© 2007 The Associated Press
AUSTIN — Texas could sentence some hardcore child molesters to death under a bill given preliminary approval Monday by the state House of Representatives.
In a bill designed to crack down on sex offenders who repeatedly prey on children, the House voted to create a new category of crime — continual sexual abuse of a young child or children — that carries a minimum of 25 years to life in prison and possibly the death penalty for a second offense.
The bill represented a compromise after the House delayed a vote on a broader death penalty provision over constitutional concerns and worries it might lead some molesters to kill their victims.
Lawmakers said they talked with district attorneys, defense lawyers and victim advocacy groups before coming back for a vote on Monday.
"This bill is supposed to go after the true pedophiles ... the worst of the worst," said Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, a Republican and former prosecutor who drafted the compromise.
"Nothing we do will be more important," Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, who filed the original bill, said before the 118-23 vote of approval. The bill still must get a final vote before going to the Senate, which is considering a similar measure.
The bill is named Jessica's Law after Jessica Lunsford, a Florida girl who was abducted and killed. More than a dozen states have passed versions of Jessica's Law to crack down on sex offenders and Gov. Rick Perry has deemed passage of a child sex offender bill a legislative emergency.
The Texas version would make the Lone Star State the sixth to allow some child sex offenders to be sentenced to death, although some legal experts question whether it is constitutional to use the ulimate penalty in cases where the victim did not die.
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the death penalty in a Georgia rape case. Louisiana has one inmate on death row in a child sex crime but the case is still subject to appeals in state and federal courts.
The House bill defines continuous sexual abuse of a young child as more than one sex act committed against a victim younger than 14 over a period of 30 days or more.
The first offense would carry 25 to 99 years in prison. If an offender was released and later convicted of the same crime again, he or she would face life without parole or the death penalty.
Lawmakers created a "Romeo and Juliet" exception to avoid prosecuting a situation that might be a high school romance, such as a 17-year old senior and a 13-year-old freshman engaging in consensual sex. That could still be punishable under statutory rape laws, but not the new, harsher continual assault law.
The bill also removes the statute of limitations for many sex crimes against children, including indecency with a child and aggravated sexual assault. The current limit to bring charges is 10 years after the victim's 18th birthday.
Victim advocates have warned that the death penalty could do more harm than good if they lead perpetrators to kill victims who may be the only witness to the crime.
They also warn that long minimum sentences could make it harder for prosecutors to get victims to cooperate if the perpetrator is a family member. Most sex crimes against children are committed by family members or friends, victim advocates say.
"A family can say Uncle Bob could get the death penalty," said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who failed to get the death penalty provision removed. "You will shove a lot of this conduct farther back in the shadows. Children will not come forward."
Gattis said it's a legitimate concern, "but sometimes you've got to say enough's enough."