TCDD Bill of the Week: HB 1139

TCDD Bill of the Week HB 1139

For this weekly feature, the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD) profiles a noteworthy bill that is currently going through the legislative process. The bill may relate directly to TCDD’s Public Policy Priorities or another disability-related issue.

Bill: House Bill (HB) 1139, relating to the applicability of the death penalty to a capital offense committed by a person with an intellectual disability.

Bill Author: Rep. Senfronia Thompson, Texas House District 141 (Harris County)

Joint Authors:

  • Rep. Jeff Leach, Texas House District 67 (Collin)
  • Rep. Joe Moody, Texas House District 78 (El Paso)
  • Rep. James White, Texas House District 19 (Hardin, Jasper, Newton, Polk, Tyler)
  • Rep. Armando Walle, Texas House District 140 (Harris)


  • Rep. Jarvis Johnson, Texas House District 139 (Harris)
  • Rep. Gene Wu, Texas House District 137 (Harris)

Where is the bill in the process?
On March 18, HB 1139 received a public hearing before the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence and was left pending. When a bill is left pending, this means that the committee did not vote on the bill and it could be considered again at a future committee meeting. You can watch the discussion on the bill in the first part of the hearing (beginning at about 1:05:41) and then continuing in part 2.

What does the bill do?
HB 1139 restricts the death penalty from being applied to a person with an intellectual disability (sometimes referred to as “ID”). Under the terms of the bill, the attorney for a defendant in a capital case may request, no later than 30 days before the trial is set to begin, that a judge hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant is a person with an intellectual disability. It further outlines definitive guidelines and establishes a standardized protocol for courts to abide by when determining intellectual disability in defendants facing the death penalty.

Background Information:
In the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment to seek the death penalty for individuals with intellectual disabilities. However, this ruling left the burden upon the states to determine what constitutes disability and when to address it within court procedures.

HB 1139 comes after the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Moore v. Texas, which ruled that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals relies on outdated medical standards for determining intellectual disability. Judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals argue that they have been left on their own to develop criteria for such determination, and have pleaded with the Texas Legislature to come up with a standardized protocol to do so. HB 1139 would address this need.

Statement from the bill author, Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Headshot of Representative Senfronia Thompson“If someone is going to raise the issue of having an intellectual disability, let’s do that at the beginning of the trial, be able to hold a hearing, and to settle that particular issue upfront – before we spend $2-$2.5 million in court costs.”


Who supports the bill and why?
The following comments were taken from the bill’s public hearing on March 18:

  • Bexar County D.A.: Philip Kazen, Assistant District Attorney (D.A.) for Bexar County, applauded the bill for addressing the need to formalize the process in determining intellectual disability. He argued that leaving ambiguity around this process gives too much discretion to judges who are not experts on disability issues. Kazen agreed that a person’s cognitive ability should be addressed at the beginning of a case rather than during the middle or at the end. Having an established protocol benefits both the defendant and the State, as more clarity leaves less room for judicial and humanitarian issues to arise.
  • Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association: Bobby Mims, representing the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, supported the bill because of his personal experience with capital cases and defendants with intellectual disabilities. He noted that it is crucial to have a formal hearing to determine disability, since some defendants’ disability may not be noticeable, even to their own lawyers. Therefore, pre-trial hearings with disinterested experts would be beneficial in determining the presence of an intellectual disability.
  • The Arc of Texas: Alex Cogan, Public Policy Advocate with The Arc of Texas, endorsed the bill because it helps people with intellectual disabilities get the support they need in the criminal justice system to better ensure due process. She pointed out that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are overrepresented in the system due largely to the lack of knowledge about how to identify them, what they need, and how to properly support them. Cogan stated that she believes this bill will help ensure these concerns will be addressed in a just and standardized framework.
  • AAIDD Texas: Dr. Ollie Seay, a fellow of the Texas Chapter of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), stated that she believes people with IDD need more support and recognition within the criminal justice system in order for due process to be justly applied. Dr. Seay feels that HB 1139 will aid in achieving this goal.

Additional testimony:

  • UT Law School: Raoul Schonemann, a clinical law professor and co-director of the Capital Punishment Center at The University of Texas at Austin, stated that the bill will address a “glaring omission” in the state’s criminal proceedings. He pointed out that, of the states that still allow the death penalty, Texas is the only one that has yet to develop a standard procedure for determining intellectual disability since Atkins v. Virginia. Other states have enacted legislation like HB 1139 to develop a framework, so passing this bill would help Texas to catch up. Schonemann asserted that the bill will also align Texas’ practices for determining ID with medical standards.

Who opposes the bill and why?

  • Tarrant County Criminal D.A.’s Office: A Tarrant County prosecutor voiced concerns with HB 1139, insisting that he is not opposed to the creation of a pre-trial hearing to determine intellectual disability nor with the definitions laid out in the bill. He did, however, disagree with the point in the process at which the hearing would take place, and suggested that it should happen earlier than currently proposed in order to create less interference with pre-trial preparations.

How much will the bill cost?
According to the Legislative Budget Board, HB 1139 will have no significant fiscal impact on the State.

Is there a Senate companion to the bill?
An identical bill, Senate Bill (SB) 418 by Sen. Borris Miles, has been referred to the Criminal Justice Committee. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Stay informed
For the latest information about where HB 1139 is in the process, follow the bill on the Texas Legislature Online. To receive future legislative updates from TCDD, subscribe to TCDD eNews or follow us on Twitter.

Update: HB 885
HB 885, relating to wage requirements for community rehabilitation programs participating in the purchasing from people with disabilities program, has been reported favorably out of the House Committee on International Relations & Economic Development on a vote of 7-0. It will now be sent to the Calendars Committee and await placement for consideration by the full Texas House. This bill was profiled as a previous TCDD Bill of the Week.