By CHRISTIN COYNE
A bill designed to fix state law that made it easier for a Parker County defendant to escape a state mental hospital last year while awaiting trial may have died earlier this month but Rep. Phil King’s office says they are continuing to pursue the issue.
The House bill didn’t make it out of committee but King hopes to have it added as an amendment to another bill currently before the Legislature.
Parker County authorities requested a change in the law after Billy Clay Wade, a paroled felon awaiting trial on a long list of charges in Parker and Tarrant counties, escaped custody of the state in September and eluded authorities for two months.
Parker County defendants are typically sent to the Wichita Falls campus of North Texas State Hospital or the maximum security NTSH facility in Vernon.
Though Wade already had a lengthy history of escape from custody or fleeing law enforcement at the time he was found to be incompetent to stand trial last fall, Wade was sent to the Wichita Falls facility for evaluation and treatment.
The hospital defendants are sent to is based on the type of offense they are charged with and the history of any violent offenses, Assistant District Attorney Jeff Swain said.
Wade’s then-19, primarily felony convictions included three for escaping custody and one for evading arrest, as well as for burglary and other property crimes.
Current law wouldn’t allow for Wade to be sent to Vernon, according to Swain.
After less than a week in Wichita Falls, Wade broke a window with a fire extinguisher and left.
One of the Parker County deputies who twice during the past two years helped hunt Wade down after he managed to elude authorities, told jurors last week that he believed Wade intentionally sought to get sent to the mental health hospital where he escaped.
In January, King filed HB 766, which would allow defendants facing a sentence of more than 20 years and with a history or risk of escape or flight to be sent to a maximum security unit of a state hospital.
King has sought to address the loophole in state law that has repeatedly allowed serious offenders an opportunity to flee with relative ease, according to legislative director Ashley Westenhover. At the same time, they hope to keep the law restricted enough not to unduly impact limited bed space available in the state’s maximum security units.
Though King requested a hearing on the bill from the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee chairman, none was scheduled before the May 10 deadline for House bills to be heard, according to Westenhover.
However, they were continuing to search through bills that might be germane to potentially tack the issue on as an amendment, Westenhover said.