Polunsky Unit


Explanations of the basic operation of the capital punishment

system in Texas.




Texas law defines capital murder as follows :




1. Murder of a peace officer or firefighter acting in the line of duty, when the person knows the victim is a peace officer or firefighter,

 2. Murder during the commission of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, or obstruction or retaliation,

 3. Murder for remuneration,

 4. Murder during prison escape,

 5. Murder of a correctional employee,

 6. Murder by a state prison inmate who is serving a life sentence of any of five offenses (murder, capital murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, or aggravated robbery),

 7. Murder of more than one person in one event, or of multiple persons in a related series of events, or

 8. Murderof an individual under six years of age.


When a person is charged with capital murder, he or she is usually placed in county jail until the trial is over.

The main distinctive feature of the capital murder trial occurs after the jury has rendered the guilty verdict. If the state has not sought the death penalty in the case, the judge must sentence the defendant to life in prison. If the state has sought the death penalty, then a punishment hearing is held in the same court before the same trial jury. The state and the defense are allowed to present arguments for and against the sentence of death, including the entrance of evidence and any aggravating or mitigating circumstances they consider to be relevant to the death sentence. At the conclusion of this hearing, the judge instructs the jury to answer two questions:


· Whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society, and If the defendant was found guilty as a party to capital murder, whether he or she actually took the life of the deceased, intended to kill the deceased, or anticipated that a human life would be taken.

 If the jury of twelve unanimously answers "yes" to both of these questions, then the judge asks a third question:


· Whether, taking into consideration all of the evidence and circumstances, the defendant's character and background, and the personal moral culpability of the defendant, there are sufficient mitigating circumstances to warrant that a sentence of life in prison be imposed, rather than a death sentence.


If the jury unanimously answers, "yes" to the first two questions and "no" to the third question, then the defendant is sentenced to death by lethal injection. Otherwise, the defendant is sentenced to life in prison.

After the defendant has beenconvicted of capital murder and the sentence has been passed, he is immediately transferred from county custody to state custody. By this time, it is usually around 12 to 15 months from the date of the prisoner's arrest.




After the trial in district court, there are appeals.


The first stage of appeals is the direct appeals stage:


The first appeal of that stage is always to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals , the highest criminal court in the state. Every death penalty case is automatically sent to the Court of Criminal Appeals, even if the defendant wishes to waive his appeals.


The Court of Criminal Appeals is composed of nine judges, who hear each case. In most cases, they issue their verdict as a published opinion. Their verdicts can range from affirming the trial court's verdict to overturning it and ordering a new trial. In rare cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals

enters a directed verdict, which means that the defendant is to receive a new trial and is to be found not guilty. The elapsed time from trial to CCA verdict is usually about one to two years.

The side that loses in the Texas Court of Criminal appeals, whether it is the defendant-appellant or the state, often asks for a rehearing, and that request is usually denied. If the CCA affirms the trial court's guilty verdict, the next step for the defendant is to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari .

When the writ of certiorari is denied , or if the defendant does not request the writ, the defendant's conviction is then considered final, and the direct appeals stage is over. This usually happens within a month of the Court of Criminal Appeal's verdict affirming the conviction.


The next stage of appeals is the state habeas corpus stage .

* Habeas Corpus:

A writ (court order) that is usually used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of his imprisonment. Someone

Imprisoned in state court proceedings can file a petition in Federal Court for a writ of habeas Corpus, seeking to have the federal court

review whether the state has violated his rights under the US. Constitution.


It differs from the direct appeal in that the defendant raises issues that were not raised in his trial and they must be claimed of ineffective assistance of counsel.Habeas corpus writs may be filed in both state and federal courts afterwards, and they may be heard by the trial court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, a federal district court, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (New Orleans), and the U.S. Supreme Court. The habeas corpus stage may take many years, or it may go very quickly.

If the state habeas corpus is denied , the inmate can appeal to the US Supreme Court.

If the appeal to the Supreme Court is denied, the Federal Habeas Corpus is filed to the Federal District Court.


If the Federal writ of habeas corpus is denied by the District Court, the appeal can then move to the US 5 circuit court

If the fifth Circuit Court (Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana) denies the appeal , the inmate can ask the US Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari review

If denied a hearing from the US Supreme Court , an execution date is set and the final appeal left to the defendant is to ask for clemency or commutation from the governor and/or the parole board of state. If this is denies, the execution is carried out.