In Texas, new option for murder sentencing?

11th-hour stay of execution raises core questions, as state ponders life without parole.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed more than three times the number of prisoners of any other state. Despite the growing controversy over how the death penalty is administered in this country, the Lone Star State has remained largely unflinching in its resolve to continue setting records.

But 10 minutes before it was to hit another milestone - the 300th execution - the US Supreme Court halted the plan. On Wednesday evening, Delma Banks Jr., was granted a reprieve based on charges of withheld evidence, inept counsel, lying witnesses, and racial discrimination.

Opponents say it's fitting that a landmark case was so riddled with possible errors. Supporters say his case was handled properly. In the middle are everyday Texans who listen to news reports, vote, and sit on juries. Contrary to their bloodthirsty image, Texans are little different from other jurors, say legal experts: They simply have their hands tied by a sentencing system that offers two options for convicted killers: life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years - or death.

Of the 38 states that allow the death penalty, 35 have another option: life without parole. Experts say states that have adopted it see death sentences drop and life-without-parole sentences rise - proving that jurors want a broad range of options in murder trials. Now, a bill in the Texas legislatures is trying to give them just that: the option a true life sentence. And in a state known for its busy execution chamber, the change could have a profound effect.

An alternative with wide appeal

"There are many death-penalty supporters who want this option, who feel that life without parole is a suitable punishment for someone who doesn't present a significant risk inside a prison environment," says David Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston. "Prosecutors, on the other hand, feel like a capital case is eroded by the possibility of life without parole."

The bill passed the Senate last session, but was defeated by five votes in the House. The bill's author, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., is optimistic that the bill will become law this session - even with stiff opposition. A supporter of the death penalty, Senator Lucio is adamant that this bill is not about reducing the number of death sentences. Rather, he says, it is about giving lawmakers the ability to put away violent criminals - for good. "The word 'closure' is very important to me," he says. "This bill provides every victim's family with closure, so they won't have to relive the pain through the parole process."

It is also gives juries and prosecutors another tool in capital cases, he says. And public sentiment appears to be in favor of the sentencing option. A Scripps Howard poll reported in June 2002 that 73 percent of Texans favor changing the law to include life without parole. In other polls, even 10 to 20 percent of ardent death-penalty supporters soften their opinions when given the option of life without parole, says Mr. Dow.

Until the mid-1990s, Texas, like many states, released prisoners 10 to 15 years after murder convictions. That changed with the 40-year minimum sentence. "Still, life with parole is a very different sentence from life without parole," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "The public had a right to be worried." He believes that, given the option of life without parole, Texans would use it.

Joshua Marquis, an Oregon district attorney, agrees that juries favor the life-without-parole option. But what gives him pause is whether these laws will be upheld by the courts. Death-penalty opponents have admitted that they will begin fighting these laws if capital punishment is abolished. "The correctional system ... doesn't have a good history of living up to its word," says Mr. Marquis, who let one man plead guilty to life without parole instead of being tried for capital murder. "If he ever gets out, I'm going to feel like I really failed my constituents."

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