HOUSTON (CN) — Texas executes more people than any state, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week that spared the life of a mentally disabled Texan and proposed legal reforms are forcing it to confront its fondness for capital punishment.
Under the Texas law of parties each person involved in a crime can be charged and convicted for it, no matter if they were an accomplice or the perpetrator.
The law came up in the capital murder trial of Erica Yvonne Sheppard, who was sentenced to death in March 1995. The jury heard evidence that Sheppard, then 19, and co-defendant James Dickerson, snuck inside Marilyn Sage Meagher’s apartment in June 1993, intending to steal Meagher’s car keys.
Meagher refused to give up the keys and Dickerson told Sheppard to find a butcher knife. She did, and held Meagher down while Dickerson cut her five times, then bashed her with a 10-pound statue.
Trying to get her sentence reduced to life in prison, Sheppard, now 43, argued in a federal habeas petition that her trial attorney erred by not objecting when the judge, in explaining the law of parties, incorrectly told jurors that a bank robber and getaway driver would both be guilty of robbery and each should get the same punishment.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas agreed in a March 29 order denying Sheppard’s habeas petition that Sheppard’s trial judge got it wrong.
Atlas cited Earl Enmund v. Florida, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment did not permit the death penalty for Enmund because he was the getaway driver for two people who robbed and murdered an elderly couple, but he did not kill nor intend to kill the couple.
But Atlas found Sheppard’s culpability sufficient to hold her responsible for the murder, even if the trial judge misled the jury.
“The evidence establishes that Sheppard was an active, not merely peripheral, participant in the robbery and murder. Therefore, the trial court’s erroneous statement as to punishment on the law of parties was not relevant to Sheppard,” Atlas wrote.
Texas State Reps. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, have introduced legislation that would change the law of parties, banning prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty for accomplices in capital felony cases who were not directly involved in the crime.
A bill proposed by state Rep. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, would undo another capital punishment law that favors prosecutors.
In Texas death-penalty cases, a jury must answer three questions: Is the defendant a continuing threat to society? If the defendant was not the actual killer, did he or she intend to kill someone or anticipate death? Is there mitigating evidence in their background, character, or in the circumstances of the crime, sufficient to spare their life?
To sentence a defendant to death, a jury must unanimously answer yes to the future threat and intent to kill questions and no to the mitigating evidence question.
State law also says that 10 or more jurors must agree to answer the special questions in the defendant’s favor to give them a life sentence.