“Is a summary reversal warranted when the lower court violated an absolute requirement by applying law not applicable to the case, i.e. the punishment-phase sudden passion issue, not in effect until 1994, to a first-degree murder committed in 1991?”
In 1992, the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed Harbin’s first-degree murder conviction—committed in 1991—and life sentence. In 2015, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted habeas relief in the form of a new punishment hearing, noting that the jury’s verdict on “guilt remains unaltered.” A jury re-sentenced Harbin to 24 years’ imprisonment in 2017.
On appeal, Harbin claimed that the trial court erred to deny his requested sudden-passion-mitigation instruction. The court of appeals agreed, concluding that the 1994 punishment-phase sudden passion issue applied, and held that the error was harmful. It reasoned that applying the 1994 law effectuated the Court of Criminal Appeals’ intent to remedy the fact Harbin was denied the opportunity to present mitigating evidence at his first sentencing hearing.
The State contends that the 1994 punishment-phase-sudden-passion instruction is not the law applicable to Harbin’s case. In 1991, sudden passion was a guilt-phase issue enumerated as a separate, lesser-included offense to murder in a free-standing voluntary manslaughter statute. On September 1, 1994, the Legislature eliminated voluntary manslaughter and made sudden passion a punishment-phase issue under murder. The savings clause dictated that the change applied only to an offense committed on or after the effective date; therefore, an offense committed before 1994 remained covered by the law in effect when the offense was committed. Effective dates, the State contends, are absolute systemic requirements that are not optional with the parties (and thus cannot be waived or forfeited) or courts. The lower court’s decision is therefore wrong as a matter of black-letter law.