death. The Austin American-Statesman reported in an article Jan 8 on Pitts that in "1998, he drew attention for saying in the wake of school shootings in Arkansas that 11-year-olds should be subject to the death penalty. He never filed that proposal in the Legislature, instead pushing unsuccessfully for a death-penalty age of 16."

Pitts' bill to lower the age that people would be eligible for the death penalty to 16 was referred to the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, but was never given a hearing. Pitts seemed pretty fired-up about his bill back then. He had pre-filed it on November 09, 1998 in preparation for the session that began in January 1999.  At the time, Texas law allowed executions of offenders as young as 17.

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court banned executions of anyone whose offense was committed before they turned 18. The Court ruled that executions of such youthful offenders would violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

It's a little scary to think that as late as 1998 there was at least one person holding office in the United States who seriously advocated sentencing 11-year-olds to death. Pitts didn't actually want to execute 11-year-olds, his idea was to let them grow up to be 17, then execute them. As the New York Times explained in an article from 1998, under Pitts' "proposal, an 11-year-old killer could be sentenced to death but would have to wait on a 'juvenile death row,' separate from the death row for older killers, until he or she turned 17."

It all seems like an idea more suited to the Middle Ages. If Pitts is elected, he should sit down and discuss the death penalty with Brian McCall, who voted for a moratorium on executions in 2001 because he was concerned about the risk of executing innocent people, even though he supports the death penalty in general. Since 2001 there have been reports that Texas may have executed three innocent people: Ruben Cantu, Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos De Luna. One of those executions, that of Willingham, took place in 2004. If Willingham was indeed innocent, then his life could have been saved if more people had joined McCall and the 51 other House members who voted for a moratorium in 2001.

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