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FIRST IMPRESSIONS & SPLIT DECISION – CRIMINAL LAW: Is an automatic life sentence for capital mur

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In Avalos, the defendant, an intellectually disabled person, was charged with two counts of capital murder.  He pled no contest, and the death penalty was not imposed. Texas Penal Code section 12.31(a)(2) required the imposition of an automatic life sentence for each conviction.  Avalos and the State stipulated Avalos was intellectually disabled. The trial court denied Avalos’s request for an individualized sentencing determination.  On appeal, Avalos’s sole issue was that the imposition of an automatic life sentence on an intellectually disabled person is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.

The majority overruled this issue, rejecting Avalos’s contention that precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States compelled the conclusion that his automatic life sentences were unconstitutional and noting Avalos’s did not provide sufficient evidence or argument about the development of contemporary values and evolving standards of decency as required by Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).

The dissent agreed with Avalos that the unconstitutionality of an automatic life sentence logically followed from the Supreme Court’s decisions, and would have held that the Constitution requires individualized sentencing for intellectually disabled defendants who face the most serious penalty the State can impose on them—a life sentence without parole.

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