The recent execution of white supremacist gang member Justen Grant Hall at the Texas state penetentiary in Huntsville brings to mind an important question:
What crimes are punishable by death in Texas?
For Hall, 38 years old, the crime was capital murder in the strangulation death of Melanie Billhartz in El Paso in 2002. Hall reportedly strangled her with a power cord after they argued upon leaving a drug house. He was reportedly concerned that she’d expose a meth operation there.
At the time, Hall was out on bond after being charged in the death of Arlene Diaz, a 28-year-old transgender woman, earlier in 2002. That was considered a hate crime.
He was convicted of Billhartz’s death and placed on death row in 2005.
Hall’s execution by lethal injection on Nov. 6 was the 8th Texas execution so far this year, with 2 more scheduled this month.
In total, Texas has executed 566 persons since resuming executions in 1982 following the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jurek v. Texas. Since then, more than a third of all executions nationwide have been in Texas.
Types of capital crimes in Texas
As for what crimes in Texas are considered capital offenses leading to capital punishment (execution or life in prison without parole), under the Texas Penal Code for criminal homicide they include:
- Murdering a police officer or fireman while that person is on duty.
- Murdering someone while committing or trying to commit aggravated kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, obstruction or retaliation, or a terroristic threat.
- Murdering for hire, or ordering a murder for hire.
- Murdering while escaping or trying to escape from prison.
- Murdering, while imprisoned, a person employed in operation of the prison.
- Murdering while incarcerated for murder, or while imprisoned for life imprisonment or for 99 years for aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping or aggravated sexual assault. (In Texas, a crime is “aggravated” if it causes serious bodily injury or involves use or display of a weapon.)
- Murdering more than a single person during the same criminal act, or during different criminal acts for which the murders are part of the same course of conduct.
- Murdering a person under 15 years old.
- Murdering a person in retaliation for that person being a judge or justice of the Supreme Court or Court of Criminal Appeals, or being a judge or justice of a Court of Appeals, District Court, Criminal District Court, Constitutional County Court, Statutory County Court, Justice Court or Municipal Court.
Persons under the age of 17 cannot be executed in Texas, nor can individuals deemed to suffer from mental retardation or severe mental illness.
Not all murders are capital offenses in Texas
Not all murders in Texas are punishable by death. Besides the category of capital murder, which can bring the death penalty, killing someone in Texas can also be considered murder, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.
There are no degrees of murder in Texas, such as first or second-degree murder. Instead, the differences between such crimes depend on their circumstances, with four different types of criminal homicide.
Recklessly causing someone’s death is considered manslaughter, with punishment of 2 to 20 years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Failing to act as a reasonable person would and thus contributing to someone’s death is criminally negligent homicide, with punishment of up to 5 years in prison. Both involve a death caused without premeditation.
In Texas, intentionally causing death is murder and is punishable by a prison term of 5 to 99 years, or life in prison. The greater offense of capital murder — as indicated in the circumstances listed above — is punishable by the death penalty or by a life sentence without parole.
Hire the best Texas murder defense lawyer
Clearly, any criminal homicide is a serious charge with possibly serious consequences, including the frequently applied Texas death penalty. If someone in your family faces such a charge in Houston, Harris County, Fort Bend County or Montgomery County, you should get the best murder defense lawyer you can find.