AUSTIN - The Texas Senate on Tuesday passed its version of "Jessica's Law," a get-tough measure on sexual predators that includes a possible death penalty for those who are twice convicted of raping children under 14.
"I can think of no more solemn duty than the protection of our most innocent and vulnerable citizens," said Sen. Bob Deuell, the Greenville Republican who sponsored the measure, HB 8.
The bill creates new categories of sexually violent offenses against children under 14, breaking out new categories for crimes committed involving kidnapping, date rape drugs or deadly weapons and causing serious bodily injury. Such crimes, or any aggravated sexual assault on a child under 6, automatically carry a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison.
A second offense carries life in prison or the death penalty.
The bill also enhances punishments for most sex crimes against children and extends the statute of limitations for prosecution.
"We want to deter people. We don't want victims. But if a crime happens, we want to give our prosecutors the tools to make convictions," Deuell said.
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 Texas Gov. Rick Perry deemed passage of a child sex offender bill a legislative emergency.
Texas' version would make it the sixth state to allow some child sex offenders to be sentenced to death.
Critics have questioned whether the death penalty is constitutional in cases where the victim does 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.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the only dissenter in the 30-1 vote, questioned whether the state should expand death row at a time when post-conviction DNA testing has exonerated people who went to prison for crimes they did not commit.
Just two weeks ago, the Senate hosted two men who served 27 years in prison for sexual assault but were later cleared by DNA testing.
"All of us have to make tough choices, but at some point we have to decide, where do we draw the line on something that's politically right but morally wrong," Ellis said. "I'm for the death penalty, but I think it would be nice if we had a system where we got the right one."
The Texas House passed a different version of Jessica's Law last month that also includes the death penalty in some child sex cases.
The House bill allows broader use of the death penalty for two convictions of a newly classified crime, "continuous sexual abuse of a young child," defined as more than one sex act committed against a victim younger than 14 over a period of 30 days or more.
The Senate bill creates the same crime but would carry a sentence of up to life in prison after a second offense.
Victim advocates have warned that the death penalty could do more harm than good if it leads 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 statement issued by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault said the longer sentences are unlikely to serve as a deterrent against sex crimes.
"In reality, sex offenders are some of the most manipulative, intelligent and predatory of all violent criminals. Harsher punishments will not prevent Texas children, men or women from falling victim to sexual violence," the group said, adding that lawmakers should spend more money on victims services. "The Legislature's work on sexual violence is not complete."