MAY 02

    One in three murder charges in TX a capital case

    Now that the new Annual Statistical Report for the Texas judiciary is out, let's take a quick look at data on capital murder cases in Texas from FY 2017. (See p. 111 of the linked pdf from the Office of Court Administration.)

    Texas prosecutors filed capital-murder charges in 446 cases last year, and gained capital convictions 249 times, including 162 by plea bargain and 74 by jury trial.*

    Almost all of these resulted in LWOP sentences. The OCA reported that prosecutors announced plans to seek the death penalty in only three cases in 2017.

    Six defendants were acquitted of capital murder at trial last year. Charges were dismissed in another 84 cases. (That'd be an interesting subset to review - that's a pretty high number.)

    There were 897 capital murder cases pending statewide at the end of the year.

    By comparison, there were 854 "regular" murder charges filed in 2017, with prosecutors generating 536 convictions. In addition, 31 murder defendants were acquitted at trial, with another 187 having charges dismissed.

    One thought from these data: If prosecutors filed capital murder 446 times in 2017 and murder 854 times, then capital charges are not being reserved for the "worst of the worst." Not unless one believes one in three killers deserves that moniker. This overcharging is fueling an unnecessary shortage of capital-qualified trial attorneys statewide. While some have seen that shortage as a reason to reduce qualifications for capital-qualified attorneys, to me the better solution is for prosecutors to rein in this overcharging penchant and only use capital charges in truly exceptional cases.

    *Obviously, these aren't all the same cases. Few capital murder cases are resolved within 12 months, and many if not most convictions were from cases filed in previous years. I'm analyzing overall patterns here, not claiming the cases in the "indicted" column are the same as those "convicted" in the same year.


    April 15

    Texas seeks to fast-track executions

    A request by Texas to opt in on the 1996 Federal Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act is drawing sharp criticism from civil rights groups and local defense attorneys.

    According to the state Attorney General's office, the move would avoid "stressful delays" and "excessive costs" associated with executions.

    Defense attorney Raymond Fuchs said opting in to the act is "a horrible idea."

    "Texas spends very little money on counsel, on investigators, on mitigation experts, on psychologists and psychiatrists," he said. "They're as penny-pinching as you can get.

    "When I read that (U.S. Attorney) Jeff Sessions is actually considering Texas' application for this fast track, I thought it was a joke. We now have people running this state, who I guess think it's a Wild West show where the idea is, 'Let's have a trial and string 'em up.'"

    Whether Texas gets to opt in on the federal law is up to Sessions.

    (Source: KSAT news)

    Capital punishment in the US
    The death penalty is a legal punishment in 31 US states.
    Since 1976 Texas has carried out the most executions (548),
    followed by Virginia (113) and Oklahoma (112)
    There are 2,817 inmates on death row in the US
    California has the most prisoners on death row, 746,
    but has carried out only 13 executions since 1976
    [Source: Death Penalty Information Center]

    April 4

    Warden talks about life in Texas prisons during Isidro Delacruz death penalty hearing

    A warden talked about the dynamics of prison life for an inmate who's on death row compared to life imprisonment as a jury mulls the fate of a San Angelo man convicted of capital murder.

    A Tom Green County Jury on Thursday found Delacruz, 27, guilty of capital murder in the slaying of 5-year-old Naiya Villegas. Villegas, who is the daughter of Delacruz's ex-girlfriend, died after her the throat was slit at a home in the 2700 block of Houston Street on Sept. 2, 2014.

    A senior warden with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said managing an inmate who's on death row is staff intensive compared any other prison sentences.

    The expert witness said male death row inmates are sent to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston where they spend roughly 22 of 24 hours in solitary confinement.

    He said meals are brought to their cells for example, and 2 guards must escort the inmate to any activity including showers, medical checkups or recreation.

    The Polunsky Unit also houses other offenders including inmates who are charged with nonviolent crimes.

    The warden said death row inmates, however, are isolated from other prisoners, excluded from prison educational and employment programs and are sharply restricted in terms of visitation and recreation.

    He said the day starts with breakfast about 3 a.m.

    The TDCJ has 5 inmate classifications that determine freedom and privileges, the warden said. Level 5 contains aggressive offenders while Level 4 inmates are those who chronically violate prison rules. A person sentenced to a life term is automatically deemed a Level 3.

    Allison Palmer, 51st District Attorney, is prosecuting the case, the 1st capital murder in which the death penalty is being sought to go to trial since 1999.

    Robert R. Cowie, of the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases, is court appointed to represent Delacruz.

    Trial resumes Wednesday.

    (Source: gpsanangelo.com)

    March 27

    New Debate Over How to Apply Death Penalty Unfolds at Texas Capitol

    A revived discussion on how to apply the death penalty is unfolding in Texas, with some lawmakers analyzing how it's being imposed on defendants with serious mental illness or intellectual and developmental disabilities.

    "Our courts have asked the legislature to step up on this topic," Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said. Moody chairs the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, which met Monday at the Texas State Capitol to listen to invited testimony on this issue.

    Judge Elsa Alcala, who currently serves on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, told the committee she wasn't advocating for lawmakers to lean one way or another, but that she wants "a death penalty system that is fair to everyone concerned."

    "Judges have been asking for an instruction on intellectual disabilities for over a decade, I think, and without the legislature's guidance in writing the law, courts have had to come up with their own version of the definition of intellectual disabilities," she said during an interview. "That version was recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 in Moore v. Texas."

    Alcala said when that happens, "the danger is we're more in a legislative function than we are in a judicial function."

    In Moore v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court said Texas had "deviated from prevailing clinical standards and from the older clinical standards the court claimed to apply."

    "In concluding that Moore did not suffer significant adaptive deficits, the CCA overemphasized Moore's perceived adaptive strengths," the court said.

    Some mental health advocates said when people with intellectual and developmental disabilities come in contact with the criminal justice system, they often fall behind.

    "We really think that criminal justice professionals, which includes law enforcement, which includes attorneys, which includes judges and victim service providers, should undertake a comprehensive training on working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities," Kyle Piccola with The Arc of Texas said.

    Alcala said right now, different counties approach the death penalty in different ways as well.

    "If you have one [district attorney] who is seeking [the death penalty] in 1 case and the other one who is not seeking it with identical facts, there seems to be an inequity and we're not really targeting the worst of the worst," she said. "We're really just targeting who happened to commit a crime in a particular county."

    "The State of Texas already has standards in place to gauge eligibility for example, like with Health and Human Services, so we would support mirroring that," Piccola said.

    (Source: Nexstar)

    Feb. 11

    How US death penalty capital changed its mind

    Texas remains the strictest applicant of the US death penalty but its increasing reluctance to put criminals to death reflects a national trend.

    Kent Whitaker supported the death penalty until his son, who arranged for a gunman to kill Mr Whitaker and the rest of his family, landed on death row in Texas.

    Now Mr Whitaker, the sole survivor of the attack, is desperately seeking clemency for Thomas Whitaker before his execution scheduled on 22 February.

    "The petition is based on a legal overstep that shouldn't have happened," says Mr Whitaker. "The district attorney chose to pursue the death penalty despite every victim involved, myself, the relatives of my wife, begging him not to do it."

    Shot in the upper chest in the 2003 attack, Mr Whitaker barely survived the ambush after hearing the sound of the bullets that killed his youngest, Kevin, a college sophomore, and his wife Tricia.

    Mr Whitaker has asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend to Texas Governor Greg Abbott to commute his son's sentence to life in prison.

    "I'm not asking them to forgive him as that's not their business," he says.

    "But I don't want on 22 February to have to relive what happened to Tricia and Kevin, and lose the last member of my direct family in the name of justice that I think is wrong."

    Despite Mr Whitaker's predicament, both executions and the awarding of death sentences are actually decreasing in Texas, reflecting a nationwide trend.

    "The culture now is different," says Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP). "There isn't the same appetite for it from either the public or elected officials."

    Since 1976 and the US Supreme Court upholding capital punishment, 1,468 people have been executed in the US - 548 in Texas.

    Harris County became known as the execution capital of America when it was executing the highest number of people in all of Texas' counties.

    But for the last 3 years, it has not imposed any death sentences, while 2017 was the 1st year since 1985 it did not execute anyone.

    Executions in Texas peaked in 2000 when there were 40. Last year there were 7, matching 2016 for the lowest number of executions in two decades, amid a national total of 23.

    "Whatever happens in Texas does have a ripple effect because it has been so notorious for its death penalty practices," says Ms Houle. "So any move away has a significant impact on the rest of the country."

    The shift in opinion - increasingly in conservative circles, too - follows decades of death penalty use during which it has proven exorbitantly expensive compared to putting someone in prison for life, ineffective in making society safer, while open to manipulation from ambitious prosecutors and old-fashioned human error, observers say.

    "More people know about the risks of innocent people being executed after TV programmes like 60 Minutes," says Heather Beaudoin, of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. "They're thinking: 'Wow, this can happen - are we willing to risk it?'"

    Other concerns include: drug shortages for lethal injections adding to the bureaucratic maelstrom and expense; increased mistrust of government; and botched executions leaving victims and relatives of the condemned and prison guards traumatised.

    "The death penalty wouldn't have survived in America if it weren't for evangelical Christians," notes Shane Claiborne, a prominent Christian activist and best-selling author. "Where evangelical Christians are most concentrated is where the death penalty survives."

    But, Mr Claiborne notes, younger evangelicals in states like Texas are increasingly embracing a pro-life interpretation that goes beyond the confines of the abortion debate to also include the likes of the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration and those on death row.

    Meanwhile, the 2005 introduction in Texas courts of life without parole as a sentencing option in capital cases has helped decrease the number of death sentences and executions.

    "When you sit with a victim's family and say it could take 10 years for an execution or they can be done with it now [through a life sentence without parole], they say they want to move on with their lives," says Texas criminal defence lawyer Keith Hampton, who is representing the Whitaker clemency case.

    Another change in the Texas criminal justice landscape that's had an impact is increasing scepticism about gauging the "future dangerousness" a felon poses to society, which plays a critical role in the awarding of death sentences in only Texas and Oregon.

    "When it comes to so-called lethal prediction you might as well gaze into a crystal ball, the predictions are that unreliable," Mr Hampton says. "Studies show, and prison staff report, that those serving life sentences are the best behaved."

    As a result, Mr Hampton explains, prosecutors know juries are less willing to tolerate the pursuit of a death sentence and the additional expense and time it involves.

    Big drop in global executions - Amnesty

    Those who support the death penalty point out the decreasing trend also reflects a nationwide drop in murder rates, and that the death penalty continues playing an effective role, and retains public support, with the small percentage of eligible homicides.

    "Watching an execution is the most mentally draining experience, but it should be utilised for those who commit the most heinous, diabolical, despicable crimes known to man that cry out for the ultimate punishment," says Andy Kahan, a crime victim advocate for the City of Houston, who has accompanied victims to witness 8 executions.

    "Everyone has a right to disagree. I wouldn't be surprised if the death penalty eventually goes. The law is subject to change. Everything comes in cycles."

    Both sides in the debate cite studies supporting respective claims about the death penalty achieving or not achieving deterrence - currently studies supporting the latter appear to have the upper hand.

    "Anyone who says the death penalty has no deterrent effect either doesn't know what they are talking about or are lying," says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which has supported death penalty cases throughout the country.

    "The debate over studies supporting its deterrent effect is whether they have sufficiently shown it."

    Despite Texas' punitive reputation, Ms Houle notes it was the 1st state to pass legislation giving defendants access to the courts if the science behind a conviction changed or was debunked, and had led the way nationally at compensating those wrongfully incarcerated.

    At the same time, however, trends such as racial bias in the Texas courts remain a concern.

    Jan. 20

    Anthony Graves turns jailhouse writing into book, 'Infinite Hope'

    He started on a typewriter, click-clacking away into the night in the quiet of a prison cell.

    That was sometime around 2000, when Anthony Graves didn't know if he'd see the light of day again - back when the state still planned to execute him for a crime he didn't commit.

    In the nearly 2 decades he spent on Texas' death row, the wrongfully convicted Brenham man faced 2 execution dates. His 3 sons grew up without him. The world moved on, but he kept writing, typing, recording his thoughts.

    And then, there was hope. First, his co-defendant recanted. Then in 2006, a federal appeals court set aside his conviction and sentence. Finally, in 2010, prosecutors dropped the charges against him, and he walked out of prison a free man.

    Author appearance
    When: 7 p.m. Monday
    Where: Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet
    Information: Free; 713-523-0701, brazosbookstore.com

    Now, all the labor of those late nights on a jailhouse typewriter has come to fruition. The exonerated man's 1st book - "Infinite Hope" - was released last week.

    In anticipation of his Monday appearance at Brazos Bookstore, Graves talked about his journey and his hopes for the future.

    Q: So, first of all, it looks like you haven't been in the news that much in the past couple of years - what have you been keeping busy with?

    A: I've been doing everything! I've been traveling around the world sharing my message about criminal justice reform, and also I spent a lot of time writing my book, as well as teaming up with the ACLU to be part of their Smart Justice initiative. And I'm also still on the board of the Houston Forensic Science Center.

    Q: Did you always know you would write a book about this someday?

    A: Yes - I knew that the story needed to be told. This story is to be shared with the rest of the world to awaken some people with the reality of the death penalty, not the theory.

    Q: Before all this, what was your take on the death penalty?

    A: I had no position on it - I just believed if you did the crime you did the time. I never thought about the death penalty itself ... In a perfect world, it could probably work, but we don't live in a perfect world.

    Q: Do you stay in touch with any of the men you did time with?

    A: Somewhat - but Texas executed most of the guys that I knew. I try to stay focused on the bigger picture. You try to eliminate the death penalty in the name of those people who were wrongfully executed. I was there when we were executing guilty people - but also when we were executing innocent people. Q: Do you think any of the guys who are still in there will read your book?

    A: They're anticipating it. As well as the criminal justice world - I think this book is going to be huge.

    Q: Is your book on the banned-books list?

    A: I hope that Texas prisons let it in! There's nothing in it that shouldn't let it in.

    Q: Did you write it that way intentionally, so guys in prison could read it?

    A: Yes. I wanted to make sure that those I was trying to reach out to and give hope to could actually receive this book.

    Q: Were you a writer before this?

    A: I wrote a lot of letters to people around the world asking them to save my life - maybe that turned me into a writer.

    Q: Do you ever wonder what your life would be like otherwise?

    A: No, I don't. I don't feel like I missed something - I feel like I was prepared for something. Because of what happened to me, I have a story to tell that changes people's lives, that gives people hope. Had this story not happened to me, I would not be able to give it to other people. I would just be the guy working and making babies. So in hindsight, this gave my life a lot of purpose that I didn't even know existed within me.

    Q: Are there any ways in which it's changed you for the better? Any positive takeaways from a really dark time?

    A: It has allowed me to put things and life in the proper perspective. It has taught me that what seems to be too big is not too big. It has given me a better appreciation for life every day. There is not a day in my life right now that I feel is too overwhelming, that I have problems. I'm happy to have whatever problems I have. I know that God is still being good to me if I can wake up and say that I'm still alive. Every day is a blessing, not just some days. That's what this whole experience has taught me. Be happy that you have the problems that you complain about.

    Q: So it's been, what, seven years now? Does it ever still feel weird being out after so many years in isolation?

    A: No. I deserved to be here. So it never felt weird. The thing with me that separated me from most is I never thought about dying - I always thought about living. So I lived on death row.

    Q: And when you had 2 execution dates?

    A: I never stopped living. When you're no longer afraid of death, you can't scare me with it. When I got a date, I just thought, "I'm going to live till I die."

    Q: What's next for you?

    A: I just shot a pilot for a possible TV show with Apple Entertainment, and I think they'll start pitching it after my book comes out. I continue to speak around the country, and it's my hope to get picked up one day by a speakers bureau. I feel like when I'm up there on a stage speaking, that's my safe haven. That's my therapy, and I can't get enough of it.

    (Source: Houston Chronicle)


      Dec. 16

      Why Texas' 'death penalty capital of the world' stopped executing people

      Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.

      Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.

      In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.

      This is the 1st time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the 3rd year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.

      The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.

      "The practices that the Harris County District Attorney's Office is following are also significant because they reflect the growing movement in the United States toward reform prosecutors who have pledged to use the death penalty more sparingly if at all," said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

      The city of Houston lies within the confines of Harris County, making it one of the most populous counties in the country - and recently it became one of the most diverse, with a 2012 Rice University report concluded that Houston has become the most diverse city in the country.

      Under these new conditions, Kim Ogg ran in 2016 to become the county's district attorney as a reformist candidate who pledged to use the death penalty in a more judicious manner than her predecessors, though the longtime prosecutor didn't say she would abandon it altogether. Rather, Ogg said she would save it for the "worst of the worst" - such as serial killer Anthony Shore, who was rescheduled for execution next month.

      But this year, Ogg appears to have held true to her promise of only pursuing the death penalty in what she deems the most extreme cases. It represents a break from a long pattern of Harris County prosecutors who pushed for the death penalty in nearly all capital cases.

      "The overall idea of what makes us safer is changing," Ogg said. "We're reframing the issues. It's no longer the number of convictions or scalps on the wall. It's making sure the punishment meets the crime."

      Ogg's approach has earned her recognition from experts, including those opposed to the use of capital punishment.

      "She is a much more fair-minded prosecutor than we've seen in the past," said Kristin Houle, the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "She's very deliberate in her approach to the issues and appears to listen to the concerns of the community. But I think there are still a lot of opportunities for further reform in Harris County."

      But Ogg said she cannot alone take credit for the recent drop in executions. The trend precedes her slightly and can also be connected to better educated and more diverse jury pools, as well as Texas' new sentencing option of life without parole. The state also has a more skilled group of indigent defense lawyers who build up mitigating circumstances - such as an abusive childhood or mental illness - for an alleged murderer's crime.

      Even a state like Texas might stop sentencing alleged killers to death in the near future. And that trend could well extend nationwide.

      "We've seen a deepening decline in the death penalty since the year 2000, and some states fell faster than others," said University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, who wrote "End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice." He added that the declines are steepest in counties that had sentenced the most people to death.

      "Juries are turning away from it, prosecutors are turning away from it, so [the death penalty is] withering away on the vine whether courts or legislators decide to do anything about it," Garrett said.

      As for Ogg, she only said that she represents modern-day Harris County, not the one made famous for the number of people it executed.

      She said that her office still has more than 80 pending capital murder cases and she'll examine each one thoroughly to decide whether the death penalty is the most fitting punishment.

      "With other sentencing options and with an increased knowledge of science and technology, Americans feel responsible as jurors in a way they didn't in the past because there's more information to be considered," she said. "So I think attitudes toward the death penalty are changing."

      (Source: NBC News)

      Dec. 14

      Texas leads the Nation in Executions, but its death row population is dropping----
      Texas executed more people than any other state this year, but fewer new death sentences has led to a shrinking death row population.

      The number of inmates on Texas' death row dropped again this year, continuing a decades-long trend.

      The decline is caused largely by fewer new death sentences and more reduced punishments in recent years, according to end-of-year reports released Thursday by groups critical of the death penalty in Texas and across the country. But Texas still held more executions than any other state.

      "Prosecutors, juries, judges, and the public are subjecting our state's death penalty practices to unprecedented scrutiny," said Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, in the release of the group's annual report. "In an increasing number of cases, they are accepting alternatives to this flawed and irreversible punishment."

      Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which has supported death penalty practices in legal cases throughout the country, said he agrees that the decline is partially due to shifting attitudes among jurors and prosecutors, but added that death sentences are also down because there has been a drop in the murder rate nationwide.

      "The support for the death penalty for the worst crimes remains strong," he said.

      There are currently 234 inmates living with death sentences in Texas, according to the state's prison system. That number has been dropping since 2003. The death row population peaked at 460 in 1999, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

      Here's how the death row population has changed over the last year:

      7 men were executed.

      The same number of men were put to death this year as in 2016, which had the fewest executions in 2 decades. But even with its relatively low number, Texas was still the state with the most executions in the country. This isn't unusual given that the state has put to death nearly 5 times more individuals than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

      Texas accounted for 30 % of the nation's 23 executions in 2017. Arkansas was 2nd in the country with 4. Last year, Georgia put more people to death than Texas - the 1st time Texas hasn't been responsible for the most executions since 2001.

      4 more men got cells on death row.

      1 more person was sentenced to death this year than in 2015 and 2016, when only 3 men were handed the death penalty in each of those years.

      The number of new sentences, which ranged in the 20s and 30s each year in the early 2000s, dropped in 2005 after jurors were given the option to sentence convicts to life without the possibility of parole as an alternative to the death penalty. Before then, if a capital murder convict wasn't sentenced to death, he or she would be eligible for parole after 40 years. About 10 people in Texas were sentenced each year after that until the additional decrease in 2015.

      2 men died while awaiting execution.

      Joseph Lave and Raymond Martinez both died this year before they were taken to the death chamber, even though they had had extended stays in prison.

      Lave passed away more than 22 years after his murder conviction, and Martinez had lived more than 30 years with a death sentence.

      4 men had their sentences changed from death to life in prison.

      2 U.S. Supreme Court decisions this year have so far resulted in the reduction of 3 death sentences to life in prison. The high court ruled against Texas in the death penalty cases of Duane Buck and Bobby Moore.

      Buck reached a plea agreement with Harris County prosecutors to change his death sentence to life in October after a February ruling by the court said his case was prejudiced by an expert trial witness who claimed Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black.

      In Moore's case, the justices invalidated Texas' method for determining if a death-sentenced inmate was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Though Moore's case has yet to be resolved (Harris County has asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reduce his sentence to life), 2 other men on death row with intellectual disability claims received life sentences after the ruling.

      Another man this April received a new punishment hearing in a 1991 murder and pled guilty, landing four consecutive life sentences over the death penalty, according to the Texas death penalty report.

      9 men narrowly escaped execution - for now.

      Executions were scheduled - then canceled - for 9 men this year. 6 were stopped by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in light of pending appeals, and one was stopped by a federal court, the report said.

      1 man, Larry Swearingen, evaded execution in November because of a clerical error, and convicted serial killer Anthony Shore's death was postponed because prosecutors were concerned he would confess to the murder for which Swearingen was convicted.

      (Source: Texas Tribune)

      Nov. 23

      Professor explains why Texas Executes so many Prisoners

      If Harris County were its own state, it would have a more active death chamber than the entire rest of the country - except for the rest of Texas.

      Of the 1,465 U.S. executions in the modern death penalty era, 125 have come from Harris County - roughly 8 %. The next-closest executioner is Dallas County, with 55 death sentences carried out since the Supreme Court reinstated the ultimate punishment in 1976.

      Houston's reputation as ground zero for the death penalty, it seems, is well-earned - even though prosecutors here have been less apt to dole out capital sentences in recent years.

      But while the numbers are stark, the reasons behind the Bayou City's apparent zeal for capital punishment are less apparent. It's not driven by public support for the practice. It's not driven by an unusually high crime rate or by especially heinous murders.

      So what is it? What sets apart jurisdictions that frequently turn to capital punishment from those that don't?

      That is one of the questions Frank Baumgartner and his co-authors explore in Deadly Justice, a numbers-heavy study of capital punishment released this month.

      The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political science professor took some time this week to field questions from the Chronicle about his new book and its implications in the Houston area.

      Houston Chronicle: So, Harris County is known as the capital of capital punishment - why is that? Are Houstonians just more supportive of it?

      Frank Baumgartner: Well, actually I would say 2 things. We got data from a Rice University Houston-area poll and it turns out the public opinion in Houston is less supportive for the death penalty than in the rest of Texas.

      In general across the country we don't find any correlation between public opinion and executions, and the reason for that is that if you don't support capital punishment you're not allowed to sit on a jury.

      The key driver in the system is the choices that district attorneys make, because they start the process and they get to pick and choose whether to seek death. Looking at all 3,000 counties in the U.S. there are just a few counties that have executed more than, say, 10 people - there's only 20 counties like that - and it's really astounding that there'd be so much concentration in a few jurisdictions. There's really no rhyme or reason to it.

      Harris County has far more executions than any other county in the country.

      HC: It's not that Houston has more horrific crimes?

      FB: No, not at all. I think it's something about a local culture that develops around the courthouse. Most counties never go there, but a few counties happen to sucessfully carry through to the end a death sentence - and then when the next really bad murder happens the prosecutors say, "Well this is just as bad as that one where we sought death so we kind of have to do it again this time."

      HC: We hear a lot about botched executions - is this happening more than it used to - and why we aren't seeing these botched executions in Texas? Or is it just a matter of time?

      FB: Lethal injection is a medicalized procedure but in most states no doctors are allowed to participate so I think it does lend itself to botches in a way that other methods like firing squad or hangings did not.

      But Texas has a lot more practice. So there have been fewer botches in Texas because I think their teams in the corrections department are relatively in practice. In carrying out 400 or 500 hundreds executions they've just done it a lot more.

      These charts show the average wait time before an execution is carried out in some of the nation's busiest death chambers.

      HC: People always seem to express frustration over the length of the delays - sometimes it's 20 years. Is Texas an outlier in this or is this a pretty normal timeframe here?

      FB: The average as of 2015 is about 20 years delay from crime to execution, so that's pretty shocking. There's three shockers. One is the extreme delay - that's 20 years in solitary confinement. So it's 20 years of harsh punishment followed by execution. The other shocker is that we only carry out 13 % of the death sentences. It's just astounding. And the 3rd shocker is that even when the governor signs a death warrant it's not usually carried out.

      On average, those things are cancelled.

      HC: So you've been looking at this for a while - how are the questions and discussion around the use of the death penalty changing?

      FB: I think the biggest change was in the 1990s we started to pay serious attention to the concept of innocence and whether there might be innocent people on death row and whether we should celebrate it when we identify them and they're exonerated or if we should interpret that number as catastrophic.

      I think the innocence argument has really shaken people's faith that you can count on the government to get it right every single time.

      HC: One of the topics that comes up a lot now - and has been written about a lot - is one of your chapter titles: "Is the death penalty dying?" Is it?

      FB: I think it's in a stranglehold.

      I think the system is so tied up in knots, partly because of the concern of executing an innocent person. It's really hard to justify or have enthusiasm about a system so dysfunctional as the current modern death penalty, even if you're a prosecutor.

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      October 22

      An Awkward Death-Row Moment

      You find out the guy you're about to execute tonight may confess to a murder you want to execute a guy for a month from now. Awkward! Death row inmates are held in solitary confinement, so the union for prison guards has alleged that, if the two men conspired and even passed documents between their cells, as prosecutors allege, they were able to do so because of understaffing at Texas prisons. Certainly, this is more reason for courts to allow DNA testing in Swearingen's case - which the Court of Criminal Appeals recently denied - to make sure they're executing the right guy. Read article below for more information...

      Texas Death Row plot triggers call for more Prison Guards

      The gurney in Huntsville is where Texas' condemned are strapped down to receive lethal doses of drugs.

      After a bizarre death row confession plot between 2 prisoners slated for execution, the correctional officers' union is calling for more staffing they say could have prevented the scheme that ultimately derailed the state's effort to put to death a Houston-area serial killer.

      "This was definitely a security breakdown," said Lance Lowry, who heads the Texas Correctional Employees union based in Huntsville. "You're playing Russian roulette when you don't have enough security."

      Texas prisons have more inmates per officer than other large states like New York and California, he said, adding that death row in particular needs "a lot more officers."

      But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice begged to differ.

      "Death row is appropriately staffed and all critical positions are filled," spokesman Jason Clark said Friday. "Staffing played no role in this confession scheme between death row offenders."

      The hand-wringing over staffing questions stems from an alleged plot hatched between condemned inmates Anthony Shore and Larry Swearingen, which came to light this week (Oct. 18) only hours before Shore was set to die by lethal injection.

      A judge late Wednesday stayed Shore's execution for 90 days after prosecutors said the four-time killer had admitted to an abandoned plan to confess to Swearingen's crime, the 1998 killing in Montgomery County of college student Melissa Trotter.

      Swearingen has long professed his innocence, though the Willis man is still slated for execution in November.

      Shore, on the other hand, has consistently admitted to the 1992 killing of Maria del Carmen Estrada - for which he was convicted - as well as the gruesome strangulations of 14-year-old Laurie Tremblay, 9-year-old Diana Rebollar and 16-year-old Dana Sanchez.

      But sometime in July, he allegedly agreed to take responsibility for Trotter's murder as well, even stashing material from the Montgomery County murder - including a hand-drawn map marking the supposed location of more evidence - in his death row cell at the Polunsky Unit near Livingston.

      When prosecutors discovered the suspicious items in Shore's cell, it threatened to muddy the waters in the already troubled Swearingen case.

      Then on Tuesday - about 24 hours before Shore's scheduled execution - Shore told investigators he'd only considered confessing to get his friend off, and not because he'd actually committed the crime. The multiple murderer also agreed to answer questions about other cases, and a judge greenlit pushing back his execution till January.

      It's still not entirely clear how the two prisoners became friends, or how Shore managed to acquire materials relating to Swearingen's case. TDCJ officials declined to offer specifics citing an ongoing investigation, but were willing to speak in generalities.

      It's not difficult for men to talk to each other on death row, even though they spend most of their day alone in a cell, according to Clark.

      "It's something you really can't prevent," he said.

      When prisoners are let out for recreation, they may be able to talk to other death row inmates in neighboring caged recreation areas. And even when they're in their cells, they're able to talk by shouting out the door slot, through the vents, or sometimes through toilets, Lowry said.

      But passing letters, legal materials or other items is not allowed - and a little trickier to pull off.

      Instead of old-fashioned cell bars, death row cells have a solid door, but the crack underneath offers a way to push out small notes or "kites." To reel in illicit missives from neighbors, prisoners will go "fishing" with hand-made contraptions fashioned from bedsheets, paper and other readily available materials. But sometimes, locked-in prisoners get help from inmate workers known as porters.

      "Porters passing notes is something we've dealt with with all inmates," Clark said. "They have a lot of time on their hands so they try to come up with new and inventive ways to beat our security measures."

      Clark declined to say whether Shore and Swearingen had been housed near each other leading up to the plot, though Lowry said death row inmates are moved to different cells on a weekly basis for security.

      "We need a lot more officers on those cell blocks," the union chief said. "A lot of people think those inmates are locked in a cell so they can't do anything, but that's not always the case."

      But even more officers probably wouldn't have been enough to stop the supposed friendship between Shore and Swearingen, Lowry admitted, though it may have prevented any potential transfer of case materials.

      "With the current staffing levels and security levels, they can't stop it," he said. "I think people need to take a more ethical look at the amount of work these guys do - and they're incredibly understaffed."

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      August 19

      As Lethal Injection Lawsuit continues, Texas replenishes Execution Drug Supplies

      Even with a lawsuit over lethal injection drugs winding its way through court, Texas has managed to replenish its supply.

      The last doses of the state's execution drugs, pentobarbital, were set to expire in January, just days before a scheduled execution. A new record indicates that the supply won't expire until July 2018, well past all scheduled executions.

      It's unclear whether the state purchased more of the drug or just established a new expiration date, and Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark declined to clarify.

      Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, wasn't surprised to learn of the state's renewed stock.

      "While Texas has from time to time stated that it's having difficulty obtaining pentobarbital, it has always been able to obtain the drugs to carry out executions," he said. "When it's needed the drugs, Texas has always found them."

      Since 2012, the state has used a single-drug protocol, administering a lethal dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital.

      On Thursday, the US Food and Drug Administration told Texas and Arizona that over a thousand vials of drugs they ordered for executions in their states would not be released to them. the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Arizona Department of Corrections ordered sodium thiopental from India in 2015. The drugs were and seized by U.S. Customs. The confiscated shipments have been refused because they seem to contain unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs.

      Texas came close to exhausting its supplies with executions still on the calendar in spring 2015. Ultimately, TDCJ managed to get more of the lethal drug, but Clark declined to offer details except to say that no executions in the Lone Star State have been delayed due a lack of execution drugs.

      A records request last month showed that eight pentobarbital doses were set to expire in July 2017 and another 10 in January.

      1 of those doses was used in the July 27 execution of Taichin Preyor, leaving 9 that expire just after the new year.

      And now, instead of 8 doses expiring on July 20, 2017, state logs list eight doses received that day as "return from supplier" and set to expire on July 20, 2018.

      "Given the documents supplied by TDCJ designating that these vials were returned to the supplier and then the reemergence of vials with a brand new expiration date exactly one year out, an educated guess is that they're using the same drugs that they previously stated already expired," said Maurie Levin, a Texas death penalty lawyer with experience in lethal injection litigation. "But because they insist on keeping this information secret, we don't know what they're doing."

      Currently, the state is embroiled in a lawsuit over an intercepted order of another lethal injection drug, sodium thiopental. The powerful drug was part of the execution process until 2011 when dwindling supplies forced the state to replace it with pentobarbital as part of a 3-drug cocktail.

      The following year, the state switched from a 3-drug mix to a single dose of pentobarbital.

      But when pentobarbital suppliers started drying up, Texas started searching for other lethal injection drugs.

      That search landed Texas in hot water when authorities at Bush Intercontinental Airport seized 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental en route to Hunstville from India-based supplier Harris Pharma.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration later said the drugs were improperly labeled and not approved for injection in humans, but TDCJ this year filed a lawsuit demanding the return of what state officials deemed an "unjustified seizure."

      Although the detained drugs appear to have expired in May, Texas has continued its legal action, which also seeks to lift the FDA's ban on importation of sodium thiopental for law-enforcement use.

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      July 29

      Death Row Sentencing In Texas Has Significantly Decreased
      Texas carried out its 5th execution of the year Thursday night, but overall executions are dwindling, and that trend is likely to continue.

      Last year, Texas executed 7 inmates on death row.

      That was the lowest number in the past 20 years.

      Kristin Houle suggests that the state will keep following that trend.

      She is with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

      "Well, Texas like the rest of the United States has been experiencing a steady decline in use of the death penalty," Houle says.

      This decline can be attributed, in part to sentencing.

      Houle says there is a big difference from 1999 when Texas peaked at sentencing 48 people to death row and only sentencing 3 in the past 2 years.

      She says what's led to the decrease in sentencing is cases being put on hold and advancements in forensic science.

      "Where the science that was presented at the original trial has been called into question or even debunked," Houle says.

      Although, executions are decreasing in the U.S., she says Texas continues to account for about 1/3 of them.

      "This year so far Texas has carried out five of the 16 executions nationwide," Houle says.

      In the state, there are 5 more executions scheduled for this year.

      (Source: houstonpublicmedia.org)


      Capital Punishment, 2014-2015

      By Bureau of Justice Statistics,
      "Two states accounted for 80% of the executions [in 2016]:
      Georgia executed nine inmates,
      and Texas executed seven."

      Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas' Death Row

      By Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, 2015

      "Every individual on Texas' death row thus spends approximately 23 hours a day in complete isolation for the entire duration of their sentence, which, on average, lasts more than a decade."

      May 4

      13 % of Texas Death Row Inmates wait 25 years or more for Execution

      Texas has executed 23 inmates since 2014, but 32 of the 238 condemned inmates have been awaiting execution for 25 years or more. That wait is nearly a decade more than the average time elapsed between conviction and execution nationally.

      Scroll through the gallery to see which Texas death row inmates have waited more than 25 years for execution.

      For some Texas death row inmates, being condemned can feel like a life sentence.

      Roughly 13 % (30 of 238) of the inmates awaiting execution in the Lone Star State have been on death row for 25 years or more. That length of stay is nearly a decade above the national average time awaiting execution of 15 years and 9 months.

      The longest resident of death row in Texas, Raymond Riles, has been sitting in solitary confinement (except for doctor visits and court appearances) since February 1976.

      Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 41 inmates on death row have died either of natural causes or suicide while awaiting execution.

      This is in a state that has executed 23 people in the last 3 years and isn't shy about carrying out death sentences.

      But, the state is also suing the federal government to get a hold of a shipment of the lethal injection drug Pentobarbital.

      While that is tied up in court, there's little the state can do if it runs out of the current supply of the sedative, prolonging the time on death row for the inmates and the wait for the victim's families.

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      Feb. 11

      Meet the Texas Warden who supervised the Most Executions

      People against the death penalty protest outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas.

      It's execution day, and there have been no last minute reprieves.

      "I don't think we've ever executed an innocent person," said retired warden Charles Thomas O'Reilly.

      The condemned killer now walks to the death chamber, knowing nothing can save him now.

      "Myself and the chaplain, we're in the death house with the inmate," O'Reilly explained.

      It's a process O'Reilly knows intimately.

      Between 2004 and 2010, O'Reilly supervised 140 executions. The retired warden says each one was different.

      "We had one guy that got in there, and he cracked jokes the whole time he was in there," O'Reilly said.

      Among those executions, 1 was a woman, Frances Newton, in 2005.

      "She didn't give us any trouble. We treated her with as much dignity as we would anybody else that would be in there," O'Reilly said.

      He also watched over the execution of one of the most notorious criminals in Texas history: Angel Resendiz, the so-called "railroad killer" who traveled the country by rail, killing as many as 14 people, including Dr. Claudia Benton of West University Place.

      "These are evil people," O'Reilly said. "While I believe there's a lot of good in the world, there's also evil in the world."

      O'Reilly says he sleeps well at night -- no nightmares, no regrets.

      "If you're a warden at the Walls, you're gonna preside over executions," O'Reilly said. "If that's a problem for you, don't take the job."

      On the day of execution, the prisoner would be brought to Huntsville from death row in Livingston. O'Reilly would meet with the prisoner that afternoon, explain the process to him or her, and as the final hour approached, he would say, "It's time."

      A team of guards would strap the inmate into the gurney and then, IVs would be inserted into his arms.

      O???Reilly's would be the last voice the condemned would ever hear.

      After that, by remote control, O'Reilly would turn on a light in another room where someone whose identity would be kept secret started the flow of drugs.

      "He makes his final statement and then he goes to sleep," O'Reilly explained.

      The retiree looks back at his career and says supervising more executions than any warden in Texas history is not what he wants to be remembered by.

      O'Reilly says he'd rather be remembered as a good and fair warden who was just doing his job.

      (Source: KHOU news)

      Jan. 28

      Report: Texas bought seized execution drugs from India

      Texas prison officials in 2015 arranged to buy lethal-injection drugs from a company in India that was busted for selling psychotropic drugs and opioids illegally to people in Europe and the United States, a new report claims.

      When that deal fell through, they bought $25,000 worth of execution drugs from another supplier in India, a shipment seized in Houston by U.S. drug enforcers as an illegal importation, according to the report in BuzzFeed News.

      BuzzFeed, in a detailed story posted late Thursday, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials notified the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Jan. 8, 2015 that they would be importing a large amount of sodium thiopental, Texas' execution drug, as required by a DEA license the agency holds.

      "TDCJ will be importing Thiopental Sodium in 1 gram vials for a total of 500 to 1,000 grams per purchase/importation," a DEA investigative report published with the article shows. "TDCJ will be importing from the following supplier: Provizer Pharma."

      Before the sale could be completed, however, Indian drug enforcement authorities raided Provizer Pharma's offices in the city of Surat, arrested five employees and seized an assortment of drugs, many of which are used as "party pills" in the United States.

      India's Narcotics Control Bureau called the raid a "significant seizure."

      Weeks later, Texas turned to another supplier in India -- identified in leaked DEA documents as Chris Harris -- and that shipment was seized in July 2015 at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. A second shipment bound for Arizona was seized at the same time.

      The seizures came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had warned Texas and its supplier, along with Arizona and Nebraska, that attempts to import the drugs would be illegal and that the shipments would be confiscated, officials earlier confirmed. A federal court at one point blocked its importation.

      The BuzzFeed report provides new details about the source of Texas' execution drugs, long a secret that the state has battled in courts to keep out of public view, and of the lengths to which Texas and other states have gone to obtain them.

      In recent years, as most companies in the United States and Europe have stopped making the drugs used in U.S. executions or prohibited their sale for lethal use, Texas and other states have had to resort to secondary suppliers where purchases have proven to be much more difficult.

      Critics of the death penalty also have questioned whether the quality of those drugs can more easily be compromised, and whether they will kill condemned inmates without pain and suffering -- a key element in whether the use of those drugs could compromise the legal administration of the death penalty.

      The Texas-bound executions drugs seized in July 2015 remain in DEA custody.

      Earlier this month, Texas sued the FDA seeking to release the drugs, accusing the agency of "gross incompetence or willful obstruction," according to court filings.

      In its lawsuit, Texas referred to the source of the lethal drugs only as a "foreign distributor."

      While the source of Texas' execution drugs used to be publicly available, state officials in recent years have made information about their suppliers a guarded secret as suppliers for the drugs dried up, some driven by pressure from death penalty opponents in the United States and Europe.

      Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered the information secret, and state officials have fought since then to keep as many details as possible under wraps, including a threat against the DEA not to identify the supplier in the pending lawsuit over the confiscation.

      Texas prison officials declined late Thursday to discuss any details in the BuzzFeed story, other than to say they had "not engaged in any transaction" with Provizer. They declined further comment.

      "The story is highly speculative and inaccurate," said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark, declining to discuss any details.

      "TDCJ has a statutory responsibility to carry out court ordered executions in Texas," Clark said. "All drugs used in the lethal injection process are legally purchased and are tested by an independent lab for both potency and purity to ensure they meet national standards."

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      Jan. 13

      The Texas Death Penalty is Dying

      The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), a statewide grassroots organization working to end the death penalty, recently published its annual death penalty report, which illustrates that some Texans are re-thinking their views on capital punishment. TCADP's findings reveal that prosecutors and jurors are losing interest in sentencing defendants to die. Given that Texas' death penalty has been plagued by inequity, inefficiency, and inaccuracy, it makes sense that capital punishment is falling out of favor.

      2016 marks the 2nd year in a row of Texas juries sentencing the fewest number of people to death since 1976. Death sentences peaked at 48 in 1999, while there has been a total of 3 this year. Executions in Texas have also steadily declined to the lowest number in 20 years; last year, there were 7.

      Harris and Dallas counties have traditionally been known for their high number of death sentences. However, prosecutors in these counties have increasingly elected not to pursue that punishment, and jurors have chosen alternative sentences such as life without parole. Consequently, no one has been sentenced to death in either county in 2 years.

      Moreover, when Texas has executed people, it hasn't been pretty. Texas is America's leading death penalty state, executing 538 individuals since 1982, and the state has faced a number of controversies.

      Rather than punishing only the worst of the worst, the death penalty has disproportionately singled out poor, mentally handicapped, and minority defendants. People who cannot afford a private attorney are at a of receiving a death sentence in Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a U.S. non-profit national organization that provides information on the death penalty. The TCADP report found that almost 1/2 of those executed in Texas over the last 2 years had severe and mitigating impairments such as mental disabilities. The report also found that 80% of those executed in Texas over the last 5 years were people of color.

      In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over the case of Duane Buck, who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to die. He is languishing on Texas' death row, in part, because of allegedly tainted testimony that Buck presented a higher risk of future danger because he is African American. When confronted by problems like these, capital punishment begins to look less like a solution and more like an injustice.

      There were 7 stays of execution in Texas in 2016 - one for a man named Charles Flores. The primary evidence against Flores was a hypnotized eyewitness. Jeff Wood also received a stay, and the case against him included testimony from a discredited psychologist who did not bother to even interview the accused. Another stay was issued for Robert Pruett, who was scheduled for execution despite the existence of unexamined evidence, as well as conflicting DNA evidence, from the crime scene.

      Texas is no stranger to the high price of the death penalty. Costs of a single death penalty trial run close to $3 million dollars, according to some studies, and it is 'we the people' who pay. Jasper County, Texas, increased property taxes by 7% to pay for 2 capital trials, while Kaufman County, Texas, is expected to pay $500,000 for expert witnesses in a single capital trial. In fact, it is only because Kaufman County is a part of the Capital Defense Fund Program that they are not expected to pay an additional $1.3 million dollars.

      We have poured millions into the death penalty, but the return on our investment has been minimal at best. Texas has wrongly convicted and sentenced at least 13 people. Others have been executed who might have been innocent.

      Meanwhile, studies show the death penalty doesn't protect society, and many murder victims' families say the complex and lengthy process doesn't offer them the swift justice or closure that they seek. Some feel the system forces them to constantly relive the murders of their loved ones as they endure ongoing legal wrangling and incessant media attention.

      Given the facts, it should not surprise anyone that Texans are losing faith in the death penalty. We like solutions that work. Capital punishment does not work, and that may be why Texas' death penalty is in a steep decline.

      (Source: Texas Tribune)


      Dec 14

      Tales from the Texan who cooked 218 Last Meals for Death Row Inmates

      Brian D. Price went to prison in 1989.

      "For the assault of my ex-wife and the kidnapping of my brother in law. A domestic dispute that got way out of hand and I lost control for a while and it cost me 14 years of my life. I ended up at the Walls Unit Prison in Huntsville, Texas, that's where the executions take place."

      Everyone in prison gets a job, and Price was assigned to the kitchen. One day, the inmate who usually prepared the last meals for death row inmates wasn't able to cook, so they asked Brian if he would step in. The prison can't force someone to do it, but Price agreed.

      "I decided if I was going to do the last meal, no matter what their crime was, I was going to try and do it as if it was someone I knew and loved, a family member. I wanted to prepare it to the best of my ability with what we had to work with. When someone would request a last meal, they'd request sometimes some extravagant meals. Most of the time they didn't get what they requested because it had to be something we could prepare right there out of the kitchen commissary. If they wanted a lobster, they got a piece of frozen pollock, which I'd try to gussy up a little bit. I'd wash the breading off and put my own batter on it, made it look like something from Long John Silvers so they thought they were getting something from the free world, at least. If you wanted a steak, you got a hamburger steak. Well, after I prepared that last meal for that particular inmate, a man who had committed a murder ...

      I'm Christian, so that night I prayed over the meal and asked the lord to give him forgiveness, if he hadn't already. The next day Sergeant Cook called me into his office and said, 'Hey Price, the guy they killed last night, he sent a word of thanks over to you. He said he really enjoyed that meal.' When I heard that, it really had an affect on me. I thought, well, that was probably the last thanks that man gave anyone in this world. I maybe brought a little bit of a smile on his face before he left."

      Price told his supervisor he'd take over the last meals, and for 10 years, from 1991 to 2001, he cooked 218 last meals in the state of Texas.

      There was 1 particular meal he made over and over again.

      "The most requested last meal, believe it or not, was a cheeseburger and french fries. Comfort food. We made homemade buns for it. It was really big, a monster burger."

      There were also some unusual requests.

      "1 man wanted dirt from the grave he was going to be buried in for his last meal. Some type of voodoo ritual. But we gave him yogurt instead."

      I wondered if an inmate could ask for as much food as he pleased.

      "They would request whatever they wished but they wouldn't get it. One man wanted 24 tacos and 6 enchiladas, a whole bunch of stuff. Captain Parkin said, 'No, he can't eat all that. Just give him s6tacos, a couple enchiladas.' A reasonable amount that he could probably finish before he went to meet his maker."

      In 2011, a Texas inmate named Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist gang member, was executed for chaining a man to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him to his death. For his last meal he requested 2 chicken fried steaks, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, 3 fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.

      Brewer didn't eat any of it. Not a single bite.

      Prison officials used this as an excuse to take away an inmate's right to a chosen last meal. In 2011 the state of Texas stopped allowing inmates to choose their last meal. Instead they would eat whatever's on the menu in the chow hall that day.

      This really upset Price, who was already years out of prison, married and running his restaurant. He felt someone on death row was already paying the ultimate price: losing their life for the crime they committed. He thinks everyone deserves 1 last bit of comfort and 1 last choice.

      He felt so strongly, he offered to come back to the prison and work for free.

      "I offered to prepare the last meals again, myself, at my own expense."

      His offer was denied.

      When Price went to prison he supported the death penalty, but after he started cooking last meals he changed his mind.

      "It's a horrible thing. there's only 1 way to paint capital punishment, which I'm totally against, and it's painted jet black. That's what it is, it's a tragedy."

      Price has a book you can order called Meals To Die For. This interview is a part of my podcast, Your Last Meal, which also features the rapper Prodigy from Mobb Deep.

      (Source: Rachel Belle, KIRO Radio news)

      Nov. 23

      Legislation Promises Stiffer Punishment For Targeting Police Officers

      New legislation filed at the state capitol aims to provide stiffer punishment for those caught targeting police and first responders.

      Following the shooting of San Antonio Police Det. Benjamin Marconi, the city's police Chief William McManus said that it was obvious, the uniform, not the officer was the target.

      It's that idea that has spurred the creation of new legislation ahead of the January session that would enhance crimes against a police officer.

      Charlie Wilkinson is the executive director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas also known as CLEAT. Wilkinson says CLEAT is in support of the bill because it creates a new class of hate crimes when police officers and first responders are the intended target.

      "This was Detective Marconi doing his job and filling in in a place where he was needed and he was targeted simply because he was a police officer," Wilkinson says.

      The bill's author, Dallas Republican State Rep. Jason Villalba says it wouldn't only apply when an officer is targeted and shot.

      "Let's say you are driving a car and you see a cop and you take your truck and you plow into their car, and the police officer isn't harmed. Obviously that isn't a case that is going to be a capital crime that results in the death penalty. It's going to be a crime that results in a 2nd degree felony.

      If we have a 2nd degree felony under our statute it moves up to the next highest class," Villalba explains.

      The bill will be introduced in the legislative session that begins in January.

      (Source: tpr.org)

      Nov. 23rd

      Texas Death Case Tests Standards For Defining Intellectual Disability

      The U.S. Supreme Court hears a case that questions intellectual disabilities and the death penalty - specifically, what standards states may use in determining whether a defendant convicted of murder is mentally deficient.

      In 2002, the justices barred the execution of the intellectually disabled.

      But it left the states considerable room to decide who is "mentally retarded." Two years ago, the court put its thumb more firmly on the scale, telling states they were not free to use a rigid IQ number to determine "retardation," but instead "must be informed by the medical community's diagnostic framework."

      Now the state of Texas is defending its use of standards that major medical organizations do not endorse. Instead, the state's test is based on what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals called "a consensus of Texas citizens," that not all those who meet the "social services definition" of "retardation" should be exempt from the death penalty.

      The man at the center of the case is Bobby J. Moore, whose gun discharged during a botched robbery, killing a 70-year-old store clerk in Houston in 1980.

      There is no doubt about his guilt or about the fact that he has limited mental abilities. Even the prosecution's psychologist testified at trial that Moore likely "suffers from borderline intellectual functioning."

      Moore's lawyers argue that Texas is using outdated standards to determine "retardation," instead of the current medical standards required by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state of Texas argues that there is no national standard, and that the state should not be limited to current medical diagnostic tools or standards.

      Moore's lawyers note that, at age 13, he didn't understand the days of the week, the months of the year, how to tell time, or the principle that subtraction is the reverse of addition. He failed first grade twice, but school officials continued to advance him in order to keep him with children of a similar age. In addition to his other difficulties, his father beat him repeatedly over his failures in school. And when Moore was 14, his father threw him out of the house to live on the streets.

      Moore's IQ tests range from a low of 57 to a high of 78 with an average of just over 70 - definitely in the retardation range.

      All of that led a Texas trial judge to conclude that under current medical standards, it would violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute Moore.

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed that decision, declaring that states are not obligated to use current medical standards alone. Instead, the Texas court used the definition in the diagnostic manual put out by the American Association on Mental Retardation in 1992 as opposed to the revised manual put out in 2010.

      The state court said that using that earlier standard, Moore was not mentally deficient citing that he was able to adapt to circumstances. As a young teenager, Moore adapted to life on the streets and robbed stores to finance a drug and alcohol habit. Moreover, the appeals court noted he was able to make and execute plans. For example, during the 1980 robbery, he wore a wig to conceal his identity.

      Using these factors, the appeals court concluded that Moore was not sufficiently disabled to qualify for exemption from the death penalty.

      Now the Supreme Court will decide, and its ruling could well affect the standards in other death penalty states.

      (Source: apr.org)

      Oct. 31

      Activists March Against The Death Penalty

      Although she grew up in a pro-death penalty Republican family, Terrie Been chose to speak out in front of a crowd on Saturday for her brother Jeff Wood, a Texas death-row prisoner whose execution was halted in August.

      While Wood didn't shoot the victim, he was sentenced to the death penalty under Texas' Law of Parties for his involvement in a 1996 murder case. The ruling has since been appealed by Wood's lawyers and will be sent to the original trial court for re-evaluation.

      "I want the world to know that my brother, Jeff Wood, is not a monster," Been said. "I want the world to know that he is not the worst of the worst. Jeff is a human being, he does not deserve to be referred to as number 999256."

      A crowd of more than 30 people consisting of activists, student organizations, UT students and families of death row inmates gathered at the south side of the Texas State Capitol for the 17th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

      However, Been wished her voice could be heard by a larger audience.

      "It's breaking my heart." Been said. "Every year there are less and less people."

      Linguistics senior Elizabeth Dean, a member of the International Socialist Organization, said the death penalty is a cruel and undeserved punishment for people who don't get proper representation.

      "The rich committing crimes can buy their way out of it, and the poor, innocent, are subject to far worse penalties." Dean said. "Especially, black and brown people are targeted by the police."

      After an open-mic speech at the Capitol, the crowd walked up to the governor's mansion while shouting chants like, "Texas death row, we say hell no," and "Law of Parties, shut 'em down."

      As the 2nd-most populous state, Texas has accounted for more than 1/3 of the nation's total executions since 1976, but the number is declining, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      "There are increasingly signs that conservatives, as well as liberals, are concerned about problems with the administration of the death penalty," said Raoul Schonemann, clinical professor and co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic. "The repeal by the Nebraska legislature in 2015 may signal abolition by other 'red states' in the future. So while I don't think Texas will abolish the death penalty soon, I also don't think it's inconceivable that it will happen eventually."

      (Source: The (Univ. Texas) Daily Texan)

      Oct. 24

      She watched her husband get sentenced to Death. Now she's becoming a lawyer to save him and others.

      When her boyfriend Juan Balderas was sentenced to death in March 2014, Yancy Escobar Balderas couldn't understand what was happening. She sobbed uncontrollably as the lawyers she believes failed her soon-to-be husband walked out of the courtroom.

      2 1/2 years later, on a Saturday earlier this month, Yancy sat in a classroom at the University of Houston, dressed in a smart suit, holding her new, hard-earned paralegal certificate. Yancy - a 29-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who is the 1st from her family to graduate from high school - is turning her experience of marrying a death row inmate into a powerful motivation to become a lawyer and help defend other people facing capital punishment.

      "After sitting through this trial, seeing the injustices in Juan's case, I want to do something where I can make a change in the system, in people's lives," she told me this week.

      Yancy and Juan, who went to the same middle school, started dating when they were 14 and 15. Her family emigrated from El Salvador, and she was undocumented when she was brought to the U.S. at age 6. (She's now a U.S. citizen.)

      Theirs was a pretty typical childhood romance: Yancy remembers holding Juan's hand in church, and him getting all dressed up to meet her mother. "We would just talk every day on the phone, and he would always try extra to make me happy," she said. "He was my best friend."

      The 2 grew up in a rough neighborhood on the edge of Houston's suburban sprawl. Juan, who had done time in juvenile detention, was involved with a street gang of 18- and 19-year-olds known as La Tercera Crips. Yancy says he was trying to avoid the group, go to college, and move on with his life - but he wasn't able to escape.

      On December 16, 2005, when Juan was 19, he was arrested as part of a larger raid picking up seven alleged gang members who police said were behind a string of shootings. He was charged with murder, accused of gunning down 16-year-old Eduardo Hernandez in a bleak apartment complex near an expressway.

      When she first heard that her boyfriend was arrested, Yancy was reeling. "I was in disbelief," she said. Because she didn't own a car, she had to take 3 buses to get to the Harris County jail in downtown Houston to visit him. He said he was innocent, and she stood with him.

      Juan and Yancy waited and waited as his trial date kept getting pushed back. The trial didn't actually begin until January 2014 - an extraordinary 8 years after he was arrested, all spent behind bars. The case was delayed because of his lawyer getting sick, changes in judges and prosecutors, and a back-and-forth while the district attorney decided whether or not to seek the death penalty. Moreover, Harris County was facing a backlog of more than 1,000 criminal cases.

      While Juan was waiting for a trial, according to court documents, his brother committed suicide and he wasn't allowed to attend his funeral. Before he was arrested, he was preparing to go to college and study art. Instead, he spent the equivalent of 2 college degrees incarcerated without being convicted of anything.

      Once the trial finally began, Yancy quit her job and stopped going to her community college classes because she couldn't concentrate. She attended Juan's trial every day for 2 months, sitting behind him, filled with nerves.

      Juan's court-appointed lawyer was Jerome Godinich, who has been reprimanded by a federal appeals court for missing deadlines and failing to file appeals in other death penalty cases. A 2009 investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that he represented more criminal clients than any other court-appointed attorney in the county. Between 2006 and 2009, he represented 21 different defendants facing the death penalty - a caseload that legal experts say makes it almost impossible to provide sufficient representation.

      Godinich and his 2nd chair attorney didn't even meet with Juan until just before the trial, and conducted almost no investigation, Yancy said.

      According to Pat Hartwell (an anti-death penalty activist who attended the trial and befriended Yancy), at times during jury deliberations, neither of Juan's lawyers were present while the judge and prosecutors responded to questions from the jury by themselves. Hartwell said that when she confronted Godinich, he told her, "I have another trial to take care of." (Godinich did not respond to a request for comment.)

      On March 14, 2014, the jury sentenced Juan to death. When the foreman read the verdict, "I didn't know what was going on," Yancy told me. "A few jurors were crying, but it was not clicking in my head. Then it became clear to me, the decision - I guess I cried so much, my nose was bleeding."

      2 weeks after the sentence, the couple decided to get married. They had talked about it before, but now they rushed to get it done before Juan was transferred to death row prison, where at the time new marriages were prohibited.

      The 2 stood in an austere visiting room in the Harris County jail, with Yancy in a white dress with her hair done up and Juan in his bright yellow inmate jumpsuit. The jail minister married them while Juan's two sisters, Hartwell, and Yancy's boss looked on. "We felt like little kids all over again," Yancy said. The next day, Juan was taken to death row.

      For the past 2 1/2 years, Yancy has made the 2-hour drive to the state's death row prison in West Livingston just about every Thursday or Friday, talking to Juan through the thick glass panels of the visiting booths. Inmates there aren't allowed to make phone calls, so the couple send handwritten letters back and forth.

      It was Juan, she said, who encouraged her to go back to school; she has an associate degree and is currently working on her bachelor's at the University of Houston. Inspired by how powerless she felt during Juan's trial, she decided she wanted to become a lawyer, and finished a 3-month paralegal course on Oct. 1.

      The intensive course was tough, she said, and she had to stay up late studying legal theories and case law. For one assignment, she was assigned to be a defense attorney for a mock trial, and Juan helped her write her opening statement. When she told him she got her certificate, "he was so proud of me," she said. "Throughout the whole course, he was always motivating me. I do this for him, for me, for our future."

      She recently started as a paralegal intern for Gregory Gardner, a lawyer who's helped other Texas death row inmates win stays of execution. Yancy's personal experience helps make her good at her job, he said. "She's hungry to learn more," Gardner told me. "Her attention to detail is just incredible, she's really smart and dedicated - she's going to be very successful at this."

      She's also volunteered with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and other advocacy groups. Earlier this year, she traveled to Austin with other activists to meet state lawmakers, share her and Juan's story, and lobby them against capital punishment.

      Meanwhile, Juan's case is progressing through several appeals. His new attorneys point to the fact that the only eyewitness to the shooting who identified Juan at the trial - the sister of the victim's girlfriend - gave police officers conflicting statements.

      Several other members of the alleged gang, including the man whom Yancy believes is the real murderer, also got deals from the prosecutor where murder charges against them were reduced to much lower charges in exchange for testifying against Juan, according to court documents. In addition, the lawyers argue, the 8-year delay between Juan's arrest and his trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.

      Because of conflict of interest rules, Yancy might not be able to represent Juan if she does become a lawyer. But she knows his case better than anyone, and is working with his lawyers to help plan the appeal strategy. She's hopeful that he'll get a new trial, and dreams of the day they can be together again after 11 years.

      For now, she wants to use her experience to help other people on death row, especially families like hers that can't afford high-priced attorneys. At Gardner's law firm, she recently started working on her 1st case as a paralegal intern: a death penalty appeal.

      "I'm just blessed to have this opportunity," she said. "To me, it's not just work ... There's someone waiting to die and they've got all this hope on us. We could save their lives."

      (Source: fusion.net)

      Oct. 19

      Legislature must prioritize Death Penalty Appellate Counsel

      The state of Texas's continued reliance on the death penalty as a method of punishment is one of the most divisive issues in state criminal justice policy.

      But this premise garners consensus: If we are to execute people, we must execute the right people, those who actually committed the crimes and who actually merit capital punishment under the laws of our state.

      Unfortunately, Texas's inattention to a major hole in its provision of representation for those facing the death penalty is substantially undermining that protection. Under Texas and federal law, the primary vehicle for correction of error in a criminal case is the 1st direct appeal, taken immediately after a conviction. Following that direct appeal, all subsequent courts that hear challenges to a conviction will defer to many of the factual and legal findings made by that appellate court. Errors not raised or caught at that critical 1st appeal are in many instances forever forfeited. Indeed, Texas has recognized the significance of direct appeal in capital cases by providing that in only capital cases the state's highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, handles direct review.

      Yet Texas has failed to ensure that death row inmates receive adequate appellate counsel in death penalty cases. While the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs provides well-funded and well-supervised counsel in post-appellate habeas proceedings, appointment of appellate counsel happens through a patchwork of county-level policies with little quality oversight.

      Contrary to the American Bar Association's standards for fairness, Texas provides only one, not 2 appellate lawyers for death-sentenced defendants and has poor mechanisms in place to screen lawyers for their skill in litigating appeals prior to appointment. Compensation set by counties for appellate counsel is frequently grossly inadequate and creates pressure on appellate lawyers to take on unmanageable caseloads. The deficiencies are all the more glaring given the superior resources of the state in most capital appeals, which are typically handled by large county district attorney offices with specialized appellate units and multiple lawyers assisting in briefing.

      Such were the conclusions of a statewide taskforce of attorneys, legal scholars and former judges, which I chaired from 2011 to 2013. Our report's findings were powerfully amplified in a recent report issued by the Texas Defender Service, which detailed findings from analysis of direct appeals in capital cases from 2009 to 2015. That report found that the majority of death penalty appeals are handled by solo practitioners; that those lawyers often face vastly superior litigation resources from the state; that appellate defenders are commonly overburdened with caseloads that greatly exceed the norms in other death penalty states; and that the lawyers routinely render substandard performance by filing boilerplate briefs, waiving opportunities to submit reply briefs and failing to seek review before the Supreme Court. Critically, in the time period studied, only 3 defendants had their death sentences reversed on appeal; all were represented by 2 lawyers.

      These issues should be given priority attention in the upcoming legislative session. A statewide appellate defender office, comparable to the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, would be a substantial improvement on the patchwork of appointment, oversight and compensation that currently characterizes capital appellate defense in Texas. Death-sentenced defendants should, as the American Bar Association recommends, enjoy the assistance of two lawyers in their appeals. At a minimum, the Legislature must shore up oversight of appointment and compensation standards that are currently fragmented and inadequate.

      More than 150 years ago, Texas was in the vanguard in creating a right to trial counsel for defendants facing the death penalty, over half a century before the Supreme Court required it. But Texas has not kept up its commitment to fairness and accuracy in capital cases. Removing structural impediments to accurate determinations of who should live or die is a moral imperative. It is well within the capacity of the Texas Legislature to respond to that challenge.

      (source: Opinion; Jennifer Laurin is a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. She was the chair of the American Bar Association Texas Capital Punishment Team that produced the 2013 report "Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy in State Death Penalty Systems: The Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Report."----Austin American-Statesman)

      Oct. 18

      3 Reasons The Death Penalty is Dying

      Have you ever killed somebody? The question in and of itself is haunting.

      Have you ever killed somebody? Each word rattles my soul.

      Have you ever killed somebody? The more times I ask the question, the more times I'm brought face-to-face with my own complicity in killing.

      Most people don't think about it like that. The more times I ask the question to others, the more times I get adamant denials of ever being involved in killing anyone. Yet in the midst of a quickness to absolve ourselves of any evil, there is our death penalty. Each time the State of Texas kills someone, the citizens are responsible. Since 1982, we have killed 538 people.

      There is no hope to be found in what we are. There is only hope to be found in what we can become.

      Recently, the Pew Research Forum reported that support for the death penalty hit its point lowest in four decades. I grabbed my heart and almost fell over.

      Though I'd known that support for the death penalty has been declining for a number of years nationally, this was the first time that I'd realized had fallen so low. Just under 1/2 of Americans now support the death penalty (49 %), while 42 % oppose it. Support is down from a high of 80 % in 1994.

      Support has even dropped 7 % since March of last year.

      The death penalty is dying. How could this be? We've had that killer instinct for so long. People are changing. While I can't say for sure why, 3 possible reasons are worthy of deep thought.

      1. The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. How do you teach someone not to kill by killing? The death penalty is supposed to be a deterrent to killing. But how could it be? Capital punishment teaches people that there are ethical ways of killing. We can't persuade people to stop killing by showing them how to do it again and again. The Death Penalty Information Center has consistently reported that the murder rates in death penalty states are higher than in states that don't have the death penalty. The death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Some people are finally figuring out they are less safe with a death penalty than they are without one.

      2. The death penalty costs too much. A Dallas Morning News article in 1992 showed that the death penalty costs multiple times the amount that it would cost to put someone in a maximum security prison for life. And the cost isn't going down, as the newspaper reported a few years ago that the cost of execution drugs had skyrocketed. Pharmaceutical companies don't want to sell drugs meant to save lives to people dedicated to taking lives. The cost to carry out these executions is only going to continue to grow. The bottom line is that we know it is far more expensive to execute someone than to put them in prison for life. The death penalty is starting to earn a reputation for being another expensive failed government program.

      3. What if we execute someone who is innocent? That's a question that eats at the souls of those with knowledge about the death penalty. I think we already have. Surely out of the hundreds, there's got to be at least one. Was it Carlos De Luna? Was it Cameron Todd Willingham? Or was it someone else entirely? In 2014, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences released a study concluding 1 in 25 sentenced to death in the U.S. is innocent. Despite recent exonerations, Texas has still probably executed many innocent people. There is no way to stop the execution of the innocent without stopping executions entirely.

      The 3 reasons to abolish the death penalty meet to form 1 question.

      Is the death penalty worth it?

      (Source: Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor and activist in Dallas----Dallas Morning News)

      Oct. 11

      Texas Ends 6-Month Streak Without Executions

      Last week, the Lone Star State concluded a record-breaking gap in executions, reports The Houston Press.

      Before last Wednesday, the State of Texas had gone 6 months without putting anyone to death. That's the longest stretch without an execution since 2008. Back then, a moratorium had been called while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the legality of lethal injections.

      It's now been 40 years since SCOTUS reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Kathryn Kase is Executive Director for the Texas Defender Service. She has pointed to several death-penalty cases in which serious questions remain about whether the punishment is appropriate. Kase said there seems to be greater and greater questioning of capital punishment in Texas. "I just get this increasing sense that this is hitting people, at all levels," she said.

      (Source: hppr.org)

      Oct. 11

      Texas will see lowest number of Executions in 20 years

      For the 1st time in 20 years, the number of Texas executions will fall out of double digits this year.

      The 7 men put to death this year are the fewest since 1996, when executions halted amid legal challenges to a new state law intended to hasten the death penalty appeals process, according to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Only 1 more execution is scheduled for 2016.

      "There is clearly a change going on in Texas," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

      Judges and appellate courts rescheduled or stopped executions 15 times for 11 people in 2016. At least 2 judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals have said better lawyering by defense attorneys - including bringing forward better arguments and challenging "junk science" convictions - has contributed to the recent stays.

      The state's highest criminal court sent multiple cases back to trial courts this year to resolve claims relating to potentially faulty evidence, including that of Jeff Wood, who didn't pull the trigger in a murder and claims his sentencing trial was tainted by misleading testimony from a highly criticized psychiatrist nicknamed "Dr. Death."

      "Texas courts are now aware of the dangers associated with forensic sciences and are closely scrutinizing this evidence," said Greg Gardner, a capital defense attorney who represents John Battaglia, the man scheduled for the last execution of the year for killing his 2 daughters.

      2 death penalty cases pending in the U.S. Supreme Court could also be affecting decisions on setting execution dates, Dunham said. Duane Buck and Bobby Moore are currently fighting their death sentences in the nation's highest court.

      Some experts think the enforcement of the death penalty - carrying out executions - is an indicator of the status of the punishment.

      "Looking at the number of executions as a measure of the usage of the death penalty, it shows the death penalty is declining in Texas," Dunham said. "I think even more importantly in the long term is that new death sentences continue to be low. That means there will be fewer and fewer people on the row subject to execution in the future."

      The number of new sentences dropped significantly after 2005, when life without parole became the alternative for jurors in death penalty trials, but the past 2 years have seen even lower numbers. Texas counties have sentenced 3 men to death this year, and only 2 received the penalty last year, according to TDCJ.

      Robert Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said the answer may be as simple as fewer murders.

      "Could it simply mean there are a lot less murders in Texas these last 15 years, so naturally the number of death-eligible defendants is way down as well?" he said in an email. "That, coupled with life without parole option, means less death penalties."

      Murder rates in Texas steadily decreased from 1996 to 2013, dropping from 7.7 to 4.4 murders per 100,000 people, according to FBI crime data. The rate increased slightly the next 2 years.

      Aside from lower murder rates, national support for the death penalty is also declining, according to a recent poll by Pew Research Center. Just under 1/2 of Americans support the punishment, the lowest number in four decades. The poll did not highlight Texas in its report.

      While Texas is seeing a record low in executions, the country's dip is even larger. Nationwide, there have been 16 executions, the fewest in 25 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

      The decrease in Texas plays a major role in the national scope - the state usually accounts for the largest share of the country's executions - but issues with finding and using lethal injection drugs and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Florida's death sentencing process have affected the numbers as well, Dunham said.

      In Texas, there are currently 243 men and women on death row, the lowest in almost 30 years, according to the Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics. The number peaked at 460 in 1999 and has been steadily dropping since.

      Experts were unsure if the drop in executions and new sentences would continue in the future. The numbers seem to ebb and flow, Kepple said.

      (Source: KHOU news)

      Sept. 22

      Capital Punishment should be controlled by State

      It has been just over 5 months since Texas last executed someone. This is the longest stay in executions since 2008, when the Supreme Court was on recess and states could charge people with the death penalty but couldn't execute anyone.

      With this stay, Texas has only executed 6 people this year, meaning this could be the 1st year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974 that Texas' execution count doesn't reach double digits. This has caused many to wonder about the future of the death penalty, instead of highlighting the true issue - that the death penalty is enacted differently throughout the 254 counties in Texas.

      Leading the states, Texas has carried out 537 executions since 1982. But not all counties handle the death penalty in the same way.

      "If Harris County was a state, it would be 2nd only to Texas [in number of executions]," Jim Marcus, clinical professor at and co-director of the UT Law School's Capital Punishment Clinic, said. "But there are 254 counties in Texas, and over a hundred of them haven't used the death penalty."

      If you are prosecuted in Travis County and cannot afford your own lawyer, the county is responsible for funding and appointing your defense lawyer.

      These appointments are often corrupt, with local judges choosing lawyers who aren't versed in defending capital punishment cases without state oversight.

      Other states have statewide indigent defense systems, where the defense lawyers are funded by the state - not the county - and are trained to handle capital punishment cases. In these states, each appeal is overseen by a state office.

      "You get the death penalty not for having committed the worst crime, but for having the worst lawyer," Marcus said. "Texas has chronically and systematically underfunded the defense for years."

      This underfunding is partially due to the defense council not being funded by the state, as many anti-death penalty advocacy groups will attest.

      Tuesday the Texas Defender Service released a report that highlighted the many mistakes that have been made with death penalty cases from Jan. 2009 to Dec. 2015, and recommended Texas create a state office to oversee death penalty appeals.

      In a state where the penal code allows capital felonies to be their own crimes, and where the jury is asked questions that distance them from the severity of the punishment they so often dole out, having a good defense attorney is a basic and necessary human right. A statewide indigent defense system that is funded by the state and forces every death penalty appeal to be overseen by a state office is the only way Texas can hope to account for the disparity in numbers of executions between its different counties. With a system like this in place, it could mean fewer people sent to death row, and that Travis County and Harris County resemble each other enough in their justice systems to make their being a part of the same state more plausible.

      (Source: Emma Berdainer is a philosphy junior from Boulder, Colorodo--The (Univ. Texas) Daily Texan)

      Sept. 13

      Why the Death Penalty is Dying in Texas

      Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service in Houston, says nationwide, there's been a huge drop in death sentences. Texas has had many fewer executions this year than in years past. In 1999, the state sent 30 people to death row.

      "The rate of death sentencing is dropping dramatically in Texas," she says. "Last year, Texas had only 2 new death sentences. This year we've had 3."

      Kase says the reduction makes sense because the system allows for life without parole.

      "[Life without parole] does keep people in prison for life. And if we're wrong, if people are innocent, we can go back and get them," she says, "whereas if they're innocent and they've been executed, we really can't resurrect them."

      If the availability of lethal injection drugs were a factor, Kase says stays of execution would reference that reason. Instead, we're seeing stays for other reasons: because questions arose about whether the state convicted the right person, because experts gave false testimony, because forensic proof in the case - the science - was bad.

      "We're understanding that the evidence that used to convict and put people on death row was not infallible," she says. "When you have doubt like that, the courts should properly put the brakes on things."

      Kase says the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) is responding to the larger conversation nationwide about the viability of the death penalty. Two opinions from CCA judge Elsa Alcala have shown that she thinks the court needs an open discussion of the constitutionality of the death penalty.

      "Practically any murder in the state of Texas could be capital murder," she says, "and if the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst, not every murder should qualify for the death penalty for that to be constitutional. She has also observed that the death penalty has been overused in the state of Texas against African-Americans relative to their representation in the population."

      Texas has led the nation in exonerations, Kase says, which could be a factor in why the state is rethinking the death penalty.

      "Any state that can admit that it's wrong, about putting the wrong people in prison," she says, "I think can rethink the death penalty."

      (Source: KUT news)

      Sept. 7

      Death Penalty does not represent Justice

      I strongly disagree with the recent Amarillo Globe-News editorial on the death penalty (Editorial: Death penalty can be justified, Aug. 20, amarillo.com.)

      Society can be protected without taking another human life since we now have "life without parole" as an optional punishment for capital murder.

      Furthermore, our criminal justice system is very imperfect - many innocent people have been sent to death row - at least 13 in Texas and over 150 nationwide.

      And there is strong evidence that we have executed innocent people.

      Even if there is strong evidence that someone is guilty, the death penalty is applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner because of economic, racial and geographic biases in the criminal justice system.

      Because of these problems, the death penalty will probably be declared unconstitutional in the not-too-distant future.

      David Atwood
      Founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty-Houston

      (Source: Letter to the Editor, Amarillo Globe-News)

      Sept. 1

      Texas hasn't Executed anyone in 148 days. That's a New Record.

      It's been 148 days since Texas executed someone - a remarkable lull in the use of the death penalty for a state that has killed far more people than any other.

      In the nearly 5 months since Pablo Vasquez was killed by lethal injection on April 6, execution after execution in the state has been canceled. In fact, there hasn't been a gap between Texas executions this long since June 2008, according to state records. That gap happened when the Supreme Court temporarily halted the death penalty nationwide during a case on the constitutionality of lethal injection.

      The 2016 hiatus is, in part, a sign of the decline of the death penalty in the Lone Star State. Since 1976, Texas has executed 537 people - more than the next top 6 states combined. At its peak in 2000, the state had 40 executions, more than 1 every other week. That's gradually declined over the years; in 2015, Texas executed 13 people.

      The lull in executions also comes as more judges, public officials and ordinary citizens are speaking out about the questionable practices in some of the state's death penalty convictions.

      "Texans are stepping back from this most irreversible punishment," said Kathryn Kase, the executive director of Texas Defender Services, a nonprofit law firm that defends death row inmates. "More and more people are expressing concerns about the way Texas has used the death penalty ... We all benefit from going more slowly on this."

      The state's execution-free summer was caused by a string of scheduled executions that were stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in the state. Since Vasquez was killed, the Court has heard last-minute appeals from five men scheduled to be executed, and in each case ruled that the execution must be called off. "Cases that would have historically been given a green light with just a cursory glance are now being given more scrutiny," said Kristin Houle, the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

      While each of the inmates' lives were spared for different reasons, each stay underscores the variety of flaws in the state's handling of the death penalty.

      The men were:
      --Charles Flores, who was scheduled to die on June 2 and won a stay on May 27. His execution was stayed over his claim that police officers improperly hypnotized the key eyewitness in the case.

      --Robert Roberson, who was scheduled to die June 21 and won a stay on June 16 because of new scientific evidence discounting the "shaken baby" theory that led to his conviction.

      --Robert Pruett, who was scheduled to die August 23 and won a stay on August 11 while the court considered whether more DNA testing was necessary.

      --Jeff Wood, who was scheduled to die August 24 and won a stay on August 19 due to improper expert testimony during his trial. His case attracted national attention because he didn't actually kill anybody; he was involved in a robbery when his accomplice shot and killed a store clerk.

      --Rolando Ruiz, who was scheduled to die Wednesday and won a stay last week Friday based on his claim that his previous lawyer was incompetent.

      In addition, Perry Williams, who was scheduled to die July 14, had his execution called off after the state failed to meet a deadline for testing of its execution drugs ordered by a separate federal court. 3 other inmates, Terry Edwards, Ramiro Gonzalez, and Tai'chin Preyor, had their executions postponed for procedural reasons.

      While the Court of Criminal Appeals has historically had a reputation of being conservative and ruling against defendants, some observers say there has been a change in tone over the last few months. Anti-death penalty activists and lawyers point to the influence of Judge Elsa Alcala, who's become a strong voice criticizing Texas executions. In June, Alcala - the only nonwhite judge on the Court - wrote a powerful opinion questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty. She's been a part of the majority opinions staying all 6 of the recent executions.

      "She is a thorn in the sides of all the [pro-death penalty] justices who sit up there in Austin," said Pat Hartwell, a longtime anti-capital punishment activist in Houston. "We have been waiting for years for a sitting judge to do this."

      At the same time that executions in the state have flatlined, Texas juries have sent only 2 new inmates to death row so far in 2016, and sent only 3 inmates in all of 2015 - far fewer than in previous years.

      "The innocence cases have really shaken people, the forensic science errors that have been discussed, and just the repeated drumbeat of stories about the overall of the failures in how the death penalty is carried out, it's caused people to stop and reflect," Kase said. "They don't like what they see."

      Spokespeople for the Texas Attorney General's office and the state prison system declined to comment.

      The decline in executions and death sentences in Texas mirrors a wider decrease in the use of the death penalty across the country. The number of death sentences in the U.S. in 2015 was the lowest since 1991, and will likely be even lower this year. Many other states are currently unable to execute anyone:
      Arizona and Arkansas lack any execution drugs, Oklahoma has enacted a moratorium following the botched execution, and Florida and Alabama are dealing with a Supreme Court ruling that seems to invalidate their policy of allowing judges to sentence a defendant to death instead of juries.

      Still, Texas remains in many ways the center of capital punishment in America.

      6 of the 15 people executed around the country so far in 2016 are from the Lone Star State, as were 13 of the 28 people executed in 2015. And polls still show that large majorities of Texans support the death penalty, although it's down from past years.

      There are currently 4 executions scheduled to take place in the state over the next few months. The next inmate on the list, Robert Jennings, is scheduled to die September 14. Jennings' attorneys have already filed a motion asking the top court for a stay.

      (Source: fusion.net)

      July 8

      British woman on Texas Death Row may be spared as new evidence surfaces

      A hearing this week for Linda Carty presents her with hope that she might avoid death penalty amid evidence prosecutors coerced false witness testimonies.

      A British woman who has been on death row in Texas for 14 years has been given renewed hope that she might be spared execution by an appeal hearing at which devastating evidence was presented that prosecutors had coerced false testimony from key witnesses.

      Linda Carty, 57, has a high profile in Texas as one of just 6 women facing execution in the state and as a British citizen by dint of her birth in St Kitts at a time when the Caribbean island was still a British colony. Her case has been highlighted in documentaries and championed by the likes of Bianca Jagger and the British government.

      Carty has always protested her innocence on charges that in 2001 she commissioned three men to carry out the kidnapping and murder of her neighbor, Joana Rodriguez, in a plot to steal the victim's 3-day old baby. Previous attempts to appeal her death sentence have failed, despite the absence of any forensic evidence against her and the fact that she was represented at trial by a defense lawyer who spent only 2 weeks preparing the case.

      Close observers say that this week's hearing before a single judge appointed by the Texas court of criminal appeals takes her plea of innocence to another level. The hearing, that is likely to be concluded with the judge's opinion in early September, presents her with the greatest hope yet that she might secure a retrial.

      Michael Goldberg of the law firm Baker Botts, who has been Carty's lawyer for the past 13 years, said that it was highly unusual that his client had even reached the stage of a post-conviction evidentiary hearing. "We were very happy when the Court of Criminal Appeals granted us this hearing, since it rarely does in Texas," he said.

      Goldberg added that "now that we've concluded the hearing, the evidence that we were able to present shows even more conclusively that Linda's rights in the 1st trial were abused and that a new trial is required".

      During this week's hearing, Goldberg spent 8 hours cross-examining Connie Spence, the lead prosecutor in the case who still works as a supervisor for the Harris County district attorney's office in Houston. Part of that cross-examination related to the explosive affidavit given in 2014 by Charles Mathis, a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

      In the affidavit, Mathis recounted how he had recruited Carty as a confidential informant who could provide useful information to the DEA on drug dealing in the city given her expertise as a trained pharmacist. He said that when he told Spence that he did not want to testify at trial against Carty, the prosecutor threatened to concoct a story about him having had an affair with the defendant.

      "I was shocked when Spence said this ... I felt Spence was threatening and blackmailing me into testifying."

      The judge heard further allegations that the prosecutors had fabricated evidence, destroyed essential case notes and emails that might have helped the defense and withheld several recorded witness statements that should have been handed over to the defense team.

      Both Spence and another prosecutor on the case who also still works for the DA's office appeared at the hearing, and both denied that they had done anything to coerce evidence from any of the witnesses. According to a report of the hearing by the Houston Chronicle, Spence told the judge: "Defense had access to the evidence any time they wanted to look."

      Closing arguments in the appeal will be presented on 29 August, and the judge has indicated he will give his opinion within the first 10 days of September.

      Should the judge recommend a retrial, it will then be up to the full court of criminal appeals to decide whether or not to act upon his advice.

      (Source: The Guardian)

      July 4

      More court review ordered for Bastrop County murder case

      The state's top criminal appeals court is asking the trial court in a lengthy Central Texas death penalty case to further review the legality of DNA testing of evidence.

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling Wednesday is the latest in a long appeals process for convicted killer Rodney Reed. He's on death row for the rape-slaying 20 years ago of 19-year-old Stacy Stites, whose body was found off the side of a road in Bastrop County.

      Reed was arrested nearly a year later when his DNA surfaced in another sexual assault case. He long has insisted he and Stites had a consensual sexual relationship.

      His attorneys want more testing of items. They've argued Stites' police officer fiancee later imprisoned for improper sexual contact is a more likely murder suspect.


      Top court upholds death sentence in 1975 slaying case

      The top Texas criminal court has upheld the conviction of a Central Texas man sent to death row 3 years ago for the 1975 rape-slaying of a 20-year-old woman in San Marcos.

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday rejected arguments from 62-year-old Willie Jenkins that DNA evidence was faulty and insufficient to prove he killed Sheryl Norris at her apartment. She was a secretary at the Texas Crime Prevention Institute at what's now called Texas State University.

      Attorneys also challenged jury instructions and contended misconduct by a juror should have resulted in a mistrial.

      A national DNA database in 2010 tied the long-unsolved case to Jenkins, who was at a California state hospital for violent sexual predators. Trial witnesses tied him to 5 rapes in California and Texas.

      (Source for both: Associated Press)


      Sept. 28

      Texas Prison Guard Union Urges Death Row Reforms

      In a move that surprised many in the prison reform community, the president of the local chapter of a Texas prison guards' union wrote a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) on January 20, 2014, urging officials to introduce major reforms in the state's handling of death row prisoners.

      Lance Lowry, president of Huntsville's Local 3807 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), wrote the letter amid the TDCJ's review of conditions at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, where Texas death row prisoners are held.

      Prisoners at Polunsky are housed in solitary confinement, confined to their cells 23 hours a day. "Recreation" comes in the form of exercise 1 hour per day, alone in a dog-run type enclosure. Televisions are not permitted, nor are prisoners allowed to use the telephone or participate in education, work or religious programs.

      While a 3-tiered classification system allows some condemned prisoners a radio and occasional non-contact visits, all prisoners remain on death row until their execution or, in the rare case, release, for several decades on average.

      According to Lowry, the draconian conditions at Polunsky are a "knee-jerk reaction" to a 1998 escape from death row, in which convicted murderer Martin Gurule escaped only to drown in a stream nearby. 6 months later, the death row prisoners at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville were moved to Polunsky.

      "This has not been a positive thing for the inmates or the staff," Lowry said. "There has been increased aggression toward the officers." In his letter to the TDCJ, Lowry wrote that "staff incompetency and lack of proper security equipment" were the biggest factors in the 1998 escape. As a result, "the agency ignored the root of the problem," and in the current death row management model, "inmates have very few privileges to lose and staff become easy targets."

      The AFSCME letter called for greater privileges to be used as a management tool. Certain death row prisoners should be housed 2 offenders to a cell and [given] privileges such as work assignments and allowed TV privileges by streaming over-the-air television to a computer tablet using a closed Wi-Fi network." Lowry added, "Lack of visual r auditory stimulation results in increased psychological incidents and results in costly crisis management."

      A coalition of prisoners' rights advocates including mental health groups, religious organizations, security experts and civil rights activists also sent a letter to TDCJ officials urging similar reforms. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said the TDCJ's current system of long-term solitary confinement causes suicide, depression, paranoia, psychosis and other anti-social behaviors. "Sticking with the status quo is alarming," stated NAMI policy coordinator Greg Hansch.

      TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said the agency is "currently reviewing and updating the [department's] Death Row Plan." As of September 9, 2015, 6 women and 247 men were awaiting execution in Texas.

      (Source: Prison Legal News)

      Aug. 3

      Former Female Death Row Inmate Dies
      Cathy Lynn Henderson, babysitter convicted of murder, dies in hospital

      Cathy Lynn Henderson, who dominated national headlines in 1994 for the the killing of 3-month-old Brandon Baugh, died Sunday after a month of hospitalization, her lawyer said Monday. She was 58.

      Once just 2 days away from execution, the former babysitter spent nearly 2 decades in prison before winning a new trial in 2012. On June 12, just months before her case was to go to trial a 2nd time, Henderson hobbled into the courtroom on crutches with the help of her lawyers and pleaded guilty to murder. She was sentenced then to 25 years in prison, but with credit for time served, she could have been released in 4 years.

      Henderson was taken to the hospital on June 24 after she had trouble with her breathing. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and had a stroke during her stay.

      "Cathy Lynn Henderson passed away last night, at peace and without pain," her lawyer, Jon Evans, told the American-Statesman. "In the last few weeks of her life she was relieved of a 21-year burden. Her version of the events of the tragedy of Brandon Baugh finally was given the proper respect and credence it deserved. She passed with that satisfaction."

      A sharply divided Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Henderson's capital murder conviction and sentence in December 2012. The court upheld a recommendation by District Judge Jon Wisser that she have a new trial based on new scientific discoveries into the nature of head injuries.

      Henderson claimed that Baugh died after slipping from her arms and falling about 4 feet to the concrete floor in her home in the Pflugerville area. She said she panicked, burying the boy's body in a Bell County field before fleeing to Missouri, where she was found and arrested 11 days later.

      Some supporters of the Baugh family said they were relieved to see Henderson plead guilty after years of lies and denials. But Brandon's parents, grandmother and sister said they had been surprised and disappointed to learn she would not face a jury once more.

      "I have no doubts that your plea today is not an act of contrition but another act of selfishness in order to gain your freedom," Brandon's father, Eryn Baugh, told Henderson on the witness stand on the day she took her plea.

      (Source: American-Statesman)

      July 30

      Living without the Death Penalty in Texas

      Texas has gone nearly 7 months into 2015 without imposing the death penalty.

      In some cases, juries declined to send another convicted killer to Texas' death row, opting instead to put them behind bars for life.

      It's part of a trend of the death penalty falling out of favor not only with juries but also with prosecutors who seek it - even in Texas, the nation's death penalty leader, where a record 49 death sentences were handed down in 1994.

      The numbers show, according to former veteran District Attorney Tim Cole, that applying the death penalty is no longer the go-to or indispensable tool that prosecutors once regarded it.

      "We're proving as a state that we can live without the death penalty," says Cole, who had a reputation as a no-holds-barred lawman through four terms as DA for Archer, Clay and Montague counties.

      Now a Fort Worth defense attorney, Cole was keynote speaker at this year's annual meeting of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In a guest column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last week, he stated, "Texas should join the 19 U.S. states where the death penalty has been abolished."

      Cole elaborated in a follow-up interview with this newspaper, which has been calling for an end to the death penalty since 2007.

      Cole said his rationale is not rooted in moral objections to taking a life. Rather, he said, years of seeing the justice system's deep flaws and the arbitrariness of capital punishment caused him to take his stand.

      "If you could show me a perfect system, I'll give you the death penalty," Cole said.

      But error-free and evenhanded it's not and will never be. We agree with Cole: A system that allows the possibility of fatal error cannot be defended. The growing list of wrongfully convicted men in Texas appears to be making a difference in the jury room.

      Further, Cole has seen from the inside how community and financial pressure bear on a DA's decision to seek one punishment vs. another. That means, he said, that a similar crime could mean the death penalty in one county but a prison sentence a few miles away in another jurisdiction. It comes down to the call of a single elected official whose annual budget may or may not bear the expense of a murder trial.

      Cole does not foresee a day that state lawmakers will abolish the death penalty in Texas, but he said they should at least clean up the system. For example, prosecutors should be barred from making deals for the testimony of jailhouse snitches to secure an execution, Cole said. It's a ghastly practice at the center of many notorious Texas murder cases that have unraveled.

      In the meantime, Cole said he looks forward to a permanent decline in use of the death penalty. We hope so. It appears that routinely sending dozens of defendants to death row each year is a thing of the past. That's a bright spot in a state that once justified its liberal - and, sometimes, reckless - use of capital punishment.

      Ex-DA on death penalty

      From an interview with former District Attorney Tim Cole:

      "If you can show me a perfect system, I'll give you the death penalty. But you can't. You can't show me a system that's so perfect that you could show me we'd never execute an innocent person."

      "I don't think our Legislature will ever vote it out. I don't think they'll abolish it. I think at some point it will kind of wither away, and the Supreme Court may say, one of these days, it violates the Eighth Amendment."

      "There are probably a lot of people who have already been executed where those cases would not be death penalty cases these days."

      "It's become more acceptable for a district attorney not to seek death."

      (Source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)

      Petition asks Texas Supreme Court to aid Death Penalty Lawyer

      By Allan Turner
      March 19

      Legal supporters of University of Houston law professor David Dow this week launched a counterattack against the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, asking the state's highest civil court to, in essence, nullify sanctions the CCA imposed on the famed death penalty lawyer in January.

      About 250 defense lawyers signed the petition to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that the state's highest criminal appeals court lacked authority to bar Dow from representing clients in its courtroom for a 12-month period. The nine-judge, Austin-based court handed down the penalty after finding Dow in contempt for twice missing filing deadlines in capital cases.

      In both instances, Dow's clients were executed.

      In the petition, signed by such high-power lawyers as former University of Texas Capital Punishment Clinic professors Maurie Levin and Robert Owen, Dow supporters ask the Supreme Court to declare the 12-month suspension unlawful or to direct the appeals court to withdraw the order.

      The petition filed Mondaysays the court of criminal appeals' sanctions may have a "chilling effect" on other attorneys who otherwise might be willing to represent convicted killers facing execution.

      "As a result," the filing says, "people may die, some of them innocent with valid claims their court-appointed and publicly paid lawyers failed to develop out of fear of sanction by the CCA."

      On Wednesday, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association filed a brief in support of the earlier petition.

      The CCA's action against Dow came in response to the Oct. 28, 2014 execution of Miguel Paredes, 32, who had been condemned for the September 2000 murder of three San Antonio residents.

      Judges determined that Dow failed to abide by a 2011 court rule requiring that appeals be filed at least seven days before a scheduled execution, not counting the day of execution. The case marked the second time a Dow client had been executed after the attorney missed a filing deadline.

      The first case, that of Harris County killer Michael Richard, occurred in September 2007. As Dow's team of lawyers raced to lodge final appeals, the Dow camp said, its computers failed. When the lawyers asked the appeals court to stay open 20 minutes longer so that the appeal could be delivered in person, the court's presiding judge, Sharon Keller, responded, "We close at 5."

      'Bulk of the fault'

      Bexar County state District Judge David Berchelmann Jr., the special master appointed to sort through the resulting controversy, observed that Keller's action was "not exemplary of a public servant" but determined no reprimand was warranted.

      Dow, however, came in for sharp criticism, with Berchelmann asserting that the Houston lawyer "bears the bulk of the fault for what occurred."

      According to court documents, Berchelmann found Dow's team did not spend enough time in advance preparation, assigned a junior attorney to draft the papers, did not have documents ready in a timely manner, did not pursue all possible ways to file the claim and "embellished the computer problems it suffered and untruthfully told the media that it was ready to file at 5:20 p.m. but that Judge Keller had already closed the courthouse doors."

      The 2007 incident brought no sanctions from the court of criminal appeals, but Dow was warned that the next time he missed a filing deadline he might be suspended from representing clients before the court.

      In the new petition to the Texas Supreme Court, Dow's lawyers, Nicole DeBorde and Cassie Gotro say that their client was called to appear before the Court of Criminal Appeals court in January, at which time the court acted as "prosecutor, judge and witness."

      "Most of the questions appear to have come from Judge Keller," the petition asserts, adding that the September 2007 incident had generated "significant tension" between Dow and Keller.

      On several occasions, the petition says, Dow asked Keller to recuse herself from cases in which he was representing clients because of "her perceived bias toward him."

      Levin, an appellate lawyer now based in Philadelphia who frequently defends death row clients, on Thursday expressed support for Dow, who is founder of the student-staffed Texas Innocence Project.

      "The CCA's disproportionate and unwarranted suspension of David Dow - particularly in light of the fact that the court has not had a problem with sleeping lawyers or those who fail to lift two fingers on behalf of their condemned clients - can be read one of two ways: as retribution for his past criticisms of the court and its judges or as an attempt to chill effective and zealous advocacy," she said. "Both options are reprehensible and undermine any assertion that the court is interested in effective or competent lawyering for those facing a sentence of death in Texas."

      Rule's clarity questioned

      In the new filing, Dow's lawyers argue that the law professor and his associates actively represented Paredes despite a tight deadline, unearthing never-heard evidence that the convicted killer suffered from mental illness most of his life and had been receiving anti-psychotic medication during his trial.

      "Counsel obtained and reviewed medical, prison and educational records and located and interviewed approximately a half dozen witnesses who possessed salient information about Parades' background that could have been called as witnesses at the punishment phase of Parades' trial," the petition says. Dow filed two briefs in state court and one in federal court.

      The final appeal, the petition asserts, was filed as specified by the court of appeals rule but "the CCA interpreted the rule differently."

      "The rule that Professor Dow is alleged to have broken was at best ambiguous," said Owen, now a professor at Chicago's Northwestern University School of Law.

      "Given Texas' history of failing to guarantee effective legal help for indigent prisoners facing the death penalty, one wishes the court would devote its energies to solving those problems rather than punishing the messenger."

      March 4

      Death penalty opponents take uphill battle to end executions to the Texas Capitol

      Death row exonerees on Tuesday called for lawmakers to abolish the death penalty - a long-shot bid in Texas where capital punishment has broad support.

      Death penalty opponents declared it the "Day of Innocence" with about 2 dozen exonerees and loved ones of death row inmates lobbying lawmakers to approve legislation that would abolish the death penalty and prohibit the law of parties from being used in capital cases. The law allows people convicted of aiding or abetting in a murder committed by another person to be sentenced to death.

      "I don't want the state executing people in my name," said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, who has again filed legislation to end the death penalty. "You can go all the way through the system and be factually innocent and end up on death row, which is evidence by some of the people here. How many people has Texas executed who might have been innocent?"

      Dutton has attempted to get the bills passed in the Legislature every session since 2003. The bills have not made it out of committee.

      Support for capital punishment runs deep in the Lone Star State. A 2012 poll indicated that more than 70 % of Texans are in favor of the death penalty.

      The state tops the nation in number of executions.

      Despite their uphill battle, death penalty opponents said they would visit "as many offices as possible" to ask lawmakers to consider a moratorium.

      In a news conference, Terri Been tearfully pleaded for her brother, Jeff Wood, to be removed from death row.

      Wood was convicted under the state's law of parties for a killing committed by his partner in a 1996 robbery in Kerrville. According to news reports, Wood waited outside of a gas station while Daniel Reneau entered and pointed a handgun at the clerk, Kris Keeran. When Keeran did not respond to Reneau's request, Reneau shot him.

      Wood then entered the store. He stole a surveillance video - his family says he was forced by Reneau to take the tape - and fled from the scene with Reneau. Wood has said he did not know Reneau would use force, according to reports.

      In 2008, Wood, who was found not mentally fit to stand trial, won a stay from a federal judge just hours before his scheduled execution. He remains on death row.

      Been said her brother's proposed execution has caused great anguish for the family.

      "It's very difficult as a family member to have come that close to your loved one being murdered before you," she said.

      The bills have not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing.

      (source: Dallas Morning News)

      Feb. 17

      Death Penalty Violates Human Rights, Fails To Serve Purpose

      The death penalty in the United States has failed as a form of punishment in the criminal justice system.

      If a country is going to use the death penalty, it should be reserved for those who commit an act of terror against the state, not for person on person or property crimes.

      Texas is a prime example of how the death penalty has failed.

      11 years ago, former Gov. Rick Perry sentenced Cameron Willingham to the death penalty. Willingham was convicted of setting his home on fire, killing his daughters.

      When new evidence had come up indicating that Willingham was not responsible for the murders, there was a petition for a stay of execution, which Perry refused to grant.

      Willingham was executed. Since his execution, evidence has been confirmed clearing Willingham for causing the fire.

      Wrongful convictions are not rare; having incarceration as the primary method of punishment, however, makes it easier to amend a wrongful conviction.

      You cannot undo the death penalty.

      The death penalty, if used, should be used as a last resort, which is currently not the case.

      There should be a lot more scrutiny on the injections being administered to convicts receiving the death penalty. Currently, the cocktail in use is a 3-drug method, which could be switched out for a single drug method that would help eliminate risks associated with the current cocktail.

      Risks associated with the cocktail include reports that, following administration, convicts often writhe or make sounds that indicate pain.

      It also takes a considerable amount of time for this 3-drug method cocktail to kill the convict; some cocktails have taken up to 2 hours.

      Take for example Robert Ladd, a convicted murderer who was considered intellectually disabled, executed on Jan. 29. He died 27 minutes after the administration of the pentobarbital.

      Manufacturers of the cocktail are primarily based in Europe and are closing down because they do not agree that the drugs are not being used in accordance with medical indications.

      Some manufacturers also do not want their drugs being used in departments of corrections in the United States.

      As more and more manufacturers of the cocktail are closing down, it would behoove states to look at the financial cost of these lethal injections versus incarceration.

      There have been recent discussions in Europe about reinstating the death penalty. I believe this is a reactionary response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

      It would be unfair to presume that the use of the death penalty would fail in Europe just because it has failed in the United States, but I still do not envision the death penalty being successful in Europe.

      The European Union (EU) has acknowledged the death penalty as being a violation of human rights for a very long time, and this ethical and moral foundation is very ingrained in the various legal systems there.

      There are also several treaties made in France that would be broken if they adopted any form of death penalty.

      The world believes the death penalty is wrong. Our government should too.

      It is unlikely that Texas will do away with the death penalty. However, there has to be substantial revisions made to the administration of this capital punishment across the board. These revisions include decreasing the amount of wrongful convictions, as well as finding a better method by which we ascertain the lethal injection.

      The death penalty is ineffective and becoming increasingly more inhumane due to a lack of transparency in the process.

      The discourse surrounding the death penalty needs to work on a transition into other methods of punishment, or perhaps disbanding lethal injection as a whole.

      (Source: Bryanna Esdtrada, hilltopviewsonline.com)

      Feb. 7

      Texas Running Low On Execution Drug

      Following Wednesday's execution in Huntsville, Texas now has only enough of the drug pentobarbital to carry out 2 more lethal injections before the state's supply runs out.

      The Associated Press reported in December that records obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice through an open records request showed that the state had 12 doses of the execution drug in the agency's inventory. That number was enough to carry out the 1st 5 executions in 2015 since each lethal injection calls for 2 doses with another 2 kept for reserve.

      3 executions have been carried out in 2015 with 8 more scheduled this year, including 3 in March.

      Donald Newbury was put to death Wednesday evening for his role in the shooting death of 29-year-old Aubrey Hawkins during an armed robbery at an Irving sporting goods store on Christmas Eve in 2000.

      Newbury was part of the group known as the "Texas 7," which went on the run following an escape from a Texas prison when Hawkins was gunned down.

      Condemned killer Lester Bower Jr. was set to be executed next week for the shooting deaths of 4 men in Grayson County more than 30 years ago. The U.S. Supreme Court granted Bower a reprieve Thursday.

      There are 2 more executions scheduled on March 5 and March 11. If those executions are carried out, the state would need to find a new supply of pentobarbital or obtain an alternate drug before March 18 when Randall Mays is scheduled for lethal injection.

      "We're exploring all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or an alternate drug(s) in the lethal injection process," TDCJ said in a prepared statement.

      Texas was forced to find nontraditional suppliers of execution drugs in recent years because the usual vendors refused to make their drugs available following scrutiny from death penalty opponents.

      (Source: Huntsville Item)

      Jan. 21

      Governor Abbott Is A Catholic Lone-Wolf On Death Penalty, Refuses To Be Pro Life

      Dear Governor Abbott,

      Congratulations on your inauguration as Texas' Governor today! I too claim to be a follower of Christ and to work for the common good of all Texans.

      As a fellow Christian I'm deeply saddened by your refusal to believe and live by your church's pro-life stance. The sanctity of life is a beautiful foundation upon which stands staunch and near total support for the abolition of capital punishment. How is it you can support killing in the name of Texas?

      In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News you said "there is no conflict" between your eager support for and your Church's stance against the death penalty. I do not know whether your statement was out of ignorance or intent to mislead. But whether you were mistaken or chose to lie, one simply cannot promote the following words as truth as you did, "Catholic doctrine is not against the death penalty."

      Catholic social teaching as found in statements, catechism, and through the words of your popes clearly state that state-sponsored killing is far outside the will of God or the needs of the common good! In Texas, life sentences as an alternative to the death penalty are not only available, they are far more economically viable.

      Today I heard you invoke God's grace for yourself, while consciously planning to refuse it for those on Texas' death row; including Arnold Prieto, age 41, who is scheduled to be your 1st execution on the 2nd day of your Governorship (Wednesday). Perhaps I'm just confused. Or perhaps the cognitive dissonance I and others experience between your faith and politics is an integrity gap that will have grave implications.

      Undoubtedly it will further the cycle of violence in Texas ("those who live by the sword will die by the sword"). Likely it will lead to the death of an innocent; and thus unmask the moral bankruptcy of our social imagination in the same way Jesus' unjust execution did.

      Sadly, as Governor of the Lone Star State you stand in a long line of leaders who have been at variance with their church's pursuit of abolishing the death penalty. Both Rick Perry (who woke up today as governor of Texas) and George W. Bush were opposed to the anti-death penalty position of The United Methodist Church.

      The UMC has "unequivocally" held a stance against the death penalty for over 50 years! Read their statement here. Nearly every Christian body in America has issued statements against state killings.

      But given you are a Catholic, allow me to speed up your research with a couple links and quotes:

      -- 1997 Texas' Bishops Statement against the Death Penalty. "As religious leaders, we are deeply concerned that the State of Texas is usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life by employing capital punishment."

      -- 2005 US Catholic Bishops. The death penalty "contributes to a cycle of violence in our society that must be broken."

      -- Pope Francis Calls for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. "All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this, I connect with life imprisonment," he said. "Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty."

      Finally, and I'm sure this will be of immense help for you, I invite you to read my own writings supporting abolition from a Christian perspective.

      My encouragement to you from one leader to another? Lead. Don't follow the polls and culture or chase re-election. Lead Texas strongly, with your faith both as guide and strength.

      I look forward to the day your faith is a more powerful lens than politics when you examine the death penalty. Likewise, I look forward to the day when headline news is not about a Governor's disconnect from his church's teachings.

      But when we together can celebrate a headline such as this, "BREAKING NEWS: Texas Abolishes the Death Penalty!"

      May it be so during your administration! Peace to you,
      Pastor Marty Troyer
      Houston Mennonite Church
      1231 Wirt Road
      Houston Texas, 77055

      (Source: Houston Chronicle, Jan. 20)

      Jan. 17

      Court Suspends Death Row Inmate's Lawyer Over Late Filing

      On Wednesday, the judges of Texas' highest criminal court told a defense attorney named David Dow he would not be able to practice in front of them for the next year. The Court of Criminal Appeals decided that Dow had filed a motion to stop the execution of his client, Miguel Angel Paredes, too late, and that since he'd done the same thing in a different case in 2010, he will now be suspended.

      Neither the court nor Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and one of the best known death penalty defense attorneys in the country, will comment publicly. But this move is the latest evidence of an ongoing feud in Texas between lawyers who appeal on behalf of inmates facing executions, Dow chief among them, and the judges who rule on their claims. On the surface, the fights have been about deadlines, but, as criminal justice blogger Scott Henson described Dow's relationship with the judges back in 2009, "Basically these folks just don't like each other on a level that transcends any given issue."

      Miguel Paredes was executed last October for a triple murder of gang rivals, committed in 2000. The summer before the execution, he wrote a letter to Dow asking for help, and Dow volunteered - without being appointed to the case - to investigate Paredes' claims. It took a while owing to Dow's busy schedule, but he found that Paredes' original lawyer had called no witnesses at the trial and that Paredes was allowed to waive an early appeal while on anti-psychotic medications.

      Dow filed an appeal and a call for a stay 7 days before the execution. The court said he should have filed it the day before. The court has explicitly said the deadline is 7 days before an execution, but in practice, attorneys know that they must have it in eight days before.

      It wasn't the first time Dow had clashed with the court over deadlines. One evening in October 2007, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review Kentucky's lethal injection protocol, Dow and his colleagues raced to write a new appeal for their client Michael Richard. As they worked to argue how the Kentucky case mirrored their own, they later said, their computers broke down, and they asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to wait 20 minutes after its 5 p.m. deadline so they could deliver the appeal by hand.

      "We close at 5," was the response by the court's head judge, Sharon Keller. Those 4 words became a rallying point for the death penalty's opponents and made her a villain ("Sharon Killer") in newspaper editorials across the country. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sent a complaint about her actions to the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct.

      The commission's report on the matter called Keller's conduct "not exemplary of a public service," but cast firm doubt on Dow's computer breakdown story and took him to task for "making inaccurate statements in the press" about how soon the appeal was actually ready, which "spun out of control" into a "public groundswell of opposition against Judge Keller."

      In June 2011, Keller's court issued a new rule about filing deadlines. A pleading would be "deemed untimely" if it was filed "fewer than 7 days before the scheduled execution date." The rule goes on to say that a "request for a stay of execution filed at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning when the execution is scheduled for the following Wednesday at 6 p.m. is untimely."

      Dow filed a motion to stay Paredes' execution at 12:37 p.m. on Oct. 21. The execution was set for Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. It was more than 7 days in advance, but violated the rule's example. Pull out a calendar if you find this all a bit confusing.

      At a hearing last month, Dow went before the court to defend his late filing.

      The court found that he and his partner "failed to show good cause for the untimely filings."

      In Dow's corner are defense attorneys who think the narrow and peculiar application of deadline rules allows the judges to avoid what went wrong at the original trial. The judges were "focusing very narrowly on 15 hours of time rather than the case as presented," said Kathryn Kase, director of the Texas Defender Service and a former colleague of Dow???s. "It's somewhat like saying, 'You were working too late in the emergency room,' while not focusing on the grievous injuries the patient has."

      As for the trial defense lawyer, who called no witnesses even as his client faced a death sentence, the judges had no complaints. (source: Texas Tribune)


      Dec. 13

      Judge: Texas Must Reveal Execution Drug Maker

      A judge has ordered Texas to release the name of the compounding pharmacy that provides the state its execution drug, but attorneys pushing for the disclosure said Friday that they don't expect to get the information anytime soon.

      District Judge Darlene Byrne ruled Thursday that the company's name is a matter of public record, despite arguments from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that disclosing it would be a safety risk. Texas had released the name of its drug suppliers for years, but in May, Attorney General Greg Abbott changed course and cited undisclosed threats made to a new company supplying the drug.

      Similar fights are ongoing in other death penalty states like Oklahoma, Missouri and Ohio. But courts - including the U.S. Supreme Court - have yet to halt an execution based on a state's refusal to reveal its drug supplier.

      In Texas, Byrne sided with attorneys who filed a lawsuit earlier this year pushing for disclosure of the names of the company that supplies the execution drug and of the compounding pharmacy that prepares the drug when it's used for executions. 2 of the suing attorneys, all of whom regularly work with death-row inmates, said the ruling is a victory even though they don't expect the state to release the names pending its appeal.

      "This is about the drugs, but it's also about open government," attorney Maurie Levin said. Fellow lawyer Phil Durst said the drugs "are coming from somewhere, and who is the compounder is a vital piece of information."

      The Department of Criminal Justice plans to appeal, according to spokesman Jason Clark. He said the state maintains that "disclosing the identity of the pharmacy would result in the harassment of the business and would raise serious safety concerns for the business and its employees."

      Clark also noted that state and federal courts have often sided with states on the issue.

      The lawsuit originally included 2 Texas death row inmates, but both have since been executed. Texas has 12 execution scheduled for the first 5 months of next year, but it was unclear what effect, if any, Thursday's decision would have on them. Durst said the case now moves to an appeals court in Austin but may eventually be heard by the Texas Supreme Court.

      Texas uses one drug during its lethal injections, pentobarbital. Abbott - who was elected governor in November - had long said that the benefits of government transparency outweighed the Department of Criminal Justice's desire to keep information secret about its execution-drug supplier.

      But during his campaign for governor 7 months ago, the Republican changed his mind and said the drug supplier's identity should remain secret.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      Nov. 27

      Texas Appeals Court Judge Calls For Abolishing Death Penalty

      Veteran Texas Court of Appeals Justice Tom Price on Wednesday denounced the death penalty, saying that Texas' 2005 life without parole law makes it unnecessary and that the possibility of executing a wrongfully convicted person is an "irrational risk" that should not be tolerated by the criminal justice system."

      The Dallas Republican's comments, thought to be the 1st time such views have been voiced by a judge on the state's highest criminal appeals court, came in a strongly worded dissent to the court's Wednesday rejection of an appeal on behalf of Scott Panetti, a Fredericksburg double-killer said to suffer from schizophrenia. Panetti, 56, is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday.

      "Based on my specialized knowledge of this process," Price wrote, "I now conclude that the death penalty as a form of punishment should be abolished because the execution of individuals does not appear to measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purpose served by the death penalty; the life without parole option adequately protects society at large in the same way as the death penalty option; and the risk of executing an innocent person for a capital murder is unreasonably high, particularly in light of procedural-default laws and the prevalence of ineffective trial and initial habeas counsel."

      Price, 61, a former Dallas County state district judge, has served on the high appeals court since 1996. His term ends this year and he has said he will not seek re-election.

      In his statement, Price asserted that "society is now less convinced of the absolute accuracy of the criminal justice system."

      He cited a 2012 University of Michigan-Northwestern University law school study that ranked Texas third nationwide in wrongful convictions during the past 24 years. He also cited a National Registry of Exonerations report that determined 2013 was a record-breaking year for exonerations in the United States; Texas topped the list.

      "In my time on this court I have voted to grant numerous applications for writs of habeas corpus that have resulted in the release of dozens of people who were wrongfully convicted," Price wrote. "I conclude that it is wishful thinking to believe that this state will never execute an innocent person for capital murder. ... I am convinced that, because the criminal justice system is run by humans, it is naturally subject to human error. There is no rational basis to believe that this same type of human error will not infect capital murder trials."

      Greeted with surprise

      Price's comments were greeted with surprise by law professors and appellate attorneys active in death penalty cases.

      "I'm still absorbing it. It wasn't expected," said Maurie Levin, a former clinical law professor at the University of Texas who now is based in Philadelphia. "It's long overdue."

      While the concerns raised by Price have been "discussed and decried around the country for a number of years now ... for a high court judge, a CCA judge, to articulate them so forthrightly is extraordinary."

      Levin, who frequently has represented Texas death row inmates, said she was "deeply grateful" for the judge's statement. "He is somebody we would listen to," she said. "He has had a front row seat. ... He is part of a growing chorus of people who are intimately involved ... who are uncomfortable with the system that implements executions, and that is not nothing."

      Rob Owen, a former professor at the University of Texas capital punishment clinic and now on the law faculty at Chicago's Northwestern University, also hailed Price's statement.

      "I think it is important that he makes clear this is not a casual change of mind," Owen said. "He's not sentimental, feeling sorry for the guys waiting to be executed. He is concerned about public safety, and he says we have an alternative punishment that's clearly sufficient in the eyes of many jurors and prosecutors and is far quicker than the years of appeals that go with the death penalty."

      While opinion polls reflect staunch support for capital punishment in Texas, Owen noted that "the death penalty is going away everywhere. The number of new cases in Texas is dropping steeply - they dropped about two-thirds in the 25 years I watched them. Every additional voice being raised that we should hasten it on its way is helpful and a spark for a lot of public discussion."

      'Remarkably brave'

      Jani Maselli Wood, an assistant Harris County public defender, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston law school and a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals staff attorney, said she doubts Price's statement will influence legislators or incoming juries.

      But, "it will impact his legacy for what he wants us to remember," Wood said. "He says we have life without parole, why do we need death convictions. He is remarkably brave. I think it is heroic."

      Price's statement came in a dissent to the court's 6-3 vote not to consider a new appeal on behalf of Panetti that argues his mental condition "renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and 14th Amendments, because imposition of the death penalty on offenders with severe mental illness offends contemporary standards of decency." The court found the petition failed to meet requirements for applications of post-conviction writs of habeas corpus.

      Judges Elsa Alcala and Cheryl Johnson issued a separate dissenting opinion, saying they would stay Panetti's execution to allow for an examination of his claim that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of seriously mentally ill individuals.

      Panetti was condemned for the 1992 murders of his mother- and father-in-law.

      At age 20, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. While representing himself at his 1st trial, he attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ and President John F. Kennedy.

      His lawyers contend that his mental condition has worsened on death row.

      In a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving Panetti, justices held that a condemned inmate must have a "rational understanding" of his punishment, not just an awareness that he is to be executed and why.

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      Nov. 26

      Woman Watched 280 Executions ---- Former TDCJ Spokeswoman Michelle Lyons Recalls Emotions Job Elicited

      Starting in 2001, Michelle Lyons watched men and women die in the Texas Department of Corrections death chamber inside the Walls Unit in Huntsville.

      Lyons was the prison system's public information officer until her retirement in 2012 -- a job that required that she witness executions.

      "There's so much emotion in there and for so many years, I turned it off. And once I started thinking about it, I opened the flood gates," Lyons said as she discussed her years with the prison system.

      She said that at first she viewed it as just a job.

      "I was, I would say, self-righteous about it," she said. "'That was your choice: you committed the crime and you were executed. That was your punishment.'"

      But Lyons said that as the years passed and the number of executions she witnessed rose, her views changed.

      "I began seeing that it wasn't so black and white," she said. "There was a lot of gray in the middle."

      In the beginning, Lyons said she felt empathy mainly for the families of the victims. But later she said that though her support for the death penalty never wavered, she sometimes felt conflicted.

      "I really started to feel for the inmates' families because they too had not asked to be put in that position," she said.

      Lyons recalled that though there were times inmates had to be forced into the death chamber, most accepted their fate and went in calmly. But calm was a feeling seldom shared by the mothers of both inmates and victims.

      "Seeing all those moms go through what they did was extremely hard to watch," she said. "Especially after I became a mom."

      She said that since she retired her primary job is being a mom.

      "Do I ever have a desire to see another one?" she said. "No."

      (source: KSAT news)

      Nov. 23

      How Executions Are Carried Out

      For years, Texas inmates were given 3 drugs during executions - sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride - to make them unconscious, stop their movement and stop their heart, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      But those drugs became costlier and harder to obtain, so the department took out sodium thiopental in 2011 and substituted pentobarbital, a powerful sedative that has been found to put inmates to death quickly and without complications.

      Within a year, Texas officials eliminated the 3-drug combination and instead went with one lethal dose of pentobarbital.

      Some states have had problems during executions. In Oklahoma, the execution of Clayton Lockett was botched, and he ultimately died of a heart attack nearly 45 minutes after the execution began. Lockett had been convicted of shooting a woman and watching as 2 others buried her alive.

      Officials in Kentucky just dropped their proposed use of a 2-drug combination after inmates executed in Ohio and Arizona had prolonged deaths.

      In Arizona this summer, it took 2 hours and multiple doses of drugs for inmate Joseph Wood to die.

      (Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

      Oct. 29th

      In Texas, The Death Penalty Is Slowly Dying Out----The Lone Star State Carried Out Its Fewest Executions Since 1996 This Year.

      On Tuesday night, the state of Texas executed Miguel Paredes by lethal injection for murdering a woman and her 2 children 16 years ago. With no executions scheduled by the state department of criminal justice for November or December, Paredes' death marks the 10th and final execution for Texas this year - the fewest in almost 2 decades.

      2014 wasn't anomalous either. Executions in Texas, the most prolific death-penalty state in the country, spiked after Congress restricted federal appeals in death-penalty cases with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996. Since then, however, the death penalty has been in overall decline both in Texas and nationwide. 30 people have been executed so far this year in the entire United States, whereas Texas alone executed 40 people at its peak in 2000.

      What's driving the decline? Since executions peaked nationally in the late 1990s, multiple Supreme Court rulings have limited the death penalty's scope and application. The justices barred executions of the mentally disabled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, for example, and eliminated the death penalty for individual crimes other than 1st-degree murder in their 2008 decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana. (In the latter case, the court expressly left the death penalty intact for so-called crimes against the state - treason, espionage, terrorism, and "drug kingpin activity" - without ruling on the constitutionality thereof.) This resulted in fewer cases with which the death penalty could be applied, while also imposing new legal hurdles before it could be carried out.

      But for Texas, the greatest shift came in 2005. First, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that executing defendants who were minors when they committed the crime violated the Eighth Amendment. Texas had led the nation in imposing the death penalty on under-18 defendants prior to Roper; 29 inmates had their sentences reduced accordingly after the ruling. More inmates left Texas' death row alive than dead that year for the 1st time since 1989. At the same time, legislators gave Texas juries the option to sentence murder defendants to life without parole, thereby lowering the number of new death-penalty convictions.

      Other extrajudicial factors are also slowing down the death penalty in Texas and around the United States. Thanks to a European Union embargo that bars the sale of lethal-injection drugs to the U.S., executions nationwide have slowed precipitously as states scramble to find replacements and substitutes. The few companies willing to provide the drugs are also feeling the impact: After Mylan provided Alabama with the paralytic drug rercuronium bromide, a German investment firm divested $70 million from the U.S. drug manufacturer earlier this month.

      This doesn't mean executions will completely halt any time soon in Texas. State officials say they have a sufficient supply of pentobarbital for upcoming executions thanks to a secret supplier they refuse to name through 2015. 6 in 10 Americans still support the death penalty according to a recent Gallup poll, and Greg Abbott, who will likely be elected governor of Texas next week, is also a staunch proponent.

      Reversing the overall downward trend, however, would require either a drastic shift in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence or a complete overhaul of Texas sentencing law. Neither are imminent.

      (Source: The Atlantic)

      Oct. 20th

      Texas Death Penalty Too Easily Doled

      On Oct. 8, a 49-year-old man who was looking death in the eyes was able to walk away a free man.

      According to the Houston Chronicle, in 2005, Manuel Velez was charged in the death of his girlfriend's son, Angel - who passed away a day before his 1st birthday.

      The Huffington Post said Velez was with the boy when he started struggling to breathe and sought help, but ultimately the child could not be saved. It was only a few weeks after the death that Velez became a person of interest, despite not having a history of violence, and he was sentenced to death row at the age of 40.

      Angel's mother - and Velez's girlfriend - Acela Moreno was also found guilty of the child's death and charged with capital murder; however, she agreed to a plea deal and was only required to serve 5 years of a 10-year sentence before being sent to Mexico.

      Back in August, a judge granted credit to Velez for the 9 years he served on death row and gave him the ability to be eligible for mandatory supervision. And on Oct. 8, Velez walked out.

      One of Velez's lawyers, Brian Stull from the American Civil Union's Capital Punishment Project, strongly believed that Velez never committed the crime he was imprisoned for, said The Huffington Post.

      "Manuel never belonged in prison, let alone on death row waiting to be executed," Stull said. "He is indisputably innocent."

      Stull also went on to say that he believed the child's mother played the upper hand in his death.

      According to the Houston Chronicle, Moreno had a history of being abusive to her children, and Stull said he believed she should have been regarded as the main suspect to the tragedy.

      "This is the story of an innocent man who went to death row because the entire system failed," Stull said to the Huffington Post.

      The death penalty isn't black and white; it's difficult to say death penalty should be legalized all over the country.

      According to the Texas Death Penalty Law, capital punishment is legal in the state of Texas should the suspect have caused the death of another individual. However, the entire institution of capital punishment goes a lot deeper. Rather than generalizing every murderer as simply being deserving of the penalty, it should be required to take each case as it comes.

      "I always find myself torn on whether the death penalty should be allowed," said journalism senior Nikki Nduukwe.

      "I think it's hard for me to wrap my mind around taking someone's life as a punishment for a crime, but then I think of the people who have done horrible, disgusting things. So when it comes to the death penalty I think the issue is so complex that it is hard to say yes or no."

      In Texas, the death penalty is reserved for those who have caused another's death. If the system and the victim's family want the perpetrator to suffer the consequences for the act he committed, the death penalty would not fulfill this.

      "I think the death penalty is too easy of a way out for a criminal crime," said accounting junior Christina Nguyen. "A life sentence in jail allows criminals to think upon their actions."

      Once the criminal is dead, he's gone. It would be more beneficial to have him serve out a life sentence and, therefore, be properly punished for his crime.

      However, there are a number of individuals who are beyond help and the death penalty may be the only course of action for them. This can be said for individuals who have repeatedly committed the same crime or who are becoming an increasing danger to society.

      Each case must be taken on its own, but with some individuals it's easy to see that they have no chance in redeeming themselves and it would be better to put them out of their misery. Psychology junior Emma Coronado said she believes the system can remove the blood from its hands by keeping criminals locked up.

      "There are people who are too evil to live," Coronado said. "They're dangerous and have insatiable lusts that are impossible for them or anyone else to control. That being said, I do believe in a higher power and that fate will take its course; whether it be during their lifetime or after it. I think they belong in high security places where there is no danger of escape."

      Velez was extremely lucky to walk away from capital punishment, which cannot be said for a number of individuals.

      The death penalty is the most inhumane form of punishment, and the system does not have the right to decide whether or not a person should live. Despite being a highly controversial topic, the death penalty is not spoken about as much as other topics - which needs to change.

      (Source: Opinion columnist Trishna Buch is a print journalism senior; The (Univ. Houston) Daily Cougar)

      SEPTEMBER 2014




      Michelle Lyons, photographed at her home, in Huntsville, on July 17, 2014.

      Ms. Lyons,
      Hi, if you are reading this then they killed me. I wanted to tell you that I enjoyed talking to you, you seem like a really great lady. I’m sorry we didn’t meet under different circumstances. . . . Thank you for your kindness. Have a wonderful day.
      —Letter from death row inmate Robert Coulson, June 25, 2002

      Early one morning in April, Michelle Lyons pulled up outside her daughter’s elementary school in Huntsville, seventy miles north of Houston. Set deep in the Piney Woods, Huntsville—which is home to no fewer than five prisons—is a company town whose primary industry is confinement. Many parents who were dropping their children off at school that day worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Huntsville’s largest employer. Michelle, who sat behind the wheel of her blue Chevy sedan nursing a travel mug of coffee, had worked for TDCJ herself for more than a decade. She had been the public face of the agency, a disarmingly friendly, upbeat spokesperson for the biggest prison system in the nation. Though she had left the position two years earlier, she was still well-known around town, and several mothers waved as her car idled in the drop-off line. “Have a beautiful day,” she murmured when her nine-year-old leaned in to kiss her goodbye.

      When Michelle first went to work for TDCJ, in 2001, she had begun each weekday morning by driving into town, past the picturesque courthouse square and toward the Walls Unit, the 165-year-old penitentiary that is Huntsville’s most iconic landmark. The prison, whose ramparts measure more than thirty feet high, is a colossal, foreboding structure crowned by razor wire—a two-block-long, red-brick fortress that houses the most active death chamber in the country. Michelle’s office occupied a corner of an administrative building directly across the street from the Walls, and one of the requirements of her job as a public information officer had been to attend every execution the state carried out. She had also attended executions for her previous job, as a reporter covering prisons for the hometown newspaper, the Huntsville Item. Michelle spent many evenings—hundreds, in fact—standing shoulder-to-shoulder with witnesses in a cramped room that afforded a view of the death chamber, where she watched as men, and two women, were injected with a three-drug cocktail that stopped their hearts. All told, she had seen 278 inmates put to death.

      As Michelle pulled away from the school, she headed out of Huntsville, toward Interstate 45 and her new job more than an hour’s drive away, in downtown Houston. She cracked her window, grateful for the cool air on her face. Mornings, when her commute offered time to think back on everything she had seen at the Walls, were the hardest. She was flooded with memories from her time inside the Death House: of the conversations she had shared with particular inmates in the hours before they were strapped to the gurney; of the mothers, dressed in their Sunday best, who had turned out to attend their sons’ executions; of the victims’ families, their faces hardened with grief; of the sudden stillness that came over the prisoners soon after the lethal drugs entered their bloodstreams. She could still see some of these men—their chests expanding, their chins stiffening as they took their last breaths.

      These memories intruded with such frequency that Michelle no longer tried to push them out of her mind. Instead, she had started recording voice memos, letting her thoughts unspool as she drove alone in the car. She kept one eye on the road that morning as she rummaged through her purse for her iPhone, finally fishing it out and holding the microphone up to her mouth. “I support the death penalty,” she began. “I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.” She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. “But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,” she added. “There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.” A piece of folk art she had picked up on a trip to Austin—an evil-eye charm to ward off bad spirits—bobbed from her rearview mirror. “I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about it less, but it’s been quite the opposite,” she continued. “I think about it all the time.”

      As she approached Houston’s outer suburbs, the East Texas pines receded, replaced by roadside billboards hawking vasectomy reversals and personal injury lawyers and Chick-fil-A. Michelle thought back to a few months earlier, when she had called her former boss, Larry Fitzgerald, on the way to work, as she did every now and then to check in on him. The authoritative sound of his voice—Larry had been a radio news reporter back in the sixties—had always reassured her. It was Larry who had recruited her to TDCJ, and their friendship had continued after he retired and Michelle succeeded him as the agency’s director of public information. Though Larry was 38 years her senior, they had remained close because of the peculiar history they shared. Wardens, guards, and prison administrators had come and gone, but she and Larry had each been a constant presence, attending virtually every execution during the period when George W. Bush’s bid for the presidency had thrust Texas into the international spotlight.

      Despite all the time the two had spent together—the workday lunches, the happy hours, the long evenings waiting to hear if the appellate courts would grant a reprieve—Michelle had never asked Larry how he felt about watching inmates die, and he had never offered his opinion. So when she had phoned him from the road the previous fall and he had casually mentioned that he was having nightmares—which he downplayed by calling them dreams—about his time inside the Walls, his words had sent a jolt through her. She could still picture the exact moment he made this admission: she had been making a turn onto the Hardy Toll Road, and the morning sun had been unbearably bright. That Larry too was struggling had unnerved her. He had always been the less serious one, the one who could shrug off the solemnity of the moment with a dry aside. Often after they exited the Death House, he would suggest they go drink margaritas.

      Michelle had forgotten where she had left off with her dictation. She was thinking about Larry, wondering which executions he relived in his dreams. Her own hard moments came when she was awake. She could still picture Ricky McGinn’s mother, an elderly woman who had arrived at her son’s execution in a floral dress and pearls. Michelle would never forget watching her try to rise from her wheelchair so she could see through the large pane of glass that separated her from the death chamber. On the other side lay her son, who had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. McGinn was flat on his back, each limb restrained with leather straps, an IV line stuck in each arm. The old woman, her wrinkled hands pressed to the glass, had watched intently as her son’s body went slack. Michelle thought about her as she drove to work that morning. When the Houston skyline rose up in front of her, she realized her face was wet with tears.

      To read more on Michelle's story, click HERE.

      Sept. 24th

      Why Are So Many People Getting Sentenced to Death in Houston?

      10 counties are responsible for more than a quarter of all U.S. executions, but one in Texas far surpasses all others.

      Just 10 U.S. counties - roughly 0.3 % of the nation's total - account for more than 1/4 of all the American executions that have been carried out since 1976.

      Texas's Harris County, which includes Houston, is far and away the leader in executions during that period. That district has handed out 122 death sentences that were carried to completion, more than double the next highest. Harris County alone is responsible for more executions than any state besides Texas.

      Dallas County, which includes the Dallas-Fort Worth area, comes in 2nd at 53.

      According to data maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, a D.C.-based organization that opposes the death penalty, the 10 counties with the most executions are:

      1. Harris County (Houston), Texas: 122
      2. Dallas County (Dallas/Fort Worth), Texas: 53
      3. Oklahoma County (Oklahoma City), Oklahoma: 40
      4. Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Texas: 38
      5. Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas: 37
      6. Tulsa County, Oklahoma: 17
      7. Montgomery County, Texas: 16
      8. Jefferson County, Texas: 16
      9. St. Louis County, Missouri: 15
      10 (tie). St. Louis City, Missouri: 13
      10 (tie). Pima County (Tucson), Arizona: 13

      While a tiny portion of counties are responsible for a large share of executions since 1976, 85 percent of counties - including a majority of those in Texas - have not been responsible for any executions in the last 40 years.

      Just 4 of Texas's 254 counties account for about 1/2 of all the state's executions.

      States are generally responsible for administering executions, but the sentences begin at the county level. So why do some counties hand out so many more death-penalty sentences than others?

      There are some obvious factors: Some counties are in states where capital punishment is banned, taking them out of consideration. And larger counties, by virtue of having more people, are also likely to have more crimes and more crimes that qualify for death sentences. Harris County, for example, has more than 4 million people - making it one of the largest in the country.

      Death-penalty opponents, however, have noted discrepancies that are uncorrelated with state laws or county sizes.

      A study released last year by the Death Penalty Information Center found that 2 percent of counties account for more than half of all death-row sentences and executions. The report argued that death sentences "depend more on the location of the county line than on the severity of the crime." In many states, the decision to pursue a death sentence is made by the county's district attorney, a position that is often elected.

      The report's authors suggested that urban areas, largely in the South, where prosecutors have abundant resources are most likely to pursue and achieve a death sentence. Because court appeals reaching up to the Supreme Court can drag on for years, if not decades, smaller counties are less able to tie their hands with a capital case.

      "To take on a death-penalty case, that's a multiyear commitment of a million dollars or more," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "If you're in Houston, there are 200 attorneys in the D.A.'s office, at least. They can do a lot of death-penalty cases."

      "Certain prosecutors, particularly in certain regions, will develop expertise, not just in an ability to secure a capital verdict ... but to know how to pick a jury that is more death-inclined," said Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University's law school who considers himself neither for or against the death penalty. Population indeed plays a role, Berman added, but not just because the sheer amount of crimes committed. By having more homicides on their docket, prosecutors can cherry-pick the cases most likely to turn back a capital sentence and pursue those ones aggressively, he said.

      "No prosecutor likes to lose a case," Berman said. "They would especially by frustrated to put all this energy in pursuing a death sentence and have it come back as a life sentence. You sort of take a gulp and ask yourself, 'Wow, is that sort of case right for the death penalty?'"

      Death-penalty advocates don't dispute that a prosecutorial discretion plays a role in determining how many capital sentences originate from a specific county. But that hardly indicates the system is broken, said Kent Scheidegger, the chief lawyer for the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

      "The reason we elect our prosecutors locally is that we can have that sort of influence," Scheidegger said, adding that those with disproportionately low, not high, numbers of executions are problematic. "There are places where the death penalty is not imposed enough."

      So, why is Harris County's death count so much higher than anywhere else? Former District Attorney Johnny Holmes deserves a lot of credit, according to Dieter. During Holmes's 21-year tenure, which ended in 2000, the "gentleman rancher" presided over more than 200 death-row sentences.

      "His philosophy was to seek the death penalty often, and he ran on that platform," Dieter said. "Since Johnny left, the number of death sentences [in Harris County] has dropped dramatically."

      The Supreme Court in 1972 put a moratorium on the death penalty due to concerns it was being applied randomly and without sufficient legal guidance to jurors.

      But capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 with some guidelines intended to limit subjective discretion in its sentencing.

      Since 1976, a total of 1,389 executions have taken place in the U.S.

      (Source: National Journal)

      Sept. 17th

      Texas Carries Out A Rare Occurrence: An Execution Of A Woman

      Texas executed Lisa Coleman on Wednesday evening. Coleman was the 9th person executed by Texas this year - more than any other state ???-and the 30th inmate executed in the United States over the same span.

      This particular execution was also unusual for this country, because executions of female inmates have almost never happened throughout the modern era of the death penalty.

      Executions of women in the United States are incredibly rare. Coleman is just the 15th woman put to death since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

      That accounts for about 1 % of the 1,389 executions over that time.

      Coleman, 38, was sentenced to death after being found guilty of murdering Davontae Williams, her partner's 9-year-old son, a decade ago. Davontae was emaciated, weighing 35 pounds at the time of his death in 2004, and had multiple injuries on his body. Coleman and Marcella Williams, her longtime girlfriend, had restrained him and deprived him of food, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      She was killed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Tex. The execution took about 12 minutes, lasting from 6:12 p.m. to 6:24 p.m., and nothing unusual happened, the Department of Criminal Justice reported. In her final remarks, she told her family and "the girls on the row" she loved them. Her last words were, "I'm done."

      In Texas, a murder committed during a kidnapping is considered capital murder.

      (Since 2011, killing a child younger than 10 has also been considered a capital murder.) However, in a petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, Coleman's attorney argued that while she abused Williams, she did not kidnap him, which would mean she did not commit capital murder.

      "There is clear and convincing evidence that both Lisa Coleman and Marcella Williams abused Davontae Williams," the petition stated. "Lisa Coleman does not deny that she did things to Davontae Williams that she should not have done."

      Her attorney asked for a stay writing that she was only being put to death because Texas wants "to make sure someone pays" for what happened to Davontae.

      (Marcella Williams pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence.)

      In a response filed with the Supreme Court, Texas officials said she should not be granted a stay, writing that Coleman does not have "clear and convincing evidence" showing she was not guilty of capital murder.

      The Supreme Court declined to stay the execution, announcing about an hour before the execution that the full court had denied the stay. The court did not offer an explanation.

      Before Coleman, the last woman put to death was Suzanne Basso, who was executed by Texas in February for torturing and killing a man. Going into Wednesday, there were eight women on death row in Texas (including Coleman), which made up about 3 % of the people on death row.

      Coleman's execution came a week after the country's last execution, which also occurred in Texas. Willie Trottie was put to death for shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend and her brother. Trottie similarly asked the Supreme Court for a stay of execution, but the Supreme Court denied the request.

      Texas is far and away the most active state when it comes to capital punishment, having put 516 inmates to death since 1976. That is nearly 5 times as many executions as any other state (Oklahoma has put 111 people to death, while Virginia has executed 110 inmates). Of the 14 women executed ince 1976, 5 of them were put to death in Texas.

      Coleman becomes the 277th condemned inmate to be put to death in Texas since Rick Perry became Governor in 2001, the 30th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1389th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

      (Sources: KSAT news & Rick Halperin)

      Sept. 11th

      Wendy Davis Still Supports The Death Penalty

      Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, is not backing away from her support for the death penalty.

      "I do support the death penalty and I will be prepared to carry it out," Davis said in a Wednesday interview with HuffPost Live.

      Davis, who is running against state Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), said she believes capital punishment is appropriate when "heinous crimes" are committed.

      Texas has the highest execution rate in the country. Since 1976, 515 people have been executed in the state, including seven in the last year.

      When asked about studies that have shown that as many as 4 % of death row inmates are innocent, Davis said Texas had made progress on that front in recent years.

      "I've also been very supportive of making sure that we are providing everyone with due process rights to assure that we never execute an innocent person," she said, noting that she favors advanced DNA testing before the death penalty is carried out.

      Abbott favors the death penalty as well.

      Several botched lethal injections around the country in recent months have raised questions about the morality of capital punishment. Davis acknowledged this in the interview.

      "I of course respect the constitutional provisions to assure that we don't have cruel and unusual punishment," she said. "And as governor, I will work to assure that this is the case." A June Washington Post/ABC poll found that 52 % of Americans would prefer that convicted murderers spend life in prison rather than receiving the death penalty.

      (Source: Amber Ferguson, Huffington Post)

      Aug. 25

      Texas no longer Death Penalty Central for the United States?

      Texas has earned the reputation for being Death Penalty Central. It has executed far more inmates than any other state.

      In fact, even if the Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida or any other state were to execute an inmate every single day for a year, they would still lag behind Texas in terms of the number of persons put to death in the past 30 years or so.

      But here are a few facts you might not know:

      Texas courts punish defendants with the death penalty less often than Florida and California. This state does not have the most populated death row in the nation, and this year it is in a 3-way tie with Florida and Missouri for the number of people put to death.

      We took a deeper look at the possible trend in today's Houston Chronicle. Here is a taste of the piece in which former Texas Gov. Mark White is quoted, as well as former death row inmate Anthony Graves and a retired prison warden Jim Willett, among others:

      Perhaps nothing symbolizes this state's swagger over being tough on crime like "Old Sparky," an electric chair that was used to execute 361 inmates and is now the centerpiece of a prison museum.

      It sits just minutes from the Texas penitentiary where it was forever unplugged 50 years ago this summer following the execution of Houston's Joseph Johnson Jr. for murdering a grocer.

      While the oak chair is now a capital punishment relic photographed daily by visitors, this state's death row is undergoing what looks to be a historic shift.

      White maintains that Texas isn't getting soft on crime, but getting smarter about when it carries out the death penalty.

      Graves says that he is no liberal death penalty activist, and that his goal is to encourage people to have open, honest conversations about whether the death penalty works - are the right people being executed and is such a penalty deterring crime.

      He had 2 execution dates come and go before he was finally found to be an innocent man and released from prison.

      Willett and Ron Rozelle recently wrote a book, "Warden, Prison Life and Death from the Inside Out." It is a great read - plenty of insight and amazing first-hand accounts, such as when he presided over the execution of Gary Graham, who resisted to the end.

      Willett recalls in the book how Graham's paper clothing ripped apart while he was to be taken to the death chamber, so he had him wrapped in a white sheet - a practice that continues to this day. You can click on the book name to order a copy online or you can swing by the Texas Prison Museum, where Willett now works from time to time and ask him to sign a copy.

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      Aug. 23rd

      Former Governor and FBI Director Support Clemency for Texas Death Row Inmate

      Former Texas Governor Mark White and former FBI Director William Sessions have petitioned the State of Texas to grant clemency to death row inmate Max Soffar because of the likelihood his federal appeal will not be decided before he succumbs to aggressive liver cancer.

      1 of Texas' longest-serving death row prisoners, Max Soffar has been on death row for more than 33 years for a 1980 robbery at a Houston bowling alley where 3 people were shot and killed and a 4th badly injured.

      Prosecutors had no forensic evidence or eyewitness to tie Mr. Soffar to the crime, so they relied on confessions obtained from Mr. Soffar, a mentally impaired, drug-addicted 24-year-old, after three days of questioning with no lawyer present. He later recanted.

      On appeal, a federal judge criticized the state's case as thin on evidence and dependent on Mr. Soffar's unreliable confession. His conviction and sentence were overturned, but the state obtained a second guilty verdict and death sentence in 2006 after jurors were not allowed to hear evidence about an alternative suspect or about how police can extract false confessions.

      He currently has another appeal pending in federal court but his lawyers said "[t]he reality is that the federal court process will likely not be completed before Mr. Soffar dies."

      Now 58 years old, Mr. Soffar is suffering from inoperable liver cancer. Doctors discovered the tumor in June and told him it could be fatal within months. The Constitution Project has filed a clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, in which Governor White and Mr. Sessions ask for compassionate relief so Mr. Soffar can die at home.

      The Dallas Morning News editorial board wrote that the clemency request, though not likely to be granted, "serves a righteous purpose" because it exposes another Texas capital case where "the facts consist of many hazy shades of gray."

      (Source: Equal Justice Initiative)

      Aug. 15

      Execution Drug Cost Quadruples For Texas Prisons

      Texas is paying 4 times more for its execution drugs from a new supplier, putting it in line with a local consumer rate but well below the cost in at least 1 other death penalty state.

      The prison agency in the nation's busiest death penalty state paid $13,500 for its most recent batch of pentobarbital at a cost of $1,500 per vial, compared to $350 per dose spent last year, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under an open records request.

      The extra cost - a minuscule part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's $3 billion annual budget - comes after the state's previous supplier refused to provide more of the powerful sedative last year, claiming it had become a target of execution opponents. Prison officials have since found a new compound pharmacy for pentobarbital, and have waged a successful legal battle to keep the business' name secret.

      Backlash from capital punishment adversaries has curtailed the number of mainstream drug companies willing to provide lethal chemical doses to states. But it's not clear whether the increased cost is tied to that. Industry groups and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say they do not track prices for the drug and could not speculate on what factors might have driven the cost up for Texas.

      Several other state prison agencies have refused to release details on their drug purchases and Texas officials also have declined to comment on details.

      "We're confident we're complying with all state and federal laws," Clark said.

      The agency's higher cost does not appear extraordinary. A survey of nearly 2 dozen pharmacies in the Houston area shows Nembutal, the brand name for pentobarbital, sells for about $1,500.

      The cost is a bargain compared to Missouri, which also uses pentobarbital for executions. Records earlier this year showed state officials paid as much as $8,000 per dose.

      At least 10 inmates have execution dates in the coming months, including 2 in September, which means Texas' latest batch of pentobarbital is set to run out by the end of the year. The agency has confirmed it will attempt to purchase more drugs, but prison spokesman Jason Clark would not address whether the agency expects costs to rise further or whether it will use the same supplier.

      The latest drug purchase, in mid-March, was made by the warden at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit, where executions are carried out. It also included an additional $425 for tests to ensure the drugs' potency.

      Texas and many other death penalty states confronted with execution-drug shortages have turned to compounding pharmacies, which custom-make medications that the FDA considers unapproved and does not verify their safety or effectiveness. But Texas' 1-drug protocol has avoided the problems found in Ohio, Arizona and Oklahoma, which all use midazolam as part of a 2- or 3-drug mixture and had executions go awry in the last year.

      The records provided to the AP are redacted to conceal references to Texas' new supplier.

      Just a few years ago, it cost $83.55 in Texas for its former three-drug combination of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride administered to condemned prisoners. But Hospira Inc., the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, stopped production in 2010 and dropped plans to produce it in Italy because the government there asked for guarantees it never would be used in executions.

      Texas responded by switching to pentobarbital, but Denmark-based Lundbeck Inc., the drug's only U.S.-licensed maker, bowed to pressure from death penalty opponents and announced its medication was off-limits for capital punishment.

      The Texas prison agency then opted to purchase pentobarbital from The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy until the Houston-area company refused to provide more drugs in October. The owner wrote a letter to the agency accusing state officials of placing him "in the middle of a firestorm" of hate mail and potential litigation when his company's name became public.

      Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has supported the prison agency's refusal to publicly name its new supplier, citing a "threat assessment" signed by Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw that says pharmacies selling execution drugs face "a substantial threat of physical harm."

      (Source: Associated Press)

      Aug. 2

      STUDIES: 'Volunteers' for Execution

      A new study by Prof. Meredith Martin Rountree of Northwestern University Law School examined the characteristics of Texas death row inmates who waived all or part of their normal appeals, thus hastening their execution.

      Referring to these inmates as "volunteers," she compared them with similarly-situated inmates who did not waive their appeals. She found that more volunteers experienced depression or had attempted suicide than non-volunteers.

      She also examined the role of "self-blame" in prisoners' decisions to move towards execution. Inmates who waived appeals were more likely "to have been previously convicted of a crime, to have been convicted of a crime against another person, to have been incarcerated, to have committed their capital offenses alone, and to have committed the capital offense with a gun."

      Prof. Rountree criticized the legal changes begun in the mid-1990s that have allowed inmates to waive appeals earlier in the process "when prisoners may be most vulnerable to desires to die."

      She noted "the State's interest in fair and constitutional death sentences, something only ensured through adversarial testing of the conviction and sentence," and called for further research in this area.

      See: STUDIES: 'Volunteers' for Execution

      (Source: Death Penalty Information Center)

      Eight Ex-Judges Support Appeal Of Death Row Inmate Rodney Reed

      Credit: Austin American Statesman
      Sandra and Rodrick Reed

      By: Chuck Lindell, Austin American Statesman
      July 21

      Eight retired federal and state judges on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to accept an appeal by Rodney Reed, who faces a January execution ithe 1996 rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop County.

      The former judges said they were taking no position on Reed's claim of innocence or his insistence that he should be granted a new trial because he received poor representation from his trial lawyers.

      Rather, they said in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted Monday, that the Supreme Court should intervene because a lower appeals court did not followthe correct procedure when it rejected Reed's appeal in January.

      According to the retired judges' brief, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should have ordered a district judge to review Reed's claims - hearing live witnesses who were cross-examined by lawyers - but insteadengaged in improper fact-finding based on a "cold record" of briefs and affidavits.

      "That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate," the judges argued. "When courts have only affidavits without witness testimony, they lack the means of testing the accuracy, reliability, competence, scientific acumen, proper training and judgment of the (person testifying)."

      Reed argues that his capital murder conviction should be tossed out because his trial lawyers failed to fully investigate forensic evidence - particularly Reed's semen, which was found inside the murder victim.

      Prosecution witnesses testified that the semen was from the sexual assault that preceded Stites' death; Reed claimed he and Stites were having a secret affair.

      New experts retained by Reed's appellate lawyers have said that it is not possible to conclude when Reed's semen was deposited. In addition, former medical examiner Roberto Bayardo, who testified that Reed's semen was from the sexual assault, recently said he now believes the semen was from a consensual sexual encounter at least a day before Stites was killed.

      A three-judge panel for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the new testimony to be unpersuasive or unscientific - a review, the retired judges said in their brief, that should have been made by a district judge, not an appeals court.

      "Trial courts are the appropriate venue for developing a factual record and resolving questions of fact," the judges said.

      The retired federal judges in the brief were Royal Furgeson of Texas, appointed by President Bill Clinton; U.W. Clemon of Alabama, appointed by President Carter; Lee Sarokin of New Jersey, appointed by Carter and Clinton; Stephen Orlofsky of New Jersey, appointed by Clinton; and W. Thomas Dillard, a nonappointed magistrate judge in Tennessee.

      The state judges included Charles Baird, a Democrat who served eight years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and four years as a district judge in Austin; Sol Wachtler, a Republican formerly with the New York Supreme Court; and Oliver Diaz Jr., formerly with the Mississippi Supreme Court in a nonpartisan position.

      - See more Here

      July 10

      Texas Inmates Reveal What Life Is Like On 'Suffocating' Death Row

      They call Huntsville the capital of capital punishment. This small town in Texas has the most active death chamber in America.

      The debate about the morality of executing prisoners by lethal injection is largely bypassing this heavily pro-death penalty state.

      Many US states - in fact, polls show that many Americans - are taking a 2nd look at this method of killing, following the botched execution of 2 prisoners. They were left in visible agony and took many minutes to die after the cocktail of drugs being pumped into their bodies failed to do the job cleanly and quickly.

      Amid the great debate that has been ignited by this grim debacle, one group of people have never been asked about their views of death by lethal injection: Death row prisoners themselves.

      We were granted permission to enter death row in Texas and speak with 2 of the next men to be executed. 1 is a double killer, who shot his former girlfriend and her brother to death. The other is a hitman for the Mexican mafia who strangled a woman.

      They spoke to me about their views of their imminent deaths.

      Manuel Vasquez says he wants to die because his 15 years in solitary confinement is intolerable and does not amount to a life worth living.

      Willie Trottie says he is being used as a human experiment since Texas refuses to disclose what quantities of the drug will be used as he is strapped down and put to death.

      Both men say that lethal injection might seem to outsiders as a benign way to die, but they believe it is like being drowned. They claim it amounts to the "cruel and unusual punishment" that is outlawed by the US Constitution.

      Needless to say the views of these killers will not change minds in Texas, where the Death Chamber continues to be busy.

      (Source: ITV news)

      July 7

      Prosecutor Of Ex-Death Row Inmate Faces Disbarment

      The prosecutor who tried a now-exonerated Texas death row inmate could face the loss of his law license over allegations that he withheld evidence and used false testimony to win a conviction.

      An attorney for the exonerated inmate, Anthony Graves, said Monday that the State Bar of Texas had found "just cause" to proceed with a hearing against Charles Sebesta, the former district attorney in Burleson County.

      Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said the state bar notified her they were moving forward with a grievance filed by Graves in January. Sebesta also confirmed the state bar's finding.

      Sebesta prosecuted Graves, who was condemned for the 1992 slayings of 6 people. He would spend more than a decade on death row.

      One witness, Robert Earl Carter, was also given a death sentence for the killings and testified that Graves was his accomplice. But Carter would recant that testimony later, including in the moments just before he was executed.

      A federal appeals court reversed Graves' conviction in 2006. It found Sebesta withheld that Carter told a grand jury that he committed the murders alone, and then allowed Carter and another witness to give false testimony.

      A special prosecutor then appointed to investigate the case again found that Graves should be freed and declared innocent.

      Since his release in 2010, Graves has called for Sebesta to be disbarred and punished. Graves said Monday that Sebesta was essentially guilty of "attempted murder" for pushing a prosecution that sent him to death row.

      "We care about justice in our state," Graves said. "It's part of the initiation process to reform by holding this prosecutor accountable."

      A 3-person panel is expected to hear evidence in private. It could dismiss the allegations, issue a public reprimand or recommend Sebesta's disbarment, Kase said.

      Sebesta has said he continues to believe Graves is guilty and posted extensively about the case on his personal website. He said Monday that the state bar had already reviewed his conduct and cleared him once, in 2007.

      "It's over," Sebesta said in an interview. "You get 1 bite at the apple and they've taken it and that's it."

      Prosecutors in Texas have rarely been punished for wrongdoing in the more than 140 exonerations in the state. The highest-profile example is the disbarment of the prosecutor who tried Michael Morton, a Central Texas man wrongfully imprisoned for 25 years for the murder of his wife.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      June 15

      No Deadly Secrets

      THE POINT - We should know where our state is spending tax dollars used to buy death-row drugs.

      Attorney General Greg Abbott may be a partisan figure, but he boasts 2 habits that earn him respect across the board: sticking to his word and supporting transparency in government. So Texans of all stripes should be particularly distressed by his office's recent rejection of an open records request concerning the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      With an increasing number of pharmacies unwilling to provide the drugs necessary for lethal injections, states have had to look elsewhere for the darkly ironic combination of something that is both deadly and safe. Executions cannot be cruel nor unusual - a difficult standard to meet.

      Yet recent open records requests for information on the deadly cocktails that Texas plans to use on death row have hit a brick wall at Abbott's office. With this decision to shut the doors to open government, Abbott flip-flops on his proud record of rejecting government secrecy.

      Only 4 years ago, the Attorney General's office held that the TDCJ was not immune from public records requests about the source of lethal injection drugs.

      A year later, his office found again that the TDCJ would have a difficult time proving that disclosure of key execution information would result in a substantial threat of physical harm to anyone - a potential justification for secrecy. In a decision last October, his office reiterated that point.

      This time around, something has changed. Ignoring its own track record, the Attorney General's office held last week that the TDCJ could keep information secret to protect pharmacies from possible threats. This decision was in spite of a report by the Associated Press, which found "scant evidence" of threats to execution drugmakers.

      So why did Abbott flip-flop?

      Perhaps politics sullied his ideals. The government watchdog group Texans for Public Justice has pointed out that the Abbott campaign recently received more than $350,000 in donations from J. Richard Ray, the owner of a Conroe-area compounding pharmacy. This correlation between campaign donations and changing attitudes should raise some eyebrows. But no matter your position on the death penalty, Texans should know where our government is spending taxpayer dollars - especially those used to buy deadly drugs.

      Executions in Texas seem to teeter on the edge of constitutionality. Our state has seen innocent men like Anthony Graves sit on death row, coming too close to execution before being exonerated. Likely innocent men like Cameron Todd Willingham have actually been killed in the misapplied name of justice.

      Now, Texas' planned execution of Robert Campbell is being brought into question after the Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that the Constitution does not tolerate applying the death penalty to the mentally disabled.

      After last month's botched lethal injection in Oklahoma, all Texans should be skeptical of a state government that won't answer questions about the death penalty process. Instead of erecting a wall, Abbott has the opportunity to build a bridge between the bluer shades of Texas and small government advocates by allowing total transparency.

      To do this, Abbott wouldn't have to change his mind - he would just have to stick to his word.

      (Source: Odessa America Online)

      June 5

      TDCJ Viewing Policy Reduces Witnesses to Executions

      At a time when a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma and secrecy about how Texas prisons obtain lethal injection drugs have increased public scrutiny of the procedure, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is allowing fewer media outlets to attend executions.

      There are only 5 media seats available in 1 of 2 tiny viewing rooms adjacent to the Texas execution chamber in Huntsville. While some of those seats have long been reserved for specific media outlets, the TDCJ has in the past allowed other reporters to fill empty chairs when those journalists couldn't attend. Now, those seats remain empty, reducing the number of witnesses in the nation's busiest death chamber.

      About 2 to 3 years ago, TDCJ public affairs officials began more strictly apportioning media seats, said Jason Clark, who became the agency's chief spokesman in 2013. The media seats in the viewing room are the only way members of the public who aren't related to the murder victim or the condemned inmate can obtain independent observations of the controversial procedure.

      "We are not under any obligation to open media witness slots to any organization who asks to view an execution," Clark said.

      While the TDCJ argues it is simply following long-standing procedure, media lawyers say the stricter enforcement of the rules prevents transparency.

      Just before a last-minute stay halted TDCJ's execution of Robert James Campbell last month - the nation's 1st execution scheduled after the mishandled April 29 execution in Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett - 8 media members had requested a seat in the witness room. TDCJ approved seats for reporters from the Associated Press, The Huntsville Item and Houston Chronicle, and from 2 Houston-area TV stations. Requests from reporters for ABC News, The New York Times and The Texas Tribune were denied, and they would not have been allowed to attend even if the other reporters were unable to.

      Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982, TDCJ has usually reserved 2 of the 5 media seats in the execution viewing room, 1 for the Associated Press and 1 for The Huntsville Item.

      Decades ago, the other 3 seats could be taken by others who asked, with preference to journalists who were based in the region where the crime occurred.

      In the 1990s, journalists from The New York Times, a New York CBS affiliate, NBC Dateline and even one from Germany were permitted to observe Texas executions.

      It's not clear precisely when TDCJ's policy shifted, but Clark said today, if a seat is unclaimed by a local reporter, it will remain empty.

      "Those slots are reserved for those media organizations from where the crime happened," Clark said.

      Confirmation that the agency is more strictly enforcing its execution viewing rules comes one week after Texas Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott reversed his previous rulings and allowed TDCJ to keep information about the compounding pharmacies that supply execution drugs secret.

      TDCJ has argued that releasing information about the pharmacies could put those companies at risk of retaliation.

      Nationwide, as traditional supplies of lethal injection drugs have dried up and states have turned to new sources, pressure has increased for more information about the execution process both from defense attorneys for inmates and from the media.

      Last month in Missouri, several news organizations, including the Assocated Press, sued the state corrections department, arguing that secrecy about the drug cocktail used for executions there violated the First Amendment. In other states, media organizations have challenged witness policies that restricted viewing to only part of the execution and not the entire process.

      Dallas lawyer Paul Watler and other Texas media attorneys said they believe TDCJ should leave no media viewing slot vacant if there are pending requests.

      "It does not serve the public interest and is certainly not transparent to have seats for the news media that are not utilized because the department will not permit, in some cases, accredited news organizations to attend," said Watler, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. (Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune, is a FOIFT board member.) "The foundation believes TDCJ should reconsider and modify its policy so that at each execution there is access to 5 members of the media regardless of geographic location."

      Although Texas leads the nation in the number of executions ??? 515 since 1982 - it has one of the more restrictive viewing policies with the fewest media seats offered. That is partly because the 2 execution viewing rooms are cramped. Both are about the size of a small walk-in closet and also serve as the viewing areas for family members of the condemned and of the murder victims.

      In Oklahoma, there are 12 media seats. In Florida, 10. In both of those states, media witnesses are selected in a lottery system if the number of requests for the seats exceeds the number available.

      Watler said media access to executions is vital.

      "Everyone in the state of Texas has an interest in an execution," he said, "the state, the victim, the defense, as well as the public."

      (Source: Texas Tribune)

      May 20

      Bastrop DA Turns Away 10,000 Signatures for Rodney Reed

      Supporters of death row inmate Rodney Reed collected 10,000 signatures petitioning to stop his execution, only to have the petition turned away by the Bastrop County District Attorney's office.

      2 dozen people rallied in front of the historic Bastrop County courthouse Monday to present the DA with the petition to express their vocal mission: Stop the execution of Rodney Reed.

      The 45-year-old is on death row for the 1996 sexual assault and murder of Stacy Stites. Reed, a Bastrop native, has maintained his innocence. His supporters accuse police, prosecutors and the judges of racism in the controversial case. Reed is black, and the victim was white.

      "This is a representation of Jim Crow in the 20th century," Reed's mother, Sandra Reed, said. "Fair is fair. That's all we want is fairness. A fair trial is what we would love."

      At the Bastrop DA's office Monday, a man who identified himself as an office staffer kicked the media and Reed supporters out - except for Sandra Reed. She told the crowd within earshot of the DA's office that the staffer refused to accept the signatures.

      Following the rejection, the crowd fought to keep their cause alive.

      "The officials in Bastrop need to take another look at this case and really examine the evidence that is there," Lily Hughes with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty said.

      In January, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to hear the case. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make a decision whether to accept the case by October.

      The Bastrop County DA's office refused to comment.

      (Source: timewarnercablenews.com)

      May 10

      Death Penalty And Humanity

      Re: "Death-penalty states stand firm - None are calling for reform in wake of botched execution," Sunday news story.

      Violence Begets Violence.

      The suffering of the young woman who was sexually assaulted and shot by CLayton Lockett and then buried alive is unimaginable. The crime demanded a response to ensure Lockett would never commit such heinous acts again. Oklahoma could have safe-guarded its citizens by imprisoning Lockett without parole. Instead, he was put to death.

      Typically, these executions are masked in the trappings of " civilization" by administering a "sleep" agent before stopping the heart and respiration. This time, however, the drug did not work, and Lockett writhed on the gurney, experiencing a massive heart attack.

      Some might call this justice. But how can we claim a right to sit in civil judgment over violence when we sanction such violence - sometimes even revel in it, as when Oklahoma Legislator Mike Christian said, "I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions"?

      As Oklahoma City's archbishop noted, "How we treat criminals says a lot aboout us as a society." Embracing a culture of death, even in response to evil acts, erodes our collective humanity and the sanctity of all God-given life from conception until natural death.

      Becky Visosky, director of communications, Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas, Dallas

      (Source: Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)

      America's Capital Punishment Crisis

      As governor, I oversaw the execution of 19 murderers. But now the death penalty is making me queasy.

      May 05, 2014

      In 1990, when I was campaigning to take back the Texas governor’s mansion four years after I was unseated, I ran an ad I now regret. In it, I walked in front of blown-up photographs of 19 men who had been executed on my watch. “Only a governor can make executions happen,” I told the camera. “I did. And I will.”

      I still believe that every one of those 19 men was guilty of a heinous crime and deserved to die. One had killed his son on Halloween in 1974 with cyanide-laced candy in order to claim $20,000 in life insurance. Another had repeatedly raped a minister’s wife before strangling her to death with a microphone cord.

      I also commuted other death sentences, usually on the recommendation of the local district attorney. I relied on my experience both as attorney general and as a lawyer in private practice to inform my judgments, and I spent hours poring over every case. The details of each were different, as were the reasons I let the execution orders stand, but none of the 19 who were executed ever proclaimed their innocence.

      At that time, executions were conducted shortly after midnight, and on the night of each execution, I made sure I had a direct phone line to the death chamber in Huntsville so that if any last-minute issues arose, we could act. Oftentimes, I would walk outside the Capitol to speak to the protesters who assembled before each execution. Some called me a murderer, no better than the criminal who had just died. Others wanted to know why it took so long for justice to be served.

      Not only was I convinced of the guilt of each man, I would tell them, but I believed our criminal justice system delivered fair sentences and could humanely carry out the ultimate punishment.

      Today, I’m not so sure. As I’ve watched how the death penalty has been administered over the years, both in Texas and around the country, it has become increasingly clear to me that we just don’t do a good job at any phase of the process, from ensuring that capital trials are fair to the actual handling of executions themselves. Anyone who watched with horror last week as Oklahoma botched the execution of Clayton Lockett—so badly that corrections officers drew the curtain so that the public didn’t have to watch the gruesome spectacle—would have to agree.

      While I still believe that some crimes are so heinous that society is morally justified in demanding the perpetrator’s life be forfeited, we now have incontrovertible evidence that America’s criminal justice system does a poor job of determining who deserves the death penalty. Scores of people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged, including 12 from my home state of Texas. Particularly with the introduction of DNA testing, it has become increasingly clear that human error, even when prosecutors, judges and jurors all operate in good faith, is all too pervasive.

      And we now know with near certainty that innocent people have been put to death. For example, Texas in 2004 executed Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of the murder of his three children by arson. Experts have now concluded that the original investigation in his case was seriously flawed and did not prove that that arson even took place. And just this year, it was discovered that Willingham’s prosecutor made a deal with a jailhouse informant in exchange for his testimony that Willingham had confessed the murder to him—a deal the prosecutor never disclosed to the defense at trial.

      Similarly, DNA tests conducted in 2010, in conjunction with a key witness recanting his testimony, raised serious doubts that Texas death row inmate Claude Jones committed the murder for which he was convicted. Jones was executed in 2000.

      While it’s impossible to know precisely how many innocent people face capital punishment today, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 4.1 percent of inmates sentenced to die are innocent. With more than 3,000 people on death row nationwide, even that conservative estimate means dozens are facing execution for crimes they didn’t commit.

      Why does America’s criminal justice system continue to convict and execute innocent people? Eyewitness accounts, long considered the gold standard in criminal jurisprudence, have proven to be unreliable. Many defendants are represented by lawyers who are completely unprepared to handle death-penalty cases, and too often, courts have been either unable or unwilling to re-examine cases in which defendants were not provided with adequate representation.

      Even forensic science is riddled with error, despite what many Americans believe from watching CSI. In fact, 50 of the first 225 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing involved unproven or improper forensic science, according to research compiled by the Innocence Project, and the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards have now formed a new commission to develop standards for improving forensic science.

      Finally, even when we are convinced of the guilt of an individual, our system often fails to carry out the sentence humanely. Lockett’s execution in Oklahoma last week was just the latest chapter in the human experimentation many states are now practicing as they race to execute inmates with secret, untested drugs.

      A minute-by-minute account of the bungled procedure released by the state’s Department of Corrections suggests Lockett was conscious and writhing in pain for more than 30 minutes before state officials called off the execution because “his vein exploded.” He died of an apparent heart attack 10 minutes later.

      Unfortunately, Lockett’s case was not unique. In January, a similar scene was reported in Ohio during the execution of Dennis McGuire. As a growing number of manufacturers refuse to permit the use of their products to kill people, many states are obtaining drugs that were never intended to be used for executions. State officials then hide their sources from the public and hope through trial and error to hit on a deadly concoction that might work. The horrific outcomes in Ohio and Oklahoma were the inevitable result of such a flawed process, and unless major reforms are instituted, one we will see repeated in state after state.

      I began speaking out about the death penalty several years ago. The Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., asked me to join its death penalty committee as a sort of devil’s advocate, a death penalty supporter who had presided over 19 executions and still believed in the basic sound functioning of the process. However, as I began digging into the issue and working with advocates on both sides of the debate, I found that the problems were far greater than I had ever realized. I still support the death penalty in some cases, but regardless of guilt or innocence, we have an obligation to ensure that our system is fair—a mark from which we fall woefully short when it comes to capital punishment.

      On Wednesday, I will join Mark Earley, the former Republican attorney general of Virginia, in releasing a comprehensive, bipartisan report that examines every facet of the administration of the death penalty in the United States—from investigation to trial to execution—and makes a set of sweeping recommendations for reform. It is my hope that these recommendations will prevent the taking of further innocent life.

      I know I’m not alone in how my views have evolved. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a marked change in public opinion about the death penalty in the United States. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, support for capital punishment has fallen from a high of 78 percent in 1996 to just 55 percent last year. Apparently, the more Americans see of the way the death penalty is carried out, the less they like it. In many cases, however, our leaders remain dug into their positions, unwilling to look at even commonsense reforms that would improve the reliability of our criminal justice system.

      As someone who has personally faced the momentous decision of whether to allow a person to be executed, I hope that is about to change. Human life is too precious, and human error too prevalent, to continue to gamble with a system that we know is so flawed.

      Houston lawyer and businessman Mark White served as governor of Texas from 1983 to 1987 and as attorney general of Texas from 1979 to 1983. He co-chairs The Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Committee, a bipartisan group that promotes improvements in the death penalty system.

      America's Capital Punishment Crisis

      May 5

      Texas Won't Change Execution Plans

      Texas prison officials said they had no plans to change execution procedures after a bungled Oklahoma execution on Tuesday night, but death penalty opponents said that the incident raises questions about capital punishment in Texas.

      The botched procedure in McAlester, Oklahoma, about 340 miles north of the Texas death chamber in Huntsville, won't derail the execution timetable in Texas, the state that executes more people than any other state and many countries, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      Clark added that the execution of Robert James Campbell, convicted in the 1991 abduction and murder of a Houston bank employee, is still scheduled for May 13.

      Texas' protocol for executions hasn't led to problems, said Travis Considine, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.

      "Gov. Perry has great confidence in our state's criminal justice system and those responsible for administering executions," Considine said.

      Since 2012, Texas has executed convicts condemned to death using a single lethal dose of pentobarbital, Clark said, while Oklahoma was using a new drug combination for the 1st time.

      But Texas prison officials have declined to reveal the drug's supplier, despite a state attorney general's office ruling that the information was public. The prison officials argue that similar disclosures have led to threats of violence against companies that sell drugs for use in executions. The threats imperil the continued supply of lethal drugs, they say.

      Maurie Levin, a defense lawyer who was involved in the recent legal battles to disclose the compounding pharmacy making Texas' execution drug, said Tuesday's slow death of convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma demonstrates the need for greater transparency and broader oversight in Texas.

      "There's absolute relevance to Texas," she said. "The problem is lack of accountability."

      If Texas prison officials prevail in their quest for secrecy around execution drugs, the state could switch to the same drug mixture used in Oklahoma without the public's knowledge, Levin said.

      (Source: elpasoinc.com)

      May 5th

      Gov. Rick Perry to President Obama: Leave Execution Policy to the States

      Gov. Rick Perry, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, said that the botched execution in Oklahoma is no reason for Texas to rethink its method of execution, and that President Obama's call for national soul-searching on the issue aside, it is an issue best left to the states.

      "Here's where the president and I disagree," Perry said. "He all too often, on health care or whether it's on education or whether it's on this question of how states deal with the death penalty, he looks for a one-size-fits-all solution, centric to Washington, D.C., and I would suggest to you that's one of the problems we have in this country. We're a very diverse country and allow the states on these issues that are not addressed directly by the Constitution to come up with the solutions. I think the country would be happier for one thing. I I know the country would be more economically viable."

      On Friday, the president said he found the chain of events in the execution earlier in the week of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett "deeply troubling."

      "I'll be discussing with (Attorney General) Eric Holder and others to get me an analysis of what steps have been taken not just in this instance, but more broadly in this area," Obama said. "We do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions."

      Last Tuesday, the state of Oklahoma sought to execute Lockett with a drug combination the state had not previously used. The injection did not perform as expected, Lockett convulsed violently, eventually dying of an apparent heart attack, 43 minutes after the execution had begun.

      David Gregory, the host of Meet the Press, noted that Texas had executed more than 500 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 - more than any other state - and that there were 273 people on death row in the state. He asked Perry whether there was, after what happened in Oklahoma, reason for a pause in executions.

      "After what happened in Oklahoma do you expect more challenges?" he asked Perry.

      Perry said that there might be a reason for a pause in Oklahoma, but not in Texas.

      "State by state those decisions are made about how you're going to punish those who commit the most heinous crimes against your citizens and in Texas, for a substantial long period of time, our citizens have decided, if you kill our children, if you kill our police officers, for those very heinous crimes, that the appropriate penalty is the death penalty," Perry said.

      "I think we have an appropriate process in place from the standpoint of the appeals process to make sure due process is addressed and the process of the actual execution I would suggest to you is very different from Oklahoma," Perry said. "We only use 1 drug. But I'm confident that the way the executions are taken care of in the state of Texas are appropriate and humane."

      Of what happened in Oklahoma, Perry said, "I don't know whether it was inhumane or not but it was botched," and that Oklahoma officials should examine what happened.

      "There's an appropriate way to deal with this and obviously something went terribly wrong," Perry said.

      Perry, who was in Washington for Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Dinner as a guest of CNN, was also asked by Gregory about what appears to be his serious interest in making a 2nd run for the presidency in 2016.

      Gregory asked how Perry could get a "2nd look" after what Gregory said was generally viewed as a "botched" effort in 2012.

      "I would tend to agree with them on the botched effort," Perry said. But, he said, "I think America is a place that believes in 2nd chances. We see more character out of an individual by how you perform after you fail and you go forward."

      (Source: Austin American-Statesman)

      May 2

      Humane, Safe Executions Mandatory in Texas

      The botched execution in Oklahoma on Tuesday that the White House said fell short of humane standards - in which an inmate writhed up from a gurney for several minutes and moaned before he eventually died from a heart attack - could play out in Texas, but we can't know as long as prison officials here continue to refuse to disclose to the public the lethal drugs used and their source.

      Unless the state is more willing to be answerable to the public that it serves, we believe Gov. Rick Perry, who has repeatedly avowed his pro-life status, should issue a moratorium on executions until we, as a society, can rectify a protocol that includes transparency and that we know is constitutional.

      We understand the visceral temptation to declare that those on death row deserve this type of death. But we cannot allow society to use the instrument of the state for vengence. The legal justification in any modern-day condemnation is that the condemned person presents an ongoing danger to society and should, therefore, be put to death to quash that danger. It has never been an eye for eye. Nor should it be. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment. And the state of Texas has an obligation to meet that standard.

      Texas leads the nation in executions. We aren't saying executions are right or wrong, but the act must be done within the confines of our laws and, more important, of the U.S. Constitution: safely and humanely.

      Texas has on hand the same drugs used in the Oklahoma execution, the Texas Tribune reports, and has the latitude to use those drugs whenever it wishes without informing the public. State officials must be transparent about the mixtures of drugs used and the protocol for administering lethal doses.

      A witness for The Oklahoman described a gruesome scene after the first of a cocktail of drugs was intravenously given to Clayton Lockett, 38, on Tuesday night:

      "Lockett grimaced and tensed his body several times over a 3 minute period before the execution was shielded from the press. After being declared unconscious 10 minutes into the process, Lockett spoke at 3 separate moments.

      The first 2 were inaudible, however the 3rd time he spoke, Lockett said the word 'man.'"

      Lockett's death did not occur until 43 minutes after the triple cocktail of drugs was administered. State Corrections Director Robert Patton later said vein failure may have prevented the chemicals from delivering a deadly blow.

      The drug midazolam, which was used on Lockett, is stored by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and can be used at any time in the state's death penalty protocol. Documents obtained by defense attorneys and shared with the Texas Tribune show that TDCJ obtained midazolam last June. The Tribune reports that the state has about 30 vials of the drug with an expiration date of 2015.

      Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has halted future executions and ordered the Department of Corrections to review the state's execution procedures to determine what went wrong.

      With these same drugs available in Texas, and until the transparency issues are resolved, therefore we call upon Gov. Perry to issue a moratorium on executions in our state until lawmakers put forth clear rules and procedures to ensure no other inmate must endure what Lockett did.

      (Source: The Monitor)

      April 6

      Injection Drug Source Should Be Revealed

      The writing of another chapter in Texas' troubled history with the death penalty is under way, and is being shaped by questions about the state's supply of lethal injection drugs and the right of the public to know what is being used in its name.

      Last month, State District Court Judge Suzanne Covington in Austin delivered a limited victory for transparency and the rights of defendants when she ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to tell the attorneys of 2 death row inmates the source of the new supply of pentobarbital it plans to use in upcoming lethal injections.

      The state had argued secrecy was needed to protect the safety of the maker of the pentobarbital; Covington did not order the state to publicly disclose the supplier's name.

      The next morning a 3-judge panel of the 3rd Texas Court of Appeals rightly upheld Covington's ruling. That afternoon, however, the Texas Supreme Court stopped Covington's order from taking effect until justices could study the issue further.

      Courts and defense attorneys must be able to assess whether the execution drug the state uses meets state and federal standards and doesn't violate the Eighth Amendment's ban of cruel and unusual punishment. Further, the Texas attorney general's office previously has ruled that prison officials must publicly disclose information about the lethal injection drugs they use, as required by Texas' open record laws.

      The arguments in the case should favor disclosure.

      This latest death penalty debate began a couple of years ago when major drug manufacturers based in countries that oppose the death penalty stopped selling the drugs Texas used in a 3-drug "cocktail" to execute condemned inmates. Texas prison officials were forced to seek an alternative drug protocol and settled on a single dose of pentobarbital bought from a compounding pharmacy, which can make drugs on a small scale to order.

      Last month, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced it had bought pentobarbital from a new supplier that would allow it to carry out death sentences past April 1, when the state's existing supply expired. State officials refused to say where they had bought the drugs, however, claiming threats against previous drug providers required the information be kept secret.

      Attorneys for death row inmates argue they need the information to properly defend their clients.

      Other states that still carry out the death penalty also found their supplies of lethal injection drugs running short when drug companies began refusing to sell them and, like Texas, developed new execution protocols and turned to compounding pharmacies to provide the lethal injection drugs they need.

      The purity of drugs from compounding pharmacies is a concern, and Ohio and Oklahoma are 2 states that have experienced complications with executions using alternative drugs.

      Lethal injection became the preferred method of execution in most states after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in 1976 because it was considered more humane than other execution methods.

      Given the need to honor constitutional protections and transparency, we see no compelling reason why the state shouldn't reveal information about its supply of pentobarbital.

      (source: Austin American-Statesman)

      March 29

      Why Do Minorities Oppose Death Penalty Across U.S. But Favor It In Texas?

      The Pew Research Center is out with a new poll on the death penalty. It shows support nationally continuing to slide, the same trend that's been playing out for a few years. You'll see opposition still strongest among blacks and Hispanics.

      As goes the nation on capital punishment, Texas typically goes the other way.

      Support in Texas is considerably higher than the nation's, perhaps by 20 points or so, but it's hard to get an apples-apples. Texas support may, in fact, have gone up a tick or two in recent years. The one thing I struggle to understand is how Texas support remains strong across racial demographics, not to mention party affiliation. The cross tabs in the UT/Texas Tribune poll show support breaking down this way (with supporters and strong supporters of the DP added together):

      Texas whites - 76% support
      Texas blacks - 60% support
      Texas Hispanics - 78% support
      Texas Democrats - 62% support
      Texas Republicans - 85% support

      Shoot, even Texans who self-identified as "extremely liberal" (admittedly a small subset with high margin of error) supported capital punishment to the tune of 56%.

      Note that Hispanic support in Texas - at 78 % - exceeded white support in the UT/TT poll and was 38 points higher than Hispanic support nationally. (Yes, the methodology was different, but the questions were similar.)

      Support among blacks in Texas was 24 points higher than blacks across the U.S.

      This is especially surprising given the high proportion of blacks among wrongfully convicted Texans who have been exonerated through DNA tests and other means. Our own DA here in Dallas County, Craig Watkins, has said Texans are kidding themselves if they think the justice system is colorblind and deals everyone a fair hand. That view contributes to black opposition to the death penalty across the nation, but why not here?

      Also consider that Watkins, the state's 1st and only black DA, has sent more people to the death chamber in recent years than any other county DA.

      On Texas' overall support for the death penalty, observers have theorized that it stems from elected appeals judges and limited clemency powers for the governor. A sense of lingering frontier justice typically enters the conversation.

      Others point to the higher rates of capital punishment across the former Confederate states. That's a key point. Slavery was a system of dehumanization to pursue economic means, and it made it easier to mete out a more savage brand of punishment to those held in bondage. Slaves were called "stock" and were moved by "drivers." They were inspected for sale like beasts of burden.

      Historians have asserted that had an impact on the self-image of black African slaves themselves.

      Could that contribute to higher rates of death-penalty support among Texas blacks today? That would be a stretch and hard to fathom. (I looked around for state polls on the death penalty in Virginia and Georgia and didn't find anything to compare Texas numbers to.)

      I rather think Texans in all demographic groups more readily accept the theory of retributive justice - the "just desserts" approach, centering on punishment vs. the objectives of deterrence or rehabilitation. Central to that is a sense of proportionality that suggests there is no substitute punishment for the most heinous of crimes.

      Why is that philosophy so strong here?

      Given that Texas has been a career destination for millions of Northerners (including me, from Ohio) and the destination for millions from Mexico and other Catholic countries (one religious group with lower DP support), and given that Texas has become a heavily urbanized state, it's a puzzle that support for capital punishment in Texas has been so resilient.

      (Source: Rodger Jones,. Editorial Writer, blog; Dallas Morning News)

      March 28

      Death Drugs Ruling Could Fuel Opposition to Texas Death Penalty

      A ruling by a court in Austin that Texas must disclose the source of the Pentobarbital it uses to execute condemned criminals is seen as a major victory for opponents of capital punishment, 1200 WOAI news reports.

      The judge ruled that Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials must disclose 'in camera,' or privately to the judge, the source of a new supply of the lethal injection drug that the state received to execute criminals starting April 1. The state has announced the receipt of the drugs, but has said revealing where the drugs came from would be a security violation.

      Jen Moreno, an attorney with the Death Penalty Center at the University of California Berkeley tells 1200 WOAI news the fact that the drugs are more than likely from an unregulated so called 'compounding pharmacy' will open the door to claims that using them on inmates violates Constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

      "I would expect that the attorneys in that court are taking a serious look at what was released and they will seriously consider bringing an Eighth Amendment challenge," she said.

      But state prison spokesman Jason Clark says, not so fast.

      "Certainly the agency is disappointed in the District Court ruling, and we plan on appealing the decision to a higher court," Clark said.

      Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly unwilling to allow their product to be used in executions, which has forced Texas and other states to rely on small compounding pharmacies to obtain the needed drugs. When the state got the death drugs that were used to execute a man last night, officials actually made up the non-existent 'Huntsville Hospital' and ordered drugs to be sent there. When the state revealed the name of the pharmacy in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands which provided the drugs, the pharmacy was picketed by anti death penalty groups.

      Moreno says the attitude of the drug companies should say something to Texas officials about the waning popularity of capital punishment.

      "I think that is sending a message about a larger awareness that the death penalty is not something that we need in our society," she said.

      (Source: WOAI news)

      March 3

      Justice for Louis Castro Perez!

      The 5th Circuit Court has released an opinion denying relief to innocent Texas death row prisoner Louis Castro Perez. Many folks will be familiar with the case through Louis' sister, Delia Perez Meyer, who sits on the board of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

      Delia has been a tireless advocate for her brother and all death row prisoners.

      She has travelled the world in the fight to win death penalty abolition. For some time, Louis has been fighting to win DNA testing of several items found at the crime scene that contain the DNA of an unknown person, including on a bloody towel wrapped around a knife found at the crime scene! For more facts about the physical evidence and issue in this case please check out:
      Justice for Louis Castro Perez!

      The latest appeal for Louis was based on an issue of ineffective assistance of counsel. The 5th Circuit had previously rendered a judgement denying Louis relief. His lawyer then had 30 days to respond, however, she failed to respond to a 30 day deadline for filing a new motion with the district court. In fact this attorney received notification of the deadline and without alerting Louis or the other consulting attorney on the case, she decided on her own not to respond to the motion, effectively abandoning her client.

      In March of 2012, after being made aware of the error, the court granted a motion to allow Louis to reenter the appeal that his lawyer should have made. However, late last week the 5th Circuit vacated that order, and has decided to let the original judgement of denial of relief stand.

      We will continue to fight for justice for Louis Castro Perez and against any execution date!

      The full judgement from the 5th Circuit can be read here.

      (Source: CEDP)

      Feb. 24

      In Texas, Death-Row Gold Diggers Reportedly Marry Texas Inmates for Life Insurance

      It's a curious phenomenon, the "death row groupies" who become enamored with men who committed some of the most vile crimes you can imagine. When Scott Peterson arrived at California's San Quentin State Prison fresh off a conviction of murdering his wife and unborn child, he received a marriage proposal within the 1st hour.

      "These are usually women who would love to date a rock star or rap idol, but if they wrote to a musician, they might get a letter. Here they could get a marriage proposal," as Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin, author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, explained to D in 2011.

      In Texas, these proposals have often resulted in actual nuptials carried out (if not consummated) through a practice called proxy marriage, in which the inmate signs an affidavit allowing them to wed without being physically present. But with proxy marriages virtually banned during the previous legislative session, and because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice won't allow prison weddings, death row and other inmates no longer have the chance to formalize their unions.

      The state's de facto ban on prison marriages is only temporary. The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that prisoners have a right to marry. Besides, state Representative Trent Ashby, the author of Texas' proxy-marriage limitations, has said repeatedly that it was meant to cut down on fraud, not prison weddings.

      Still, the matter has provided a glimpse at a specimen related to but distinct from the death row groupie. Via The Dallas Morning News, meet the death-row gold-digger.

      [Polk County Clerk Schelana] Walker wrote to Ashby to support the bill after watching a parade of women troop through the courthouse to marry condemned inmates on nearby death row. Some seemed sincerely in love, she said.

      "They would show up in a white wedding dress with flowers. It was a big deal," she said.

      Others, particularly those from Europe, seemed more businesslike.

      After obtaining the license, most brides-to-be went down the hall to be married immediately by a local justice of the peace.

      Walker said the JP often asked them "what drew their interest" to death row.

      In her letter to Ashby, Walker said the JP was "advised by many of these women that they will go back to their country and get a life insurance policy on the absent applicant because their country doesn't recognize the death penalty."

      Walker said in an interview that one woman married a death row inmate who was executed in a matter of months.

      "And within a few months after that," Walker said, "she was back getting a marriage license to marry someone else."

      (Source: Dallas Observer)

      Feb. 20

      KCBD Investigates: The Cost Of The Death Penalty

      More than 500 people have been executed in the state of Texas since 1976, including 2 from Lubbock in just the past year.

      However, while Texas may lead the nation in executions, no one seems to know how much this is costing the taxpayers.

      Right now, there are 274 offenders on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. The state spends large amounts of money on those individuals every year, but Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark says those numbers don't exist.

      "We don't break out the cost of general population as opposed to an inmate that's on death row. There's just a flat figure for offenders that spend time in a state-operated prison," Clark said.

      TDCJ gets their figures from the Legislative Budget Board, who says the state spends about $57 per day housing inmates across Texas. However, that number is an average of the lowest to highest security inmates.

      KCBD: "Bottom line, we don't know how much it costs to keep an inmate on death row?"

      CLARK: "No.

      KCBD: "And do you think there is something wrong with that?"

      CLARK: "Our cost analysis is done by the legislative budget board."

      Life on death row is significantly different than it is in general population, which could mean a higher price tag.

      "Offenders on death row are single-celled, so they spend about 22 to 23 hours a day in their cell. They eat there; they would come out for recreation and a shower," Clark said.

      Kristin Houle is the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She says the meter starts running the second a county pursues that sentence.

      "In Texas, the average time when someone is sentenced and executed is about 10 to 12 years, so they are entitled to both state and federal appeals and those impact the taxpayers," Houle said.

      Houle tells us the last comprehensive study on the cost of the Texas Death Penalty was done in 1992 by the Dallas Morning News. They nailed down a $2.3 million price tag for executions, versus $750,000 for a life sentence. That was 20 years ago.

      "We have seen state after state who have managed to conduct cost studies on the death penalty. In fact, there are concerns that Texas has actually done it on the cheap," Houle said.

      KCBD was able to find out how much the state is paying for execution drugs. According to receipts we've obtained, a compounding pharmacy in Houston was paid $2,800 for 8 vials of Pentobarbital.

      We reached out to the Legislative Budget Board to find out if any death penalty cost studies were planned for the future and they said there were not.

      (Source: KCBD news)

      Feb. 12

      Rick Perry Lures Washington State Residents to Texas with Thriving Death Penalty

      Responding to the news that Washington Governor Jay Inslee had suspended the death penalty in his state, Texas Governor Rick Perry seized on the opportunity to urge Washington residents to "vote with your feet and move to Texas, where the death penalty is thriving."

      At a hastily called press conference this afternoon, the Texas Governor made an emotional appeal to Washingtonians who might be disappointed by the sudden suspension of executions in their state: "Come to Texas. The death penalty is alive and well here."

      Blasting Governor Inslee, he reassured Washington residents that if they move to Texas, "as God is my witness, no one will ever take your death penalty away from you."

      "That's just not what we're made of in Texas," he said. "We believe in the sanctity of death."

      (Source: Andy Borowitz, The New Yorker)

      Woman Executed in Texas for 1998 Torture Killing

      Feb. 5

      A woman convicted of torturing and killing a mentally impaired man she lured to Texas with the promise of marriage was put to death Wednesday evening in a rare execution of a female prisoner.

      The lethal injection of Suzanne Basso, 59, made the New York native only the 14th woman executed in the U.S. since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed capital punishment to resume. Almost 1,400 men have been put to death during that time.

      Before being put to death, Basso told a warden who stood near her, "No sir," when asked to make a final statement. She appeared to be holding back tears, then smiled at 2 friends watching through a window. She mouthed a brief word to them and nodded.

      As the lethal dose of pentobarbital took effect, Basso, dressed in a white prison uniform, began to snore. Her deep snoring became less audible and eventually stopped.

      She was pronounced dead at 6:26 p.m. CST, 11 minutes after the drug was administered.

      Basso was sentenced to die for the 1998 slaying of 59-year-old Louis "Buddy" Musso, whose battered and lacerated body, washed with bleach and scoured with a wire brush, was found in a ditch outside Houston. Prosecutors said Basso had made herself the beneficiary of Musso's insurance policies and took over his Social Security benefits after luring him from New Jersey.

      The execution, the 2nd this year in Texas, came about an hour after the Supreme Court rejected a last-day appeal from Basso's attorney who argued she was not mentally competent.

      Lower federal courts and state courts also refused to halt the punishment, upholding the findings of a state judge last month that Basso had a history of fabricating stories about herself, seeking attention and manipulating psychological tests.

      Leading up to her trial, Basso's court appearances were marked by claims of blindness and paralysis, and speech mimicking a little girl.

      "It was challenging, but I saw her for who she was," said Colleen Barnett, the former Harris County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Basso. "I was determined I was not going to let her get away with it."

      Basso's attorney, Winston Cochran Jr., argued she suffered from delusions and that the state law governing competency was unconstitutionally flawed.

      Her lawyer said a degenerative disease left her paralyzed, but Basso, who used a wheelchair, blamed her paralysis on a jail beating years ago. At a competency hearing two months ago, she testified from a hospital bed wheeled into a Houston courtroom and talked about a snake smuggled into a prison hospital in an attempt to kill her.

      But she acknowledged lying about her background, including that she was a triplet, worked in the New York governor's office and had a relationship with Nelson Rockefeller.

      She originally was from the Albany and Schenectady areas of New York.

      Prosecutors said Musso was living in New Jersey when he met either Basso or her son at a church carnival, then moved to Jacinto City, east of Houston, with an offer of marriage. Evidence showed Basso was already married but took over Musso's benefits and insurance.

      An autopsy showed Musso had several broken bones, including a skull fracture and 14 broken ribs. His back was covered with cigarette burns, and bruises were found all over his body.

      Basso became a suspect after reporting Musso missing following the discovery of his body. 5 others also were convicted, including Basso's son, but prosecutors only sought the death penalty for Basso.

      "Suzanne ran the show for sure. ... She was the one in charge. She directed them. She wanted the money," Barnett said. "She's a heinous killer."

      Among witnesses testifying at Basso's punishment trial was her daughter, who told of emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her mother.

      About 60 women are on death row in the U.S., making up about 2 % of the 3,100 condemned inmates. Texas, the nation's busiest death-penalty state, now has executed 5 women and 505 men.

      The last woman executed in Texas before Basso was Kimberly McCarthy, who was put to death last June for killing her neighbor near Dallas and cutting off the 71-year-old victim's finger to steal her wedding ring.

      Basso becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Texas and the 510th overall since the state resumed capital punishment on December 7, 1982. Basso becomes the 271st condemned inmate to be put to death in Texas since Rick Perry became governor in 2001.

      Basso becomes the 7th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1366th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

      (Sources: Associated Press & Rick Halperin)

      Jan. 30

      Advocates Urge Prison Officials to Reconsider Death Row Isolation

      Unlike other inmates in Texas' sprawling prison system, inmates who receive the ultimate punishment are automatically sent to solitary confinement. On Texas' death row, they spend 23 hours a day in their tiny cells. They can't work, watch television, have physical contact with family members who visit, or access educational or rehabilitative programs.

      Advocates hope that the living standards and privileges for the more than 270 inmates on death row could change now that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is reviewing and updating its Death Row Plan. The plan defines the responsibilities of staff who working on the row and activities in which inmates there are allowed to engage.

      Department spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement that despite the review of the plan, "there are no significant changes anticipated." He added that it is a routine review and that there is no scheduled completion date.

      A coalition of inmates' rights activists including mental health groups, religious officials, security experts and civil rights advocates this week sent TDCJ its suggested revisions to the plan. The groups say that solitary confinement is costly, increases staff stress and inmate suicide and gives inmates no incentives for good behavior. Under the advocates' proposed changes, inmates could earn the opportunity to receive more visits from family members.

      They could participate in group recreational and religious activities, work in on-site jobs, and use the television and the phone.

      Before 1999, when death row inmates lived in the Ellis Unit in Huntsville with other inmates, the prisoners could participate in such activities. After convicted murderer Martin Gurule???'s 1998 escape from death row, the TDCJ moved the row to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston and adopted the current solitary confinement arrangement.

      Lance Lowry, president of the Huntsville American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the creation of the current system was a knee-jerk reaction to Gurule's escape and did not address the problems of training and equipment for prison employees. The TDCJ increased the physical security and upgraded facilities in the prisons but failed to better equip the staff, Lowry said.

      "This has not been a positive thing for the inmates or the staff," Lowry said. "There has been increased aggression toward officers."

      While prison officials individually assess other inmates to determine the type of security and housing arrangements that are appropriate, as they are in many states with the death penalty, those with death sentences are sent automatically to solitary confinement. They have no opportunity to work their way out with good behavior.

      But in a ruling in November, a federal district court in Virginia ruled that the state violated death row inmates' right to due process by automatically sending them to solitary confinement in much the same way Texas does. The court, calling that state's death row "dehumanizing," found that death row inmates did not inherently present a bigger risk to the prison system and that, like other inmates, they were deserving of rehabilitative resources in the event that their appeals to the court might one day lead to their release.

      The National Alliance on Mental Illness says the TDCJ's current system of long-term solitary confinement has been shown to cause mental health disturbances, suicide, depression, paranoia, psychosis and other antisocial behaviors. Greg Hansch, the policy coordinator for NAMI Texas, said it fosters an unsafe environment for both inmates and staff.

      "Sticking with the status quo is alarming," Hansch said.

      It is also more expensive to house inmates in solitary confinement, and the advocates' proposed revisions that would allow for inmates with good behavior to live in units with non-death row inmates who are serving time for similar crimes. Lowry suggested that the TDCJ could redirect the savings toward training and incentives for solitary confinement staff to reduce turnover.

      TDCJ spokesman Clark said in a statement that the agency is reviewing the suggestions like it would any public input.

      (Source: KBTX news)

      Texas Execution May Put Americans Abroad at Risk

      Jan. 24

      The Texas execution of a Mexican in the Lone Star State may put Americans who run afoul of the law in foreign countries at greater risk. Texas has executed Mexican citizen Edgar Tamayo despite pleas from Mexico and Washington. The 46-year-old, jailed 20 years ago for murdering a Houston police officer, was the 1st of the condemned in Texas to be executed in 2014.

      To take pressure off of diplomatic relations with Mexico, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had intervened and asked Texas to delay the execution. The request was condemned by the officer's family as well as death penalty supporters.

      Gary Gaddis, a brother of the slain officer said, "We're [outside the Texas execution site] here to remind the public who the true victim is in this crime and to warn the public that John Kerry has no right to try to chain the lock to the Supreme Court and turn the keys over to the international community."

      In 2004, the judicial body of the United Nations, informally known as the World Court, ruled that the US was to review the conviction of Tamayo. Also at stake were the convictions of 50 other Mexican citizens who saw their Vienna Convention rights violated. A Texas execution faced most of those 50 as well.

      Kerry had reached out to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot seeking a stay of execution for Tamayo. The Secretary of State's appeal included concerns that the execution may set a benchmark for how American's are treated overseas.

      While Kerry didn't doubt the facts of Tamayo's conviction nor did he express sympathy for Tamayo, his statement said, "...I am raising because it could impact the way American citizens are treated in other countries."

      Unable to travel to the U.S. to say goodbye, Tamayo's family gathered in Miacatlan as news of his death was received.

      Mexico had objected strongly to the execution. The country claimed that Tamayo had never been made aware of his legal right to seek help from the Mexican consulate. In a statement issued earlier in the week, the Mexican government said that it strongly opposed the execution. The statement went on to say that any failure by the U.S. to review the case would constitute a violation of America's obligations under international treaties.

      The criticism from the Mexican government and subsequent appeal from the U.S. State Department followed claims by Tamayo's attorneys that he was not promptly told he could get assistance from the Mexican consulate after his 1994 arrest. Records from the trial show that the Mexican consulate became aware of the case just as the trial began.

      Prior to the execution, the U.S. Supreme Court looked at 2 last-ditch appeals Wednesday. The 1st looked at the problem of Tamayo's mental health and whether it made him ineligible for execution. The 2nd issue was related to the consulate matter.

      Officer Gaddis, 24 when he was murdered, had been taking Tamayo and another man to jail from the scene of a robbery. Tamayo, who had hidden a pistol in his trousers, shot Gaddis three times in the neck and head. Tamayo escaped but was recaptured close by. Still in the handcuffs Gaddis had put on him, Tamayo was also wearing the robbery victim's watch and necklace.

      The last item on a Facebook page set up for Edgar Tamayo only read:

      #EdgarTamayo ya murio a las 9:32 R.I.P.


      Texas led the country in executions in 2013 with 400 instances. The 2nd most active death row was in Florida with 38. A Texas execution is conducted with the injection of a single drug, phenobarbital.

      (Source: Guardian Liberty Voice)


      Dec. 17

      Deadly Statistics----38, 55, 500 -- TCADP Recounts The Grim Toll Of Capital Punishment

      While Harris County retains its rank as the county that has sent the most defendants to Death Row since reinstatement in 1976, in recent years Dallas County has surged forward, earning it the top spot for new death penalty sentences since 2008, according to a report released this morning by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

      Of the 55 inmates condemned to die since 2008, Dallas sent 20% (11 defendants) to death row during the last 5 years, according to the annual TCADP report.

      That distinction is unsettling, given that Dallas County also leads the state in the number of exonerations established through DNA evidence, with 24 men exonerated through mid-2012. "While most of Texas is moving away from the death penalty, Dallas County has emerged as a major outlier in its pursuit of the ultimate punishment, particularly for defendants of color," Kristin Houle, TCADP executive director, said in a press release. "These troubling patterns directly counter Dallas' reputation as a leader in criminal justice reform."

      Indeed, while the number of new death sentences handed out in Texas remained low in 2013 - just 9 new sentences were delivered, the same as in 2012 (up by one over the 8 delivered in 2010 and 2011) - geographically, the use of the death penalty remains isolated, and the imposition of the ultimate sentence on minority defendants remains high. In the last 2 years, just 12 of Texas' 254 counties have imposed death sentences and 18 people in all were sentenced to death; 5 of those were from Dallas County. Since 2008, Travis County has sentenced just 3 persons to death, and returned no new death sentences in 2013.

      And since 2008, 2/3 - or more - of all new death sentences were imposed on minorities. In Dallas County, for example, of the 11 men sentenced to die since 2008, 8 are black and 2 are Hispanic. In Harris County, 12 of the last 14 defendants sentenced to death were black and the other two were Hispanic. Harris County last sent a white man to death row in 2004, according to the report.

      Texas also marked an execution milestone in 2013, with the 500th execution since reinstatement. At year end the total was up to 508 inmates put to death since 1982, when Texas resumed executions. In all, 16 inmates were executed this year, up from 15 in 2012. Texas accounted for 42% of all executions in 2013, putting to death more than 2 times as many persons as the second most active state, Florida, which executed seven inmates. (At press time, 38 inmates had been executed in 2013; 1 execution, in Oklahoma, is pending.)

      TCADP will be hosting a Tweet Chat today (Tuesday, Dec. 17), from 3-4pm, at #2013TXDP, with yours truly - @chronic_jordan - serving as a moderator. We'll be ready to discuss the implications of Texas' use of the death penalty and eager to answer #deathpenalty related questions.

      (source: Austin Chronicle)

      Nov. 30, 2013

      Conservatives Vs. The Death Penalty

      Opposition to the death penalty is not just the province of the political left.

      This year has seen the emergence of a new national group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which has been assembling a network of like-minded activists since its debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March in National Harbor, Md. This month, the conservative group announced a partnership with a Ron Paul-inspired, campus-centered organization, the Young Americans for Liberty.

      The driving principles are capital punishment's incompatibility with the conservative ideals of restraining government, protecting life and maintaining fiscal responsibility.

      The political right has teamed up with the left to push "smart on crime" reforms in sentencing and incarceration, among other issues. From the standpoint of this newspaper and our opposition to the death penalty, that same political axis could be key to making further inroads as more states consider joining the 18 that have already abolished the practice.

      Texas, it is clear, is a stronghold of death-penalty support. A University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll this fall showed 74 % of Texans in favor - about 14 points above national support expressed to a similar death-penalty question in a Gallup Poll last month.

      The Texas poll showed that about 13 % of the registered voters who opposed the death penalty identified themselves as conservatives.

      One such Texan is criminal defense attorney Pat Monks of Houston, a Republican precinct chairman in Harris County. Monks said he once was a fervent supporter of capital punishment, a position that hardened after a friend was murdered. He said he would attend social justice seminars to press his point, once even heckling noted capital punishment opponent Sister Helen Prejean, who came to speak.

      Ultimately, Monks said, the futility of seeking justice through the death chamber hit home to him. The impossibility of eradicating human error from the system hit home to him.

      Monks said he came to see no deterrent value for a punishment that's imposed unevenly at an intolerable expense to the public. Monks asserts that a more suitable punishment is sending a killer to a "4-by-8 cell, 23 hours a day for the rest of his life."

      Monks joined the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; he says he's 1 of 3 conservative board members. This year, he was asked to help staff the booth that the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty set up at the Maryland CPAC convention.

      It was a surprise, Monks said, to see how many conservative activists at the convention stopped by to discuss the death penalty. "People would come up and say, 'Man, I'm with you on that.'"

      That's not where most Texans are, not by a long shot. Most hold the same pro-death-penalty position Monks once held. We hope more will do the inquiry he did and have that same transformation.

      Supporters of new Conservative Group

      "I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism. So I am pleased with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty's efforts to form a coalition of libertarians and conservatives to work to end capital punishment."--Ron Paul, former Texas member of Congress and Republican presidential candidate.

      "I'm opposed to the death penalty not because I think it's unconstitutional per se - although I think it's been applied in ways that are unconstitutional - but it really is a moral view, and that is that the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes. Who amongst anyone is not above redemption?"--Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the religious-liberty advocates American Center for Law and Justice.

      "Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone's life."--Richard Viguerie, direct-mail mogul and major funder of conservative causes.

      [sources: Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty; Religion News Service; Sojourners]

      (source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)

      Oct. 3, 2013

      This Texas County Kills More People Than Any Other County In America

      Since 1976, Harris County, Texas has executed more criminals than any other U.S. county, according to a study from the Death Penalty Information Center(DPIC). The county includes Houston, Texas' largest city.

      The results show that more than 1/2 of America's executions since 1976 come from only 2% of its counties. And Harris County tops the list. Los Angeles leads the U.S. in putting people on death row - but it hasn't killed as many criminals as Harris County.

      Within the top 1%, 15 counties comprise 30% of nationwide executions. Harris County killed more inmates than any other county in that group. It has executed 115 people since 1976. The next-highest, Dallas County, executed just 50 people in that period.

      Harris County has been sharply criticised for the way it handles death penalty cases.

      A 2011 study about race and the death penalty from the Houston Chronicle found that of the last 13 men sentenced to die in Harris County, 12 were black. The lone, white male requested a death sentence after strangling and torturing 4 women and girls and raping 3 of them.

      Texas executes the most criminals of any state. More than 1/3 of Texas??? 305 death row inmates - and 1/2 of the 121 black death row inmates - came from Harris County, according to the same study.

      A more recent analysis from Raymond Paternoster, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, found the district attorney in Harris County more than 3 times as likely to pursue the death penalty for black criminals.

      Duane Buck, accused of a double murder in 1997, is often cited as an example of bias against black defendants in Texas. The court allowed a psychologist to classify Buck as more dangerous and more likely to re-offend simply because of his race, according to the Texas Observer.

      Brent Newton, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, wrote a frequently cited article in the 90s that tried to explain why Texas executes so many people, according to Frontline. For one thing, Texas appeals court judges are elected, and they have to appear tough on crime for successful re-election. And up until about 2001 Texas didn't have a public defender system for poor defendants and instead relied on outsourced lawyers who weren't necessarily familiar with capital cases.

      Mistakes have definitely been made in Texas' death penalty cases. The top 2% of counties for executions also constitute 52% of the death penalty reversals since 1976, according to DPIC.

      (source: Business Insider)

      Oct. 2, 2013

      Texas Reveals Execution Drug's Origin

      The nation's most active death-penalty state has turned to a compounding pharmacy to replace its expired execution drugs, according to documents released Wednesday, weeks after Texas prison officials declined to say how they obtained the drugs amid a nationwide shortage.

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, responding to a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press, released documents showing the purchase of 8 vials of the drug pentobarbital last month from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston. Such pharmacies custom-make drugs but aren't subject to federal scrutiny.

      Texas' previous supply of the sedative expired last month, but prison officials wouldn't say where they were getting their new supply. Several companies have been refusing to sell the drug for use in executions, leading to a shortage in death penalty states, though at least South Dakota and Georgia have also turned to compounding pharmacies.

      Texas - which carries out far more executions than any other state - now has enough pentobarbital to carry out scheduled executions into next year, department spokesman Jason Clark said. Pentobarbital has been used as the lone drug in lethal executions in Texas for more than a year.

      "The agency has purchased a new supply of the drug from a Texas pharmacy that has the ability to compound," Clark said.

      A message left by the AP for the pharmacy, The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy, wasn't returned Wednesday.

      Texas' purchase invoice shows that the warden from the Huntsville Unit, which houses the state's death chamber, bought eight 2.5-gram vials of pentobarbital on Sept. 16. 5 grams, or 2 vials, are used in each execution, with another 5 grams available should they be needed to complete the execution.

      Clark said the agency also has purchased from the same pharmacy another eight vials that will expire April 1. The recently purchased supply will expire in March.

      The disclosure came a day after a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of 3 death-row inmates who are challenging the state's use of the new drugs. Among the defendants is death-row inmate Michael Yowell, who is scheduled for execution on Oct. 9 for killing his parents at their home in Lubbock.

      The lawsuit, filed in Houston, contends that Texas' use of untested drugs during an execution would violate the U.S. Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

      "Use of compounded pentobarbital would constitute a significant change in the lethal injection protocol, a change that adds an unacceptable risk of pain, suffering and harm to the plaintiffs if and when they are executed," the suit said.

      Clark said he had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment on it.

      The lawsuit also alleged that prison officials have been trying to obtain execution drugs in the name of the "Huntsville Unit Hospital," though a hospital at the prison hasn't operated since 1983. Clark said the state corrections department had a current federal drug agency number registered to the Huntsville Unit.

      Texas switched to a lethal, single dose of the sedative pentobarbital last year after one of the drugs used in its previous 3-drug execution process became difficult to obtain. Legal challenges were filed to that revision but failed.

      Other death-penalty states have encountered similar problems after some drug suppliers barred the drugs' use for executions or have refused, under pressure from death-penalty opponents, to sell or manufacture drugs for use in executions.

      South Dakota has carried out 2 executions using the sedative from a compounding pharmacy. Georgia has said it's taking that route, but it's difficult to tell exactly how many states have used or are planning to use compounding pharmacies for execution drugs because states frequently resist disclosing the source of the drugs.

      Georgia's 1st use of an execution drug obtained through a compounding pharmacy was put on hold in July after the condemned inmate challenged a new state law that bars the release of information about where Georgia obtains its execution drug.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers products from compounding pharmacy unapproved drugs and does not verify their safety or effectiveness. But such businesses came under intensified scrutiny after a deadly meningitis outbreak was linked to contaminated injections made by a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy.

      (source: Associated Press)

      Sept. 20th

      Report Calls For Death Penalty Law Changes

      A committee report on the Texas death penalty calls for changes in the state law. Former Texas Governor Mark White says he does support the death penalty in some situations, but our system can't remain as it is. He's hoping the Legislature could play a role.

      He says changes in the law could help, saying the group's report, "Calls for changes that can be done by judges today, and also by district attorneys today. So, it's a very full and comprehensive study."

      White says the changes would put Texas in the 21st Century. He points out that 12 former death row inmates have been exonerated, in many cases by DNA evidence.

      "When you sit there next to a fella who's had 2 execution dates set for him, spending over 18 years on death row, and later to found absolutely innocent of the crime, that should change people's minds," he says.

      (source: KTRH news)

      Sept. 19th

      Texas Won't Switch Execution Drug

      The nation's most active death penalty state says it won't change its execution drug, but won't say how it will replace its supply that expires this month.

      "We have not changed our current execution protocol and have no immediate plans to do so," Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday, shortly before the state carried out its 12th execution this year. He would not elaborate on how the state will obtain the drug.

      Texas switched to a lethal, single dose of the sedative pentobarbital last year after one of the drugs used in its previous three-drug execution process became difficult to obtain and the state's supply expired. Other death-penalty states have encountered similar problems after some drug suppliers barred the drugs' use for executions or have refused, under pressure from death-penalty opponents, to sell or manufacture drugs for use in executions.

      In the past 2 years, pentobarbital has been used alone or in concert with other drugs in all executions in the U.S.

      Some death penalty states, including Georgia, have said they're turning to compounding pharmacies for pentobarbital. Such pharmacies make customized drugs not scrutinized by the Federal Drug Administration. It's hard to tell exactly how many states have used or are planning to use compounding pharmacies for execution drugs because states frequently resist disclosing the source of the drugs.

      Missouri, meanwhile, is planning to use propofol, an anesthetic which gained infamy in the 2009 death of pop star Michael Jackson, as the lethal drug for scheduled executions of two convicted killers later this year.

      If Texas plans to continue using the same execution drug, it would make sense that it would get it from a compounding pharmacy, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

      "States are taking different routes, but they're all facing this kind of crisis," he said.

      Dieter said it's hard to know if getting execution drugs through compounding pharmacies will become the norm for states. But he expects there will be legal challenges to the procedure as inmates and their attorneys will want to find out information about the drug, its dosage, the reliability of its manufacturer.

      Georgia's 1st use of an execution drug obtained through a compounding pharmacy was put on hold in July after the condemned inmate challenged a new state law that bars the release of information about where Georgia obtains its execution drug.

      "This is a basic matter of due process. A defendant has a legitimate interest in how he's going to be executed," he said.

      The FDA considers compounding pharmacy products unapproved drugs and does not verify their safety or effectiveness. However, such businesses have come under scrutiny after a deadly meningitis outbreak was linked to contaminated injections made by a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy.

      As of May 2012, Texas had 46 of the 2.5-gram vials of pentobarbital - presumably enough to execute as many as 23 prisoners, since each execution requires a 5-gram dose. The execution Thursday of Robert Gene Garza, convicted of being involved in the fatal ambush shootings of four women in the Rio Grande Valley, was the 21st lethal injection since that disclosure.

      Texas by far has executed more inmates than any other U.S. state since a Supreme Court ruling in 1976 allowed executions to resume. Since 1982, when Texas resumed carrying out capital punishment, the state has executed 503 inmates.

      It's possible the drug issue could result in court challenges by death penalty opponents or attorneys for the inmates facing imminent execution, such as Arturo Diaz, set to die in Texas next week for the slaying of a Rio Grande Valley man stabbed nearly 100 times during a 1999 robbery.

      Garza, in late appeals Thursday to the U.S. Supreme Court, contended the state should disclose the expiration date of drugs intended for his execution, arguing that those nearing the end of their shelf life could fail and leave him in pain, paralyzed or comatose.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      Sept. 18

      Texas Death Penalty System in Urgent Need of Reform: Report

      The Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Team, organized by the American Bar Association (ABA), today issued a comprehensive report with recommendations to help ensure fairness and accuracy in the state's death penalty system.

      "Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy in State Death Penalty Systems: The Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Report" is the culmination of a 2-year review of Texas capital punishment laws, procedures and practices by an assessment team of former judges, prosecutors, elected officials, practitioners and legal scholars.

      "A just system of capital punishment in our legal system requires procedures that ensure that only those deserving of the ultimate punishment are sentenced to death, and that the public have confidence in the adequacy of the criminal justice system to that task," said Jennifer Laurin, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, and chairwoman of the Assessment Team. "Texans cannot accept less than the strongest system of checks and balances to ensure that our capital punishment system is fair and minimizes the risk of wrongful convictions and unjust executions."

      Former Gov. Mark White, who oversaw 19 executions during his term, said, "I know that no decision is as weighty or significant as whether or not to allow an execution to go forward" and that he is "pleased that this report brings into clear focus the current state of the death penalty system in Texas and recommends prompt action to protect the innocent and provide a fair and accurate system for every person who is sentenced to death."

      Paul Coggins, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, noted that mistakes in the administration of the death penalty lead to serious public safety concerns with the innocent being convicted, possibly facing execution, while a guilty perpetrator remains free to commit additional crimes. Such a flawed process exacts an intangible toll on victims' families.

      "State and federal courts spend significant time and resources correcting errors in capital cases - errors that could have been prevented - to the detriment of the vast majority of Texans who rely on the justice system every day. We can do better," Coggins said.

      Recent reforms like the Michael Morton Act, improved handling of eyewitness identifications, and creation of new institutions like the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases and the Office of Capital Writs have all strengthened capital punishment procedures in Texas.

      Despite recent progress, assessment team members have identified a number of areas in which the state's death penalty system fall far short.

      Notably, the Lone Star State appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions, failing to rely upon scientifically reliable evidence and processes in the administration of the death penalty, and providing the public with inadequate information to understand and evaluate capital punishment in the state.

      The nearly 500 page report states that the system could be helped with a myriad of reforms to correct short-comings in death penalty administration, including defense services, procedural restrictions and limitations on state post-conviction and federal habeas corpus proceedings, jury instructions, an independent judiciary, racial and ethnic minority representation, and mental retardation and mental illness.

      Of the 500-page Report, team member and former Chairman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Charlie Terrell noted, "This document catalogues numerous reasons why I asked to have my name taken off the death row unit in Huntsville."

      (Source: PR Newswire)

      Sept. 18th

      Bar Association: Texas Death Penalty System Falls Short

      Texas has improved its criminal justice system following dozens of exonerations in recent years, but a new study the American Bar Association will release Wednesday finds that the death penalty system here still falls far short when it comes to fairness and eliminating the risk of executing the innocent.

      "In many areas, Texas appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions, fails to rely upon scientifically reliable methods and processes in the administration of the death penalty and provides the public with inadequate information to understand and evaluate capital punishment in the state," the report says.

      The report, which outlines a host of recommendations to improve the criminal justice system, is part of the bar association's national project examining the implementation of the death penalty in states. While it praises Texas for recent improvements intended to increase fairness, the report says much work remains. The organization says its recommendations would restore public confidence in the system and help to ensure that Texans aren't wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Those include requiring the indefinite preservation of biological evidence in violent crimes, abandoning the evaluation of "future dangerousness," banning the execution of those with mental retardation and mental illness and establishing an innocence commission to examine the lessons of wrongful convictions.

      "Texas has made some good policy decisions over the last couple of years," said Royal Ferguson, the founding dean of the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law and a former U.S. district judge who served on the association's Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Team. "There are a lot more that need to be made."

      Prosecutors contacted for this story declined to comment because they had not yet seen the embargoed report.

      Since 1989, there have been 132 Texas convictions overturned, including those of 12 people who were on death row, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers have passed new laws designed to prevent erroneous convictions. In 2007, lawmakers established a regional public defender's office for those accused of capital crimes. In 2009, legislators created the Office of Capital Writs to represent death row inmates.

      2 years ago, lawmakers required that local police agencies begin using better practices for photograph lineups. And this year, the Legislature approved the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to turn over police reports and witness statements to defense lawyers.

      The report calls on lawmakers to require police agencies to preserve biological evidence in death penalty cases. Among the exonerations in Texas, 48 were based on the results of DNA testing. This year, lawmakers approved a law that requires testing of all biological evidence in death penalty cases. But in older cases, like that of death row inmate Hank Skinner, who was convicted in 1995 of murdering his live-in girlfriend and her 2 sons at their Pampa home, tracking down evidence to test can become challenging. Skinner fought for about a decade to obtain DNA testing he claims will prove his innocence in the brutal killings. The courts finally allowed the testing in 2012, but the state has been unable to locate a key piece of evidence, a man's windbreaker that Skinner argues could contain DNA that leads to the real killer.

      A key recommendation in the report, Ferguson said, is the elimination of the use of "future dangerousness" as an element in the jury's decision-making in death penalty cases. In Texas, juries are asked to determine whether the defendant would commit violent crimes in the future before sentencing a person to death.

      In 2002, then-Attorney General John Cornyn acknowledged that Texas had made a mistake in 7 cases where prosecutors used testimony from a doctor who indicated to the jury that the defendants would present a bigger risk for future violence because they were black or Hispanic.

      "It's impossible for anybody to try to predict the future," Ferguson said. "That part of the law needs to be repealed immediately."

      The report also suggests that Texas lawmakers should specifically ban the death penalty in cases where the defendant suffers from mental retardation or mental illness. And it urges the state to require the use of current scientific standards in evaluating whether a defendant is mentally retarded or mentally ill.

      The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that states could not execute the mentally disabled because it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But it allowed states to develop their own criteria for mental disabilities. Texas lawmakers, though, have been unable to agree on criteria, leaving it to the courts to decide how defendants should be evaluated.

      The standards currently used to determine whether a Texan convicted of murder is mentally fit to be executed are called the "Briseno" standards - after the case that led to their development - and are based, in part, on the fictional character Lennie from John Steinbeck's classic novel Of Mice and Men.

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in its Briseno ruling, wrote that "most Texas citizens would agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt from execution. But does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?"

      The court's 3-part definition requires the convicted inmate to have below average intellectual function, to lack adaptive behavior skills and to have had those problems prior to age 18.

      Reform advocates argue the existing standards have resulted in the execution of some inmates who ought to have been classified as mentally retarded. And state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, proposed legislation this year that he said would create more scientifically sound standards, calling the current ones "junk science."

      But prosecutors have argued that the existing standards ensure that Texas doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

      Finally, the report calls on Texas to create a commission to investigate each of the state's wrongful convictions, identify the factors that contributed to them and consider ways to solve those problems through legislation or other policy changes.

      Lawmakers have proposed such a commission in recent legislative sessions, but the measures have failed. State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place and a former prosecutor and judge, was one opponent during the 2013 legislative session.

      "Anyone listening to this could not argue we haven't made significant reforms in criminal justice," Huffman said during a legislative hearing in May. "We do not need yet another layer to go through this again."

      Jennifer Laurin, a University of Texas School of Law professor and chairwoman of the team that prepared the report, said its goal was not to call into question the use of the death penalty in Texas. Instead, she said, it was to ensure that it is implemented fairly.

      Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson, who also worked on the report, said lawmakers must take steps to restore public confidence in Texas' court system.

      "For citizens to have confidence in the process, it requires transparency in every phase," she said.

      (source: Texas Tribune)

      Sept 18th

      Former Prosecutors, Death Row Inmates To Help Release Report Critical Of Texas Death Penalty

      Former Gov. Mark White is helping release a new report from the American Bar Association that levies new criticism of the death penalty in Texas.

      The report Wednesday will propose reforms in the nation's most active death penalty state. 11 inmates have already been executed this year in Texas, and at least 7 more are scheduled to die in the coming months.

      Anthony Graves spent 18 years on death row before being cleared by DNA evidence. He is expected to join White and former federal prosecutors at the Texas Capitol, where Graves testified to lawmakers earlier this year.

      Texas courts have exonerated Graves and 11 other men after juries sentenced them to death row.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      Sept. 18th

      Texas Seeks New Ways to Execute Death Row Inmates

      Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said they will run out of the drug used to execute death row inmates. State officials will not say what they will do when that happens.

      Texas uses pentobarbital for lethal injections. Executioners will use the last dose Thursday, whey the put Tri-City Bomber Robert "Bones" Garza to death. Garza was convicted in the murder of 4 women in Donna in 2002. He is accused of taking part in the murder of 6 men months later in Edinburg.

      The question now is, what will the state use to execute Arturo Diaz, 37, of Las Milpas, in 9 days?

      Diaz has been on death row for 13 years at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, north of Houston. He was sentenced to death for the 1999 stabbing death of Michael Ryan Nichols in a McAllen apartment.

      The victim was stabbed 94 times.

      Garza and Diaz are the only 2 death row inmates scheduled for execution in September.

      TDCJ officials released a statement in August about the pentobarbital shortage.

      "The agency is exploring all options, including alternate sources of pentobarbital or an alternate drug for use in the lethal-injection process," the statement said.

      TDCJ officials said the pentobarbital shortage will not delay any of the executions.

      (Source: KRGV News)

      Sept. 11th

      Court: Death Row Inmate Can't Be Forcibly Drugged

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that a convicted killer with a history of mental illness cannot be forcibly medicated for the purpose of making him competent for execution.

      The court ruled Wednesday in favor of 51-year-old death row inmate Steven Staley, who was convicted for the 1989 shooting death of a Fort Worth restaurant manager during a botched robbery.

      The same court in May 2012 granted a reprieve for Staley 2 days before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

      Prosecutors have argued Staley is competent for execution, but his attorneys have countered that this was accomplished only because a state judge in Fort Worth improperly ordered Staley be given drugs to make him competent so the state of Texas could kill him.

      (source: Associated Press)

      Aug. 1, 2013

      Officials: Texas Running Out Of Execution Drug

      By Mike Ward
      American-Statesman Staff

      State officials said Thursday they are again running out of the lethal drug used to operate the nation’s busiest execution chamber.

      Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said the state’s remaining supply of pentobarbital expires in September, and officials “are exploring all options” for an alternative.

      Prison officials acknowledged last year that if the supply of pentobarbital ran out, they had explored switching to other drugs including propofol — the powerful anesthetic that contributed to pop star Michael Jackson’s death from cardiac arrest in 2009.

      Clark and prison officials offered few other details on Texas’ latest quandary on a source for its lethal drugs, which have caused it to switch twice in three years as manufacturers stopped producing the necessary drugs under pressure from death penalty opponents.

      Eleven people have been executed in Texas so far this year with pentobarbital, a barbituate used medically as a sedative. Texas and at least four other states switched to it just over a year ago after pancuronium bromide became unavailable. Pancuronium bromide was part of a lethal three-drug cocktail that Texas and other states had used for decades, until its manufacture was stopped in part over concerns about its use for executions in the United States.

      Texas executed its latest criminal on Wednesday. Officials said two executions are scheduled in September and at least five others are set in the months after that. They would not say exactly when the pentobarbital supply would expire and become unusable, and would not comment on whether any of the September executions would be delayed.

      Other states in recent months have reported problems with buying pentobarbital, but because Texas bought a large supply more than a year ago, officials had previously insisted they faced no such issue.

      In all, Texas has executed 503 inmates since 1982, when it resumed executions after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976.

      Virginia is second in executions at 110.

      Propofol, an anesthetic used in veterinary medicine as well as human medicine, is approved for use in more than 50 countries, and generic versions are available. It has largely replaced sodium thiopental, previously one of Texas’ three execution drugs.

      Officials: Texas Running Out Of Execution Drug

      August 1st

      Execution-Proud Texas Says Lethal-Injection Drug Supply Will Expire In September,
      No Alternative Found Yet

      America's most active death penalty state is running out of its execution drug.

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Thursday that its remaining supply of pentobarbital expires in September and that no alternatives have been found. It wasn't immediately clear whether 2 executions scheduled for next month would be delayed. The state has already executed 11 death-row inmates this year, and at least seven more have execution dates in coming months.

      "We will be unable to use our current supply of pentobarbital after it expires," agency spokesman Jason Clark said. "We are exploring all options at this time."

      Texas switched to the lethal, single-dose sedative last year after one of the drugs used in its three-drug execution process became difficult to obtain and the state's supply expired. Other death-penalty states have encountered similar problems after some drug suppliers barred the drugs' use for executions or have refused, under pressure from death-penalty opponents, to sell or manufacture drugs for use in executions.

      No executions in Texas were delayed because of that shortfall. But because the shortage is now affecting such an aggressive death-penalty state, the effects could move beyond Texas.

      "When Texas raises a flag that's it having a problem, obviously numerically it's significant in the country," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty organization, said Thursday.

      Some death penalty states, most recently Georgia, have announced they're turning to compounding pharmacies, which make customized drugs that are not scrutinized by the Federal Drug Administration, to obtain a lethal drug for execution use.

      Missouri wants to use propofol, the anesthetic blamed for pop star Michael Jackson's 2009 death - even though the drug hasn't been used to execute prisoners in the U.S. Its potential for lethal injection is under scrutiny by the courts.

      He said pentobarbital, which has been used along or in concert with other drugs in all executions in the U.S. the past 2 years, was more readily available because it was commonly used as a sedative.

      Texas has by far executed more inmates than any other state in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume. Since 1982, 6 years after the high court's order, Texas has executed 503 inmates. Virginia is a distant 2nd at 110.

      As of May 2012, Texas had 46 of the 2.5-gram vials of pentobarbital, presumably enough to execute as many as 23 prisoners since each execution requires a 5-gram dose. The execution Wednesday of an inmate convicted in 2 road-rage killings was the 20th lethal injection since that disclosure.

      (source: The Province)

      Aug. 1

      Nation's Busiest Death Penalty State Running Out Of Lethal Drug;
      No Replacement Found Yet

      The nation's most active death penalty state is running out of its execution drug.

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Thursday that its remaining supply of pentobarbital expires in September and that no alternatives have been found. It wasn't immediately clear whether 2 executions scheduled for next month would be delayed. The state has already executed 11 death-row inmates this year, and at least 7 more have execution dates in coming months.

      "We will be unable to use our current supply of pentobarbital after it expires," agency spokesman Jason Clark said. "We are exploring all options at this time."

      Texas switched to the lethal, single-dose sedative last year after one of the drugs used in its 3-drug execution process became difficult to obtain and the state's supply expired. Other death-penalty states have encountered similar problems after some drug suppliers barred the drugs' use for executions or have refused, under pressure from death-penalty opponents, to sell or manufacture drugs for use in executions.

      No executions in Texas were delayed because of that shortfall. But because the shortage is now affecting such an aggressive death-penalty state, the effects could move beyond Texas.

      "When Texas raises a flag that's it having a problem, obviously numerically it's significant in the country," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty organization, said Thursday.

      Some death penalty states, most recently Georgia, have announced they're turning to compounding pharmacies, which make customized drugs that are not scrutinized by the Federal Drug Administration, to obtain a lethal drug for execution use.

      Missouri wants to use propofol, the anesthetic blamed for pop star Michael Jackson's 2009 death - even though the drug hasn't been used to execute prisoners in the U.S. Its potential for lethal injection is under scrutiny by the courts.

      "The states really scramble to go all over to get drugs. Some went overseas, some got from each other. But these manufacturers, a number them are based in Europe, don't want to participate in our executions. So they've clamped down as much as they can," Dieter said.

      He said pentobarbital, which has been used along or in concert with other drugs in all executions in the U.S. the past 2 years, was more readily available because it was commonly used as a sedative.

      "But I guess restrictions have been put on its distribution," Dieter said. "It's uncertain where all of this goes because it's inherently a medical kind of procedure involving some health professionals who are largely focused on keeping people alive. It runs into contradictions with executions - people strapped to a table. Executions aren't exactly what the medical model is."

      Texas has by far executed more inmates than any other state in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume. Since 1982, 6 years after the high court's order, Texas has executed 503 inmates. Virginia is a distant 2nd at 110.

      As of May 2012, Texas had 46 of the 2.5-gram vials of pentobarbital, presumably enough to execute as many as 23 prisoners since each execution requires a 5-gram dose. The execution Wednesday of an inmate convicted in 2 road-rage killings was the 20th lethal injection since that disclosure.

      (source: Associated Press)

      July 24

      Execution Date Set For Texas Women's Death Row Inmate

      State District Judge Mary Lou Keel has set a Feb. 5, 2014 execution date for Suzanne Basso, 59, who's held on women's death row in Gatesville.

      Basso was convicted of capital murder in the death in 1998 of Louis Musso, 59, a mentally impaired man in Harris County who was beaten with belts, baseball bats and hands and kicked with steel-toed boots.

      He was also bathed in a solution of beach and pine cleaner and scrubbed with a wire brush.

      His body was unrecognizable after the attack, authorities said.

      Basso led the group of 6 attackers, records show.

      The motive for the murder was an insurance policy in which she was named the beneficiary.

      Evidence showed she had promised to marry Musso, convincing him to leave family and friends in New Jersey and moving to Texas.

      (source: KWTX news)

      July 23

      When I Was on Death Row, I Saw a Bunch of Dead Men Walking.
      Solitary Confinement Killed Everything Inside Them

      By Anthony Graves, Death Row Exonoree #138

      When I was on death row, I saw guys come to prison sane and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution gurney.

      I am death row exoneree #138.

      There are 12 more people like me from Texas. 12 people who spent years of their lives locked alone in concrete cages waiting to die before they were set free, exonerated for their innocence.

      11 people have committed suicide on Texas' death row. All because of the conditions.

      When I was sentenced to death, I did not know that this sentence would also mean that I would have 12 years without any human contact, i.e. my mother, my son, my friends. All those people were stripped from my life because of this injustice. I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. All for a crime I did not commit. The injustice.

      For me and the 400 other prisoners on Texas' death row while I was there, a death sentence meant a double punishment. We spent years locked alone in a tiny, concrete cage in solitary confinement, with guys going insane, dropping their appeals, doing everything they could to check out of this place before we were ever strapped to an execution gurney. All because of the conditions.

      I am writing today because the ACLU has put out an important new paper about what it does to people to lock them alone in cages on death row. They found that over 93% of states lock away their death row prisoners for over 22 hours a day. Nearly 1/3 of death row prisoners live in cages where their toilet is an arm's length away from their bed. 60 % of people on death row have no windows or natural light.

      Solitary confinement is like living in a dark hole. People walk over the hole and you shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. You start to play tricks with your mind just to survive. This is no way to live.

      I saw the people living on death row fall apart. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions. To sum it up, I saw a bunch of dead men walking because of the conditions that killed everything inside of them. And they were just waiting to lie down.

      After I got out, I have tried to use my time to raise awareness about these conditions. I am currently working on a book and traveling the globe trying to share my message and educate people about the effects of solitary confinement. I have created AnthonyBelieves.com, which is my consulting firm that I use to help attorneys, nonprofit organizations, etc. I am asking for your support in my endeavors to bring attention to such inhumane issues by going to my website and ordering anything from my store to help offset my travel expenses. There's also a petition on my webpage that I am asking 10 million people around the world to sign in solidarity with me as I stand up for justice.

      Please help me and the ACLU get the word out about these conditions. Our death penalty system is broken in this country - it is applied unfairly against people. When you have a broken system, innocent people like me can end up on trial for their life. And subjecting anyone in prison to solitary confinement is torture. I am speaking on experience. Many of these same people are returning to our society, and when they do they come with all the baggage we put on them in the system. This keeps the rate of recidivism high.

      In this country, we should be doing better than that. We should not have a criminal justice system turned into a criminal by the way we treat our citizens. Even when we do not like people or believe they have done something wrong, our emotions should not govern our society. We should be making laws from a rational perspective. We have to be above the criminal by keeping our system humane. Everyone should be treated like a human being. This is America.

      Please share the new video I recorded for the ACLU to help get the word out about the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row. And make sure to read the ACLU's new report.

      Also please check out AnthonyBelieves.com and give me your support while I cross the county and try to educate people about the inhumane treatment in our criminal justice system.

      Thank you and best wishes.

      For more on the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row, read the ACLU's report A Death Before Dying.

      (Source: ACLU blog)

      July 22

      THE TEXAS 500

      In case you didn't notice, with all the recent fanfare involving ground-breaking Supreme Court decisions, government spying, or the demise of a Southern cooking empire, Texas - where they do everything on a grand scale - carried out its 500th "modern execution." Modern, that is to say, since 1982, when the death penalty was resumed in that state.

      500 executions in 31 years! Unpardonable. The size of a small town. What a dreadful waste of human life. The life sentence alternative at least exonerates vengeance. Yet, is there no other humane possibility?

      In the late 1960's, shortly after the UK abolished the death penalty, I was invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of the Scottish Prison & Borstal Govenors' meeting where their main concern was what to do with prisoners serving life sentences, especially those who were young? The only suggestion that had been put to them was transferring such prisoners to another prison for a month each year as a kind of "busman's holiday!"

      I proposed an alternative which not only spares human life, but allows prisoners another opportunity to pay their debt to society by helping us better understand the criminal mind. After all, every man or woman on death row was once a child - what went wrong? And who could better tell us than that person?

      No Pie-In-The-Sky

      What I proposed, & have been advocating for the past 45 years, was several "crime labs" whereby prisons would operate in collaboration with university criminal justice schools - much like the arrangements medical schools have with hospitals - combining teaching and research with treatment. Only this idea would include prisoners collaborating with the professors as teachers & as researchers. If they also became better human beings, well that would be a spin-off.

      Could prisoners be interested in self-study? Years ago psychologists at California's hard-boiled San Quentin Prison studied the records of its most violent prisoners, and then asked a number of them if they would be interested in working on a project to study violence of their most notorious. Indeed, they were interested. The psychologists taught them how to interview the other prisoners & then they formed a study group where they scrutinized their results. Remarkable. Their important book, Violent Men (Aldine 1969) tells what they found out - not only what but how they got their information: From & by their most violent.

      A Crime Lab would give criminology professors a living laboratory for study and research in criminal behavior; a place where they could conduct various kinds of treatment & study its effectiveness, while offering students a place for an internship in preparation for their life's work. It would give the prison new life as well as a new humanizing purpose - not merely custodians, but contributors to understanding and dealing with one of our most serious social problems.

      Executing 500 potential criminology teachers & researchers is an incalculable loss to our nation's treasure at a time when their know-how is so sorely needed.

      (Source: dagblog.com)

      July 17

      Texas Bill Would Block Anti-Abortion Laws Until Death Penalty Is Abolished

      A Texas lawmaker has introduced a bill that would block anti-abortion laws from going into effect until the state ends its use of capital punishment.

      State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. (D) introduced the measure to counter a slew of abortion restrictions proposed by Republican legislators in the Texas statehouse. Dutton's measure, HB 45, would block any law that restricts access to abortions until 60 days after the state abolishes its death penalty.

      Dutton also offered a similar amendment to HB 2, the contentious abortion bill famously filibustered by state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) last month.

      "12 people can put somebody to death in this state," Dutton said of his amendment, which was eventually tabled. "But now, we want 1 person to not be able to decide that same issue."

      Texas, which recently executed its 500th inmate since 1976, currently leads the country in use of capital punishment. As MSNBC reported, 261 of those executions took place under Gov. Rick Perry (R), who announced last week that he would not seek reelection in 2014.

      Dutton has taken on the death penalty in the past, first filing a measure to end the policy in 2003. He filed a similar bill last year.

      (source: Huffington Post)

      July 17

      Texas Should Suspend The Use Of The Death Penalty As A First Step Toward Full Abolition

      Marina Schuster (Germany, ALDE), the Parliamentary Assembly's General Rapporteur on the abolition of the death penalty, regrets the execution, on 16 July 2013 in Texas, of John Manuel Quintanilla, who had married a German national whilst on death row, according to the Council of Europe.

      "In many parts of the world, executions are becoming a thing of the past. All the Council of Europe's 47 member states have either abolished capital punishment or instituted a moratorium on executions.

      In the United States, the trend is toward fewer executions and death sentences, with more states repealing the death penalty. Texas, too, should feel encouraged to join the majority of states around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder.

      We call on the authorities to immediately suspend the use of the death penalty, as a 1st step toward full abolition," Ms Schuster said.

      (source: The Financial)

      July 14

      It's Debatable: Death Penalty: Necessary Or Evil?

      [Vaughn Ross is scheduled to be executed July 18 for a 2001 double homicide in Lubbock. Texas recently executed its 500th prisoner. This week, Arnold Loewy and Don May debate the death penalty. Don writes an independent blog for lubbockonline.com and Arnold is the George Killiam Professor of Law at Texas Tech University School of Law.]

      Don: Capital punishment is a necessary and vital component of a civilized society. The primary purpose of the death penalty is to rid a society of violent criminals so they will have no further opportunities to harm others.

      Liberal parole boards, judges, governors and presidents are quick to release violent criminals for almost any reason and often push to return criminals to the street as soon as possible. Execution dates are delayed for as long as possible, with the continued pursuit of reprieve.

      Imprisonment without execution gives criminals the continued hope of a parole, an early release, a pardon or even a chance to escape.

      Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a law in March 2011 banning any further convicted criminal executions. He also commuted the sentences of death row inmates to life sentences without the possibility of parole or release.

      Quinn wanted to make sure a future conservative governor would not have the chance to execute anyone currently on death row.

      He offered this excuse for signing the bill, "I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder and that the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system would be better spent on preventing crime and assisting victims' families in overcoming pain and grief."

      The death penalty is indeed a deterrent. Executed criminals no longer pose a danger to civilized society. No executed criminal has ever committed another crime.

      Liberals claim Judeo-Christian theology mandates criminals be forgiven and not executed. This is not the case, and liberals dance around the issue hoping conservatives do not understand the Bible.

      The words of Genesis 9:6 tell us why murderers should be executed, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. For God made man in His own image."

      There is no record Christ ever said thieves and murderers should not be executed. Christ did not tell the thieves being crucified with him they did not deserve to die.

      Executions are the only way to eliminate the worst criminals. Murderers, rapists, armed robbers, child molesters, terrorists and other doers of evil are permanently eliminated when executed, never again to commit another atrocity.

      Executions ensure a liberal judge, governor, president or parole board will not release a dangerous criminal back into society in the future.

      Criminal executions should be swift, frequent and inexpensive.

      Arnold: Whatever else might be said for or against capital punishment, it most certainly is not "a necessary and vital component of a civilized society."

      Almost every society other than the United States that we consider civilized have abolished the death penalty (e.g., Canada, Australia, England, France, and Germany.)

      And all of these countries have a significantly lower homicide rate than we do.

      Indeed, there have been times when they have refused to return a fugitive from justice out of fear he will be subject to capital punishment.

      As for Governor Quinn's observations, they are absolutely true. There is neither credible evidence nor logic to believe the death penalty deters murderers.

      If there were, it would be hard to explain the lower murder rate in countries that do not have capital punishment and even the generally lower murder rate in the U.S. among states that have abolished capital punishment as opposed to Texas and Florida, which are among the leaders in both their murder and execution rates.

      The governor was also quite correct in regard to the cost of maintaining capital punishment. During the recent economic crisis, some states have abolished capital punishment in the name of fiscal conservatism.

      Dr. May's explanation of why he thinks the death penalty is a deterrent goes to the issue of restraint, not deterrence. He is quite correct an executed offender (or for that matter a wrongly convicted innocent) will not offend in the future.

      The question is whether such restraint is necessary given the cost of capital punishment. I suggest it's not. We have a super-max prison in Colorado where we send the worst of the worst offenders (e.g. shoe bomber Richard Reid).

      So far as I am aware, no one has ever escaped from that prison or harmed an innocent person outside.

      Given we do sometime convict innocent persons, such as Timothy Cole, it seems to me those supporting capital punishment have the burden of proving some good will come from the administration of capital punishment that would not come from life without parole.

      Frankly, I have difficulty finding any, and certainly none that's worth the risk that, under our fallible system, some day a state official will have to tell a mother: "We're terribly sorry we executed your son, who we now know was innocent."

      Don: There is no evidence even a single innocent person has been executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated. If there were, the left would remind us at every opportunity.

      Even though innocent people are sent to prison, that is no reason to close our prisons and to release dangerous criminals into society. Most releases from death row have been on legal technicalities. As far as is known, those who were innocent of a capital crime have consistently been identified and released by the legal appeals system in place.

      The left tries to equate the physical act of a criminal murdering a victim with the physical act of the state executing the murderer and uses this "equivalence" as a reason to end the death penalty.

      While each act of killing may be a physical equivalence, there is no moral equivalence because the state is removing a violent menace from society.

      A life sentence without parole for a violent criminal is not equivalent to executing the criminal. With a life sentence without parole, the condemned has no reason to avoid killing other prisoners, guards and prison employees, as he already has the maximum sentence allowed by law.

      Many Europeans describe the death penalty as a barbaric ancient relic with a thirst for vengeance.

      Such feelings ignore the barbaric and evil nature of crimes deserving of the death penalty, deny the value of the lives of the victims and their families, and elevate the importance of the criminal above that of the victims.

      The claim Britain and other European countries have fewer violent crimes than the United States is a myth.

      Eurostat, the European Commission's database, revealed a "77% increase in murders, robberies, assaults and sexual offenses in the UK" between 1997 and 2009.

      Violent crime has increased 67% in France over the past decade, with a rate of 504 violent crimes per 100,000 population.

      There are more than 2,000 violent crimes a year per 100,000 population in the UK and 1,677 per 100,000 population in Austria.

      The violent crime rate continues to decrease in the United States, with the 2011 FBI Crime Statistics report listing "386.3 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants."

      Opinion polls show the American people favor capital punishment by more than 2 to 1, with 67% favoring the death penalty and only 28% opposing.

      Research has shown racial minorities have been treated fairly when it comes to the death penalty. Research from Emory University has shown "capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect; each execution results, on average, in 18 fewer murders."

      A polite and safe society is well-armed and eliminates its violent criminals.

      Arnold: Although it is true that current system has worked to save many innocents from execution (e.g. Juan Melendez, a former guest speaker at one of my symposia, who spoke after being released from death row in Florida after spending 20 years there for a crime of which he was eventually found to be innocent), the system advocated by Dr. May would not.

      Under his view, trials should be swift, and the appeals process short.

      Under his system, we would not tolerate saving an innocent man from death if it took 20 years to establish his innocence.

      Thus, instead of riveting my audience with his harrowing story of surviving the process, he'd be dead, and Dr. May would continue to claim there is no proof we have ever executed an innocent person because the proof wouldn't be there. Who spends time trying to prove a dead man is actually innocent?

      Have we ever executed an innocent person under the current system? Well one cannot be sure, but I do know that a few years ago we executed a man from Texarkana named Willingham, who had been convicted of murder of his 3 children by burning down their house with them in it.

      We later learned that the evidence upon which the arson/murder was predicated was junk science and totally unreliable. Nevertheless the state of Texas went through with his execution, evidently believing in his guilt despite the lack of evidence to prove it.

      So, was he innocent? Who knows? The only thing we know for sure is there was no credible evidence to prove him guilty.

      Any thought victims' families are better off with capital punishment is belied by the evidence.

      In jurisdictions that do not have the death penalty, family members typically feel vindicated when their loved one's killer receives life in prison. But in jurisdictions with the death penalty (e.g. Texas), frequently a jury verdict of life (which is more common than death) causes the victim's family to believe that his/her life was undervalued.

      Finally, those studies which show for every execution there are a certain number of lives saved (one says 8, another says 18) have been debunked by other studies as methodologically flawed.

      Indeed, if they were true, it would be hard to know why the murder rate is as high as it is in Texas and Florida. So, I am inclined to credit those studies which challenge the life-saving power of capital punishment as flawed.

      So, because capital punishment is not a meaningful deterrent, is fiscally irresponsible, and is administered by us, flawed human beings, it should be abolished immediately.

      (source: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal)

      June 30

      From America's Busiest Death Chamber, A Catalog of Last Rants, Pleas and Apologies Texas Department of Criminal Justice

      Karl Eugene Chamberlain went to his neighbor's apartment that night in Dallas under the pretense of borrowing sugar. He returned later, forced her into a bedroom, bound her hands and feet, raped her and then used a rifle to shoot and kill her. His victim, Felecia Prechtl, 29, was a single mother with a 5-year-old son.

      11 years after he was convicted of capital murder, Mr. Chamberlain, 37, was strapped to a gurney in Texas' execution chamber at the Walls Unit prison here and was asked by a warden if he had any last words. "Thank you for being here today to honor Felecia Prechtl, whom I didn't even know," he told her son, parents and brother on June 11, 2008. "I am so terribly sorry. I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am."

      His words did not die with him. Texas wrote them down, kept them and posted them on the Internet.

      The state with the busiest death chamber in America publishes the final statements of the inmates it has executed on a prison agency Web site, a kind of public catalog of the rantings, apologies, prayers, claims of innocence and confessions of hundreds of men and women in the minutes before their deaths.

      Charles Nealy asked to be buried not to the left of his father but to the right of his mother. Domingo Cantu Jr., who dragged a 94-year-old widow across the top of a chain-link fence, sexually assaulted her and then killed her, told his wife that he loved her and would be waiting for her on the other side.

      The condemned praised Allah and Jesus and Sant Ajaib Singh Ji, a Sikh master. 3 cheered for their favorite sports teams, including Jesse Hernandez, whose execution last year made headlines after he shouted, "Go Cowboys!" They spoke in English, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Gaelic, German ("Meine schone prinzessin," said Mr. Cantu, German for "my beautiful princess"). They quoted the Koran and the Bible, but also Todd Beamer's phrase aboard United Airlines Flight 93.

      "Sir, in honor of a true American hero, 'Let's roll,'" said David Ray Harris, who was dishonorably discharged from the Army and was executed in 2004 for killing a man who tried to stop him from kidnapping the man's girlfriend.

      The execution on Wednesday of Kimberly McCarthy - a 52-year-old woman convicted of robbing, beating and fatally stabbing a retired psychology professor near Dallas - was the 500th in Texas since December 1982, when the state resumed capital punishment after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

      In those 30 years, Texas has executed more people than Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and Virginia combined.

      The state's execution record has often been criticized as a dehumanizing pursuit of eye-for-an-eye justice. But three decades of last statements by inmates reveal a glimmer of the humanity behind those anonymous numbers, as the indifferent bureaucracy of state-sanctioned death pauses for one sad, intimate and often angry moment.

      "I hope that one day we can look back on the evil that we're doing right now like the witches we burned at the stake," said Thomas A. Barefoot, who was convicted of murdering a police officer and was executed on Oct. 30, 1984.

      Among the death-penalty states, Texas and California are the only ones that make the last words of offenders available on their Web sites. But only Texas has compiled and listed each statement in what amounts to an online archive.

      The collection of 500 statements, which includes inmates' verbal as well as written remarks, has been the subject of analysis, criticism and debate by lawyers, criminal justice researchers and activists who oppose the death penalty.

      It has spawned at least one blog, Lost Words in the Chamber, which has regularly posted the last statements since 2011. Officials with the prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said there were 3 million page views of inmates' final words last year.

      "It's kind of mesmerizing to read through these," said Robert Perkinson, the author of "Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire" and a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "Most people about to be executed haven't had a lot of success in school or life. They're not always so skilled at articulating themselves. There are plenty of cliches, sometimes peculiar ones, like the Cowboys reference. But I think many of these individuals are also striving to say something poignant, worthy of the existential occasion."

      The last statements are not uttered in a vacuum - they are heard by lawyers, reporters and prison officials, as well as the inmates' families and victims' relatives. But the power of their words to change the system or even heal the hearts of those they have hurt is uncertain.

      Nearly 7 years after he murdered a Houston city marshal who caught him with cash and loose change stuffed into his pockets from the bar he had just robbed, Charles William Bass refused his last meal and told the warden in 1986, "I deserve this." "I think he was correct," said Mr. Baker, 63, a minister at the Church of Christ in Emory, Tex., who was 29 when his father was killed. "It's called capital punishment for a reason."

      Strapped to a gurney in a spare brick room painted dark green, the inmates nowadays speak into a microphone attached to the ceiling, their arms stretched out and buckled into a T-shaped gurney so the drugs flow easily from the IVs into their veins. With the victims' and the inmates' witnesses in place in 2 separate rooms, the warden asks the inmate if there is a last statement. The last words are not recorded, but transcribed by hand by staff members listening inside the warden's office.

      Jim Willett, 63, a retired Walls Unit warden, said none of the 89 statements he heard from 1998 to 2001 changed his support for the death penalty.

      "You can hear it in their voices sometimes and in their delivery that they are sincerely hurting for the pain that they put their own family through," said Mr. Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. "I saw the strangest thing one night. You got this little wall here like this, separating those 2 witness rooms. One night I saw the daughter of the inmate and the daughter of the victim, and they were both leaning against that wall. They were that far apart and didn't even know it."

      Jason Clark, a spokesman for the prison agency, said the last statements were posted to respond to the demand for that information by the public and journalists. But opponents of the death penalty call it a perverse tradition.

      "The death penalty is a process, not an act, and posting the final words of a condemned person after a process which has usually lasted a decade or more is simply a disservice," said Rick Halperin, director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "How is one to assess the phrase of 'Go Cowboys!' from a man on a gurney?"

      Freddie Webb said 1 word - "Peace" - but James Lee Beathard, who murdered his accomplice's father, stepmother and half-brother, said 684 of them in December 1999, in a rambling statement that mentioned the embargoes against Iran and Cuba. He viewed his final minutes the way others had - as a fleeting moment on a stage, with a silent, watchful audience. "Couple of matters that I want to talk about," he said, "since this is one of the few times people will listen to what I have to say."

      (source: New York Times)

      June 29

      Playing The Race Card In US Executions

      The 500th execution carried out by Texas this week has brought the spotlight back on the treatment of black offenders in the United States, and the case of Duane Buck looms large.

      Like Kimberley McCarthy, the 52-year-old woman given a lethal injection on Wednesday, Buck is an African-American. Statistics show blacks are more likely to be given a death sentence than any other race.

      The United States brought back the death penalty in 1976, and Buck was sentenced to death in Texas in 1997 for killing a former girlfriend and her male friend.

      Buck does not deny the murders, but the capital punishment order came after a psychologist told the sentencing hearing that blacks are more likely to commit violent acts.

      He had one last-minute reprieve from death in September 2011 but is still on death row while lawyers, activists, church leaders and, increasingly, politicians dispute the case.

      "This is not about being innocent or guilty. This is about prejudice," Buck's lawyer Kate Black told AFP.

      "Mr Buck hasn't had a fair sentencing trial because of this racial testimony," said Kathryn Kase, director of the Texas Defender Service.

      "They might have given him life. We don't know. But we do know that he suffered from prejudice," added Howard Jefferson, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston.

      Civil rights leader Reverend Bill Lawson is at the forefront of a campaign to get a new sentencing hearing for Buck. Lawson has questioned the independence of lawyers appointed by judges who are themselves elected and so could be more tempted to take a populist decision.

      Maurie Levin, a lawyer for McCarthy, said that "shameful" race errors were also made in her case. McCarthy was executed for killing a white neighbor in a drug-fueled frenzy.

      The jury which chose death rather than life in prison was made up of 11 whites and 1 black.

      McCarthy had been given 2 last-minute reprieves this year because of discrimination doubts.

      On the eve of her execution, Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), said he believed there would be a new suspension because the Texas legislature is considering a Racial Justice Act to bolster moves against racial bias.

      The law, supported by Texas's only black district attorney, Craig Watkins, is however held up in state committees. Some conservatives say they see no need for it.

      Statistics indicate a grim picture for black defendants.

      Over the past three decades, African-Americans have made up 35% of those executed and 42% of those sent to death row. They make up just 12% of the US population.

      If Hispanics are added, minority groups make up more than half of death row inmates, even though they are less than 1/3 of the population, according to the DPIC.

      Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor who advocates for the death penalty, acknowledges that one study says the facial features of African-Americans get a "harsher" treatment by juries. He however says the race card is "played and overplayed."

      Dieter said the death row statistics are linked to poverty. Gloria Rubac, a Texas death penalty abolition campaigner, says it has to do with the US past of slavery and lynchings.

      "Race is so intertwined with everything in the justice system that you cannot separate it from the death penalty," she said.

      Buck's future may depend on whether lawyers and politicians can unravel the history and the law.

      (sources: Sapa-AFP)

      June 22

      Texas' Grim Death Penalty Milestone

      Owing to its size and inclinations, Texas registers prodigious statistics, but none so bleak as what comes from the state's pre-Civil War red-brick prison in Huntsville that houses the nation's busiest execution chamber.

      There, on Wednesday, Texas' 500th execution since national reinstatement is set to be carried out. The life scheduled for termination belongs to Kimberly McCarthy, whose grisly murder of elderly neighbor Dorothy Booth of Lancaster brings the state to this grim milestone.

      It's one that no other state may ever touch. Virginia, 2nd in terms of executions, is barely a 5th of the way there, and the pace of capital punishment has slowed nationwide, even in Texas.

      Part of that has to do with a collective shudder at the realities of a fallible criminal-justice system. Part of it has to do with a growing list of states - now at 18 - that have abolished the death penalty. Part of it has to do with a willingness to pause and take an unflinching look at the system and why it singles out some killers to die and others to live.

      In Ohio, the 8th-ranking capital-punishment state, a special commission appointed by the state Supreme Court is now doing that self-examination. It was galvanized by a report that showed the likelihood of being executed depended on where a killer committed his crime and who he killed. Defendants paid a disproportionately higher price in Cincinnati, for example, as opposed to Cleveland and other major cities. Killers of whites were far likelier to face execution than killers of blacks.

      Unevenness in capital punishment is also a blemish on the Texas record. Again, geography and race count - among the reasons that this newspaper opposes capital punishment.

      Of Texas' 254 counties, only 22 have sent killers to death row in the previous 5 years, and only 11 have done so in the previous 2, according to an analysis from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A death case is too time-consuming and expensive for many counties to take on.

      Studies indicate that the race of the victim and murderer likely produce different outcomes in Texas, from decisions made by jurors to convict and by prosecutors to bring charges. Of the 46 death verdicts in the past 5 years, 21 defendants were black.

      It's time, in Texas, for our own unflinching self-exam on the system of sending people to the death chamber.

      That's especially important for Dallas County, which is suddenly notable as Texas' leading county for new death sentences, with 8 in the previous 5 years.

      The McCarthy case, the potential 500th execution, dredges up this county's sketchy history of racially discriminatory jury selection. New briefs in the case cite findings by this newspaper that, as recently as 2005 - 3 years after the McCarthy trial - Dallas County prosecutors excluded eligible blacks from juries at more than twice the rate they rejected eligible whites.

      McCarthy is not a sympathetic character, and her culpability in a brutal murder is not at issue. Still, in the grim business of seeking an eye for an eye, Texas must insist on a fair, dispassionate, even-handed, colorblind justice system. It's not the one we have today.


      Executions since National Resumption in 1976:

      Texas: 500
      Virginia: 110
      Oklahoma: 104
      Florida :77
      Missouri: 68
      Alabama :55
      Georgia: 53
      Ohio :51
      North Carolina: 43
      South Carolina: 43

      (source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)

      June 22nd

      It's Time To Halt Executions In Texas

      The figure 500 is sobering, particularly when it is applied to people and their deaths.

      On Wednesday evening, barring intervention by a court or the governor, Texas will carry out its 500th death sentence since capital punishment was reinstated in 1974.

      Between 1924 (when the state took charge of executions from its counties) and 1964, the start of a decade-long moratorium, the Lone Star State performed 361 killings by electrocution.

      Texas has the bragging rights for its frequency of ultimate punishment, leading the nation even though other states have more inmates on death row.

      These large numbers represent people, individuals with names who, although convicted of horrible crimes and deserving punishment, should not have their deaths determined by flawed human beings acting in the name of the state.

      Kimberly McCarthy, if her sentence is carried out shortly after 6 p.m. Wednesday, will have the distinction of being that 500th person (and only the 4th woman) to be executed in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated.

      It is time - in fact, long past - for Texas to get out of the killing business.

      A character in an 1889 short story, The Bet by Anton Chekhov, makes a compelling argument during a dinner party debate on capital punishment. He boldly states, "The State is not God. It has no right to take away that which it cannot give back, if it should so desire."


      On moral grounds alone, Texas should abolish capital punishment as six other states have done in the last 6 years. Maryland become the most recent in May.

      Just as the Supreme Court declared in 1972, the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, and its application continues to be arbitrary and capricious.

      Whether a killer receives a death sentence can vary according to many factors, including the county where the crime occurs. The costs of prosecuting such cases and providing court-appointed lawyers are too high for some counties to absorb. Poor rural counties are less likely than large urban ones to seek the death penalty.

      Death row tends to be occupied by the poor, as rich people seldom are sent there. And minorities are over-represented. Of the 283 people on Texas's death row, 39.2% are black, 29.7% are Hispanic and 29.7% are white, state figures show.

      Although no one is certain that an innocent person has ever been executed, Texas has an embarrassing record of wrongful conviction, as evidenced by the number of recent prisoner exonerations.

      Progress has been made on limiting executions in certain cases, and in reducing the overall number of capital cases and death sentences. For example, recent Supreme Court rulings prohibit the execution of the mentally ill and people who were under age 18 when the crime was committed. After 2005, when Texas began allowing prison sentences of life without parole in capital cases, jurors have been more inclined to hand down that sentence instead of death.

      Although a Gallup poll shows 63 % of Americans still favor capital punishment, the number of executions has dropped by more than 1/2 in the past 15 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

      Texas executed 15 people last year, compared to 40 in 2000. McCarthy, convicted of robbing and murdering a 70-year-old Dallas woman, would become the 8th person to die by lethal injection this year. 7 other executions are scheduled through November.

      Proponents of the death penalty argue that it is the appropriate punishment for people who take a life, often in the most heinous way.

      The victims, they say, deserve justice, and killing their killers is the best way to mete it out.

      Abolishing capital punishment would neither demean the memory of victims nor deny any of them justice. Instead, it would make our society as a whole more just, more morally consistent and certainly more humane.

      Texas retired "Old Sparky," its electric chair, in 1977.

      It is time to permanently close our infamous death chamber.

      (source: Editorial, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

      May 17

      State of Texas: The Road to 500 Executions

      Texas will soon execute its 500th person since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

      If the current schedule holds - barring any stays or reprieves - the 500th execution will take place in June.

      Texas uses the death penalty more than any state, and it isn't even close. No. 2 on the execution list is Virginia, which has killed just 110 people - and only 5 since 2010.

      Texas has executed more people than the next 6 states - Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Alabama and Georgia - combined. It wasn't always so.

      Texas executed fewer than 10 people a year until 1992, when executions spiked under then-Gov. Ann Richards. They peaked under George W. Bush, who sent 37 people to the death chamber in 1997 and 40 in 2000.

      The Texans put to death are disproportionately African-American.

      (source: Texas Observer)

      May 7


      In 1977, executions resumed in the United States following the lifting of a ban on the practice by the U.S. Supreme Court the previous year.

      9 of the 50 states carried out lethal injections of convicted capital murderers in 2012, led by Texas with 15 executions, more than 1/3 of the nationwide total for the year, according a report by Amnesty International released on April 10.

      Since the revival of the death penalty in 1976, about half of those on death row at any given time have been black. More striking is the racial comparison of victims. Although approximately 49% of all homicide victims are white, 77% of capital homicide cases since 1976 have involved a white victim.

      According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 4 of the 5 people executed in Texas so far in 2013 have been African Americans.

      In 2006, the Human Rights Committee recommended that the United States assess the extent to which [the] death penalty is disproportionately imposed on ethnic minorities and on low-income population groups, as well.

      (source: Press TV)

      April 29

      Democrat Proposes Repeal Of Death Penalty; Measure Faces Uphill Battle In GOP-Run Legislature

      Texas lawmakers will hear testimony on a bill to repeal the death penalty.

      A Democratic lawmaker from Houston has introduced the measure, and the House Criminal Jurisprudence committee will consider it on Monday.

      Rep. Jessica Farrar and some other Democrats have repeatedly called for an end to the death penalty. But the ultimate punishment remains popular in Texas, and her measure is unlikely to gain traction.

      Activists say the risk of executing an innocent person is too high to continue executing people. Texas has one of the highest exoneration rates in the country and recently released innocent men from death row.

      Supporters say there are some crimes that are so heinous the death penalty is the best option. Both sides are expected to testify before lawmakers.

      (source: Associated Press)

      April 17

      Panel Discusses Death Penalty As SMU Alumnus Faces Execution In July

      An SMU graduate student finishes Summa Cum Laude, earning one of the most coveted MBA degrees in the country.

      Well on his way to take advantage of all that SMU has to offer, he took a wrong turn and went straight into death row.

      It was August of 1998 and Douglas Feldman, who graduated with the class of '85 from Cox School of Business, was cruising on his Harley in Plano when an 18-wheeler, driven by Robert Everett, blew past him, cutting him off and effectively upsetting him to the point of murder.

      According to police reports, only a few inches and a couple of seconds avoided a lethal collision between Feldman and Everett.

      Feldman, who later testified that he "Was consumed by anger" and "emotionally compelled," pulled out his 9mm on that fateful night and put a few holes into the back of Everett's trailer.

      Witnesses say Feldman then drove the bike up alongside the truck's cab and unloaded on his victim, instantly killing Everett.

      Feldman escaped the scene and after 30 minutes, he found himself at a gas station on Hillcrest and Arapaho, where he shot and killed his 2nd victim.

      "There is no question of innocence," said Dr. Rick Halperin, director of the Embrey Human Rights Program, who went on to talk about what he believes are the multiple flaws with the capital punishment system.

      As Texas pursues its milestone 500th execution, Halperin, on behalf of Embrey Human Rights, is sponsoring a multidisciplinary symposium at SMU called "Death By Numbers: What Moral, Legal and Economic Price Are We Paying to Maintain the Death Penalty?"

      Death row inmates are statistically uneducated, black and poor.

      That alone, according to Halperin, should allow legitimate questions to be raised.

      "Such a morbid milestone should make us stop and look at the record number of people being executed, the high cost of maintaining capital punishment and the increasing number of states eliminating it," Halperin said.

      Feldman is not a statistically common death row inmate. He is highly educated, and was financially stable at the time of the murders.

      Although his state of mind has been questioned on multiple occasions, most experts have ruled out insanity from his case, extending the confusion in Feldman's case.

      Regardless, it took 24 minutes to convict Feldman of capital murder but it has taken 15 years to lead him into the execution chair.

      Many in the theological field believe that 15-year wait is consistent with torture.

      Wednesday the 17, faculty members from Perkins School of Theology will talk about capital punishment from the theological vantage point in Prothro Hall at 12:30 p.m.

      The panel discussion will be led by Susanne Scholz, associate professor of Old Testament, Joerg Rieger and Wendland-Cook, Endowed Professors of Constructive Theology, Theodore Walker, who is Jr. associate professor of ethics and society, and Joseph Allen, Professor Emeritus of Ethics.

      The symposium will also talk about the literary, societal and economic impacts on the death penalty at 7 p.m. in Dedman Life Sciences building.

      Feldman's execution date is set later this year on July 31. He is scheduled to be the 505th person to be executed in Texas under capital punishment and the 1st alumnus from SMU.

      (source: Southern Methodist University Daily Campus)

      April 16

      New Evidence: A New Study Reveals A Disturbing Trend In Death Penalty Cases In Texas

      A significant new study finding racial bias in Harris County's death penalty system was released today in an appeal filed by condemned prisoner, Duane Buck, in Harris County's 208th Criminal District Court. Mr. Buck challenges his death sentence as an unconstitutional product of racial discrimination and presents research showing that at the time of his 1997 capital trial, the Harris County District Attorney's Office was over 3 times more likely to seek the death penalty against African American defendants like himself, than against similarly-situated white defendants. The research also shows that Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to impose death sentences on African American defendants in cases like Mr. Buck's, than on similarly situated white defendants.

      Mr. Buck, who seeks a new, fair sentencing hearing, cites a recent analysis conducted by University of Maryland Professor Ray Paternoster. Prof. Paternoster, who has more than 35 years of experience in criminology and quantitative methods, examined data on over 500 Harris County cases in order to identify and compare, based on a comprehensive set of variables, the cases most similar to Mr. Buck's. Prof. Paternoster found that in the cases like Mr. Buck's, the Harris County District Attorney's Office sought the death penalty 20% of the time when the defendant was white and 70% of the time when the defendant was African-American. This sharp disparity was similarly present in the decisions of Harris County sentencing juries: juries imposed death 20% of the time in the cases similar to Mr. Buck's, that involved white defendants and 40% of the time in the cases involving African-American defendants.

      "We are all at risk when our justice system allows prosecutors and juries to exercise lethal discretion based on race," said Sherrilyn Ifill, Director Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. which represents Duane Buck, along with Kathryn Kase of the Texas Defender Service and attorney Kate Black. "Duane Buck's case is as much about his own unlawful death sentence as it is about the ability of Harris County's criminal justice system to produce outcomes free from the taint of racial discrimination."

      David Kirk, Associate Professor of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, said that "Professor Paternoster's research conforms to highly rigorous standards for statistical analyses. His conclusion - that there is strong evidence of Black-White disparities in the advancement of cases to a death trial as well as the imposition of a death sentence - is the logical, and profoundly disturbing, conclusion to be drawn from the weight of the available data."

      The evidence of racial discrimination in Mr. Buck's case is not limited to Prof. Paternoster's recent study. At Mr. Buck's capital sentencing hearing, the trial prosecutor elicited testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a future danger to society because he is black. The prosecutor relied on this testimony in arguing in favor of a death sentence. The jury accepted the prosecutor's argument, declared Mr. Buck a future danger, and sentenced him to death. 3 years later, then-Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn acknowledged that reliance on testimony connecting race to dangerousness was wholly unacceptable and promised that the Attorney General's Office would seek new, fair sentencing hearings for 7 people, including Mr. Buck, whose cases were tainted by such testimony. The State kept its word in every case - except for Mr. Buck's.

      "The suggestion that a person's race can be a basis for assessing the ultimate penalty of death undermines our entire system of justice," said Gary Bledsoe, President of the Texas NAACP. "I am hopeful that the Harris County District Attorney's office will take action to start and make amends for the many wrongs it has perpetrated against African-Americans, including many facing the most serious of punishments."

      Mr. Buck's life was spared by the U.S. Supreme Court before his scheduled execution in September 2011. Although two U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed that Mr. Buck's death sentence required review because "our criminal justice system should not tolerate" a death sentence "marred by racial overtones," the case is now back in the hands of state officials.

      "Texas should honor the promise that was made by the highest legal officer in the state, then-Attorney General John Cornyn, and grant Mr. Buck a new, fair sentencing not tainted by racial discrimination," said Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, whose district includes parts of Harris County.

      One of Mr. Buck's trial prosecutors, former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin, and the surviving victim, Phyllis Taylor, have joined Sen. Ellis in opposing Mr. Buck's execution. Ms. Taylor explained, "I have forgiven Duane and could not bear to see him executed. I pray that his life is spared."

      As Kate Black, counsel for Mr. Buck, explained, "This case is very simple: no death sentence can be supported by an appeal to racial prejudice."

      (source: EBONY)

      April 13

      Austin Filmmakers Tackle The Death Penalty In Animated Short The Last 40 Miles

      Filmmakers in Austin may not have access to the big budgets of the West Coast, but that doesn't mean they are short on groundbreaking ideas.

      The filmmakers behind The Last 40 Miles are crafting a unique vision: tackling the death penalty in an animated short. And to see the vision through, they are seeking funding via an Indiegogo campaign.

      The Last 40 Miles tells the story of Ray, a condemned man serving out his sentence on Texas's death row, as he travels his last 40 miles to the execution chamber. Along the way, a kindly guard accompanies him as he looks back and reminisces on his life.

      It's a powerful story with deep roots in reality. British journalist Alex Hannaford is the writer and director of the film, and on the film's Indiegogo page he recounts the inspiration for the film, which comes from his interviewing Texas death row inmates. He specifically recalls one inmate who had been locked up in his solitary 6-foot-by-10-foot cell for all of Hannaford's life.

      "I don't think any case I had covered before or since impacted me more than that one did," says Hannaford.

      While he knew he wanted to tell the story, an animated short was not his first idea. In a talk with CultureMap, Hannaford says, "I had an idea buzzing around in my head for either a piece of long form journalism, or even a book. By the time I eventually decided to put pen to paper, I'd thought it could make a good film, but then I decided most of the 'action' would take place on a single journey: from death row to the death chamber."

      A play or short film became his primary focus - that is until he had coffee with friend Jeff Roth, an animation professor at the Art Institute of Austin. Roth sold Hannaford on the idea of an animated short.

      Roth explained it to Hannaford by saying, "Animation can sometimes bring drama to life in a way that live action can't. If you remove actors from the picture, you can connect more strongly with their personalities, emotions, the drama of the scene; allow yourself to be truly enveloped by the story."

      Gathering a team of filmmakers to form Onalaska Films, Hannaford and Roth set to work on creating and telling the story of Ray and his last 40 miles. The team has taken things a step further by choosing to rotoscope the film (the process when live action is traced) so that the resulting figures look almost exactly like the original actors.

      Hannaford says that the rotoscoping effect was chosen because they loved how "the characters looked 'real' but at the same time were animated." The crew signed a deal with Flat Black Films to create the rotoscoping, an impressive win considering that Flat Black is the team behind other major rotoscoped film projects such as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life (both Richard Linklater films).

      Once completed, Hannaford hopes to start submitting the film to various film festivals, and he hopes it starts a dialogue as well.

      "I really hope it'll become a springboard for discussion...And so it'd be great if The Last 40 Miles got people talking about the death penalty [and] about justice in America and how it's carried out."

      The Indiegogo campaign for The Last 40 Miles ends Sunday night. Funds will go toward production and promotion costs from the film.

      April 13

      Lege Lines

      Weighing the Scales of Justice April promises to be a month packed with criminal justice matters to consider. Last week lawmakers heard testimony about whether to tweak language for the criminal definition of insanity - changing the word "know," as in "know something is wrong," to "appreciate," as in "actually grasp the concept that something is legally wrong." The debate was, in moments, spirited, with freshman Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, opining that the change would make it "unduly easier" to prove insanity. That measure was left pending by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee - along with perennial proposals to downgrade punishments associated with possession of small amounts of controlled substances including cocaine and heroin. Those measures may be smarter on crime than is the status quo, but they still face an uphill battle.

      This week lawmakers in the House considered whether to ban the death penalty for individuals who may have been party to a crime but were not actually directly responsible for it. (The bill was left pending in committee.) Meanwhile, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee considered a raft of other proposals - including Senate Bill 1292, a joint proposal by Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to require pretrial DNA testing of all evidence in death penalty cases. That measure, which is backed by Attorney General Greg Abbott, sailed out of committee Tuesday.

      (source for both: Austin Chronicle)

      April 12

      Author Of 'Dead Man Walking' Brings Campaign Against Death Penalty To Fort Worth

      It's been nearly 20 years since Dead Man Walking was published, and its author, Sister Helen Prejean, still travels the country, speaking about the horror of government-sponsored execution and the pain that killers cause to the families of the murdered.

      The Roman Catholic nun, based in New Orleans, was in Fort Worth Thursday, urging people to stretch their arms around convicted criminals and the families of the people they harmed.

      Regarding the death penalty in America, much has changed but much remains the same, she said.

      "In the past 6 years, 6 states have done away with the death penalty," Prejean said. "What frustrates me is that we can't get the word out fast enough.

      "If more people knew what was going on, they would not support the death penalty."

      Dead Man Walking was based on her experience as a spiritual adviser to a Louisiana death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier. Later, as she worked with other condemned men, she came to believe that some were not guilty of the crimes they were convicted of. Her 2nd book was The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

      On Tuesday, Ricky Lewis of Tyler became the 494th person executed in Texas since executions resumed in 1982.

      6 executions are scheduled in Texas in April and May, and 5 more through July.

      Prejean argues that the United States should abolish the death penalty and urged churches and others to stand closer to the families of murder victims.

      The movie of Dead Man Walking, which garnered actress Susan Sarandon an Academy Award for her portrayal of Prejean, has been turned into a play, which film director Tim Robbins has turned over to young people because he believes that they are the best hope for success in ending the death penalty, Prejean said.

      Some Trinity Valley School students who performed the play in March attended Prejean's lecture at the Polytechnic United Methodist Church sanctuary on Thursday.

      Prejean said she will visit Robbins in Chicago this week and talk to him about the work students are doing to increase understanding of the issue.

      Everyone can have a role in changing the trajectory of this issue in Texas, Prejean said.

      "Maryland just did it and don't think you are so different because this state executes more people than any other place in the world," she said. "The situation is bad here, but the people are good."

      (source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

      April 11

      Texas 2012 Executions Up, Capital Punishment Declines Globally

      According to a new Amnesty International report, the United States can count itself among the top 5 countries in the world that carry out executions.

      In this region, the USA has a very dubious distinction. "The only country in the Americas that carried out an execution last year," explained Brian Evans, interim Director of the Death Penalty Abolition Campaign for Amnesty International USA.

      The United States carried out a total of 43 executions in 2012, which was the same number carried out in 2011. "In terms of known executions, that puts the United States in 5th place, behind China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and ahead of Yemen," Evans said.

      3/4 of all executions in the U.S. occurred in only 4 states: Texas, Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. In 2011, 13 Texas prisoners were put to death; that number increased last year. Evans said, "Texas had 15 executions, which would put them in 8th place if they were a separate country in the world - between Sudan and Afghanistan."

      The number of death sentences carried out in the Lone Star State are expected to be even higher in 2013, with some 12 executions scheduled over the next 4 months. But even those numbers would be down from the record 40 lethal injections performed in the year 2000.

      The Amnesty International report sites an overall decline in the use of the death penalty and outright abolition of the punishment in some states. Evans said another contributing factor for fewer death sentences is the expanded use of DNA and juries now receiving the option of handing down sentences of life with the possibility of parole.

      Amnesty also noted that Americans are becoming more concerned about the discriminatory application of the death penalty and its possible use on someone who has been wrongfully convicted - with nearly three dozen exonerations occurring in Dallas County alone.

      While all executions carried out in the United States were done by lethal injection, other methods for the 682 executions known to have been carried out worldwide included hanging, beheading and firing squad.

      (source: CBS News)

      March 27

      Race And The Death Sentence; Keep Race Out Of Death Sentence Hearings To Help Ensure That Justice Is Equal For All

      Whenever Texas juries sentence a criminal to death, they have to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the convicted is a continuing threat to society. When Duane Buck was sentenced to death, prosecutors relied on his race to help prove this point. As a black man, the jury heard, Buck was more likely to pose a future criminal threat.

      There is no doubt that Buck is guilty of murder. There is also no doubt that his death sentence is tarnished by racial considerations.

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is currently considering an appeal arguing that Buck deserves a new sentencing hearing. Our state needs to show our criminal justice system is free of racial discrimination, and it can start by granting Buck a clean, unbiased hearing.

      Buck's case should not be controversial nor should it have come this far. When he was known as attorney general instead of senator, John Cornyn called for Buck and five other death row inmates to have new hearings due to improper racial considerations during their sentencing.

      "It is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system," he said back in 2000.

      The 5 other inmates received their rehearings, and each again was sentenced to death. Buck has not received a rehearing because Texas argues his defense opened the door to racial considerations. This is pushing a tenuous argument through a pinhole opening, and we're disappointed that Sen. Cornyn has fallen silent on the matter. This is a prime opportunity for Texas' senior senator to provide strong leadership.

      While Texans wait to hear from the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Harris County district attorney should acknowledge the racial bias in Buck's sentence and drop any opposition to a new hearing. But Texas seems to lack that leadership at the local level as well.

      Our state criminal justice system does not have a sterling reputation for race-blind procedure. Juries in Harris County are twice as likely to sentence black criminals with the death penalty than they are white criminals, according to a recent study by University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster.

      Texas has to prove that everyone, no matter how cruel or evil, receives proper due process in our courts, free of immoral and now illegal racial bias. And we can do so by granting Duane Buck a new sentencing.

      (Source: Editorial, Houston Chronicle)

      March 25

      Pro-Con: Should The Death Penalty Be Abolished?

      State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., a Democrat out of Harris County, wants to ban the death penalty in Texas - and he isn't alone.

      Texas House Democrat Jessica Farrar, also out of Harris County, has authored a bill to end the death penalty in Texas. She has written similar bills since 2007, and not one has passed the Texas Legislature.

      Dutton authored a different bill for the 83rd Legislature to abolish the death penalty, but it remains in committee.

      Farrar's bill also is still in committee. In both bills, the Texas Penal Code would allow judges and jurors to give a life term or life without parole sentence to those convicted of capital murder with no mention of the death penalty.

      Some legislators contend the death penalty is simply too expensive.

      The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, for example, found the death penalty system "dysfunctional" for costing the state about $137 million per year. Both New York and New Jersey have abolished the death penalty because of the high costs, which include an exhaustive appeals system.

      Though no similar study has been released for Texas, a 1992 Dallas Morning News report found that each Texas execution cost the state about $2.3 million, 3 times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

      Despite the costs, others believe the death penalty is necessary for justice and acts as a deterrent to crime.

      With 2 men out of Victoria County currently on death row, the conflict hits close to home.

      (Source: The Victoria Advocate)

      Editorial: With Death Penalty Bans Gaining Steam, What’s Next For Texas?

      Published: 20 March 2013

      There should be no debate that evolving standards of decency mold the justice system. If that were not the case, Texas judges could still hang horse thieves.

      So it is important to note, here in the nation’s most active death penalty state, that lawmakers in yet another state, this time Maryland, have decided to abolish the anachronistic punishment of terminating human life.

      Having lobbied hard for repeal, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley intends to sign the bill, passed by his Legislature last week, and make his state the sixth in six years to outlaw capital punishment. It would boost the number of non-death-penalty states to 18 in all.

      O’Malley asserts the justifications cited often by this newspaper: The death penalty has no proven deterrent value, is laced with racial bias and cannot overcome the inherent danger of fatal error. O’Malley also argues that the capital punishment apparatus has been a colossal waste of money that should be put to better use in combating the core contributors to crime.

      At best, the death penalty is selectively used state-supported retribution, which has no place in a civilized society.

      With its state Capitol and governor’s office controlled by Democrats, Maryland is half a continent and political worlds away from GOP-held Texas, where support for capital punishment has traditionally been stronger than the nation’s. A UT-Texas Tribune poll last year showed the death penalty with solid majority support in this state, regardless of political party and ethnic group.

      That raises the bar for reformers in the Legislature who have filed solid bills to limit application and improve the fairness of the death penalty. For example, one bill (HB 189) would ban the use of snitch testimony to send someone to the death chamber, if the testimony came in exchange for leniency or special treatment for the witness. That’s a good standard to enforce if the state wants to exact lethal justice.

      Another bill (SB 750) would outline a procedure drawing on scientific standards to establish whether a defendant had an intellectual disability that would rule out execution. The Supreme Court invoked “standards of decency” in a 2002 case, Atkins vs. Virginia, in barring execution of the mentally retarded, noting that most states had already done so. Yet since then, Texas lawmakers have neglected to devise a test for mental capacity, leaving it up to the courts. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals came up with criteria that invoked the character Lennie from Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men as the type of person who ought to be exempt.

      Texas is outlier enough on capital punishment without using literature as a guide for who lives and who dies. It’s time for a legislative fix that removes Lennie from Texas law.

      Bills in Austin that could improve capital justice:

      HB 189: Would bar use of snitch testimony in death penalty cases if obtained from a witness or accomplice in return for favorable treatment or leniency. By Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston

      HB 261: Would require separate trials if prosecutors sought the death penalty for more than one person for the same crime. By Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston

      SB 87: Would require police to record interrogations of suspects in murders and other violent felonies and sex crimes. This could help combat the phenomenon of convictions based on false confessions. By Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston

      SB 750: Would create a procedure for courts to establish whether a defendant’s mental deficiency ruled out execution. Finding would come from judge or jury before trial, based on scientific standards. By Ellis

      SB 1270/HB 2614: Would bar imposition of a death sentence that was sought or obtained through racial bias. Coincides with Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ call for a racial justice law. By Sen. Royce West, Rep. Eric Johnson, both D-Dallas

      SB 1292: Would require state to test all biological evidence in a murder case before seeking the death penalty. Would send a strong signal to prosecutors who might want to negotiate the matter. The bill has bipartisan support and the backing of GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott. By Ellis

      [Source: Dallas Morning News]

      March 19

      Bill Would Require DNA Testing For Death Penalty

      Texas prosecutors would be required to test all biological evidence for DNA before seeking the death penalty under a measure a Democratic state senator proposed Tuesday with the backing of the Republican attorney general.

      The bill authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is intended to ensure that only the guilty face execution. He said after-trial DNA testing has reversed 17 death penalty cases in the United States.

      "We always want to avoid the possibility of the wrong person being executed," Ellis said. "We've dodged this bullet a couple of times thanks to advocates for people who have been wrongfully convicted."

      Ellis said he does not oppose the death penalty but that the state needs to require testing before a case goes to trial. In two recent cases, exonerations came only after those wrongfully convicted spent more than a decade on death row and appeals courts ordered evidence tested for DNA.

      Attorney General Greg Abbott said he also was concerned about false convictions but added that testing beforehand could shorten the appeals process for those who are guilty.

      "If you are innocent, you will find out your exoneration will come sooner; if you are guilty, justice will be more swift and more certain," he said. While the testing may slow when a trial begins, it is better to take the time beforehand to ensure the police have the right suspect rather than to find out later someone was wrongly convicted, he added.

      Ellis said he is working on language in the bill that would lay out what evidence police should collect and test and establish what lab performs the tests. The state would pay for all testing, he said.

      Abbott said there have been less 30 death penalty cases over the last 3 years, and he does not think the bill will dramatically increase costs. He said that most evidence is tested eventually following a conviction and that mandatory pretrial testing might save money spent on the appeals process.

      (source: Associated Press)

      March 13

      Research Exposes Racial Discrimination In America's Death Penalty Capital---
      Black inmates in Houston more than three times as likely to face death sentence than whites, groundbreaking study shows

      Black defendants facing trial in Houston – the death penalty capital of America – are more than three times as likely to face a possible death sentence than whites, new academic research has revealed.

      The study, by a criminologist at the University of Maryland, exposes the extent of racial discrimination inherent in the administering of capital punishment in Harris County, the ground zero of the death penalty in the US. The county, which incorporates Houston, Texas's largest city, has carried out 116 executions in the modern era – more than any entire state in the union apart from Texas itself.

      Professor Raymond Paternoster of the university's institute of criminal justice and criminology was commissioned by defence lawyers acting in the case of Duane Buck, a death row prisoner from Houston whose 1995 death sentence is currently being reconsidered by the Texas courts.

      Paternoster, whose report is based on the latest quantitative methods, looked at 504 cases involving adult defendants who had been indicted for capital murder in Harris County between 1992 and 1999 – the period during which Buck was charged for murdering his former girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and a man called Kenneth Butler. Paternoster whittled down that pool to 20 cases that most closely echoed that of Buck's own in terms of the factors involved in the crime that were likely to incur a death sentence.

      He found that of the 21 men, including Buck, seven out of the 10 who were African American were sent by the Harris County district attorney for capital trial, compared with just one of the five white defendants.

      "The probability that the district attorney will advance a case to a [death] penalty trial is more than three times as high when the defendant is African American than for white defendants," Paternoster writes. He adds: "The disparity by race of the defendant, moreover, cannot be attributed to observed case characteristics because these cases are those that were most comparable".

      The huge disparity by race is only slightly ameliorated at the stage at which juries deliver their sentences: in Texas it is up to the jury to decide whether or not to send a convicted person to execution. Paternoster found that Harris County juries imposed death sentences on four of the seven African Americans put on capital trial, while also sentencing to death the only white defendant.

      By imposing the death sentence on 100% of the white capital defendants in the sample while meting out the ultimate punishment to 57% of the black defendants, the juries to some extent corrected the glaring disparity of the initial charges. But the gulf remains: of the original group of 21 cases, the black defendants were more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts.

      The Paternoster report was filed on Wednesday with the Harris County district court as part of a habeus petition in Buck's case. Buck's lawyer, Christina Swarns of the NAACP legal defense fund, told the Guardian that it formed a pattern with past behaviour in Texas in the administering of the ultimate punishment. "Over generations there has never been a time in Texas when the death penalty did not yield evidence of racial discrimination. Any way you slice our new research, you find it."

      The racial element of Buck's case is all the more prominent because his execution in September 2011 was halted by the US supreme court on grounds that his original sentence had been racially influenced. At his sentencing hearing in 1995, the jury heard testimony from a psychologist, Dr Walter Quijano, who told them that black people posed a greater risk to violent reoffending if released from jail than white prisoners.

      The habeus petition chronicles the long and controversial history of the death penalty in Texas, particularly in Harris County. Though the county has a black population of 19%, African Americans represent almost 50% of the people detained in its jails, while 68% of the past 34 executions to emerge from the area involved black inmates.

      The district attorney at the time of the Buck trial, Johnny Holmes, personally decided whether to seek the death penalty in every potential case. The petition states: "There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating that throughout Holmes' tenure, the Harris County district attorney's office excluded African Americans from jury service because of their race."

      In 2001, Holmes was replaced as chief prosecutor in the county by Charles "Chuck" Rosenthal, whose tenure was no less contentious. In 2008, a batch of 1,500 emails from Rosenthal's official computer were released in a civil rights lawsuit in which racist "jokes" and slurs emerged relating particularly to African Americans. One such "joke" was that having Bill Clinton in the White House was akin to having a black president because he "smoked marijuana and receives a check from the government each month."

      The Harris County district court is now considering whether or not to grant Buck a new sentencing hearing. A former assistant district attorney from the county, Linda Geffin, and Phyllis Taylor, an acquaintance of Buck's who was also shot by him in 1995 but survived, have called for his death penalty to be overturned.

      Of the four black death row inmates in Paternoster's study, one has been executed, one died of cancer in prison, and a third, Jeffrey Demond, has his execution scheduled for 15 May. The last of the four is Duane Buck.

      (source: The Guardian)

      March 6

      Bill Would Limit Execution of Intellectually Disabled

      Before Texas executed Marvin Wilson last year for the 1992 murder of Jerry Robert Williams in Beaumont, his case generated headlines, reminding the nation of a rather unique corner of death penalty law here.

      The standards used to determine whether a Texan convicted of murder is mentally fit to be executed are based in part on the fictional character Lennie from John Steinbeck's classic novel Of Mice and Men, a fact that enraged the author's son.

      "I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic," Thomas Steinbeck said, calling for a halt to Wilson's execution. "I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way."

      State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said Wilson's execution and other cases left him feeling embarrassed for his home state. "It's junk science. It's not a credible way of making a decision," he said.

      So Ellis filed Senate Bill 750, which would establish new - and, he argues, more scientific - standards to determine when a convicted Texan is too intellectually disabled to face the death penalty. The bill revives a decade-old fight with prosecutors, who argue that the current standards are adequate and that Ellis' proposal would make it too easy for defendants to make a case that they are mentally retarded and exempt from the death penalty.

      "Sen. Ellis' proposal creates 2 or 3 additional bites at the apple for a defendant to show he is mentally retarded, and it skews the process," said Shannon Edmonds, spokesman for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

      In 2001, Texas lawmakers approved a bill by then-state Rep. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, now a state senator, that would have implemented new requirements for courts to have independent experts evaluate defendants to determine whether they were mentally retarded. Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill. In a proclamation with his veto, he argued that existing safeguards were effective in preventing the execution of the mentally disabled.

      The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that states could not execute the mentally disabled because it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But it allowed states to develop their own criteria for mental disabilities.

      Texas lawmakers, though, were unable to agree on criteria. Prosecutors wanted a standard in which jurors would decide during the penalty phase of a capital murder trial whether a defendant was too intellectually disabled to face execution, allowing them to consider the person's past crimes in the decision-making. Defense lawyers supported creating a process that allowed a judge to evaluate the defendant's mental fitness.

      "A legislative fix is always preferable to a judicial fix when the parties can come together and agree on a solution," Edmonds said. "The problem is that prosecutors and anti-death penalty advocates have never been able to agree on how to address this legislatively."

      In 2004, when Jose Garcia Briseno's case came before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the nine judges were without legislative guidance and developed their own standards. Lawyers for Briseno, who is still on death row, argued that he was mentally retarded and should not face execution for the 1991 murder of a Dimmit County sheriff's deputy. The court rejected those arguments and in the process developed the so-called Briseno factors that are used now to determine whether Texas defendants are eligible for the death penalty.

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals invoked, in part, an evaluation of Lennie from Steinbeck's book, writing that "most Texas citizens would agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt from execution. But does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?"

      The court's 3-part definition requires the convicted inmate to have below average intellectual function, to lack adaptive behavior skills and to have had those problems prior to age 18.

      Lawyers for at least 90 Texas death row inmates have brought so-called Atkins claims before the courts, arguing that their clients' limited cognitive functioning exempted them from execution. Of those, 14 have been deemed mentally retarded and their sentences commuted to life in prison.

      Prosecutors stopped asking legislators to approve standards after the court adopted the Briseno standards, Edmonds said, because they wearied of the fight with defense lawyers and because they were mostly satisfied with court's solution.

      "I think Texas can continue under the current standard and remain in compliance with Supreme Court case law," Edmonds said.

      But defense lawyers say that Texas still puts mentally retarded defendants to death, flouting the Supreme Court's prohibition. They argue that Ellis' bill is a critical step to ensure that the courts rely on scientific evaluations of mental capacity and that the state doesn't violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

      "Reliance on the Briseno factors is frankly something that has made the state the butt of much scientific criticism," said Kathryn Kase, director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates.

      Ellis' bill would use the definition developed by the American Association on Intellectual Developmental Disabilities to determine whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty. A key part of the standard set out in the proposal is that the defendant must have an IQ of 75 or below to be exempt from execution. Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Washington use similar standards, but require an IQ of 70 or below for exemption.

      "The most appropriate thing for state statute is to be parallel to existing definitions that are existing professionally within the field," said Ed Polloway, dean of graduate studies at Virginia's Lynchburg College and a member of the AAIDD's death penalty task force. The task force is developing a guide for states to use to evaluate defendants for intellectual disabilities.

      "Our attempt is to stay as close to the science as possible," Polloway said.

      The AAIDD's definition of intellectual disability, he said, is used to determine state and federal aid for programs like Medicaid and special education placement in schools. The existing Texas death penalty standard, Polloway said, would allow for the execution of individuals who are considered intellectually disabled for the purposes of government programs.

      Ellis said basing decisions about who is fit for execution on established scientific research would save Texas money it would otherwise spend fighting inmates' appeals.

      "It will protect the rule of law and the integrity of our judicial system," he said.

      (Source: Texas Tribune)

      March 1

      Court Reverses Death Row Inmate's 2003 Conviction

      A man sentenced to death for the 2001 murder of another man in Fort Worth has had his case overturned by a federal appeals court.

      The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with attorneys for Nelson Gongora that prosecutors in his 2003 murder trial should not have suggested to the jury that Gongora's decision to not testify indicated his guilt.

      In their decision Wednesday, the 5th Circuit judges wrote that repeated comments by the Tarrant County prosecutor about Gongora's lack of testimony violated his right to a fair trial. The 5th Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to not testify at trial and in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this meant a prosecutor could use a decision to not testify as evidence of guilt. The lead prosecutor in Gongora's case, J.D. Granger, did not return a call requesting comment.

      Gongora remains on death row while the Tarrant County district attorney's office decides whether to try him again. "It's premature to determine how we're going to proceed," said Melody McDonald, the office's spokeswoman.

      Gongora, who was 22 at the time of the murder, was one of six men riding in a van one night in April 2001. According to court documents, the group saw Delfino Sierra walking on the street and decided to rob him. The van's driver pulled over, and Gongora and another man exited and demanded money from Sierra, who started running and was shot in the head.

      The driver initially told police that someone other than Gongora shot Sierra. But he later identified Gongora as the shooter, saying he had lied before because he was afraid of Gongora, according to court records.

      After his arrest, Gongora admitted to police that he had exited the van to rob Sierra. He said that he heard shots and saw the man lying on the ground, but that he did not fire the shots.

      Prosecutors said the men were in a criminal street gang called Purp Li'l Mafia, according to court records, a statement that Gongora's current attorney, Danny Burns, denies.

      Gongora's co-defendant, Albert Orosco Jr. was convicted of murder in the case and is currently serving a 23-year sentence. Prosecutors didn't seek the death penalty for Orosco. A friend of the men involved testified at Gongora's trial that he saw Orosco shortly after the murder with a .38 caliber handgun in his waistband. A bullet from a .38 caliber gun was found to have killed the victim.

      Many of the other men in the van on the night of the murder took the stand at Gongora's 2003 trial, but Gongora did not. During closing arguments, the prosecutor said to the jury, "Who should we go ahead and talk to? Who should we go ahead and present to you? Should we talk to the shooter?"

      Gongora's lawyer objected, accusing the prosecutor of trying to sway the jury against Gongora even though he had the right to not testify.

      The judge agreed and told the jury to disregard the comment. Rephrasing his statement, the prosecutor said, "I don't want to give the wrong impression in any sort of way. We're asking who do you expect to take the stand? Who do you expect to hear from, right?"

      Gongora's lawyer objected again. The judge agreed again. Then the prosecutor told the jury, "I'm not talking about that, do you want to hear from him, because you can't do that."

      Gongora's lawyer objected once again, but the judge allowed the comment.

      The Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas' highest criminal court, wrote in 2006 that the prosecutors' comments were "inartful and often confusing," but did not violate Gongora's rights. A federal district judge said in 2007 the prosecutor should not have made the comments, but that they did not affect the jury's decision.

      On Wednesday, however, the 5th Circuit, which reviews appeals from all Texas death penalty cases, wrote that the prosecutor's comments were "repeated and direct violations" which were "both inexplicable and inexcusable." In context, the court said, the comments might be read as the prosecutor's attempt to correct his initial mistake, but over time they served to "reinforce the impression of Gongora's guilt."

      "Gongora was denied a right to a fair trial," the court concluded.

      Judge Priscilla Owen dissented, arguing that the prosecutor's comments had "little if any, bearing on Gongora's guilt," because he admitted to trying to rob the victim.

      Burns, Gongora's attorney, said he hopes a new trial would allow jurors to see that Gongora had no real involvement in the murder, because he was charged as being a conspirator, but the murder happened without a preconceived plan. "How can you be a conspirator without a conspiracy?" he said.

      (source: Texas Tribune)

      Feb. 21

      Mentally Ill Inmate May Face Death Penalty, Against Eighth Amendment

      The death penalty is a very controversial subject on its own, with a wide range of arguments for and against, ranging from cost-effectiveness to ethical considerations.

      That argument continues to become more complex when you begin discussing the mentally ill and whether or not they should be exempt from capital punishment.

      Headlines on this facet of the death penalty discussion have recently begun covering the story of Andre Thomas, a man who, according to huffingtonpost.com, murdered his wife and two children in 2004...for fear they were possessed by demons.

      Thomas was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005, but the case has recently come back into light with the publishing of death penalty lawyer Mark Bookman's essay in Mother Jones (a nonprofit news organization) last week.

      The details of the Thomas murders are gruesome. In his article, Bookman summarizes the events that transpired: "Andre had cut out the children's hearts and returned home with the organs in his pockets...he was careful to use 3 different knives so that the blood from each body would not cross-contaminate, thereby ensuring that the demons inside each of them would die. He then stabbed himself in the chest, but he did not die as he had hoped. In fact, he was well enough to leave a message on his wife's parents' phone explaining that he thought he was in hell, and he managed to confess to the police what he had done before they took him in for emergency surgery."

      Bookman goes on to further explain the bizarre behavior exhibited by Thomas while he was incarcerated. In July 2008, he procured a sharp object and attempted to slit his own throat, requiring 8 stitches.

      He managed to gauge out his eyes on two separate occasions. He first removed his right eye, and during a 2nd attempt removed and ate his left eyeball in order to prevent the government from reading his mind.

      After removing his only remaining eye, the trial proceedings skidded to a halt.

      Bookman writes that the prosecutors have not reported back to the court on their record-gathering.

      Autoenucleation, or the act of removing one's own eyes, is uncommon, to say the least. But when it occurs, it is typically a manifestation of severe psychiatric illness, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

      It typically occurs hand-in-hand with paranoid delusions and extreme psychosis, which provides substantial evidence that Thomas is indeed extremely mentally ill.

      Bookman reports that Thomas comes from a long line of schizophrenics, and has a family history of mental illness as well as alcoholism and abuse.

      Both his grandmother and mother believed that God spoke directly to them, and it seems that Thomas believed that God spoke to him, as well.

      In fact, Thomas claims that he murdered his family because God told him to kill "Jezebel, the Antichrist and a 2nd evil spirit," which he took to mean his wife and kids.

      Hearing voices and having delusions are extremely common with schizophrenic patients, so it's probable that Thomas has inherited his family's mental illness.

      There is more than sufficient evidence that Thomas is severely psychologically ill, and according to the precedent set by the Ford v. Wainwright Supreme Court case, states cannot inflict the death penalty on a prisoner who is insane and cannot comprehend what he is being executed for without violating the Eighth Amendment.

      Yet, the state of Texas is continuing to pursue Thomas' execution. According to Bookman, "No state authority figure has expressed hesitation about ending the life of a man who intentionally blinded himself, nor has there been any move by the district attorney to reconsider Thomas's mental state at the time of the killings."

      How can government officials claim that Thomas is mentally stable even after the inmate gouged out both of his eyes, insisted that he could hear the voice of God and announced that the government still has the eyeball that he didn't eat and he would like it back? Those in charge of evaluating Thomas' condition continue to assert that "he is not presenting delusional or paranoid symptoms, and that his 'insight/judgement' is fair," says Bookman, citing Thomas' prison records.

      I am outraged that anyone in their right minds would believe this man to be psychologically sound.

      Bookman also mentions, "Joe Brown, the district attorney of Grayson County, said he was surprised to hear that Thomas had removed his 2nd eye, but he did not call it a 2nd impulsive act.

      He simply announced that the state would gather together Thomas' records and evaluate the situation."

      It seems to me what Thomas needs is severe psychiatric help, and Texas is standing between this man and his Eighth Amendment rights.

      Maurie Levin, Thomas' lead attorney, told huffingtonpost.com that she is "cautiously optimistic" that her client will escape lethal injection. "I have to have faith that any reasonable judge will see the travesty of pressing the execution of somebody as mentally ill as Thomas," she says.

      I hope she is right.

      (source: Samantha Bloom, The (University of Tampa) Minaret)

      Feb. 17

      Pruett's Execution Set For May 21

      Most of those in the courtroom Monday morning were armed security personnel when Texas Department of Criminal Justice correctional officers walked in with Robert Lynn Pruett.

      Senior District Judge Ronald Yeager sat on the bench, presiding over the 156th District Court. Yeager was only minutes away from telling Pruett he was scheduling his execution by lethal injection for May 21.

      Pruett turned 33 in September and has been on death row since he was convicted in a Corpus Christi courtroom on April 30, 2002, of murdering 37-year-old Daniel Nagle.

      Nagle had been discovered, lying in his own blood, near a multipurpose room in the William G. McConnell maximum security unit in Bee County on Dec. 17, 1999.

      He had been stabbed repeatedly with an inmate-made "shank," a steel bar sharpened on one end and wrapped with cloth on the other end.

      Nagle was the 1st, and only, correctional officer to be murdered inside 1 of the 3 TDCJ prisons in Bee County.

      It did not take investigators long to single out Pruett. The 20-year-old inmate was serving a life sentence for a murder in which he had been involved with his father and older brother at a trailer park in Houston. And Nagle had told Pruett he was going to write him up for violating one of the prison's rules.

      "It sounds like they have overwhelming evidence against me," the prisoner told Yeager Monday. He knew that testimony from fellow McConnell Unit inmates and DNA evidence found on his clothing had sealed his fate.

      Pruett was surrounded by 5 correctional officers, 2 Bee County deputies and 2 court bailiffs as he sat with his defense attorney, Richard Rogers III of Corpus Christi. At the other table, state prosecutor Mark Edwards sat as Yeager went over the documents before him on the bench.

      In the audience sat TDCJ's Region IV Director Eileen Kennedy and several other prison officials.

      Bailiff Bill Lazenby had blocked off access to the stairway leading to the 2nd floor where the hearing was held. There were no spectators in the courtroom from the general public.

      Pruett spoke briefly to Yeager, saying that researchers from the University of Houston had reported that they had uncovered some evidence that could exonerate him. But he did not say what that evidence was.

      The defendant said it appeared that prosecutors "basically cheated to get an advantage" in his April 2002 trial in Corpus Christi.

      Pruett asked the judge to give him "a month or so, just a little more time."

      Rogers requested that the execution date be scheduled for sometime after August.

      He mentioned the search for evidence but declined to comment on it because he was not involved in that effort.

      Yeager said he had been told that the state was asking for a May 21 execution date. The judge told Pruett and Rogers that he was going to overrule their request for a later execution date and scheduled the event for the requested date.

      Yeager told Pruett and Rogers that would give them time to bring any new evidence to the court. He reminded them that all avenues of appeal had been exhausted at both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and United States Supreme Court.

      Yeager then ordered that Pruett be taken to the TDCJ's Death Chamber on May 21 and that he be given an intravenous injection "sufficient to cause death until Robert Lynn Pruett is dead."

      Pruett appears to be a poster boy for the state's death penalty. He was just weeks shy of his 16th birthday when, on Aug. 9, 1995, he and his brother allegedly held down a resident of the trailer park where they lived in Houston while their father stabbed the man to death.

      All 3 of them were sentenced to life in prison. Robert Pruett began serving his life sentence in October 1995, only weeks after the murder. He had just turned 16.

      At the time, TDCJ officials were saying he was considered the youngest inmate in Texas' adult prison system.

      According to an executive summary of Nagle's murder, written by the TDCJ's Institutional Division, Pruett had tried to take a sack lunch to the recreation yard on the day Nagle was killed. The meal was supposed to have been eaten in his cell.

      Nagle told Pruett that he was going to write a disciplinary report on the incident. Then the inmate was allowed into the recreation yard.

      The report indicated that Pruett argued with Nagle over the report and the inmate ended up grabbing the report the officer had written. Pruett then ran toward a restroom adjacent to the multipurpose room where Nagle's body was found.

      When Nagle followed Pruett into the area, Pruett apparently attacked the officer with the 6- to 8-inch weapon, stabbing him numerous times.

      Nagle's body was discovered at 3:30 p.m., possibly 15 minutes after the attack. He was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m.

      Medical examiners found multiple stab wounds to the victim's head, neck, arms and upper body. It was later determined that the officer died of a heart attack as he was being stabbed.

      A number of changes in TDCJ officers' prison routines were approved following the murder.

      If he is executed, Pruett will be the 2nd inmate to die for attacking someone at the McConnell Unit while serving a life sentence for murder.

      McConnell Unit inmate Rogelio Cannady was executed on May 19, 2010, for killing his cell mate during an attack on Oct. 10, 1993.

      Cannady was serving 2 life sentences and a 20-year sentence for robbery for his part in the murder of 2 teenagers, a 16-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl who had run away from a youth home.

      Cannady was 37 when he was executed.

      (Source: Bee-Picayune)

      Feb. 16


      In a new study in Harris County (Houston), Texas, criminologist Scott Phillips found significant racial and gender disparities in the application of the death penalty under former District Attorney Charles Rosenthal.


      Feb. 1

      Texas Leads U.S. in Executions, Payments to Exonerated Inmates

      In 2006, after serving 19 years and 11 months in a Texas prison for a rape he didn't commit, Billy Smith was exonerated of all charges and set free. He was 54. Despite clearing his name, he's never been able to find a job.

      "Who wants to hire someone who's 61 years old and who's an ex-convict?" Smith said. "Even though I'm exonerated, people don't consider that, because I was in prison for 20 years."

      Texas is well known for its prodigious use of the death penalty: On Halloween, it carried out its 250th execution under Republican Governor Rick Perry's 12-year tenure. It's also the most generous state in the nation when it comes to showing remorse for locking up the wrong man, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Feb. 4 issue. Under a law Perry signed in 2009, Texas will pay Smith about $80,000 a year for the rest of his life. He's also eligible for the same health-care insurance as employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Money can't replace his lost years, Smith says, but he's now married and owns a home. The activists who persuaded Perry to support the cash settlements are lobbying Texas lawmakers to expand the law to include health coverage for ex-prisoners' families.

      27 states and Washington, D.C., provide some form of compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Vermont gives them a one-time payment of between $30,000 and $60,000 for each year they were locked up. Wisconsin pays $25,000 total, regardless of how long a person was incarcerated. So far Texas has paid 88 former prisoners, including 2 released from death row, a total of nearly $60 million, according to R.J. DeSilva, spokesman for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. A dozen former inmates were added to the rolls in 2012.

      Wrongly Convicted

      Perry endorsed the reparations under pressure from falsely convicted men and their families. In 1986, Timothy Cole, an Army veteran, was found guilty of raping a classmate at Texas Tech University. He died of a heart attack in prison in 1999. On Mother's Day 9 years later, Cole's mother, Ruby Cole Session, received a letter from the real rapist, who confessed. As Cole Session and her family lobbied the governor to clear Timothy Cole's name, several other men who'd been wrongfully convicted in Dallas, including Smith, were suing the city for tens of millions of dollars.

      Freedom Money

      They agreed to drop their lawsuits if the legislature increased the small payments that Texas then provided. At one meeting, Cole Session grabbed the governor's hand and said, "I need this bill passed for these gentlemen," recalls her son, Cory Session, who was there. Session says Perry told his mother, "If it gets to my desk, I'll sign it." (A Perry spokesman could not confirm the anecdote.) Perry called the Tim Cole Act a "significant step for justice," and the men withdrew their lawsuits.

      The law provides exonerees with a lump sum based on how many years they spent behind bars, plus the $80,000 annuity. The state also agreed to pay for 120 hours of college credit and $10,000 for job training. Cory Session, who's now policy director of the Innocence Project of Texas, which helps identify and free falsely convicted prisoners, says even the application process was made simple: Freed prisoners submit a few documents, and about 6 to 8 weeks later the 1st check arrives. "In most states," he says, "you need a lawyer."

      Prison State

      The Innocence Project, which is funded by private donations and is currently reviewing 14 more claims of false conviction, has become a savvy lobbying force in Austin, in part because Texas courts have locked up so many innocent people and their stories are hard for politicians to ignore. (Texas ranks No. 3 nationally in wrongful convictions over the last 24 years, behind Illinois and New York, according to a 2012 study by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools.)

      On Jan. 10, Session led a group of exonerated men to the Capitol in Austin, where they were greeted warmly. Afterward, they pressed a list of new demands in meetings with lawmakers. The legislature is now considering at least 6 of their proposals, including a change to the state's habeas corpus rules that would allow challenges to convictions based on shoddy science; a requirement that police record all interrogations of people charged with serious felonies; and funding to help the state's 4 public law schools investigate claims of false convictions.

      The key to winning over legislators, Session says, is letting the innocent men who lost years in prison do the talking. "I was able to get all the attention just on them."

      (source: Bloomberg News)

      Jan. 29

      TEXAS----New Film

      Directed by Erik Mauck & Chelsea Hernandez

      Delia Perez-Meyer, an elementary school teacher, has taken a weeklyjourney from the classroom to death row for the past 12 years. She tells of her personal voyage, beginning from a place of frustration to acceptanceand hopeful activism.

      Over the years, Delia has formed lasting relationships with people she's met along the way to Livingston, Texas. Whether it be at gas stations,or the Mexican restaurant she stops at for lunch, these familiar faces have evolved into something more. Being the only family member to regularly visit her brother Louis, she's been forced to create a new family, all somehow tied to death row.

      We encounter worlds we never knew existed, including a group of European women who, through letters and occasional visits, fall in love with inmates. We witness a wedding of a Dutch woman to inmate Kenneth Foster, performed at a local radio station. At first, this ceremony seems surreal and farcical, but as the vows are read, there's no doubt as to the sincere emotion conveyed over the airwaves to the unseen groom. Through Delia's interactions we learn more about why these women voluntarily enter this world, and how powerful a non-physical relationship can be.

      These women serve as messengers of the harsh conditions inmates experience daily, like the absence of fruit and vegetables. Delia buys severely marked-up fruit in the visiting room vending machines so Louis can have something other than his usual gruel-like fare. Art supplies are banned on death row, but despite not having conventional tools at their disposal, Louis and inmate friend Tony, manage to make art and share it with the world. Delia and Tony's mother, Golda, organize art shows to honor their work and raise awareness.

      We witness Delia's struggle to exonerate her brother of a crime she claim she did not commit. Louis blames the murder of 2 women and a little girl on the Texas "Railroad Killer" of the mid-90s. Foreign DNA from the crime scene, if tested, could prove Louis' innocence. Delia fights to overcome obstacles put forth by what she believes to be an inherently flawed legal system. She's not the only person we meet on this journey who tells a similar story of a wrongful sentence, disregard of evidence,and failure of the system to give a fair trial.

      The bond Delia creates with people who share her plight gives her the strength to continue on.

      This film offers a glimpse into the world of those touched by death row. This film shows the life-long ramifications dealt to families, friends, lovers and the communities surrounding the prison who rely on death row fortheir own means of living. Seen by society as already as good as dead, these communities are trying to beat the clock to save their loved onesfrom death. With most prisoners on death row for less than 10 years before they're executed, Delia, with as many years of trips behind her,races to save her brother on the road to Livingston.

      (source: austinfilm.org)

      Jan. 10th

      Cost Of Justice Is A Factor In The Death Penalty

      According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the 1st scheduled execution of 2013 in the state of Texas will occur Jan. 29, when Kimberly McCarthy will receive the ultimate form of punishment for robbing and stabbing to death a 70-year-old woman in Dallas County. Following the murder, McCarthy also used the deceased victim's credit cards and vehicle.

      The Death Penalty Information Center released a report Dec. 18, indicating that capital punishment in 2012 - as far as new death sentences - was down to its second-lowest total since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

      In 2012, there were 43 executions nationwide - 15 in Texas.

      On a related note, the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty - hey, at least the organization states its agenda in its name - described the state of Texas as being "haphazard" in how it implements capital punishment, specifically among individual counties.

      Considering the cost of capital punishment (see lawyer fees) is an ever-escalating factor in the decision whether to seek the death penalty, a perceived discrepancy in how counties institute the ultimate form of punishment shouldn't come as a surprise.

      Unfortunately, it seems the pursuit of justice is more and more coming down to dollars and cents - that is just the reality of the situation, which the TCADP mentions.

      There are 4 convicted offenders on death row from the Amarillo metro area (Potter and Randall counties). 3 have been on death row since 1999 and another since 1991.

      The TCADP also mentions capital punishment may be on the decline because "of a growing sense that the system is unfair and makes mistakes."

      Considering how DNA testing has changed the justice system - when available, DNA testing can confirm innocence or guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in most cases - the possibility of making "mistakes" when it comes to DNA testing should no longer be a major consideration.

      The state of Texas executed 15 offenders in 2012 - 4 were white, 4 were Hispanic and 7 were black. Since 1982, 46 % of executed offenders in Texas were white, 37 % were black and 17 % were Hispanic.

      Justice should not come down to cost, but there can be no denying that counties have no other choice but to make the price of justice a major consideration when it comes to the death penalty.

      (source: Editorial, Amarillo Globe-News)


      Dec. 15

      Legislature Should Seriously Reconsider The Death Penalty;
      Human Error Cannot Be Eliminated From Justice System

      By Grant Jones and Sam Millsap

      As district attorneys in the 1980s, we believed that the death penalty was the best punishment for certain crimes. We no longer believe that today. We haven't gone soft. We have come face to face with some hard truths. Both of us have been involved in the execution of men who may well have been innocent.

      This year, an investigation by a law school revealed that eyewitnesses might have mistaken Carlos DeLuna, who was executed for murder in 1989, for another man, also named Carlos. The two men bore such a strong resemblance that even family members mistook photographs of one man for the other. No one will ever know for sure whether a mistake was made, but cases like DeLuna's raise serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing the death penalty.

      Long after Ruben Cantu was put to death in 1993, an investigation by this newspaper persuasively argued that he was wrongfully convicted and executed.

      2 decades after the trial, the only eyewitness recanted his testimony and explained that he felt pressured by the police to identify Cantu as the shooter.

      This witness had nothing to gain by changing his position.

      As long as human beings are in charge, there will be mistakes. Even people who are hardworking, and acting in good faith, make mistakes. In most criminal cases, the appeals process is there to identify and remedy errors. But the problem with the death penalty is that once it is carried out, there is no way to go back and fix a mistake.

      Family members of Cameron Willingham know this fact all too well. This year, they petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant him a posthumous pardon. Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a house fire that killed his children, but new evidence shows that the fire was accidental and he was almost certainly innocent.

      There are signs that Texans are less willing to take the risk of executing people who are innocent. You see it when they sit on juries. Death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 75% since 2002 and remain near historic lows in 2012.

      In fact, only 22 of 254 Texas counties have imposed death sentences over the last 5 years, according to a new report by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. From a budget standpoint, this means the significant financial burden of the death penalty is generated by a small minority, but paid for by all taxpayers.

      Our state is part of a nationwide trend away from the death penalty. Last year, the number of death sentences across the country dropped below 100 for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. 5 states in 5 years have ended the death penalty, including our neighbors in New Mexico. By every measure, the death penalty is being used less and less.

      In recent years, the Texas Legislature has passed important reforms to address the causes of wrongful convictions. We have improved eyewitness identification procedures, expanded access to post-conviction DNA testing and done more to ensure that poor defendants have competent lawyers. These measures make the system more accurate, but no one argues that they will catch every mistake.

      TV shows like "CSI" have led to the misconception that DNA technology prevents the conviction of the wrong person. Without a doubt, whenever DNA exists, it should be tested. What few people realize is that only a small fraction of cases involve the type of evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing.

      Next month, when the legislators convene for a new session, they should seriously reconsider the death penalty. A sentence of life without parole - that is, without any possibility of release under any circumstances - keeps society safe while eliminating the chance of an irreversible mistake.

      The professionals who administer our justice system cannot guarantee that they will never be without fault. Once we accept that fact, we have to ask ourselves, as a civilized society, whether we can live with a system that promises nothing more than to get it right most of the time in death penalty cases. We submit that we cannot.

      Jones served as district attorney for Nueces, Kleberg and Kenedy counties from 1983 to 1991; Millsap served as district attorney for Bexar County from 1982 to 1987.

      (Source: Opinion, Houston Chronicle)

      Dec. 15

      Death Row Population Drops to Lowest Level Since 1989

      The number of people on death row dropped to 289 this year, the lowest number since 1989, according to the yearly report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Texas's death row population includes 10 women.

      Only California and Florida have more people on death row, 726 and 405 respectively. But since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, California has executed only 13 people, fewer inmates than the 15 that Texas executed this year. Florida has put 73 people to death since 1976, three of them in 2012.

      Juries across Texas sentenced 9 people (8 men and 1 woman) to death row in 2012, a slight uptick from last year (when they sentenced 8 people to die). But, overall, the number of new death sentences has dropped 75 % since 2002, when 37 people received death sentences.

      "While new death sentences and executions remain near historical low levels in Texas," the report states, "troubling questions persist regarding the arbitrary determination of who receives the ultimate punishment. This year, cases involving individuals with comparable backgrounds or who presented similar legal arguments received vastly different treatment by the criminal justice system. In addition, people of color remain disproportionately impacted by the death penalty: in the last 5 years, nearly 75 [%] of all death sentences have been imposed on African-American or Hispanic defendants."

      Factors contributing to this drop include the legislature's 2005 law creating a natural life sentence as well as the emergence of several high profile wrongful conviction cases in recent years.

      The potential for the execution of innocent people, the report concludes, "continue[s] to cast doubt on the fairness and accuracy of the system."

      (Source: TM Daily Post)

      Dec. 6

      Henderson Case Timeline

      Jan. 21, 1994: Cathy Lynn Henderson flees after 3-month-old Brandon Baugh dies in her Pflugerville-area home.

      Feb. 1, 1994: Henderson is arrested in Independence, Mo.

      Feb. 8, 1994: Investigators find the infant's body buried in a Bell County oat field.

      May 17, 1995: Henderson is found guilty of capital murder.

      June 11, 2007: An appeal halts Henderson's June 13 execution and returns her case to Travis County.

      May 14, 2012: Travis County judge recommends that Henderson's conviction be overturned.

      Dec. 5, 2012: Court of Criminal Appeals orders a new trial.

      What's Next

      Henderson will be transferred from death row to Travis County Jail, where she will await a new trial.

      Travis County prosecutors will determine what charge to seek and, if it's capital murder, whether to seek the death penalty.

      (Source: Austin American-Statesman)

      Dec. 5

      New trial ordered for woman on Death Row----Henderson condemned in 1994 death of infant

      A Travis County woman who was just days away from being executed for killing a baby in 1994 was granted a new trial on Wednesday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

      The state's highest criminal court deferred to opinion of the trial judge that scientific evidence that came to light after Cathy Lynn Henderson, now 55, was convicted of killing Brandon Baugh while babysitting at the boy's home in Pflugerville.

      In an evidentiary hearing after the conviction, Dr. Roberto Bayardo said recent developments in the study of biomechanics suggested that the baby could have died from head injuries suffered in a accidental fall rather than from a deliberate blow.

      "The trial court concluded that applicant has proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted her of capital murder in light of her new evidence," the appeals court said in an unsigned opinion.

      District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said she supports the appeals court's decision, but did not say whether the death penalty would be on the table in a new trial.

      "I believe justice requires that a new jury hear the case, which was the position I took with the appellate court," she said. "We will try the case again. I will review all the evidence at the trial and at the subsequent hearings to determine whether the State will again seek the death penalty."

      In 2007, Henderson was only two days away from her scheduled execution when the Court of Criminal Appeals granted her a reprieve and ordered the lower court to hear arguments in her appeal.

      Henderson, who is 1 of 10 women on death row in Texas, has always maintained the death was an accident. She said she panicked, packed Brandon's body in a wine cooler box and buried him in a shallow grave 60 miles away. Henderson then left Texas before being apprehended in Missouri under an assumed name.

      Brandon's father told KXAN in May that they still believe their son was murdered on Jan. 21, 1994.

      "This is so not fair. It should have been over with a long time ago," said Brandon's father, Eryn Baugh. "It's something that you just cannot imagine the amount of pain, anger and frustration for having to live through this experience day in and day out without a resolution."

      (Source: KXAN News)

      Nov. 27

      Bill Would Restrict Informant Testimony in Death Cases

      Anthony Graves was wrongly convicted and sent to death row in 1994 based largely on the testimony of an alleged accomplice in the fiery murders of 6 people. The accomplice, while on the execution gurney, admitted he was the lone killer. 10 years later, in 2010, Graves was exonerated.

      Like Graves, Muneer Deeb, Michael Toney and Robert Springsteen were sentenced to death after trials that involved the testimony of their cellmates or alleged accomplices. Their convictions were all overturned.

      State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed a bill, HB 189, that aims to prevent wrongful death sentences in cases that involve unreliable testimony from alleged accomplices or jailhouse snitches who receive a reward for implicating someone else.

      "What we have found is that there have been people who, for their own self-interest, have basically fabricated testimony about other folks, and as a consequence that person has been found guilty," Dutton said.

      Criminal justice reform advocates said the measure is a critical next step in Texas' efforts to prevent wrongful convictions. Critics of the measure, though, argue that current rules already protect defendants against unreliable testimony and that eliminating such accomplice or informant testimony could tie prosecutors' hands.

      Under HB 189, prosecutors in death penalty cases would be unable to use testimony from informants or from alleged accomplices of the defendant if the evidence were obtained in exchange for immunity, leniency or any other special treatment. The measure would also make testimony from cellmates of the defendant inadmissible unless the conversation was recorded.

      "Odd as it may sound, Texas is at the vanguard of snitch testimony," said Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, and author of the Snitching Blog. Texas was one of 1st states to require the corroboration of jailhouse informant testimony and drug snitches, she said. And Dutton's bill would make Texas among the 1st states to prohibit prosecutors from offering criminals benefits for their testimony.

      A 2004 Northwestern University study of wrongful convictions found that informants played a major role in more than 45 % of overturned death sentences nationwide.

      "The use of criminal informants is a massive source of error in our most serious cases," said Natapoff, who also wrote the book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

      She said the Texas bill recognizes that "rewarded testimony by paid informants is one of the riskiest, most unreliable forms of testimony that the criminal justice system tolerates." And disallowing that testimony in death penalty cases, she said, would acknowledge that cases in which an individual's life is at stake require a higher ethical standard.

      "Criminal informants have strong incentives to lie and very few disincentives to lie, because criminal informants are almost never punished," Natapoff said.

      Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said his organization has long pushed lawmakers to restrict the use of informants and snitches.

      "That's what the government does when they really need to convict somebody and they really don't have the evidence," Blackburn said. "It sounds dramatic, and it's very tempting for prosecutors to use."

      State Rep.-elect Joe Moody, an assistant El Paso County district attorney, said accomplices or informants are often the only witnesses who know the circumstances of the crime. Existing rules allow defense lawyers to question informants about deals they may have made with prosecutors in exchange for their testimony. If a defense attorney effectively cross-examines the witness, Moody said, the jury should be able to make an informed decision about the person's credibility.

      Requiring electronic recordings of jailhouse conversations, as Dutton???s bill suggests, Moody said, would force jails to install recording equipment in all of their facilities.

      "I think the rule itself would do a disservice to trying the case in the full and open light," said Moody, D-El Paso.

      In the wake of dozens of wrongful convictions in recent years, Texas has passed a number of measures to prevent such injustices and to compensate the victims of the criminal justice system's mistakes. Most recently, in 2011, legislators passed a bill that improved police procedures for eyewitness identifications after studies showed misidentifications played a major role in many wrongful convictions.

      Dutton has filed similar proposals to curb the use of informants in past sessions, and they have failed. As Texas continues to make national headlines with its exonerations, Dutton said, he is hopeful that lawmakers will be more amenable in the 2013 session.

      "Members now recognize that Texas needs to do a lot better job of protecting the integrity of our legal system," he said. "The truth of the matter is all the systems we have in place to protect innocent people from being convicted simply haven't worked."

      (Source: Texas Tribune)

      Nov. 21

      Recent death penalty cases in Travis County

      May 2011: A jury sentenced Areli Escobar to death for fatally stabbing and sexually assaulting 17-year-old Bianca Maldonado.

      March 2010: Milton Gobert was sentenced to die for the 2003 stabbing death of Mel Kernena Cotton, a Velocity Credit Union teller and single mother.

      June 2010: After more than 30 years of appeals, David Lee Powell is executed for the 1978 murder of Austin police officer Ralph Ablanedo.

      October 2009: Paul Devoe is given the death sentence after a 6-person, 2-state murderous rampage that took place in 2007.

      October 2009: A jury gives a sentence of life in prison without parole to Albert Jesse Segura, a drug addict convicted of killing a man and the man's mother.

      Prosecutors sought the death penalty.

      September 2008: Jurors gave Alberto Garcia life in prison after he was convicted of killing 2 cab drivers in 1990. Prosecutors argued for the death penalty.

      (Source: Austin American-Statesman)

      Nov. 27

      Perry Taps Chief of Staff for Texas Supreme Court

      Gov. Rick Perry has appointed his chief of staff to the Texas Supreme Court.

      Jeffrey Boyd will join the state's highest civil court Dec. 3 and finish a term that expires at the end of 2014.

      He replaces Dale Wainwright, who resigned Sept. 30 to join Bracewell & Giuliani LLP in Austin.

      Boyd became Perry's chief of staff last year and was previously the governor's general counsel.

      In 2004, Perry named his then general counsel, David Medina, to the Supreme Court. Medina lost a re-election bid during the Republican primary in July.

      The general counsel helps the governor review death-penalty cases.

      Perry has overseen 253 executions and commuted 1 sentence -- granting life in prison to a death row inmate who drove the getaway car during a robbery and murder.

      (Source: nbcdfw.com)

      Visualization: Executions on Perry's Watch

      By Ryan Murphy, Brandi Grissom and Noah Seger
      Updated: November 1, 2012

      Wednesday's execution of Donnie Lee Roberts Jr., 41, for the 2003 shooting death of a Polk County woman marked the 250th execution during Gov. Rick Perry’s tenure. It is, by far, the largest number of executions under any recent governor in the United States, and Perry has rarely used his power to grant clemency. He has granted 31 death row commutations, most of them — 28 — the result of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning capital punishment for minors.

      As Roberts' execution approached on Wednesday, Amnesty International USA, which opposes the death penalty, called on Perry to support clemency in this and future cases and to work toward ending the practice in Texas.

      “Governor Perry’s anachronistic enthusiasm for state killing is in stark contrast to the clear trend away from the death penalty exhibited by ordinary Texans in juries, where death sentences have declined dramatically over the last dozen years," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

      According to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice report, Texas juries during the 2011 fiscal year sent just six defendants to death row compared with 93 who were sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

      Perry spokesman Josh Havens said, "Like the vast majority of Texans, Gov. Perry supports the death penalty as a fitting and constitutional punishment of the most heinous crimes."

      2012 - 12 executions
      2011 - 13 executions
      2010 - 17 executions
      2009 - 24 executions
      2008 - 18 executions
      2007 - 26 executions
      2006 - 24 executions
      2005 - 19 executions
      2004 - 23 executions
      2003 - 24 executions
      2002 - 33 executions
      2001 - 17 executions

      Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

      Visualization: Executions on Perry's Watch

      Oct. 25

      Past Haunts Judge Seeking Re-Election

      3 judges on Texas' highest criminal court are seeking re-election in November, including Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who has been a controversial figure since her last test with voters in 2006.

      Elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, she is the only incumbent on the court with major-party opposition, facing a Democrat and a Libertarian.

      In 2007, Keller, 59, of Austin, gained national attention for refusing to keep the court open past 5 p.m. to accept a last-minute appeal of a death row inmate who was executed hours later. Charges were filed by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, but it ruled that she did not violate any laws or warrant punishment "beyond the public humiliation she has surely suffered."

      In 2010, Keller received the largest fine ever levied by the Texas Ethics Commission - $100,000 - for breaking finance disclosure law by failing to report $2.4 million in personal assets. Keller did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

      Straight Party Ticket

      Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, said he expects Keller to extend her term despite her "embarrassing activities" because many Texans vote straight-ticket Republican and "can't quite remember why Keller's name rings a distant bell."

      The court, which has a presiding judge and 8 associate judges, is the last judicial stop for criminal matters in Texas, hearing all appeals in which the death penalty has been assessed.

      The court's 2 other Republicans, Barbara Parker Hervey and Elsa Alcala, face Libertarian candidates Mark W. Bennett and William Bryan Strange III, respectively.

      Bennett, 42, a Houston defense lawyer, said he wants to give voters something "other than the status quo" to support.

      "Texans like their freedom. We want to be left alone by the government," Bennett said. "These 3 judges base their rulings on the result they want, which is that the state wins and the criminal loses, rather than fairly applying the law case-by-case."

      Keller's opponents are Democrat Keith Hampton and Libertarian Lance Stott.

      Hampton, a defense attorney in Austin, ran unsuccessfully for the court's Place 6 in 2010. He said he hopes Keller's missteps will boost him to become the 1st Democrat elected to statewide office since 1994.

      "We have a judge on the court who has been found to be unethical by every agency in government that can make that determination," Hampton said. "Her actions have given (the Texas judicial system) a black eye."

      Hampton, Stott

      Hampton, 51, drafted the original proposal of Senate Bill 112 in 2009, which established veterans courts in Texas, and he advocated for a law passed in 2007 that established prisoners' rights to petition a court to have DNA evidence tested.

      Libertarian Stott, 41, of Austin, said the court needs more "balance."

      "(Keller) has said she is pro-prosecution, and I think that shows in her rulings," he said.

      Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said Keller is a leading advocate for mental health and indigent defense.

      "The Judge Keller that people portray is not the Judge Keller I know, respect and care about," Correa said. "The Judge Keller I know is the judge that advocates for indigent defense and evidence-based sentencing."

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      Oct. 17

      Texas State students should stand against the state's outdated and ineffective death penalty

      Texas State prides itself as a home of multiculturalism and empathy. This year's Common Experience theme encourages students to explore the world and become socially responsible members of the global community. One way students can adhere to this theme and become more socially responsible is to take a stand against faulty systems like the death penalty.

      According to an Amnesty International report released in May, the death penalty sentencing process can be surprisingly arbitrary and unfair. According to the same report, Texas has accounted for 37% of all executions in the nation since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. An Oct. 11 ABC News article reported the state recently executed its 10th inmate in 2012 through a lethal injection. The death penalty is a complicated issue that students must consider and take a stand on.

      Students should not elect supporters of the death penalty in next month's election. For one, performing an execution is expensive. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that provides analysis on capital punishment, the process costs more than sentencing an inmate to life in prison. According to information from the center, $693,500 is the cost of housing an inmate for 40 years.

      However, the legal costs alone of fulfilling a death penalty case from indictment to execution total about $1.2 million, according to information from the center. The death penalty makes no financial sense. Students have the power to oppose capital punishment in next month's election by voting for state legislature representatives and judges. Fiscally, there is no reason for students to elect death penalty supporters.

      Students should also know the death penalty is not the most effective way to deter crime.

      According to the Amnesty International report, cited FBI data shows 14 states without death penalties had homicide rates at or lower than the national level.

      Many industrial countries do not support capital punishment. Instead, these nations use alternative methods to deter crime.

      It is important to consider the innocent lives that can be put at risk through capital punishment.

      According to the Amnesty International report, 140 inmates have been released since 1973 from death penalty rows because of evidence of wrongful conviction.

      If the system is unnecessary and flawed, it is only just that Texas State students should stand against it.

      Texas State is a university with a growing voice in state politics. If students and campus organizations work together against the state's use of capital punishment, then the issue could resurface in Texas' policy agenda. Texas State, like many universities, encourages an atmosphere of congeniality and multiculturalism. Students are always reminded to place themselves in other people's shoes. As a result, there are many organizations at the university that support a variety of social issues. These organizations would do well to unite and advocate for alternatives to the death penalty. Politically and socially oriented campus organizations across the spectrum should join to tackle the death penalty issue.

      The death penalty is a worthless policy that makes little fiscal, logical or moral sense. Texas State students should make sure to voice their opposition to the death penalty, both in the voting booth and through university organizations. This university can play an important part in the state political scene, and Texas as a whole is a major player in the death penalty issue. Students at Texas State have a greater impact on the issue than they might realize.

      (Source: The (Texas State) Universtiy Star; Christian Penichet-Paul is a history junior)

      Sept. 28

      Death Penalty Witness Condemned by Courts

      A.P. Merillat has spent two decades investigating crimes in Texas prisons, and his testimony about the violence that inmates serving life sentences can inflict has helped send at least 15 murderers to death row.

      Now, the credibility of Merillat - a go-to expert for prosecutors seeking the death penalty - has been condemned by the state's highest criminal court, after judges determined that Merillat gave false testimony and 2 death sentences were reverted to life sentences, the most recent in June.

      Merillat said he was close to being devastated by those decisions. "A guilty capital murderer was removed from the punishment a jury, according to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, determined he deserved," he said.

      Merillat said he believes the court has unfairly jeopardized his standing - and that he is facing an uphill battle to repair it.

      "I am currently attempting to rebuild my reputation for honor and integrity that was so unjustifiably destroyed by our own Court of Criminal Appeals," he said.

      Merillat, 56, began his career as a policeman in Huntsville and Houston, and for years, he said, he assumed that anyone who committed a heinous capital murder would be closely watched by the prison.

      "I was very mistaken," he said.

      For the last 20 years, Merillat has been an investigator with the Special Prosecution Unit, an independent agency financed by the governor's office to investigate and prosecute crimes that occur in prison.

      "I see the ugliness of the prison system that is not very well known," Merillat told a Travis County jury last year. "Visitors have been harmed by inmates in the visitation areas. One of our prosecutors was stabbed in the stomach before he got his law degree."

      For a Texas jury to sentence a murderer to death, it must find that he or she will be a continuing threat to society. For decades, prosecutors relied on psychiatrists to testify that the accused would commit violent crimes again if given a sentence less than death.

      Many of those psychiatric experts, like James Grigson (popularly known as Dr. Death), Richard Coons and George Denkowski, have since been discredited for their predictions of future dangerousness. Instead, prosecutors have turned to prison experts for testimony about the opportunities for violence behind bars - but outside of death row.

      Merillat became popular with Texas prosecutors, publishing training books and winning awards for his seminars. He published a manual for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association called "Future Danger."

      "I got to the point where I was seeing defense lawyers bring in so-called experts for large amounts of money," Merillat said. "Jurors were hanging their hats on false information."

      James Farren, the longtime Randall County district attorney who called on Merillat in the 2009 retrial of Brent Ray Brewer for a 1990 stabbing and robbery in Amarillo, said he has always found Merillat to be "professional, competent, and very knowledgeable."

      But in 2010, Texas' Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the death sentence of Adrian Estrada for the 2005 stabbing of 17-year-old Stephanie Sanchez. Judge Barbara Hervey found Merillat erred by testifying that a convicted capital murderer would have more freedom in prison than would ever be possible.

      Then, earlier this year, the court threw out the death sentence of Manuel Velez, a death row inmate convicted of killing his girlfriend's infant son, after his attorneys found Merillat had given similar testimony in his Cameron County trial.

      Brian Stull of the American Civil Liberties Union, who represents Velez, said Merillat's voice and personality led jurors to "trust him right away."

      "He gives the jury great stories, and the jury becomes part of the story," Stull said, "because the jury can help stop violence that is rampant in Texas prisons."

      "It makes me worry about everything he says," Stull added.

      Among defense attorneys and their expert witnesses, Merillat has long been distrusted.

      "His testimony was always anecdotal," said Larry Fitzgerald, a former spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who has testified in more than 30 cases for the defense, several times across from Merillat. "I always felt safe when I walked into these [prison] units, but if you listen to A.P's testimony, it's like blood flowing down the aisles."

      Merillat, for his part, said he'd "be a fool" to get back on the witness stand.

      "Even a 1st-year defense lawyer would certainly be shrewd enough to begin cross-examination of me with, 'You have been determined by - the highest court in the state to be a liar, haven't you?'"

      (Source: Texas Tribune)

      Sept. 20

      Rick Perry Death Watch: Former Army Recruiter Scheduled To Die----Cleve Foster was convicted of a 2002 rape and murder

      Cleve Foster, a Desert Storm veteran turned Army recruiter in Fort Worth, is slated to be the next inmate executed in Texas.

      Foster, known as "Sarge," and 1 of his recruits, Shelton Aaron Ward, were each convicted of the 2002 rape and murder of Sudanese immigrant Nyanuer "Mary" Pal. The 2 were seen talking to her in a bar shortly before her murder; the 3 left at the same time, and Foster and Ward followed Pal as she drove off in her car. Pal's body was later found in a ditch by workers laying pipe.

      Ward died in prison, reportedly of brain cancer, in 2010. Foster has maintained his innocence, and argued that he had an incompetent trial attorney who failed to present expert testimony supporting his innocence claim - and that his state habeas attorney was also incompetent for failing to raise on appeal the ineffectiveness of his trial counsel. In several statements Ward repeatedly claimed that he alone murdered Pal, but prosecutors have said Ward's statements are inconsistent with the evidence. DNA evidence showed both men had sex with her before her death, but Foster insists he was passed out from sleeping pills and wasn't involved in Pal's killing. Indeed, Foster was tried and sentenced to death not for directly killing Pal, but as a party to the crime. Under Texas law, if a person knows or could have anticipated that a crime would occur, he can be charged as a party to it, even if he has no direct physical connection to the crime or any intent to commit it. (For more on Texas' law of parties, see "Wrong Place, Wrong Time," Feb. 11, 2005.)

      Foster had 3 dates with death in 2011, each stayed while the court considered his appeals, which have each been denied. His case is headed back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he will again argue that his state habeas attorney was incompetent for failing to raise the ineffectiveness of his trial attorney; the U.S. Supreme Court, in an unrelated case earlier this year, concluded that this could be grounds for relief. If the 5th Circuit fails to act, Foster's case will head to the Supremes for consideration. His execution is scheduled for Sept. 25.

      At press time the Supreme Court had not yet decided whether it will stay the execution of Robert Wayne Harris, who is slated for execution Thursday, Sept. 20. For more on Harris' case see, "Death Row Inmate Hoping for Supreme Intervention," Sept. 14.

      (Source: Austin Chronicle)

      Sept. 18

      The Living Dead: HuffPost Live Talks To Exonerated Death Row Inmate Anthony Graves

      20 years ago, a Texas judge sentenced Anthony Graves to death for 6 murders he did not commit. He spent 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row. For most of that time, he was in solitary confinement -- locked in an 8 by 12 cell, reinforced by a steel door.

      Throughout his incarceration, Graves maintained his innocence and was finally exonerated in 2010. Now an activist working to create awareness around prisoner isolation, he testified before a congressional subcommittee, describing the emotional torture he endured and the mental anguish of his prison mates.

      Friday, he joined HuffPost Live -- to tell his story again and describe how his many years in the hole impacted his life. He told Jacob Soboroff that solitary confinement is "a world that I could never describe that you would truly understand." He said, "to confine someone like that is to break them down in every aspect of their being -- emotionally, spiritually, whatever you can think of. It just breaks a man's will to live."

      Joining Graves in the conversation was Alan Mills, an attorney who represents isolated prisoners at an Illinois supermax prison, and Richard Sawyer, a law student and activist with the Jails Action Committee. Both are working to end the practice of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

      For an interview, see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/the-living-dead-huffpost-_n_1889976.html

      (Source: Huffington Post)

      Sept. 16

      Kimberly McCarthy, Lancaster Woman Convicted of Murdering Neighbor For Crack Money, Set to Die Jan. 29

      It was a grisly scene Lancaster police found on July 22, 1997: Dorothy Booth, a 71-year-old retired psychology professor, stabbed to death on the floor of her dining room stabbed, her left ring finger severed from her hand.

      The evidence quickly led police to Kimberly McCarthy, Booth's next-door neighbor. McCarthy, police said, had taken Booth's ring to sell for crack.

      Immediately after the killing, she drove Booth's white Mercedes station wagon to a drug house, handed over the keys to one of the occupants and told him, according to a Morning News story, "I need some crack bad, give me a bump or something." During her trial, a police officer testified that McCarthy promised to confessed to the murder if he would give her crack.

      A jury convicted her of capital murder. She was indicted but not tried for the 1988 murders of Jettie Lucas and Maggie Harding, both 85-year-old friends of McCarthy's mother. Lucas was beaten with a hammer and stabbed to death in her kitchen.

      McCarthy's conviction was overturned after an appeals court determined that her confession was obtained illegally after she'd requested a lawyer. She was convicted again and sentenced to the death penalty upon retrial.

      She's been on death row ever since, one of only 10 women awaiting execution in Texas, but she won't be for much longer. McCarthy, now 51, is set to die on Jan. 29, per the Dallas County DA's office. That will leave child killer Darlie Routier as Dallas County's lone female inmate on death row.

      (Source: Dallas Observer)

      Sept. 8

      The District Attorney's Corner: Demolition of the death penalty

      The 60's and the early 70's were a time of fierce legal challenges to the death penalty as a form of punishment in the United States.

      From the last execution in Texas by electrocution on July 30, 1964, until 1982, there were no executions in Texas.

      The legal challenges to capital punishment acted as a halt to all executions in our entire country until the constitutionality of the death penalty was decided upon by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1972 decision of Furman v. Georgia.

      Although Texas wasn't stated in the name of the case, the appeal of a Texas rape conviction which resulted in a death penalty was consolidated with the Furman appeal.

      Furman was not good news for capital punishment proponents. The highest court in our country held that the Georgia and Texas capital punishment procedures were unconstitutional in that they resulted in cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

      The laws in question provided that a jury's decision in a capital case was carried out in a unified (single) trial procedure.

      The jury would determine a person's guilt or innocence of a capital offense and also (if found guilty) determine whether the punishment would be a life sentence or the death penalty all in a single proceeding and with 1 verdict.

      The subject capital punishment laws were very broad and essentially provided very little legal guidance for a jury in determining who would receive a life sentence in prison and who would die.

      The Furman decision held that this unified proceeding in determining guilt or innocence and punishment all at one time resulted in the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty.

      In other words, the Court ruled that a jury had too much discretion in deciding between death and life.

      One defendant charged with a capital crime could receive the death penalty while another defendant charged with committing a very similar type of capital crime could have his life spared.

      With the unified proceeding and no aggravating or mitigating parameters to provide legal guidance for a jury, a jury's decision was much akin to the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" decision which decided the fate of defeated gladiators in ancient Rome.

      Therefore, the death penalty as it was being applied by the Georgia and Texas capital punishment procedures was unconstitutional.

      Regrettably for capital punishment proponents, every other state death penalty statute was remarkably similar to these statutes. Although Furman v. Georgia was handed down in Washington D.C., the legal effect of this ruling invalidated all state death penalty statutes nationwide, including the Texas statute.

      The silver lining to Furman was that death as a form of punishment was NOT in and of itself held unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment. Since the Supreme Court held that the death penalty was only being applied in an unconstitutional manner, the states had an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and "constitutionalize" their death penalty procedures.

      Texas chose to do so rather quickly at the next regular session of the Texas Legislature in 1973. But meanwhile, on June 29, 1972, the 5-4 Furman ruling was truly a life-saving 1 for the 52 inmates in Texas who had been sentenced to death and who were waiting for their date with the executioner.

      All of their sentences were commuted to life in prison.

      The 1973 revision of the Texas death penalty procedure introduced the bifurcated (two parts) trial process. We still have this same procedure almost 40 years later. We'll discuss it and other aspects of the revision in my next issue.

      (Source: The Liberty County Vindicator)

      Aug. 23

      In Justice System, Life Is Cheaper Than Death

      Ector County may be saving taxpayers and the state money by not seeking the death penalty on accused killer James Doyle Burwell.

      District Attorney Bobby Bland on Tuesday waived the death penalty in Burwell's capital murder case, in which he is accused of slaying Dick and Peggy Glover in May 2011 in their home. Bland said the family requested that it be waived. The Glover family declined to comment Tuesday.

      According to state and national advocacy groups, everything about death penalty cases, including sentencing someone to death, could be as much as 3 times more costly than sentencing a person to life in prison in a capital case.

      Richard Dieter, the director of the national nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said costs vary not only state-by-state, but also locally.

      Although it's impossible to estimate a national average of costs for capital cases, Dieter said studies done across the United States allow him to safely estimate that a death sentence costs 3 times more than a capital case in which life in prison is the sentence.

      "The consensus is now that the death penalty is costly. The question is: is it worth it?" Dieter said.

      Jason Clark, a spokesman with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the department does not keep data on how much individual classes of inmates, such as death row inmates, cost to the state, just the average of all inmates. Clark said the state spends about $50.79 per day on the average inmate, or about $18,500 per year.

      However, because the death row offenders must be housed separately in single-person cells with a window and be recreated individually, the costs to house them each day are substantially higher. According to the TDCJ, the average time on death row is just more than 10 1/2 years, and the longest was 31 years.

      In a capital murder trial in Ector County, such as the 2009 capital murder case of Brian Swearengin, costs could run up as high as $120,000. Swearengin was convicted of capital murder in the death of Lourdes Maria "Lou Lou" Medrano and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

      Swearengin's state appeals ran out in February, when the Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in Texas, rejected his appeal.

      The cost of the case through 2011 came to $120,927.77, including attorney and expert fees, but not including costs such as jury, security and court fees.

      In addition, Swearengin, who was 25 years old when he was sentenced, could rack up more than $750,000 in costs to the state in 40 years by being held in prison according to the average inmate cost.

      But Dieter said prosecuting someone for the death penalty is still more expensive, citing the more numerous appeals in both state and federal courts, a higher cost for housing death row inmates for what Clark said was an average of 10 to 11 years, and Dieter said death penalty cases also last longer, incurring more costs.

      The most recent published estimate for the cost of a Texas death penalty case from the trial to execution was $2.3 million (and $750,000 for a non-death penalty capital case) from a 1992 Dallas Morning News story, which Dieter said was a good and thorough story but outdated for current purposes.

      The 1992 report is the most recent report on statewide costs of the death penalty, and 20 years later is still used by state and national advocacy groups against capital punishment.

      "I think the best you could say is that study was in line with a lot of other studies done around that time - and since then - in its basic conclusion," Dieter said. "The basic conclusion is the death penalty is costing taxpayers money, not saving taxpayers money."

      The 2009 resentencing phase and some state appeals alone for Michael Dean "Spider" Gonzales, who was convicted of killing an elderly Odessa couple, cost Ector County $227,369.84. His original trial was in 1995, making a dollar comparison inappropriate. Gonzales may still have some appeals options.

      According to the TDCJ, since 1976 Ector County has sentenced 6 people to death including Gonzales but the previous five were not executed. Midland also has a man on death row - Clinton Lee Young - but has not executed anyone since 1976.

      Despite calls to state agencies throughout Texas, the detailed cost of capital death penalty cases was not immediately available, even in small pieces from the agencies over those cases.

      Dieter said part of the problem is the financial responsibility is spread over a number of agencies.

      Bland said the punishment phase in a death penalty trial requires the jury to answer questions for which expert witnesses must be called.

      "When you're seeking the death penalty, it's obviously more expensive," Bland said.

      That doesn't even factor in the opportunities for appeal, which Bland said there are generally more of.

      Texas Tech Law School professor Arnold Loewy said it's cheaper to send a person to prison for life, despite public sentiment.

      "There's a sense among the populace that, 'Gee, if we just executed them, look how much cheaper it would be. We wouldn't be housing them all these years,'" Loewy said.

      It would be true, Loewy said, if not for the appeals and additional time it took to try such a case.

      Kristin Houle, director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the money spent on capital murder cases takes away money that could be used for in other areas of government.

      "We know from case after case that it is exorbitantly more expensive for a county to pursue the death penalty in a capital case," Houle said. "I think it's one of the most compelling pieces of information that is little-known and understood by the public."


      The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional as "cruel and unusual punishment" on June 29, 1972. Texas was forced to clear its death row by commuting all 52 men with death sentences to life sentences, which was done by March 1973.

      But in 1973, a revision to the Texas Penal Code allowed executions to resume Jan. 1, 1974, and lethal injection was adopted in 1977.

      Charlie Brooks, of Tarrant County, was the 1st to be executed by lethal injection on Dec. 7, 1982, on charges of the kidnap and murder of a Fort Worth auto mechanic.

      From 1982 through 2012, a 3-drug method was used in lethal injections, with sodium thiopental as the 1st drug, pancuronium bromide the 2nd and potassium chloride the 3rd drug. The 3 drugs cost a total of $83.35 to administer per execution.

      But when sodium thiopental went off the market, Texas switched to pentobarbital for the 1st drug in March 2011, which cost about $1,200 per execution.

      When pancuronium bromide became unavailable, Texas then switched to a single-drug administration of pentobarbital in July of this year. The cost for the single-drug execution is $1,273.82 per execution.

      [Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark]

      (Source: Odessa American)

      Aug. 22

      Witnessing Execution Strengthens Reverence For Life

      On Aug. 7 I witnessed the state of Texas execute my friend Marvin Lee Wilson, No. 999098.

      I started corresponding with Marvin in 2006. We wrote monthly at first, then more often. We talked of our families, exchanged pictures and gradually became friends.

      Over the years I visited Marvin twice for 4 hours each time, separated by a few years. Visits are through glass, talking on a phone. No contact visits are allowed. I would have visited him more often, but with his visiting list limited to 10 people, he asked if he could take me off the list to put more of his family on, hoping they would visit.

      I knew Marvin as a gentle and kind soul. He loved the Bible and spent some of his time memorizing favorite passages that he quoted in his letters and visits. Little did I know that when his execution date was announced, he would ask me to be with him as one of the witnesses. I have lost a friend.

      Although we did not dwell on the legal aspects of his case in detail, I have serious doubt he was guilty of murder. He readily admitted his earlier robbery offenses and involvement with drugs and was deeply remorseful.

      Marvin claimed to me he was innocent of murder. There is some evidence to support that claim. As I got to know Marvin well I believe he was telling the truth.

      In the presidential debates on Sept. 7, 2011, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was asked about the death penalty, specifically if he lost any sleep over the possibility that one of those 234 executed while he was governor might have been innocent. Perry replied to applause: "No sir," and said the process in Texas was very thoughtful, very clear and fair.

      Governor, this is not always true. Carlos DeLuna, executed for murder in Texas in 1989, was found innocent this spring. On Oct. 4, 2011, Michael Morton was exonerated in Austin for the murder of his wife after almost 25 years in prison.

      There are more examples. Nationally, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools have compiled a National Registry on Exonerations, a database of over 2,000 prisoners exonerated between 1989 and the present. Some of these were death row prisoners. Many are published on their website.

      They state: "The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis."

      Causes of wrongful convictions included perjury, flawed identification and, most disturbingly, misconduct by prosecutors. The Death Penalty Information Center reported 140 people released from death row since 1973 due to innocence. From Aug. 22 through Dec. 12, Texas is scheduled to execute 9 men -- 2 white, 2 Hispanic, the rest black. Marvin was black.

      This preponderance of blacks, not only in Texas, prompted Christina Swarns, director of the criminal justice unit at the NAACP, to state, "The death penalty is a direct descendent of lynching." She herself has gotten 7 prisoners convicted of murder off death row (1 exonerated, 3 overturned and 3 had death sentences vacated).

      Louis Brandeis (1865-1941) an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, said, "Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example."

      Although this statement was not made in a capital punishment case, the principle applies here. Capital punishment denies our common humanity. Those involved in carrying out executions use selective moral disengagement, dehumanization, and other psychological mechanisms to protect themselves. We do the same. In the process, society becomes a little less concerned about killing. Hearts are hardened.

      John Bright (1811-1899), a member of Parliament in Britain, said it better in 1868. "The real security for human life is to be found in reverence for it. If the law regarded it as inviolable, than the people would begin to also so regard it. A deep reverence for human life is worth more than a thousand executions in the prevention of murder -- The law of capital punishment while pretending to support this reverence, does in fact tend to destroy it."

      We live in a world of violence. Our culture erroneously presents violence as the ultimate victor. I would want less violence in the world. Let's hope for reverence for life and hearts of flesh, of compassion, love, and forgiveness instead of hardened hearts. We could start by ending the death penalty.

      (Source: Opinion; Rich Van Dellen, a retired physician, still writes to one other death row prisoner----Post Bulletin)

      Aug. 21

      Texas Judge in Anti-Death Penalty Ruling Resigns

      A Texas judge who in 2010 had declared the death penalty unconstitutional before being an appeals court overruled him is resigning effective immediately.

      The Houston Chronicle reports ( http://bit.ly/PbuBDo) state District Judge Kevin Fine announced his resignation Tuesday. He wasn't seeking re-election this fall.

      Fine wasn't commenting but Robert Fickman, one of his confidants, told the newspaper Fine apparently is seeking a job that wouldn't be available if he waited until after the November election to step down.

      In March 2010, Fine initially declared the Texas death penalty statute unconstitutional after granting a pretrial motion in a capital murder case over which he was presiding. He later rescinded the ruling and ordered a hearing.

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped the hearing, later ruling Fine had exceeded his authority.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      August 14th

      Death-Row Inmates' Final Words Speak of Love, God and Anger

      They are the last words of doomed men. Convicted of capital murder, they spend an average of about 10 years on death row before they are executed for their crimes.

      The statements are available on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, along with other information about prisoners executed in the past 30 years.

      Prisoners utter their final statements right before intravenous drugs flood their bloodstream, knocking them out within seconds and stopping their heart within minutes. Reading through them can be chilling.

      The latest entry in the database is Marvin Wilson, 54, whom Texas executed last week despite his attorneys' arguments that his IQ was too low for him to be eligible for capital punishment.

      Wilson, convicted of killing a police informant, told his watching three sisters and son several times that he loved them and asked that they give his mother a hug.

      "Y'all do understand that I came here a sinner and leaving a saint," he said. "Take me home Jesus, take me home Lord, take me home Lord."

      In their statements, most prisoners thank relatives and friends who are present, and urge them not to cry. Many also say prayers and proclaim their belief in God.

      Some apologize for their heinous crimes to the victims' families. Others profess their innocence and lash out at the justice system.

      "From there you call me a cold-blooded murderer," said Henry Porter before his execution in July 1985. "I didn't tie anyone to a stretcher. I didn't pump any poison into anybody's veins from behind a locked door. You call this justice. I call this and your society a bunch of cold-blooded murderers."

      Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted in 1992 of killing his 3 daughters, maintained his innocence until his execution in 2004. His case has since received international attention because of claims that he was wrongfully convicted.

      "The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man" convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return - so the earth shall become my throne."

      Texas has executed 484 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, more than 4 times as many as any other state. The online information dates back to 1982, when the state first executed a convict by lethal injection.

      Some inmates are more philosophical, such as David Martinez, executed in July 2005: "Only the sky and the green grass goes on forever and today is a good day to die."

      About 20% of inmates decline to say anything at all.

      In some of the more chilling entries, prisoners comment on the sensation they feel as the intravenous drugs begin to flow.

      "Are they already doing it? I'm gonna go to sleep. See you later. This stuff stings, man almighty," said Rodrigo Hernandez, the first man executed in 2012 in Texas, at the end of his statement.

      Mark Stroman, a white supremacist executed in 2011 for a 2001 convenience store shooting spree which he called a revenge act for 9/11, said he was at peace and that "hate causes a lifetime of pain."

      He added: "God bless America, God bless everyone. Let's do this damn thing." Later, when the injection began: "I feel it; I am going to sleep now. Goodnight, 1, 2, there it goes."

      An analysis earlier this year showed the most commonly used word in prisoners' last statements is "love." That is followed by "family," "thank," "sorry" and "God."

      The word "death" is the 15th on the list, just behind "Jesus." Many of the statements end with the person saying, "I'm ready, Warden."

      Texan death row inmates used to be allowed to choose their last meal. James Collier, before his execution in December 2002, was given fried fish, chicken fried steak, baked potato and ice cream.

      His last words: "The only thing I want to say is that I appreciate the hospitality that you guys have shown me and the respect; and the last meal was really good. That is about it."

      The 'last meal' privilege ended in September 2011 after Lawrence Russell Brewer, executed for torturing and killing a handicapped man in 1998, requested an extravagant last meal and didn't eat a bite of it, leaving officials infuriated.

      Now convicts eat their last meals from the regular prison menu.

      (Source: Toronto Star)

      Aug. 2

      Death Row Inmate's Sentence Reduced to Life

      Banks Jr., who has been on death row for 3 decades, on Wednesday accepted a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2024 under an agreement with Bowie County prosecutors.

      Banks, 53, was convicted of the 1980 shooting death of 16-year-old Richard Whitehead. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Banks death sentence in 2004, finding that Bowie County prosecutors who tried the case suppressed evidence and deliberately covered up their mistakes for decades. A trial to decide a new sentence for Banks was scheduled for October.

      Bowie County District Attorney Jerry Rochelle told the Texarkana Gazette that Whitehead's family wanted the case to end.

      "They were ready for some closure," Rochelle told the newspaper. "After 32 years of dealing with the offense, the death of their son, the original trial, the appeals and the prospect of a new trial, they were ready for it to end."

      Banks, who is black and was 21 when the crime was committed, was convicted of killing Whitehead, who was white, so that he could take his car. Police found Whitehead's body in a park near Texarkana and soon discovered that Banks had been with him on the last night he was seen alive. There were no witnesses to the killing and no physical evidence linking Banks to it. The prosecution's case relied largely on the testimony of Robert Farr and Charles Cook, both admitted drug users; Cook also had convictions for robbery by assault and forgery.

      Banks had no criminal history, and people who were with him and Whitehead on the last night that Whitehead was alive testified there was no ill will between the 2. Nonetheless, an all-white Bowie County jury convicted Banks, who was sentenced to death.

      Almost 20 years after the trial, in 1999, a federal judge forced Bowie County to open its case records. Banks' lawyers discovered a transcript showing that Cook's testimony had been extensively rehearsed and coached. They also learned that the police had paid Farr, an informant who had an unreliable record, $200 for his role in the investigation.

      Farr, in an affidavit, said he was afraid that the police would arrest him on drug charges. In exchange for the money, and to avoid jail, he agreed to set up Banks, he said. Prosecutors allowed Cook and Farr to lie in court and never told jurors that their information was false, the U.S. Supreme Court found.

      In arguments before the Supreme Court, state lawyers did not dispute that Cook had been coached and that Farr was paid for his help. But they said Banks' lawyers were at fault for not uncovering the information sooner. At a hearing in the case last year, prosecutor James Elliott, who tried Banks in 1980 and had vowed to see his death sentence restored, said that during the original trial he had not known that Farr was a paid informant or that Cook's testimony had been coached.

      In previous motions, Banks' had sought to also challenge the jury's decision that he was guilty, based on the court's findings that prosecutors had erred in the trial. But in the agreement signed Wednesday, Banks agreed not to attempt any additional challenges of his conviction. And he waived his right to seek clemency. He will be 65 when he is eligible for parole, and he will have served 44 years in prison.

      George Kendall, attorney for Delma Banks, issued a brief response to yesterday's agreement: "After 32 years, the State has decided to no longer seek the death penalty in this case. We hope the resolution of this case will bring closure to all concerned."

      (Source: The Texas Tribune)

      July 26

      Austin killer on death row dies, official say

      Selwyn P. Davis, sentenced to death by a Travis County jury for the 2006 Austin murder of his girlfriend's mother, was found dead in his cell on Texas' death row last week, according to a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

      Corrections officers conducting routine security checks found Davis, 30, unresponsive on the floor of his cell about 9 p.m. Friday, spokesman Jason Clark wrote in an email.

      "Staff began life saving measures, called 911, and took the offender to the unit infirmary," Clark wrote. "An ambulance then transported Davis to Livingston Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced deceased by an attending physician at 10:04 pm."

      Clark said the cause of death is unknown and that the department's Office of Inspector General will investigate the death, which is routine.

      Davis stabbed Regina Lara to death in her 38 1/2 Street apartment on Aug. 22, 2006.

      According to testimony at his trial, the killing occurred during a 2-day crime spree that began the day before, when he brutally beat his ex-girlfriend in their Southeast Austin apartment, fracturing her eye socket and jaw, slicing her leg, pouring rubbing alcohol over her head and threatening to set her on fire.

      Later that night, he went to his uncle's South Austin house and sliced him with a knife, according to testimony. He left after taking his aunt's car and purse and went on an overnight drug binge, according to testimony.

      The next day he went to Lara's apartment and attacked her when she came home from work. Davis also sexually assaulted a teenage girl at the house, accofding to testimony.

      In seeking the death penalty, prosecutors revealed Davis' long criminal history, which included assaults on police officers and unprovoked attacks -- on a teacher and another student -- at Lanier High School, and robberies of immigrant workers in the East Riverside Drive area.

      When he was 16, Davis attacked a 13-year-old girl by punching her in the face and kicking her in the stomach after her mother told Davis the girl was pregnant, according to testimony.

      (Source: Austin Legal)

      July 12

      Death Penalty Undermines Justice

      Death penalty advocates have long maintained there is no evidence that Texas ever executed an innocent person.

      It is time for these folks to fess up. Texas has executed an innocent person.

      I base this upon a recent Columbia University Human Rights Law Review report. If ever there is evidence that we got it wrong and executed an innocent person, this is it.

      Wanda Lopez, a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi, was brutally knifed to death in 1983. Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for the murder. But an 18-month investigation led by Professor James Liebman concludes it was most likely another man who committed the murder.

      This report (which may be accessed at www.thewrongcarlos.net) details how Texas executed the wrong man. Video clips, police records, audio interviews and notes from 100 witness interviews paint a vivid picture of the system flaws that led to DeLuna's execution.

      A number of things went wrong.

      •A single eyewitness identification was made while DeLuna was sitting in the back seat of a police car. I probably would have made the same mistake. The 2 men (DeLuna and another man described in the report) ) looked uncannily alike.

      •The crime scene investigation was terribly mishandled. Potential evidence was destroyed or never recovered.

      •DeLuna's legal representation was woefully inadequate. One of his court-appointed lawyers had never tried a criminal case in court. No witnesses or mitigating evidence were presented during the sentencing phase of the trial.

      •Worst of all — DeLuna's defense was that the other man committed the murder, the man singled out in the law review report, but the prosecution told jurors that man did not exist. All the while, that individual, according to the report, was well-known to police and prosecutors.

      In the end, the police, lawyers, jury and courts failed DeLuna.

      Even the execution did not go right. The lethal injection should have taken 6 minutes to kill him. It took 10. This is not the 1st case where serious questions have been raised in a Texas execution. Critics have pointed to Cameron Todd Willingham and San Antonian Ruben Cantu as possible cases of wrongful execution.

      We know the system makes mistakes. Since 1987, 12 death row prisoners have been exonerated in Texas, the most recent in 2010. No one wants to see innocent people on death row. The exonerations at least set people free, albeit after grave injustices. We cannot bring Carlos DeLuna back. Execution is final.

      Not surprisingly, the innocence issue is a major reason why more people are challenging the death penalty. The innocence issue is also a reason why 5 states have abolished the death penalty.

      In 2006, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia observed, “(There has not been) a single case ... in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.”

      Justice Scalia should spend some time poring over the Columbia University report.

      If conservative lawmakers in Texas truly want to conserve something, they should conserve justice. Ultimately, the death penalty is simply not consistent with conserving justice.

      (Source: Opinion; Roger C. Barnes chairs the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Incarnate Word----San Antonion Express-News)

      July 11

      Texas Switches Execution Procedure To 1-Drug Instead Of 3 Due To Shortage

      Texas, the nation’s most active death penalty state, announced Tuesday that it would become the latest to switch to single-drug executions amid a drug shortage that has left states scrambling for acceptable alternatives.

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it will begin using a single dose of the sedative pentobarbital to carry out death sentences. It had been using that drug in combination with 2 others, but its supply of one of the other drugs expired.

      Texas began using pentobarbital last year after another drug, sodium thiopental, became unavailable when its European supplier bowed to pressure from death penalty opponents and stopped making it. But pentobarbital is now in short supply after its Danish manufacturer said it would try to prevent its use in executions.

      An Oklahoma inmate asked a federal court on Tuesday to halt his upcoming execution because that state has only one dose of pentobarbital left. A lawyer for Michael Hooper said Oklahoma has no backup plan if the drug fails to render Hooper unconscious, and that creates a risk of cruel and unusual punishment.

      Texas officials said in May that they have enough doses of pentobarbital to carry out 23 executions. No one has been executed in the state since.

      In the 3-drug cocktail, Texas officials administered 5 grams of the drug — about 3.4 ounces — to render the inmate unconscious, followed by the muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Pancuronium bromide is the drug that expired.

      Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said officials didn’t expect the dose of pentobarbital needed to change with the new procedure.

      4 other states — Arizona, Idaho, Ohio and Washington — have used a single drug to carry out executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Ohio was the 1st to use just pentobarbital, during a March 2011 execution.

      Other states, such as Missouri, plan to use propofol, the anesthetic blamed for Michael Jackson’s death, to do single-drug executions.

      Death penalty opponents claim single-drug executions may be less humane. They point to an April execution in Arizona, where an inmate shook for several seconds after receiving a lethal dose of pentobarbital. The drug was used by itself in that case.

      Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said three-drug cocktails kill quicker than a single anesthetic like pentobarbital.

      “The person still goes to sleep and gradually loses mental capacity and dies, but it may take a slightly longer time,” Dieter said. “I think the idea originally was to cause death quickly, but you needed the anesthetic to make those next 2 drugs painless.”

      Texas has carried out more executions than any other state, 482 since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1982. Its next scheduled lethal injection is July 18, when Yokamon Hearn is set to die for killing a 23-year-old stockbroker from Plano, north of Dallas, in 1998.

      Hearn’s lawyer, Richard Burr, said he was studying the switch to a single drug and hadn’t decided yet whether to file an objection to it.

      Texas has 9 executions, including Hearn’s, scheduled between now and mid-November. Clark said switching to a single-drug method now will ensure that all can be carried out as planned.

      Dieter said Texas’ switch might influence other states and provide more evidence for whether a one-drug procedure works better than previous methods.

      “Either way, it provides more evidence that this is or is not the way to go,” Dieter said. “Everybody thinks of Texas as the leading execution state. It’s a question of numbers.”

      (Source: Associated Press)

      Texas Will Change Its Lethal Injection Protocol

      By Brandi Grissom
      July 10, 2012

      Texas will join a handful of states that use a single drug in lethal injections, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced Tuesday.

      "Implementing the change in protocol at this time will ensure that the agency is able to fulfill its statutory responsibility for all executions currently scheduled," TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said in an email.

      For Yokamon Hearn's scheduled execution on July 18, officials plan to administer a lethal dose of pentobarbital instead of the three-drug cocktail that has been used since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1982. Clark said the decision to change the protocol came because the state's supply of one of the other drugs that had been used in the protocol — pancuronium bromide — had expired and TDCJ was unable to obtain more.

      "The agency currently has an adequate supply of pentobarbital to carry out all scheduled executions," Clark said. Currently, nine inmates are scheduled to be executed between July 18 and Nov. 14. Clark said that courts have upheld the use of the single-drug protocol as constitutional.

      Pentobarbital is a barbiturate that is often used in animal euthanasia, but states began using it more widely in lethal injections last year. Ohio was the first state to switch to the single-drug protocol using pentobarbital in March 2011.

      Illinois-based Hospira Inc. sent Texas and other death penalty states scrambling last year when it announced in January that it would stop selling sodium thiopental, part of the three-drug cocktail used for lethal injections in Texas, which Hospira had planned to manufacture the drug in an Italian plant, but authorities in that country wanted a guarantee that the drug would not be used in executions.

      But pentobarbital has had some of the same troubles as sodium thiopental. The drug was previously only available from one company operating in the United States, Lundbeck Inc., based in Denmark, a country that also opposes the death penalty. Lundbeck had asked states not to use the drug in executions.

      Last year, Lundbeck sold pentobarbital, along with two other products, to Illinois-based Akorn Inc. but required restrictions on the use of the drug in executions to continue.

      The Austin American-Statesman reported last month that the TDCJ stockpiled supplies of pentobarbital last spring when concerns about the supply of death penalty drugs arose around the country.

      Editor's Note: This story initially reported erroneously that Lundbeck Inc. sold the drug pentobarbital. That company sold the product to a different company, and the story has been corrected.

      Texas Will Change Its Lethal Injection Protocol

      July 9

      Commentary: End The Death Penalty

      While others have been analyzing and debating the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent divisive decision, I have been thinking about another landmark case handed down 40 years -- almost to the day -- before the court's ruling to uphold the controversial Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare."

      On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty "cruel and unusual punishment" based mostly on the "arbitrary and capricious" nature of how it was being applied by the states. That 5-4 ruling in effect ushered in a moratorium on capital punishment for a few years. I want to use the anniversary of that ruling to make two appeals: one to call for another moratorium on the death penalty, and the other to ask help for state prisoners who once again are suffering through a sweltering Texas summer.

      Prior to the 1972 decision, Texas executed 361 people by electrocution, with the last one occurring in 1964, according to records of the Department of Criminal Justice. In those days, rape was one of the crimes for which one could be put to the death, something that had changed by the time executions were reinstated effective Jan. 1, 1974.

      The state retired "Old Sparky" (the electric chair) and in 1977 adopted lethal injection as a means of execution. A Fort Worth resident, Charlie Brooks, became the 1st person in the country to die by lethal injection in 1982. Since then, 481 other men and women have been killed in the Texas death chamber, and 8 more are scheduled to die this year.

      Through those years, it has been easy to see that the death penalty as administered in this country, especially in Texas, remains arbitrary and capricious.

      In recent years, the Supreme Court has ruled that the state cannot execute people who are mentally ill or those who were juveniles at the time of their crimes -- the decisions coming too late for several in those categories who had been put to death.

      While I'd like to see the death penalty outlawed outright, as some other states have done in the past few years, at the very least we should call for another moratorium so that we can have a rational discussion about the legality and morality of capital punishment.

      Now to another continuing problem in the state prison system that becomes more acute in the summer. I was reminded of it again last week as the unofficial temperature in Fort Worth was 109 degrees, knowing that the vast majority of Texas prisoners were in un-air-conditioned facilities where the summertime temperature usually is well above 100.

      For the past 12 years Texas Citizens for Rehabilitation of Errants (TX-CURE), whose headquarters is in North Texas, has been providing fans for indigent prisoners (as defined by TDCJ).

      Through 2011, the group had bought 6,015 fans for inmates, Project Director Dorothy Deen said.

      The way the program is set up, the fans have to be purchased through the prison system at $20 each.

      After inmates request a fan and are certified as indigent (having $5 or less in their prison trust fund account for 6 months), TX-CURE can add their names to its list and buy fans for them as the money becomes available.

      Requests always exceed the amount of funds.

      I'm especially proud of the program because it was started by longtime TX-CURE members and supporters Kenneth and Lois Robison. Their son, Larry Robison, was executed in 2000 for the 1982 murder of Bruce M. Gardner, 1 of 5 people killed in the Lake Worth tragedy.

      The Robisons, who said their son was mentally ill his entire adult life, fought hard to try to stop his execution.

      So far this year, 360 indigent prisoners have received fans from the organization, Deen said, and she is working on verifying about 250 more requests.

      If you can help pay for one fan or several, send your donations to:

      TX-CURE Fan Project
      P.O. Box 372
      Burleson, TX 76097
      For more information,
      Contact Deen at (817) 447-1448.

      (Source: Commentary; Bob Ray Sanders----Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

      June 25

      Don't Let Texas Be The Last

      Our Texas legislature cannot ignore the fact that the days of the death penalty are slowly coming to an end. There are now 17 states that have abolished the death penalty, and 5 of those repeals have happened within the past 5 years.

      Death sentences are at a historic low in Texas and nationwide. Prosecutors, juries and judges are less and less comfortable with the death penalty being a just alternative.

      Texas lawmakers are supporting repeal of the death penalty more and more. The time is now.

      Do not let the last execution in the U.S. happen in Texas. We need to show that Texas has grown beyond that.

      Bill Betzen,
      Dallas/Oak Cliff

      (Source: Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)

      June 24

      Executions Under Rick Perry, 2001-Present-----243

      Number--------Scheduled Execution Date---------Name

      244-------------July 18----------------------Yokamon Hearn
      245-------------August 1--------------------Marcus Durery
      246-------------August 7--------------------Marvin Wilson
      247-------------August 22------------------John Balentine
      248-------------September 20--------------Robert Harris
      249-------------November 8----------------Mario Swain
      250-------------November 14---------------Ramon Hernandez
      (Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

      You can also view the Execution List Here

      June 21

      Former Texas Death Row Inmate Testifies at Congressional Hearings on Solitary Confinement

      On June 19, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held hearings on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, including the conditions of many state death rows. The hearings marked the 1st time lawmakers on Capitol Hill have considered this issue.

      Anthony Graves (pictured r., along with Sen. Richard Durbin)

      A former Texas death row inmate, described the conditions of his incarceration in a 8 by 12 foot cage with no physical human contact for years. Meals were passed through a slot, as if feeding an animal. Graves equated his time on Texas’s death row with solitary confinement and described it as “physical, emotional, and psychological torture.”

      He added, “I saw guys who dropped their appeals because of the intolerable conditions. Before his execution, one inmate told me he would rather die than continue existing under these inhumane conditions. I saw guys come to prison sane, and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution gurney.

      One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself.” In 2010, Graves was completely exonerated and released from death row because of new evidence of his innocence.

      Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “We can have a just society, and we can be humane in the process. We can punish wrongdoers, and they should be punished under our system of justice, but we don’t have to cross that line.”

      (Source: DPIC)

      Records: Texas bought execution drugs before supply dwindled

      By Mike Ward
      Published: June 20, 2012

      Turned down in their request for secrecy by state Attorney General Greg Abbott for the second time in as many months, Texas prison officials have revealed that their large stockpile of lethal injection drugs — probably the largest in the country — came from a South Carolina pharmaceutical supplier.

      In releasing invoices and other records about its supply chain, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shed new light on how it obtained the stockpile of a key drug used in executions last year, at a time when other states were unable to purchase any and some were being forced to switch to other drugs.

      The information confirmed that Texas purchased its lethal drugs in spring 2011 through a U.S.-based supplier, not through a shadowy overseas network that several other states had used last year — actions that drew federal agents to seize illegally imported drugs.

      Texas appeared to get a head start on other states by buying the drugs when supplies were still available. By the summer of 2011, the domestic supplies had mostly dried up — and the other states were left hunting for pentobarbital in places such as England and Pakistan.

      Last month, the Texas agency, which operates the busiest death chamber in the United States, confirmed that it had enough lethal drugs on hand to carry out as many as 23 executions — and that it does not prepare backup doses of the three drugs, as officials previously had said state policy requires.

      The American-Statesman had requested the information in March under the Texas Public Information Act, after disclosing that the state appeared to have purchased more than $50,000 worth of lethal drugs in just a few months.

      Invoices made public by the agency Wednesday show that more than $51,000 worth of the powerful sedative Nembutal, a brand name for pentobarbital, was purchased in March and April 2011 through Physician Sales and Service in Houston.

      Other forms disclosed Wednesday show it was shipped from company offices in West Columbia, S.C.

      Calls to the company in both locations were not returned. Company officials previously had not commented about the sales.

      The newly disclosed documents reveal that in one shipment, three of 39 vials of Nembutal were broken in transit. The state received a credit for the breakage, according to the records.

      Prison officials Wednesday said they could not discuss the records in further detail.

      Like other states, Texas uses Nembutal with two other drugs to carry out executions. Nembutal is the most difficult to obtain, and its European manufacturer, Lundbeck, has barred the use of its product in executions in the United States.

      In arguing that disclosure of the details of its supply chain could limit Texas' ability to buy the necessary drugs in the future, prison officials had refused to release the records. They said the disclosure would allow death penalty opponents to harass suppliers as part of an international campaign to block executions, and would interfere with Texas carrying out the ultimate penalty.

      Abbott disagreed, ruling June 6 that the invoices and other purchasing records had to be made public. A month earlier, Abbott came to the same conclusion in ordering the agency to disclose how much lethal drugs it had on hand.

      At the time, prison officials said they had 46 2.5-gram vials of Nembutal and similar amounts of the other two drugs on hand.

      In his four-page decision, the attorney general rejected claims by prison officials that disclosure of the information could endanger the safety of prison employees and jeopardize Texas' continued ability to obtain the drugs.

      Jason Clark, a prison system spokesman, said Wednesday that he could not comment on any discussions prison officials may have had with the suppliers about the release of the information.

      Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791

      Records: Texas bought execution drugs before supply dwindled

      June 1st

      Kimberly Cargill Sentenced to Death Penalty

      Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham tells KETK that Kimberly Cargill has been sentenced to die for killing 29-year old Cherry Walker.

      During the punishment phase, Cargill relatives took the stand against her.

      (Source: KETK News)

      June 1st

      Kimberly Cargill Given Death Penalty For Murdering Her Babysitter

      Shortly after 9:30 pm, Thursday, a Smith County jury has reached a sentence for Kimberly Cargill of Whitehouse convicted of killing her babysitter, Cherry Walker.

      The jurors had to decide between 2 penalties, life in prison or the death penalty. After 8 hours of deliberation, the jurors decided upon the death penalty.

      Cherry Walker’s body was found partially burned on June 24, 2010 on the side of Oscar Burkett Road. Smith County investigators said that Ms. Walker died of “homicidal violence”.

      Richard Wilson, a retired psychologist who worked for the Andrews Center diagnosed Ms. Walker as mentally challenged in 1995. He stated that she had the daily living skills of a 9-year-old and suffered from major motor seizures.

      Ms. Walker has been described as a kind person who loved children. She was especially fond of Cargill’s 4-year-old son whom she babysat.

      Ms. Walker babysat Cargill’s’ son many times without pay and used her food stamps to feed him. Walker’s mother asked her many times why she sat for Cargill, each time Walker would smile and answer for Luke.

      Cargill was not only abusive to Walker; she was also abusive to her children.

      In March, 2010, Cargill was arrested for injury to a child, but bond out the next day.

      Shortly after Cargill’s release, Walker was subpoenaed as a witness in Cargill’s child custody case. Cargill did not want Walker testifying, so she killed, burned her and left her on the side of the road.

      Cargill testified that Walker died from a seizure. She also made the statement that she had found Walker unconscious and tried to revive her. Cargill stated that when she found Walker, she didn’t know what to do, so she left her on the side of the road. Cargill contended that she burned Walker’s body to rid it of any DNA that might have gotten on her from Cargill trying to revive her.

      Time after time Cargill lied during questioning, showing no remorse.

      Shortly after the court’s death penalty decision an automatic appeal was filed on behalf of Cargill.

      If executed, Cargill will be the fourth woman in Texas since 1863.

      (Source: Dallas Examiner)

      May 28th

      Recent Exonerations Reducing Death Penalties

      Death penalties have become a rarity from juries in some parts of Texas in the wake of a string of prison inmates — including some on death row — who have been exonerated by DNA and other new evidence.

      The last death sentence returned by a Bexar County jury in San Antonio came in 2009, when only 1 defendant was condemned in that county, the San Antonio Express-News reported. In the 11 years ending in 2006, Bexar County juries meted out at least 24 death sentences.

      “We don’t go get the death penalty just because we can. It’s a very serious decision-making process,” First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg told the Express-News.

      Recent state and national surveys continue to show strong support for the death penalty, but less so when the option of life imprisonment without parole is offered to juries. Texas began offering that option in 2005. That, Herberg said, “definitely changed the dynamics” in Bexar County.

      As for appeals, “I think you do see the courts are saying, no matter what, let’s test it,” Herberg said.

      By way of illustration is a recent federal court reprieve of Anthony Bartee hours before his scheduled May 2 execution for a 1996 San Antonio slaying. That shows judges are choosing to err increasingly on the side of caution when death row inmates appeal for new DNA testing of evidence in their cases.

      “The courts are more cautious and most people think they should be, there is a question about it,” Professor John Blume of the Cornell University Law School told the Express-News.

      “I think it’s moved the pendulum to at least introduce an element of skepticism in capital cases,” said Professor John Schmolesky of the St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

      That is only appropriate, said civil rights attorney Jeff Blackburn, head of the Innocence Project of Texas. The nonprofit advocacy group says DNA testing has led to the exoneration of more than 280 people nationally, most of them over the past 12 years and 17 of them death row inmates. The new National Registry of Exonerations shows that at least 890 inmates — perhaps as many as more than 2,000 — have been falsely convicted nationally since 1989.

      “We have to err on the side of finding out every fact that we can,” Blackburn told the newspaper.

      However, prosecutors say DNA-based appeals can be used purely to stall executions. In the case of Bartee, said Assistant District Attorney Rico Valdez, “He wasn’t convicted with DNA evidence but by his own behavior.”

      (Source: Associated Press)

      May 27th

      Decision adds to scrutiny of death penalty cases

      At 3:25 a.m. on May 2, Anthony Bartee was eating breakfast, not knowing if it would be his last.

      That evening, Bartee, 55, was to be strapped to the gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville for the 1996 robbery and slaying of his friend David Cook, 37.

      Bartee's attorney David Dow started his day scrambling to get his client a 2nd stay — the 1st was granted within a week of Bartee's original Feb. 28 execution date. In addition to the usual appellate route, Dow took an atypical one.

      He filed a federal lawsuit against the Bexar County district attorney's office, claiming that Bartee's civil rights were violated by prosecutors withholding evidence for DNA testing that could prove his client's innocence.

      The DA's office doubted the attempt would work because Bartee had 15 years to make evidence claims. And besides, he wasn't convicted based on DNA. But with Bartee's death imminent, Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery granted the temporary stay to allow more time to examine Dow's civil rights claims.

      The ruling was rare, experts said, and speaks to an ever-increasing scrutiny of death penalty cases as exonerations from post-conviction DNA testing continue to mount.

      “The courts are more cautious, and most people think they should be if there is a question about it,” said Cornell University Law School Professor John H. Blume.

      Juries, too, are handing down fewer death sentences, nationwide and locally.

      Local prosecutors have noted the trend and are taking a harder look at whether to seek death.

      “We don't go get the death penalty just because we can,” First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said. “It's a very serious decision-making process.”

      Dow did not return phone calls or emails.

      A majority of Texans, 73%, either strongly or somewhat support the death penalty, according to a University of Texas at Austin and Texas Tribune poll published Thursday. The number drops to 53% when asked about the option of life without parole.

      A majority of Americans also support the death penalty, according to a 2011 Gallup Poll. But at 61%, that support is at its lowest point in 39 years, the poll concluded.

      Since the state adopted life without parole in 2005 as an alternative to death, it “definitely changed the dynamics” in Bexar County, Herberg said.

      Exonerations also have affected the entire criminal justice system, including jurors who must decide if someone lives or dies, said John Schmolesky, a professor at St. Mary's University School of Law.

      “I think it's moved the pendulum to at least introduce an element of skepticism in capital cases,” Schmolesky said.

      The last death sentence in Bexar County came in 2009, a year when only 1 person was condemned to die although prosecutors had sought the death penalty more often than that.

      Given that at least 24 people were sentenced to die in the 11-year period that ended in 2006, Bartee being one of them, that's a dramatic decrease.

      Death sentences in the United States also have dropped, by 65% in the past 12 years, with 78 handed down last year, compared with 224 in 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

      Prosecutors here, in deciding whether to seek the death penalty, weigh the cost of the litigation, the circumstances of the crime and the accused killer's history of violence, among other factors, Herberg said.

      “The future danger aspect of it has always been an issue with the jury,” he added. “If they can't get out of prison, (communities) are safer.”

      Bartee's own violent past wasn't known to Cook, his friends or family.

      He was sent to prison for raping at knifepoint a girl, 15, and a woman, 20, in separate incidents in 1983, according to court records. At the time Cook was killed, Bartee had been out on parole for only 15 months.

      In San Antonio that day, district attorney's office investigator George Saidler, a retired homicide detective who worked on Cook's case, was searching the police property room for glasses and cigarettes collected 16 years ago from Cook's house.

      What prompted him was Dow's new request for DNA evidence testing. Prosecutors needed to know if authorities still had the evidence, especially if a court ruled in Bartee's favor.

      Biery's decision to stay the execution was a move in the right direction, said civil rights attorney Jeff Blackburn, who heads the Innocence Project of Texas.

      “We have to err on the side of finding out every fact that we can,” he said. “I think that if we've learned anything, it's that it's hard to trust the government when they say (DNA's) not involved in this case.”

      Nationwide, DNA testing has been instrumental in exonerating more than 280 people, the majority in the past 12 years. Of those, 17 spent time on death row, according to The Innocence Project.

      Still, that's just a fraction of the more than 2,000 people falsely convicted in the past 23 years, according to the first national registry of its kind, which was released last week.

      In response to the growing number of exonerations and advances in DNA testing technology, the Texas Legislature made changes regarding DNA evidence that could help someone wrongly convicted prove their innocence.

      2 changes occurred late last year. Lawmakers made it less difficult for someone convicted to get DNA testing introduced in court. Also, judges now have the power to order that DNA profiles be sent through national and state databases, presumably to find out whether someone else committed the crime.

      Bartee, so far, has benefited from the new laws.

      “I think you do see the courts are saying, no matter what let's test it,” Herberg said. “We're certainly seeing that. That's the reason for this delay (in Bartee's case).”

      The new evidence laws have ushered in debates about what to test and when. Advocates of testing argue that every avenue needs to be explored, while some prosecutors contend that more DNA testing can be used as a stalling tactic.

      “DNA evidence isn't the silver bullet that's going to solve every single case,” Schmolesky said. “If the (person) admits he was present, he may have left fingerprints, saliva on cups for example, or things that result in DNA testing but don't show he committed a crime.”

      Local prosecutors haven't wavered in their belief that further testing for Bartee's case is a waste of time.

      “He wasn't convicted with DNA evidence but by his own behavior,” Assistant District Attorney Rico Valdez said.

      (Source: San Antonio Express-News)

      May 27th

      Death Penalty

      Regarding "Texas must take steps to be sure of guilt in capital cases" (Page B7, May 19), former Gov. Mark White's op-ed concludes "we must take every possible precaution to ensure there is never another Carlos DeLuna."

      Evidence reviewed after his execution raises the probability that he was incorrectly identified and convicted, and unjustly executed.

      In addition to the DeLuna error you can add the possible wrongful execution of Ruben Cantu, also from San Antonio. Again, no evidence other than eyewitnesses that later recanted their testimony coupled with questionable police procedures dealing with the witnesses.

      The governor and I share the same Texas background and age profiles, and I was also once convinced that heinous crimes warrant the death penalty. But after reviewing the ugly truth as the governor so eloquently presented it, DeLuna's case should give us all pause as we realize that the possibility of executing an innocent individual is very real.

      It is the human limitation of "fallibility" that is the culprit of White's concern. Fallibility has brought me to conclude our system and our human resources lack the "infallibility" White seeks.

      The only logical course is to retire the death penalty in favor of life without parole, a fate as cruel as execution itself.

      Michael R. Wimberly
      Houston, Texas

      (Source: Letter to the Editor, Houston Chronicle)

      Texas has enough lethal drugs for 23 executions, officials say

      By Mike Ward
      May 18th,

      Forced to go public by an order from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, state prison officials late Friday disclosed that they have enough lethal drugs on hand to carry out as many as 23 executions.

      The agency also said Friday that it does not prepare backup doses of the lethal drugs for each execution, as state officials have long said policy requires.

      In a brief statement issued without elaboration, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it has 46 2.5-gram vials of Nembutal on hand and similar amounts of two other drugs included in a three-drug cocktail used in executions at the Huntsville Unit.

      That could mean that Texas has the largest stockpile of the lethal drugs in the country, at a time when other states are scrambling to find suppliers for the same drugs.

      Death penalty critics have long suspected that Texas has not been following state policy on backup doses, but until Friday there was no official confirmation.

      For years, state officials have said agency policy calls for them to prepare double doses of the three-drug cocktail in case the initial round fails. If the backups were prepared, each execution would use twice the amount of lethal drugs as is needed if the first dose executes the prisoner.

      Prison officials have previously refused to comment on whether the backup doses were being prepared. But on Friday, officials said that they interpret the policy to require the drugs to be on hand but not in syringes.

      "The backup set of lethal injection drugs is not actually prepared, but an additional dose is available if needed," the brief statement said Friday.

      Abbott's opinion Monday was prompted by requests under the Texas Public Information Act filed by the American-Statesman and a reporter for The Guardian, a British newspaper.

      The attorney general rejected claims by prison officials that disclosure of the information could endanger the safety of prison employees and jeopardize Texas' continued ability to obtain the drugs — especially pentobarbital, a key pharmaceutical that is in short supply for executions because of increasing restrictions on its use.

      Abbott had issued a similar ruling in late 2010, forcing the agency to disclose how much of the drugs it had on hand. Prison officials since had insisted that a recent Texas Supreme Court opinion would allow them to keep the information and other information about suppliers secret, but Abbott again disagreed.

      The state said Friday that it is using the powerful barbiturate Nembutal, known generically as pentobarbital, which is in short supply. According to Texas execution procedures, a 5-gram dose — about 3.4 ounces — is used during each execution.

      The agency said Friday that it has a hefty amount of the other two execution drugs: 290 10-milligram vials of pancuronium bromide and 737 20-milliequivalent vials of potassium chloride.

      There was no word late Friday on whether the agency planned to disclose the details about its suppliers, as Abbott had directed, or planned to fight the matter in court. Officials declined to comment.

      Though the information made public late Friday was brief, it appeared to confirm details about Texas' execution drug supply that were revealed by the American-Statesman in late March.

      The newspaper reported that, facing a possible shortage of key drugs needed to keep the nation's busiest execution chamber in business, Texas prison officials a year ago had purchased tens of thousands of dollars' worth of lethal drugs.

      Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791

      Texas has enough lethal drugs for 23 executions, officials say

      May 18th

      Texas prisons must disclose execution drug details

      Texas prison officials must disclose information about who supplies lethal drugs for executions and how much of the drugs the Department of Criminal Justice has on hand, the state attorney general's office ruled.

      The opinion this week came in response to public information requests filed earlier in the year by the Austin American-Statesman and the British newspaper The Guardian.

      Prison officials had argued that releasing the information could be harmful to employees and provide death penalty opponents with an avenue to harass the drug suppliers in the hope those firms would refuse to do business with the state.

      "We find your arguments as to how disclosure of the requested drug quantities would result in the disruption of the execution process or otherwise interfere with law enforcement to be too speculative," Sean Opperman, an assistant attorney general, wrote in the opinion.

      Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials did not immediately respond to a phone message left by The Associated Press seeking comment. The Austin paper, which first reported about the ruling Thursday, said prison officials said they hadn't seen the opinion yet and couldn't comment on it.

      The prison agency has 30 days to comply with the opinion or to challenge it in court, under state guidelines.

      Opperman said that while the attorney general's office "acknowledge(s) the department's concerns," the corrections department didn't show how disclosure of the information "would create a substantial threat of physical harm to any individual."

      Department officials have indicated they have a sufficient supply to handle upcoming executions. At least 5 so far are scheduled for Texas into the summer, including 1 early next month.

      Last year Texas had to change from sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in the process, when it became unavailable after its European supplier bowed to pressure from death penalty opponents and stopped making it. No other vendor could be found and pentobarbital was used as a replacement.

      The physical effects of the new drug on condemned inmates have not been noticeable at executions in Huntsville but the financial cost to the state has risen considerably. Prison officials put the cost of the previous drug mixture, which also used pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, at $83.35. It's now $1286.86, with the higher cost primarily due to pentobarbital.

      About 3.4 ounces of solution containing 5 grams of pentobarbital is used in the lethal injection process, followed by lethal doses of the other two drugs. In addition, the department's written procedures call for a matching set of drugs and syringes "in case unforeseen events make their use necessary."

      (Source: Associated Press)

      May 15

      Carlos De Luna Execution: Texas Put To Death An Innocent Man, Columbia University Team Says

      One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty is the frightening chance of executing an innocent person. Columbia University law professor James Liebman said he and a team of students have proven that Texas gave a lethal injection to the wrong man.

      Carlos De Luna was executed in 1989 for stabbing to death a gas station clerk in Corpus Christi 6 years earlier. It was a ghastly crime. The trial attracted local attention, but not from concern that a guiltless man would be punished while the killer went free.

      De Luna, an 8th grade dropout, maintained that he was innocent from the moment cops put him in the back seat of a patrol car until the day he died. Today, 29 years after De Luna was arrested, Liebman and his team published a mammoth report in the Human Rights Law Review that concludes De Luna paid with his life for a crime he likely did not commit. Shoddy police work, the prosecution's failure to pursue another suspect, and a weak defense combined to send De Luna to death row, they argued.

      "I would say that across the board, there was nonchalance," Liebman told The Huffington Post. "It looked like a common case, but we found that there was a very serious claim of innocence."

      Police and prosecutors treated the killing of Wanda Lopez at the Sigmor Shamrock gas station on February 4, 1983, like a robbery gone bad. A recording of the chilling 911 call from Lopez, a 24-year-old single mom working the night shift, captured her screaming and begging her killer for mercy.

      De Luna, then 20, was found hiding under a pickup truck a few blocks from the gory crime scene. A wad of rolled-up bills totaling $149 was in his pocket.

      Eyewitness testimony formed the bedrock of the case against him. Now, that testimony is perhaps most contested aspect of his conviction.

      Cops brought De Luna back to the Shamrock. A customer filling his tank before the murder told police that De Luna was the man he saw putting a knife in his pocket outside the store. Another customer who rushed to the store's entrance when he heard Lopez struggling identified De Luna as the man who emerged. A married couple saw a man running a few blocks away and later identified De Luna in police photos shown to them.

      With De Luna's record of numerous arrests for burglary and public drunkenness, plus a conviction for attempted rape and auto theft, it seemed like police had found the perp. But Liebman said De Luna took the fall in a case of mistaken identity.

      Among the key findings in the Columbia team's report:

      •The eyewitness statements actually conflict with each other. What witnesses said about the appearance and location of the suspect suggest that they were describing more than one person.

      •Photos of a bloody footprint and blood spatter on the walls suggest the killer would have had blood on his shoes and pant legs, yet De Luna's clothes were clean.

      •Prosecutors and police ignored tips unearthed in the case files that Carlos Hernandez, an older friend of De Luna, who had a reputation for wielding a blade, had killed Lopez. The defense failed to track down Hernandez, who bore a striking resemblance to De Luna.

      "If a new trial was somehow able to be conducted today, a jury would acquit De Luna" said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who read a draft of Liebman's report. "We don't have a perfect case where can agree that we have an innocent person who's been executed, but by weight of this investigation, I think we can say this is as close as a person is going to come."

      In 1983 and during the appeals process, officials handling De Luna's case saw the opposite -- a slam-dunk conviction. The prosecution and the court-appointed defense lawyer didn't put much stock in De Luna's claim that Hernandez plunged a knife into Lopez's chest. Record-keeping was so lax there's no clear evidence the gas station was robbed during the slaying, Liebman said.

      In trying to clear his name, De Luna didn't help himself. For months after his arrest, he refused to reveal the name of the real killer, because he feared Hernandez. His credibility plummeted when other parts of his alibi for the night of the murder were disproven by the prosecutor.

      The fateful night began, according to De Luna, when he went to a skating rink, where he met Hernandez and two sisters. De Luna admitted that he was near the gas station later, but said he was across the street in a bar. While he nursed his drink, Hernandez bought cigarettes in the Shamrock. He said he emerged from the bar to see Hernandez fighting with Lopez. Hearing police sirens, he said he fled, because he didn't want to get into trouble.

      The prosecution, however, discredited De Luna's version of events. One of the sisters who was allegedly with him at the rink testified that she was at her baby shower that night.

      "I had blown his alibi to bits," said Steve Schiwetz, one of the prosecutors.

      A guilty verdict was reached with little delay. The capital murder trial lasted 6 days in July 1983.

      "I'm open to the argument that somebody named Carlos Hernandez really did it," said Schiwetz, "but everything I know confirms the original impression that De Luna did it."

      The apparent random targeting of Lopez wasn't Hernandez's style, Schiwetz said. Hernandez's tendency was to unleash violence on the his girlfriends and wife, not strangers, he said. In 1986, Hernandez was accused of murdering another woman with a knife, but the case was dismissed.

      Several of Hernandez' family members interviewed for the Columbia University report said pictures of the murder weapon found at the gas station looked like the knife Hernandez habitually kept with him. In all of De Luna's numerous arrests, police never found him carrying a blade, according to the Columbia report.

      The relatives' portrait of Hernandez's disheveled appearance gelled with a description of the suspect seen fleeing the convenience store. Witness Kevan Baker said the killer looked like a "derelict," wearing a flannel jacket and gray sweatshirt. Hernandez's relatives said he often wore a flannel coat. De Luna was fastidious with his appearance and always wore black slacks and dress shirts, the report said.

      Liebman sought more scientific proof. Fingerprints taken from the knife and cigarette pack found at the crime scene were sent to a former Scotland Yard investigator for comparison with Hernandez's prints. But the evidence had been so poorly collected by police, Liebman said, that the results were inconclusive.

      The Columbia University team's report, more than 400 pages long, also is a biography of the central players, emphasizing the troubled upbringings and hard-drinking adulthoods of De Luna and Hernandez.

      Liebman learned about De Luna roughly 10 years ago, when he began examining convictions in which a single eyewitness testified. As he and a student delved into the files, they became convinced De Luna wasn't guilty.

      They turned over their findings to the Chicago Tribune which published a three-part series in 2006 that found evidence suggesting Hernandez killed Lopez. Multiple people told the Tribune that Hernandez -- who died in 1999 in prison from cirrhosis of the liver -- had confessed to killing her.

      Revisiting questions about Lopez's death would be too painful, her nephews said.

      "That's something our family has had to deal with," Louis Vargas told The Huffington Post. "We've had closure with it and we don't want to reopen it. We believe the justice system did what it had to do."

      One of De Luna's attorneys, James Lawrence, told HuffPost he doesn't count him among the clients who've been wrongfully accused of capital crimes.

      "The fact that he wouldn't help us and this was his life on the line -- that's the one thing that kept bothering the living daylights out of me," Lawrence said.

      Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, there have been 1,295 executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas leads with 482 executions.

      The ease with which De Luna was prosecuted and the obscurity of his death are what makes his case so important, said Liebman.

      "There are many cases out there that nobody has ever looked at and are probably at risk of innocence," said Liebman. "It's a cautionary tale about the risks we take when we have the death penalty."

      (Source: Michael McLaughlin, Huffington Post)

      May 5th

      Death Penalty isn't Solution
      Re: "Think of victims instead"

      By Don Skaggs, Tuesday letters

      As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." In just 134 words, Don Skaggs manages to bring his own freshly minted facts to the death penalty discussion.

      He writes, "If you had a loved one raped, murdered and killed, you have to hold The News in contempt for its misplaced sense of justice." This is a doozy of a statement. Does Skaggs mean that newspaper editorials shouldn't be protected as free speech? More important, many families of victims supported the Connecticut repeal of its death penalty.

      Skaggs also repeats the old chestnut that the death penalty deters murders. The News' source editorial pointed out the the nonpartisan National Research Council has determined there is not enough information to either support or confirm this contention. Other studies over the years have echoed this conclusion.

      Kudos to Connecticut for abolishing the barbaric practice of capital punishment.

      More states are lined up bumper to bumper to do the same. Texas may be dead last in this long march, but it will happen. That's a fact.

      Tom Heines, Far North Dallas

      (Source: Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)

      May 4th

      It's time to abolish the death penalty

      Last week, Connecticut joined with 16 other states and with the rest of the civilized world when it abolished the death penalty. But the very next day, Texas chose to remain in darkness when it executed Beunka Adams, making him the 5th victim this year of the state's anachronistic practice of killing people. If not for a last-minute stay, on Wednesday Texas would have put another human being to death.

      Since the death penalty was re-instated in the United States, 1,295 human beings have walked that cruel corridor to the death chamber. Our country ranks number 5 among nations willing to kill people, surpassed only by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. What is almost as disturbing as the killing is the fact that 61 % of the American population approves of this barbaric practice.

      Many of the country's God-fearing Christians believe that killing someone who has been convicted of murder is a proper means to achieve justice. They incorrectly equate death with justice. Killing a human being is more tantamount to revenge. Families of murdered victims travel to Huntsville to watch the murderer of their loved one suffer the same fate. They call that closure.

      However, closure should come knowing that their family member is in the hands of God.

      According to the National Research Council, there is no evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to murder. The major problem that death penalty proponents do not want to discuss is the possibility of killing an innocent person. There have been three very strong cases of possible wrongful execution in Texas. Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, Ruben Cantu in 1993, and Carlos De Luna in 1989, all went to their deaths with serious doubts of their guilt.

      Since 1975, there have been 140 people released from death row in 26 states, 12 of them in the state of Texas. They all could have easily been killed because of our need for revenge. If that many have been released, just imagine how many were executed who were innocent.

      Dr. Roger Barnes is chairman of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of the Incarnate Word. He believes that we should be ashamed and hugely embarrassed that our country is the only Western industrialized democracy that uses execution, and Texas does it more than any other state.

      The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, a conservative judge when appointed by President Richard Nixon, changed his mind about capital punishment.

      “I can no longer tinker with the machinery of death,” he wrote. “We are just not equipped to get this right.” It is time for Texas to join with Justice Blackmun and the rest of the civilized world and do away with the bloody practice of killing people.

      (Source: Fred Williams, San Antonio Express-News)

      May 4th


      Thomas Whitaker, an inmate on Texas death row, has filed a class action lawsuit against Texas Governor Rick Perry, Senator John Whitmire, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the inhumane and unconstitutional conditions under which the men on death row must live. Allegations include taking away wheelchairs from those who cannot walk, denying mental and physical health care, being held in solitary confinement for over ten years without any legal justification based on their conduct, dangerously unsafe living conditions, inadequate nutrition, inadequate exercise, denial of adequate access to telephones, destruction and loss of necessary legal documents, denial of religious freedom, denial of fair administrative process, failure to timely deliver mail including legal correspondence, and other abuses. In the case of Ruiz v. Estelle, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District held that conditions for the Texas prison system were unconstitutional but also held that the inmates of death row would need to bring a separate lawsuit to address their unique situation. That is the action now being taken by Whitaker.

      There have been acts of retaliation by TDCJ toward men who have been a part of this suit or similar litigation.

      Thomas Whitaker, No. 999522 age 32, from Fort Bend County, Tx----Residing on Texas Death Row since March 2007, convicted under the Law of Parties.

      Contact Information:
      Robert B. Wells, Co-Director Descending Eagles
      email: mfelps@descendingeagles.org
      P.O. Box 49339, Austin, Tx 78765
      3724 Jefferson, Ste. 309, Austin, Tx 78731

      The following acts and omissions of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have caused irreparable harm to all residents of death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas.

      These acts and omissions continue to harm the residents of death row at the Polunsky Unit.

      All residents now housed at Polunsky, previously housed at Ellis, on death row were put in solitary confinement in administrative segregation improperly and in violation of the existing plan for incarceration of those persons on male death row. Although most of the residents had not been charged with or found guilty of any conduct that would be punishable by solitary confinement, they have been retained in solitary for over ten years (since 2000). No less than a full due process hearing is required to determine whether there is a valid reason for the continued confinement in solitary. No such hearings have been held. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice regulations require a hearing with attendance by the Plaintiff, the warden, and the Classification Committee of the unit to determine if administrative segregation is appropriate or to extend such conditions beyond a limited period. There have been no such hearings. Those so held do not meet the Texas Department of Criminal Justice [TDCJ] requirements for such confinement because there has been no determination that each individual is in need of segregation for his protection or safety; there is no violation of the regulations of TDCJ for which a hearing is pending, there is no reason to assume that all are "custody risks" when they have shown no signs of being such. The fact that another person attempted escape does not make this entire class any more of a custody risk than the average person incarcerated in the general population.

      By both action and inaction basic human needs of adequate food, safe shelter, adequate exercise, medical care and living conditions conducive to mental health are being denied every resident of death row. There are frequent failures to provide sufficient nutrition for the residents of death row in their daily food provision. Housing conditions include unsanitary living conditions due to inadequate cleaning of the cells and shower areas. At times, no cleaning product other than water is used by those performing general cleaning. Residents are not given access to cleaning products to maintain their cells in a sanitary condition and to kill black mold. Although security might dictate precluding caustic chemicals in the area housing those who might be a security risk, there is no reason to deny them ordinary cleaning products to keep their living area safe from disease causing bacteria. The food trays are often placed on the floors where there is sewage or spittle. The showers have inadequate ventilation causing it to be so humid and hot that residents have been made ill. The attorney visitation booths are not adequately ventilated for the residents. When an unruly resident is being gassed for misconduct, the other are exposed to so much of the caustic and harmful fumes as to also suffer from the contact. There is inadequate exercise. One hour a week is inadequate for the maintenance of physical health. There is no reason access to the outdoors and vigorous physical activity daily should be denied.

      The cells have inadequate ventilation and they effectively shut off the residents from all contact with the outside world. The occupants of the cells are subjected to harsh temperatures. The ceilings of some cells leak and there is black mold growing in some cells. Lights are controlled by officers who turn them off and on at their discretion exposing those trying to sleep to light that awakens them and prevents adequate rest. Food is served at hours not usually considered appropriate for meals with no justification for such a schedule.

      Clothing also is delivered at hours designed to interrupt sleep. Other than the brief periods they are allowed out to shower and one time a week they are allowed recreation, they are in solitary confinement 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The prolonged period of sensory deprivation has resulted in serious mental health conditions. No effort has been made to examine the residents of these isolation cells to see how they have been damaged by these conditions.

      There has been a frequent lack of care used in regard to legal documents. When their cells are searched for contraband, their legal documents are often tossed in with other property and subsequently lost or damaged.

      In violation of the regulations of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, "legal visits" between offenders in order to obtain needed assistance in their legal cases have been curtailed. Adequate postage is denied which prevents corresponding with legal counsel when necessary. Mail sent to or received from legal representatives has been opened and read. Access to law books is very limited and difficult as well as access to information that could be gained from having greater access to the library and to television. Telephone access so as to be able to contact their legal representatives is not permitted. Residents of death row are denied adequate telephone access to contact legal counsel. At times, the transport of the resident is so slow that they are denied access to legal counsel. Counsel often is forced to wait for up to an hour or completely denied a legal visit.

      Residents of death row have been denied reasonable treatment for diagnosed medical conditions. Medical staff exhibits indifference or is unavailable.

      Dental care is extremely inadequate as is care of vision. Those in need of wheelchairs are now being denied access to a wheelchair and required to walk using a walker out of an excessive reaction to one person having been a security risk because he was being transported in a wheelchair when a weapon was found in the wheelchair. There is a concerted effort to avoid identifying the mentally handicapped for fear it will lead to them getting their sentences reduced to life rather than execution. Further, the mentally ill are not housed separately as is required by the regulations. Those nearby are kept awake by the shouts of those who are psychologically disturbed. There is inadequate treatment of the mental health issues that incarceration in these conditions necessitates. There is totally inadequate screening to determine whether mental health issues have arisen. There is inappropriate supervision of the mentally ill in terms of their maintenance on the prescribed treatment. The seriously mentally ill are not transferred to more suitable facilities nor is staff trained to deal with them properly.

      Prescribed medications and "over the counter" medications are not provided promptly or consistently so as to allow maintenance of the health of all residents, both mentally and physically in need ofregular treatment. Both the mentally and physically ill have had the water turned off in their cells to prevent them from urinating due to dehydration. They have been denied food so as to not have fecal matter if the mentally ill individuals throw feces at guards.

      The physically ill had hemorrhoids and was bleeding excessively. At such time as each such sick individual became unable to move, they were finally given some degree of treatment at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Contrary to the ethical standards required, no physician or guard or warden reported these crimes of abuse. The elderly, diabetic or mentally ill have been abused because they could not move quickly or fell due to their fragile condition. The very severely mentally ill are incapable of completing their administrative appeals due to their condition. Everyone suffers emotional trauma from witnessing these episodes of abuse of weak and fragile individuals.

      The mentally challenged or mentally ill are subject to punishment for their failure to understand the regulations they must follow. Their non-compliance due to confusion leads to longer and longer confinement in segregation without clothes, mattress, linens, and inadequate food and medication. Guards are poorly trained in mental health so as to recognize whether there is real misconduct or a lack of comprehension. Those who are delusional are harassed and tormented by some guards. These guards are not disciplined or terminated, but are allowed to continue to abuse the mentally ill.

      Those who are mentally ill are incompetent to personally bring any grievance or complaint on their own behalf. Assistive devices such as braces, medical issue boots, and wheelchairs have been confiscated and not provided to those requiring them for proper function of their extremities or movement from location to location. Adequate pain medication is routinely withheld.

      All residents are denied activities that would be conducive to good mental health such as an opportunity to engage in creative work or crafts which are allowed those in the general population of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and only denied to residents of death row, including those who have nearly perfect conduct records. They are further denied access to television.

      These activities were allowed until recently. Some men escaped from Ellis, as a consequence of their conduct - not the conduct of the current residents of death row at Polunsky, all previous activities that actually provided the residents with an incentive to improve their conduct so as to be able to engage in such activities, have been curtailed. It should be noted that the residents of death row purchase the materials with which to do crafts from the commissary operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice which provides money for the operation of the prison system. The men then were able to sell their work and spend the money paid for the completed craft project at the commissary, which actually recirculates the money again into the income of TDCJ. There is no security reason for denial of this activity. Furthermore, when a resident attempts to design his own craft activity, it is destroyed because using shoe strings or thread or plastic lids to make a craft is deemed using the item for a purpose other than the one originally intended. This is cruel and an absurd abuse of authority.

      The residents of death row are thwarted in their attempts to pursue their administrative appeals as these appeals are mislaid either accidentally or intentionally or by there being a denial of the right to pursue their administrative appeal to conclusion due to action designed to delay or circumvent the administrative process.

      Access to religious literature and other religious objects is denied in an indiscriminate manner. Those on death row are also denied the right to attend a religious service. No religious service is available for them to attend. Some are denied access to a representative of their faith as a spiritual adviser. In regard to adequacy of food, food that is Halal or Kosher is being exposed to pork grease.

      The mail room is one of the worst situations for those men on death row. Entire publications are being withheld because the newspaper or magazine contains one article that the particular person screening the mail found unacceptable without applying the written standard as set out in Department regulations.

      Correspondence is very, very frequently mishandled. There is an ongoing retaliatory process to prevent some residents from sending or receiving their mail or to delay receipt of their mail unnecessarily. The amount of postage actually physically permitted each individual has been unduly and unreasonably curtailed. Access to postage at all has also been unreasonably curtailed. Legal mail has been opened before being delivered and has been read. Outgoing legal mail has been read.

      The is no justification for denial of access to television. Television was available until death row was moved to the Polunsky Unit. Charitable groups have offered to donate televisions, there is an empty rack for holding a television in the day room, but no television. There is no valid security reason for denying access to the educational and recreational benefits of television. No other residents of penal institutions in Texas are denied televisions. This, on occasion, denies access to information that would be beneficial in regard to their legal defense.

      The opportunity to work in a job in the Department of Criminal Justice is now suspended. That suspension needs to be ended. Other men found guilty of murder who are in the general population are permitted to work. This would be a very strong incentive for the men to maintain good conduct. Many, if not most, men on death row would be eager to have an opportunity to perform work. This would reduce the cost of maintaining their pod. They would willingly clean their pod themselves. They would maintain their own living area better than it is now cleaned.

      Giving any person who is incarcerated incentives for good conduct is going to result in fewer disciplinary problems. Treating people fairly and with decent concern for their health and safety and emotional needs will result in a group that is easier to discipline. Those who do not respect the opportunity, then deserve to have opportunities denied.

      (Source: Minutes Before Six)

      April 27th

      Death No More--Salute to Connecticut for banning executions

      In many corners of the nation, it was heartening news this week that Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Mally signed a bill outlawing the death sentence as an oprion of juries. His became the 5th state in 5 years to eliminate capital punishment, reflecting growing uneasiness about imposing an irrevocable punishment in light of deep flaws that continue to be exposed in the justice system.

      Malloy didn't come to his decision as a reform zealot or overcome by compassion.

      That's important. His perspective is that of a former prosecutor who once built cases against criminals, killers included.

      In time he saw how a well-meaning system of justice broke down despite the efforts and training of honest people. The DNA-driven scientific revolution has pulled the curtain back, and it's impossible in good conscience to ignore the truth and defend state-sponsored killing.

      Eyewitnesses are mistaken. Forensic evidence is misread or misinterpreted. Innocent people admit things they didn't do. Innocent people end up with bad lawyers and cut bad deals. Innocent people go to death row.

      Still, defenders of the death penalty constitute a majority in polls, especially in Texas, but also in Connecticut, where a new survey showed a 2-1 margin in favor. We salute political leaders such as Malloy who take a principled stand against the death penalty despite the political risk.

      That's not where enough Texas politicans are today, and it's a sad wonder. Texas is the epicenter of DNA exonerations, and stories of slipshod and corrupt prosecution curdle the blood. Despite this, Texas continues to have the nation's most active execution chamber since reinstatement of the death penalty, with more than 480 executions since 1976. But there is encouraging evidence that even in Texas prosecutors are losing eagerness to add to Texas' death row: Just 10 executions were scheduled this year -- less than half the annual average of 22 people executed in Huntsville over the past decade.

      Many of our fellow Texans who favor capital punishment do so in the belief it deters crime. Former Gov. George W. Bush, for example, once said: "I don't think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don't think that's right. I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people's lives."

      To our fellow Texans who agree, we urge a pause to test assumptions. A study recently released by the National Research Council analyzed research on the deterrent effect of the death penalty since 1976 and came away with this: There is not enough evidence for or against the porposition that capital punishment actually prevents murder.

      With reason to suspect one of its core justifications, should the death penalty forever hold sway among Texans as a defining element of our justice system? We hope the time is drawing near that most people say no.

      (Source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)

      April 24

      Family fights against death penalty appeals

      A family is calling for changes to laws that let death row inmates appeal their sentences over and over again. This comes after a stay of execution in a crime that impacted them.

      2 men robbed a Cherokee County gas station in 2002. That robbery spiraled out of control and ended with 1 man dead and 2 women severely injured. One of the robbers, then-22-year-old Beunka Adams, got the death penalty. He was supposed to die Thursday, but now that's on hold.

      "She started talking and started telling me the reasons why," Nikki Ansley said. "And I had to have her repeat it because I didn't hear a word she said after she said he got a stay."

      It's not the 1st time Ansley has heard 29-year-old Beunka Adams would have his execution delayed. She and her family have watched appeal after appeal, and they say they're tired of seeing him kick the can down the road.

      "I'm outraged," Nikki's mom Melinda said. "I still am. I'm hurt. I want it fixed."

      Melinda describes it as a nightmare that you never wake up from.

      "Until you're caught in this web, you could never understand it," she said.

      Nikki says there's no doubt that Adams is the one who raped her and shot her in the back. A decade later, there's a scar on her shoulder, and a bigger one that you can't see.

      "To be strong today, I have to make it through for my two kids," Nikki said.

      The rest of the family have their own battles to fight as they search for a way to move on.

      "My father and I were in Houston when this happened," Nikki's brother Troy said. "I've never heard a grown man wail and cry like he did."

      "What's the point of going to court?" Nikki asked. "What's the use of me pointing the finger and saying he did it? It was useless."

      The family says victims get no communication--and no rights--while criminals are allowed to ask for second chances for free. They don't want to see other victims go through this.

      "I'll fight diligently helping [to change the laws]," Melinda said. "I'll work until I can't work anymore."

      "This is for every victim," Troy said.

      Together they hope to change the laws that let these cases drag on, as they work toward forgiveness.

      "It's not something you say lightly," Nikki said. "You know? It's harder said than done."

      The Ansleys are hoping a lawyer who knows a lot about the death penalty will see their story and be able to help them as they fight against the way things are. Adams is safe until the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals gets a chance to review his case and determine whether his original attorneys did an adequate job.

      Adams' accomplice in the robbery, Richard Cobb, was also sentenced to death in 2004. He is still on death row and his execution has not been scheduled.

      (Source: CBS News)

      April 11

      Time To End Death Penalty In Texas

      2 events last week -- 1 in the Connecticut Senate chamber, the other in a Dallas courtroom -- helped once again to focus attention on 2 of the nation's most glaring flaws: wrongful convictions and capital punishment.

      In Dallas, 3 more men were exonerated for crimes they did not commit, bringing to 30 the total number of exonerations in Dallas County since 2001. One of the men had been sentenced to 99 years in prison for a 1994 violent purse snatching involving a 79-year-old woman.

      About 1,600 miles away in Hartford, the Connecticut Senate voted 20-16 to repeal the death penalty based partly on the growing evidence of wrongful convictions and the possibility that an innocent person could be executed. The state's House of Representatives is likely to approve the measure soon, and the governor has vowed to sign it into law.

      If the measure is enacted, Connecticut will join a growing number of states (the 5th in 5 years) to abolish capital punishment. California voters will weigh in on the subject in a ballot initiative in November.

      After the Dallas defendants were officially cleared in court, both District Attorney Craig Watkins and District Judge Lena Levario declared that it was time to have a discussion about race and justice, The Dallas Morning News reported.

      Actually we need a discussion about much more than that in America.

      The latest Dallas case again revealed that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense and that police, during their initial investigation, subjected the suspects to prejudicial identification tactics. These kinds of injustices cry out for discussion.

      How many innocent people are behind bars based on overzealous police work, unethical prosecution or just honest mistakes? How many might be on death row?

      When it comes to executions, there are signs that the nation's thirst for blood is waning, bringing some hope to those of us who have been fighting against capital punishment for so long.

      Even in Texas, which has the busiest death chamber in the country, the numbers are decreasing. Texas juries are sentencing fewer people to death, and the population on death row is declining.

      Texas executed 13 people last year, the lowest number since 1996 when t3 people were killed by lethal injection. In 2000, a record 40 executions occurred in the state.

      4 people have been put to death this year in Huntsville, bringing the total to 481 since 1982, when Texas resumed executions after the Supreme Court had declared capital punishment "cruel and unusual" in 1972.

      Today 298 people are on Texas' death row, including 9 women.
      The ethnic breakdown is:
      29.2 % Anglo,
      40.6 % black,
      28.5 % Hispanic
      and 1.7 % other.
      At the end of fiscal 2001,
      the death row population was 446.

      Those are all good signs, but not good enough.

      If more states continue to lead the way, maybe the Lone Star State will eventually follow. New York, New Jersey, Illinois and New Mexico recently repealed capital punishment, and The Associated Press reports that Kansas and Kentucky are considering it.

      Many people acknowledge that we have a flawed justice system, and that's understandable with any structure that depends on human judgment and actions.

      But it is because of the fallibility of humans that we mortals should not be charged with deciding to take a life -- the one thing we can never give back in case of a mistake -- in the name of the state.

      The progress toward abolishment of the death penalty has been steady, but slow. It's now time to pick up the momentum.

      I'm ready to see the movement gather steam, wage an all-out legal assault and awareness campaign to change these barbaric laws one state legislature at a time.

      We are a nation that should be better than this. Let's vow to end capital punishment in this country, now and forever.

      (Source: Column, Bob Ray Sanders, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

      APRIL 08, 2012

      Jesus Christ 'The All-Time Poster Child For The Innocence Movement'

      Grits offered up these musings about Easter last year and thought I'd reprise them today:
      Easter is strikingly filled with criminal justice themes, isn't it? The Christian religion was essentially founded on a repudiation of Roman capital punishment.

      Easter celebrates the sinless Man-God killed for His beliefs who triumphed over the grave, mooting, even while respecting to the end, the earth-bound laws that condemned Him. Jesus, a blameless man executed, is the all-time poster child for the innocence movement.

      Corrupt and biased prosecutors prevailed in His case because of a judge's personal indifference and deference to the mob. Christ's betrayal by Judas was the archetype cementing into Christian values a lingering distrust of snitches and informants. Romans accused the disciples of grave robbery. St. Peter committed assault with a deadly weapon in the Garden of Gethsemane then thrice lied about his identity to avoid arrest.

      And taken as a whole, the passion story documents Jesus' arrest, trial, and execution all taking place in an incredibly short span, as though criminal convictions could be obtained as quickly in real life as on an episode of Law & Order.

      Christmas is a story about family. Easter is a story about a wrongful criminal conviction, the misapplication of the death penalty, the overweening power of the state, and the irrepressible urge of humanity to resist it.

      Happy Easter, gentle readers. Enjoy this beautiful day.


      April 4

      TDCJ wants to block release of lethal injection drug info

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is refusing to disclose the size of its stock of a key pharmaceutical used in executions, saying doing so would endanger its drug makers and suppliers.

      The charge comes in a brief filed with the Texas Attorney General's Office in response to a December query by an British newspaper concerning the contents of state's death house medicine chest. The agency said releasing such information would provide ammunition for Reprieve, a British anti-death penalty group that successfully has pressured drug makers to stop selling to executioners.

      Likening Reprieve's campaigns to those of violent prison gangs, the brief written by TDCJ Assistant General Counsel Patricia Fleming asserts that releasing information "creates a substantial risk of physical harm to our supplier. ... It is not a question of if, but when, Reprieve's unrestrained harassment will escalate into violence..."

      TDCJ is seeking authorization not to answer questions posed in a December public information request by Ed Pilkington, the New York correspondent for The Guardian, a national British newspaper. An attorney general's response is expected this month.

      Pilkington sought to determine how much pentobarbital, one of three drugs used in executions, the death house had in stock. He also asked how the agency met requirements that a second "back up" dose of lethal drugs be available at executions.

      "I was very surprised by the language they chose to use, which was pretty inflammatory, really," Pilkington said. "Obviously, there is an international disagreement over the death penalty. ... Usually that discourse is conducted in a civilized manner."

      He called the claim that the prison system's drug suppliers were in jeopardy, "pretty far-fetched."

      'Public interest'

      Joseph Larsen, a lawyer for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said Pilkington's questions go to the "heart of how effectively TDCJ performs its official functions."

      "The whole idea behind the Texas Public Information Act is that the governmental bodies do not get to control the information that underlies political discussion," he said. "Specifically, the governmental body does not even get to ask why a requestor wants certain information. How then can a governmental body base its argument for withholding on what use it anticipates will be made of the information if released?"

      In a 2008 case, the Attorney General's Office sided with TDCJ in denying Forbes magazine the names of companies that supplied execution drugs, noting that "releasing the names of the companies would place the employees of those companies in imminent threat of physical danger."

      Drug's Maker Pressed

      An appeals court rejected that ruling the following year.

      Pentobarbital was added to the state's lethal cocktail in May 2011, replacing sodium thiopental after that drug's maker stopped production, in part because of Reprieve's anti-drug agitation.

      Reprieve followed by directing international pressure on Lundbeck, pentobarbital's Danish maker, obtaining a July 2011 agreement that the company no longer would sell to prisons in death penalty states. The production plant later was sold, but the new owner abided by the agreement.

      Reprieve also targeted a pharmaceutical company that had supplied sodium thiopental to Arizona. On its website, Reprieve posted photos of the supplier's office along with its tax returns and the name, phone number and address of its owner.

      Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said the group posted no information that was not already in the public domain.

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      March 28

      Texas Accuses Anti-Death Penalty Charity Reprieve of Fomenting Violence
      ----Extraordinary escalation in war of words as Texas prison service accuses charity group of behaving like a prison gang

      Texas, America's most prolific practitioner of the death penalty, has launched an extraordinary attack on the international anti-death penalty charity Reprieve, accusing it of intimidating and harassing drug companies and likening the group to violent prison gangs responsible for the eruption of prison riots.

      The attack comes from the Texas department of criminal justice, TDCJ, which each year carries out the lion's share of executions in America. In a letter to the attorney general of Texas, Greg Abbott, the TDCJ accuses Reprieve of "intimidation and commercial harassment" of manufacturers of medical drugs used in lethal injections.

      In astonishingly vivid language, the TDCJ says that Reprieve, which is headquartered in London, "crosses the line from social activists dedicated to their cause to authoritarian ideologues who menace and harass private citizens who decline to submit to Reprieve's opinion on the morality of capital punishment by lethal injection".

      Reprieve's tactics present the risk, the Texas prison service claims, of violence. "It is not a question of if but when Reprieve's unrestrained harassment will escalate into violence against a supplier."

      In the most colourful accusation, the TDCJ compares the human rights organisation to gangs operating in Texas prisons. It writes that Reprieve's methods "present classic, hallmark practices comparable to practices by gangs incarcerated in the TDCJ who intimidate and coerce rival gang members and which have erupted into prison riots".

      The Texas letter takes the war of words between US states still practising executions and anti-death penalty campaigners to a new level. Reprieve has long had fraught relations with states practising capital punishment in the US, but never before has it been accused of fomenting violence.

      Maya Foa, Reprieve's specialist campaigner on lethal injection, said the accusation was absurd. "Pharmaceutical manufacturers have been objecting to the use of medicines in executions since the lethal injection was invented – Reprieve didn't create these ethical scruples! And far from harassing them, Reprieve defends these companies and their ideals and we have excellent relationships with them.

      "Medicines are made to improve and save lives, not to end them in executions. This principle is at the core of the pharmaceutical profession, and companies have long objected to the misuse of their products by US departments of corrections."

      Texas makes its assault on Reprieve in a 15-page brief that it composed in response to a request for information from the Guardian relating to the quanitity of anaesthetic that the prison service had left in its supplies. The pool of anaesthetic – the 1st drug used in a cocktail of 3 chemicals that makes up the lethal injection – has been running low as a result of boycotts in Europe and other countries.

      In its brief, the TDCJ makes a case for withholding the information requested by the Guardian on security grounds. It says that to release information on drug stocks would help Reprieve identify the source of the medicines and that in turn would create "a substantial risk of physical harm to the supplier".

      As supporting evidence, the TDCJ cites the example of Lundbeck, a Danish drug company that is one of the world's leading producers of the anaesthetic pentobarbital, trademarked as Nembutal. Last summer the firm placed strict restrictions on the distribution of Nembutal to prevent it being used in executions in the US.

      Texas claims that Lundbeck imposed the restriction in response to intimidation by Reprieve. "Lundbeck acquiesced to Reprieve's unrestrained harassment and agreed to deny orders from prisons located in those states active in carrying out death penalty sentences," the brief says.

      But Lundbeck has told the Guardian that its move to impose restrictions on the end use of Nembutal had nothing to do with Reprieve. "We acted because we are a company that wants to help save people's lives and we are against the misuse of our drugs in prisons. We took our stance long before we were contacted by Reprieve."

      In a gesture that makes a mockery of the claim of intimidation, Lundbeck this week has signed a Hippocratic oath that pledges its commitment to advance the health of the public and avoid inflicting any harm. The oath was drawn up by Reprieve as part of its campaign to block the use of medical drugs in executions.

      Texas is the powerhouse of the death penalty in America. Since executions began in the modern era in 1976, the state has put to death 480 people – 4 times more than the next most plorific practitioner, Virginia, with 109.

      Last year, it executed 13 prisoners, again far more than any other state.

      The enthusiasm of Texas for judicial killings became an issue in the presidential race last September when its governor, Rick Perry, told a cheering TV audience at a Republican nomination debate that he never lost sleep over the thought that some of the 240 people who have been executed on his watch may have been innocent.

      (Source: The Guardian)

      March 26

      Death Sentence Gets Reviewed

      One of the infamous "Texas 7" fugitive gang has won an appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court and will have his death sentence reviewed.

      Donald Newbury and another Texas death row inmate won reviews from the nation's high court Monday on claims they had deficient legal help during initial appeals.

      The 49-year-old Newbury was to die Feb. 1 but won a reprieve while the Supreme Court was considering an Arizona case that raised the same issues. That inmate won his appeal earlier this month.

      Newbury and 6 other inmates killed a suburban Dallas police officer after fleeing a South Texas prison. 2 gang members already have been executed.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      March 26

      Retrials Offer Some A Path Off Death Row

      Death penalty trials, beginning with weeks of hand-picking jurors, continuing through relentless questioning and concluding with arguments about justice and mercy, are exhausting and emotional.

      Yet, with more than a dozen death row cases from 20 years ago overturned in recent years for flawed jury instructions, Harris County prosecutors have been faced with doing them over again.

      Since 2009, three of the defendants have had their lives spared after Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos allowed them to plead guilty in exchange for stacked life sentences.

      3 other men whose capital murder cases were reversed have gone through a 2nd grueling trial and are back on death row, including Carl Wayne Buntion, who was again sentenced to death earlier this month.

      The death penalty cases tied to flawed jury instructions continue to come back to Harris County as they exhaust their other appeals.

      On Tuesday, Roger Wayne McGowen's case was sent back for a retrial. The 48-year-old, on death row for 25 years, was convicted of killing a 67-year-old woman during a bar robbery in 1986.

      'We look at it Again'

      McGowen's case is typical of what the District Attorney's Office has to review before deciding whether to again seek the death penalty.

      "We look at it again, from start to finish, and decide if it is still a death penalty case," said Jim Leitner, the district attorney's first assistant. "We really have to look at who is the worst of the worst."

      The office has to balance the time and energy of redoing an old case against finite resources, which may mean a death row inmate can get a deal by pleading guilty to stacked life sentences.

      "Even though a jury once decided this is a death penalty case," Leitner said. "We look at what evidence we still have, access to witnesses, strength of the case and the willingness of the person to plead to something that will keep them out of commission forever."

      Some attorneys have been able to persuade prosecutors to walk away from the death penalty.

      "Death penalty trials take weeks and weeks longer, everything is amped up," said attorney Danalynn Recer. "It takes a huge amount of resources and exhausts everyone, including the victim's family, and then the case goes on forever."

      Recer, a staunch death penalty opponent, has worked with two death row inmates who slipped the hangman's noose. She said the defendants most likely to get off death row are the ones who accept responsibility. They also agree to waive time served and any appeals.

      "We structure the plea in a way that there's not ever going to be parole," Recer said. "And in those instances it's the smartest outcome for everybody."

      Recer was able to get Robert Tennard off death row in 2009 for fatally stabbing an acquaintance named Larry Neblett the night of Aug. 15, 1985.

      Tennard, then a 22-year-old rapist on parole, and 2 friends were drinking and smoking marijuana with Neblett at his home when Tennard stabbed the man 15 times.

      Tennard agreed to a life sentence for the death and a 2nd life sentence for another assault. He also waived his appeals.

      'Penry Cases'

      The cases that are being reconsidered, like Tennard's, were tried before 1991 with jury instructions that did not allow jurors to properly consider mitigating evidence.

      They are commonly called "Penry cases," for Johnny Paul Penry, a capital murder defendant whose case twice went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the 2nd time for flawed jury instructions.

      Retrying the sentencing phase of a trial actually means redoing the case entirely because prosecutors want jurors to have the complete story. If the verdict is life in prison instead of death, jail time is governed by the law at the time of the slaying, so the killers could be eligible for parole.

      Of the Penry cases to come back to Houston, 3 inmates have been able to get off of death row. 3 others have been retried and again condemned to die by lethal injection.

      Buntion's Retrial

      One of the most notorious defendants to be retried was 68-year-old Buntion, who gunned down Houston police officer James Irby in 1990.

      "Sometimes we see, even though they're 60 years old, if we plead him, he could conceivably be out the next day, and he's just as bad today as he was back then," Leitner said. "Like Buntion."

      Attorneys for Buntion tried in vain to broker a deal for the career criminal to plead guilty to past wrongdoing in exchange for several life sentences stacked together.

      Casey Keirnan, one of Buntion's lawyers, said it was not fair that 1 death row prisoner can get a life sentence while others, including his client, wait for their death warrant to be signed.

      "No man should have to face the death penalty twice," Keirnan said. "If there was a mistake made in the law, all of those sentences should have been commuted to life."

      He said the law never envisioned defendants spending 20 years waiting to be executed then going through another death penalty trial.

      "That's cruel and unusual," Keirnan said. ...

      March 26

      More than a dozen death row cases from 20 years ago in Harris County have been overturned in recent years for flawed jury instructions. --The Harris County District Attorney's Office has been faced with prosecuting the cases again or reaching plea deals with the convicted killers.

      Some of the Cases are Pending.

      So far 3 men have been retried on punishment in those cases and were resentenced to death:
      Carl Wayne Buntion - Fatally shot HPD motorcycle officer James Irby during a routine traffic stop in 1990.

      Brian Edward Davis - Robbed and stabbed 31-year-old Michael Foster in 1991 after meeting him in a bar.

      Raymond Deleon Martinez - Shot tavern owner Herman Chavis in the back during a 1983 robbery.

      3 men have been allowed to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences:
      Theodore Goynes - Abducted, raped and fatally shot 25-year-old Linda Tucker in the head in 1990. Her body was found in an abandoned apartment complex.

      Roy Gene Smith - Went on a crack-fueled rampage in 1988 that ended with Smith killing James Whitmire for $4.27.

      Robert Tennard - Fatally stabbed Larry Neblett 15 times as a companion killed one of Neblett's friends with a hatchet in 1985. The four men were drinking and smoking marijuana together.

      Outcomes of Death Row Cases

      More than a dozen death row cases from 20 years ago in Harris County have been overturned in recent years for flawed jury instructions. The Harris County District Attorney's Office has been faced with prosecuting the cases again or reaching plea deals with the convicted killers. Some of the cases are pending.

      So far 3 men have been retried on punishment in those cases and were resentenced to death:
      Carl Wayne Buntion: Fatally shot HPD motorcycle officer James Irby during a routine traffic stop in 1990.

      Brian Edward Davis: Robbed and stabbed 31-year-old Michael Foster in 1991 after meeting him in a bar.

      Raymond Deleon Martinez: Shot tavern owner Herman Chavis in the back during a 1983 robbery.

      3 men have been allowed to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences:
      Theodore Goynes: Abducted, raped and fatally shot 25-year-old Linda Tucker in the head in 1990. Her body was found in an abandoned< apartment complex.

      Roy Gene Smith: Went on a crack-fueled rampage in 1988 that ended with Smith killing James Whitmire for $4.27.

      Robert Tennard: Fatally stabbed Larry Neblett 15 times as a companion killed one of Neblett's friends with a hatchet in 1985. The four men were drinking and smoking marijuana together.

      (Source: Houston Chronicle)

      March 21

      Court Ruling Could Affect Texas Death Row Cases

      Death row inmate Jesse Joe Hernandez, set to be executed next week for the 2001 death of a 10-month-old boy in Dallas, is hoping that a ruling Tuesday from the U.S. Supreme Court could give him another chance to prove that the tragedy was not entirely his fault.

      The nation’s highest court ruled that the failure of initial state habeas lawyers to argue that their client’s trial counsel was ineffective should not prevent the defendant from making that argument later on. Lawyers across the country, including those for at least 2 Texas death row inmates, were eagerly awaiting the court’s ruling in the Martinez v. Ryan case out of Arizona, which could expand appeals access for inmates.

      “A procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing those claims if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in the proceeding was ineffective,” the court majority held.

      Habeas lawyers investigate issues that could or should have been raised during a defendant’s original trial.

      Brad Levenson, director of the Texas Office of Capital Writs, filed a petition with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Tuesday afternoon on behalf of Hernandez, arguing that his March 28 execution should be stayed, in part, because of the court’s ruling.

      Although the ruling applies to federal courts, Levenson said, Texas’ highest criminal court should take its cue from the nation’s highest court and hear Hernandez’s claims.

      Hernandez was convicted in 2002 for the death of a child who lived in the home where he lived at the time. Hernandez admitted he hit the child, who was rushed to the hospital, where he was put into a medically induced coma and then died after he was removed from life support.

      In a writ filed Tuesday with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Hernandez argues that his actions did not directly cause the child’s death. Instead, an expert who recently reviewed the medical records concluded that the hospital gave the child a lethal dose of the drug pentobarbital and that he was pulled from life support too soon.

      “There’s no way to tell at end of day whether he would have survived,” Levenson said. “Our expert said there’s a very real probability the child could have lived.”

      Levenson said Hernandez’s trial lawyers and his initial appeals lawyers were ineffective because they failed to do further investigation and hire their own experts to find out why the child died. Levenson, who took the case only three weeks ago, hired a doctor who reviewed the medical records and determined that the little boy had not been diagnosed as brain-dead before he was removed from life support and that he was given toxic doses of pentobarbital.

      “It’s not to say that Mr. Hernandez is not guilty of a crime, but he’s not guilty of capital murder,” Levenson said.

      Current law, though, could prohibit Hernandez from arguing that because his original trial lawyers were ineffective by not further investigating the cause of death that he should get a new trial. Those kinds of claims must be raised from the beginning of the appeals process to be valid later on. And Hernandez’s previous habeas lawyers did not argue that he was inadequately represented.

      Levenson said that even though Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling applies to claims made in federal court — not state writs like the one he filed — the same principle ought to apply.

      “We’re saying the state courts should also take a look at these claims for the same reason the Supreme Court would take a look at them,” he said.

      The ruling could also be a boon for death row inmate Rob Will, who was convicted in 2002 of fatally shooting a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Will says that the man he was with that night was the real shooter and that he is innocent.

      In January, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison denied Will’s pleas for a new trial but wrote that he lamented doing so because of “disturbing uncertainties” raised about his guilt.

      Will is hoping the court’s ruling in Martinez will allow him to argue that he should get a new trial because both his trial lawyer and his state-appointed habeas lawyer were ineffective when they failed to track down several witnesses who have testified that the other man confessed to the killing.

      (Source: Texas Tribune)

      March 6

      Texas Execution: How Much is a Death Worth?

      The cost of lethal injection drugs used in the US to kill criminals on death row has risen dramatically over the past year. The increase comes as their manufacturers move to prevent them being used in executions.

      The state of Texas is scheduled to spend $1,286.86 (£811) to kill Keith Thurmond on Wednesday night.

      Thurmond, a 52-year-old former air-conditioning technician, was convicted in 2002 of killing his estranged wife and her lover in an argument over child custody.

      A little after 18:00 local time (midnight GMT), Texas prison officials will strap Thurmond to a gurney and pump a cocktail of 3 drugs into his arm.

      The cost of the death drugs has risen 15-fold since 2010, when the mixture cost the state $86 (£55).

      A toxic cocktail - drugs used in lethal injection

      Pentobarbital or thiopental sodium: Strong sedatives render the condemned person unconscious, administered in a dose intended to be lethal on its own

      Pancuronium bromide: Paralyses the muscles, causing breathing to cease and preventing involuntary movement during the death

      Potassium chloride: Stops the heart

      [source: BBC research]

      That is because the drug formerly used to sedate the patient, thiopental sodium, is no longer available, having been pulled off the market in 2010.

      As a result, Texas and several other states switched to another sedative, pentobarbital. The drug is significantly more expensive - and it may soon become impossible for capital punishment prisons to purchase.

      "Even though it is a small amount in the big scheme of things, it represents one more spiralling expense that makes the death penalty less reliable and more costly," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington DC.

      Rivas was sentenced to die for killing a man after a prison escape "From a cost-benefit analysis, the scales tip away from keeping capital punishment."

      Volumes of research have suggested the death penalty is significantly more expensive to taxpayers than the punishment of life in prison, due largely to the lengthy legal processes involved.

      Fundamentally, it stems from the use of what opponents say is a barbaric, antiquated mode of punishment within a sophisticated legal system ostensibly aimed at ensuring the rights of the accused, preventing punishment of the innocent, and executing human beings without causing them too much physical pain and suffering.

      Aside from Texas, most US states seldom carry out executions. But even those that do must spend billions of dollars to defend the death sentence against prisoners' appeals and to house the condemned securely and what they see as humanely.

      California, for instance, has spent about $4bn (£2.54bn) since 1978 to fund its capital punishment system, but has executed only 13 prisoners, Federal Judge Arthur Alarcon and Loyola Law School Professor Paula Mitchell found in a law review article.

      In that same period, at least 78 death row inmates died of natural causes, suicide or other causes while awaiting execution, they wrote.

      In Washington state, one prosecutor told a committee of the state bar association that capital cases are at least four times as costly to prosecute as a non-capital murder trial.

      "The rarefied nature of a death penalty case results in more motions being brought and more advocacy being presented, which further adds to the time and costs of a capital case," the commission reported in 2006.

      Medical supplies to end a life - North Carolina's costs, 2009:
      Syringes: $5.52
      Saline solution: $2.13
      IV kit: $37.26
      Thiopental sodium: $81.12
      Pancuronium bromide: $34.25
      Potassium chloride: $7.75
      Total: $168.03

      [source: Independent Weekly of Durham, North Carolina; North Carolina Department of Correction]

      The on-the-day costs of the execution vary from state to state, but are relatively small compared to the costs the states incur on the way to the death chamber.

      The state of Washington spent $97,814 (£62,004) to execute Cal Brown in 2010.

      Most of that was staff pay, but the state also had to hire fencing and lighting for the demonstration outside the prison, a tent for news media, food for the special security teams, and counselling for staff, says Maria Peterson, a spokeswoman for the Washington department of corrections.

      Also, the thiopental sodium used to sedate the convicted murderer cost $861.60 (£546), she says.

      Ronnie Lee Gardner's 2010 execution by firing squad cost Utah $165,000 (£105,000). Most of that was staff pay, but $25,000 (£15,800) went on materials used in the execution, including the chair to which he was strapped and the jumpsuit he wore, a corrections spokesman told the Salt Lake Tribune.

      Washington state paid for counselling for staff after Cal Brown's execution The execution of rapist and murderer Robert Coe in 2000 cost Tennessee $11,668 (£7,395), according to a report by the state comptroller. That included medical supplies and personnel and the death drugs.

      The cost of the death drugs in Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma and other states has risen as manufacturers pull the drugs off the market, not wanting to supply pharmaceutical products used to end lives.

      Texas and other states switched the sedative used to render the condemned person unconscious from thiopental sodium to pentobarbital last year after the only US maker of the drug, Hospira, said it was pulling the drug off the market in order to avoid a row with authorities in Italy, where the drug was manufactured.

      In December, the European Commission ordered EU firms wanting to export drugs that can be used in lethal injections to ensure the product is not going to be used for executions.

      Indian producer Kayem Pharmaceuticals has also said it will no longer sell thiopental sodium drug to US prisons.

      It is unclear how long pentobarbital, the current replacement drug, will be available.

      The only company approved by US drug regulators to market the sedative in the US, Danish pharmaceutical giant Lundbeck, has just sold the drug to Illinois company Akorn, which has pledged to restrict distribution of it to prevent it being sent to prisons in capital punishment states.

      Executions in 2010:
      96 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes
      23 countries carried out executions
      China: 1,000s (lethal injection)
      Iran: 252+ (hanging)
      North Korea: 60+ (hanging)
      Yemen: 53+ (shooting)
      US: 46 (lethal injection, electrocution)
      Saudi Arabia: 27+ (beheading)
      Libya: 18+
      Syria: 17+ (hanging)
      Bangladesh: 9+ (hanging)
      Somalia: 8+ (shooting)

      [source: Amnesty International, BBC research]

      Now, purchasers must sign a form affirming they will use the drug, normally used to treat epilepsy and other conditions, on their own patients and not resell it without authorisation.

      The difficulty obtaining the death drugs illustrates the problems inherent in lethal injection as an execution method, says Kent Scheiddeger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty.

      "It amounts to medicalising a procedure that shouldn't have anything to do with medicine," he says.

      "It's supposed to be punishment - it shouldn't be this quasi-medical procedure. It just strikes me as wrong and now we have all these additional complications. Manufacturers, particularly in Europe, try to meddle in things that are none of their business and try to cut off the supply."

      Mr Scheidegger does not foresee a halt to executions forced by a lack of drugs, as the executioners can merely change the ingredients in the cocktail, he says.

      "Any barbiturate will do it," he says.

      (Source: BBC News)

      Feb. 29

      Death Penalty Unjust

      The state of Texas has scheduled the execution of George Rivas for Wednesday.

      Gov. Rick Perry has presided over about half of all Texas executions in the modern era since executions were resumed in 1982.

      It is appalling to us is that our governor identifies himself as a fervent follower of Jesus.

      The Religious Outreach Committee of the Dallas Chapter of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty seeks to follow Jesus and the inspiration of other religions in our opposition to these killings.

      The death penalty falls unfairly on the poor, the uneducated, ethnic and religious minorities, and persons with mental and emotional illnesses.

      Jesus was executed at the hands of legalized authority.

      Jesus' courage inspires us to seek a better world in which we honor the sacredness of human life and the human capacity for redemption.

      David Noblin Sr., Dallas Chapter of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Garland

      (Source: Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)

      Feb. 27

      Add cost of drugs to death penalty debate

      Add to the list of topics for public discussion the high cost of dying.

      The American-Statesman's Mike Ward reported last week that the cost of chemicals used to execute condemned inmates has jumped from $83.35 to $1,286.86 each.

      The high cost of the drugs used to make the lethal injection is one concern Texas prison officials face. A related one is the shrinking availability of pentobarbital. That chemical, combined with pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, is an ingredient in the fatal cocktail used in executions in Texas and other states.

      The manufacturer of pentobarbital announced that it will try to block the use of drugs in executions. The maker of thiopental — which had been one of the 3 ingredients used in making the lethal cocktail — stopped producing it in the aftermath of international protests over its use in U.S. executions.

      While capital punishment might be unpopular elsewhere, Texans strongly support it. A recent poll conducted by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune showed a solid 77 percent support for the death penalty in Texas. That number, combined with the rising cost and availability of the chemicals used in executions, poses a dilemma for cost-conscious lawmakers.

      Prison officials are using those developments to try to keep information about the availability and drugs under wraps — a move that can't be adequately justified. Withholding information impedes a fully informed discussion on this topic.

      Though the cost of the drugs is steep on a percentage basis, the overall impact on the state budget is minimal. Nonetheless, the shrinking availability of pentobarbital will steer a discussion about alternatives that are cheaper or in greater supply or both.

      While public support for the death penalty is strong, Texans are also demanding less government spending. Death penalty opponents have always had a tough way to go in Texas and while the rising cost of executing inmates may give them another argument, the poll numbers show they still have a steep hill to climb.

      Mitigating the rising cost is the fact that more Texas jurors are opting for life-without-parole sentences as an alternative to the death penalty. Since the law was passed — over the strenuous objections of state prosecutors — Texas executions have been steadily decreasing. A prison system report issued in December showed that 13 Texas inmates were executed in 2011; 17 were executed in 2010. In 2000, 40 Texas inmates were executed.

      The decrease is attributed to a variety of reasons, including the overall cost of prosecuting capital punishment cases.

      No one should expect that the cost of the drugs alone will motivate Texas legislators to even consider making the death penalty of thing of the past.

      William "Rusty" Hubbarth, vice president of Justice for All, a staunch pro death penalty group told Ward: "There are ongoing attacks to try to frustrate the process, and since opponents could not overturn the death penalty in court, they are bringing pressure on the drug manufacturers — and this pressure goes beyond America. As for the rising cost, what price would you put on justice?"

      The tone and tenor of Hubbarth's reply confirms that this ongoing discussion is going to be as robust as ever and that's as it should be. An informed discussion, however, demands that relevant information about the cost of drugs and the supply be public.

      Prison officials are avoiding questions about most aspects carrying out executions, citing the fear of driving up costs and impeding their drug supply.

      Prison authorities want Attorney General Greg Abbott to allow them to keep most information about the execution drugs — where they come from and how much they cost — secret.

      An informed discussion is vital and not knowing about the drugs and their costs works against that. Texans have a right to know how their money is being spent.

      Abbott should open up those books, not close them.

      (Source: Editorial, Austin American-Statesman)

      Feb. 15

      Prisons Running Low On Execution Drugs Again, But Prison Agency Withholds Details

      A new report surfaced on Tuesday [read article below; Texas executions threatened as stocks of death penalty drug run low] that Texas again might be running out of a key drug used to execute its condemned criminals, but state prison officials said that they have enough to carry out the next 6 scheduled executions.

      What happens after that might be anyone's guess, thanks to a new no-disclosure policy imposed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on details about the execution drugs.

      2 years ago, the prison system revealed its drug supplier and the amount of drugs on hand after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion saying it was public information. The prison system had sought to keep the information secret, arguing that releasing details about the drug supply might trigger violent protests outside the execution chamber or embolden death penalty opponents.

      Prison system spokesman Jason Clark said Tuesday that the agency is seeking another opinion from the attorney general on the execution drug information "because the law has changed and due to changing circumstances."

      Specifically, Clark said, a state Supreme Court ruling last July could have changed the situation. The case, filed by the Austin American-Statesman and other newspapers, sought travel vouchers for the governor's security detail under the Texas Public Information Act.

      In that case, the Supreme Court ruled, for the 1st time, that safety concerns might trump laws mandating public disclosure of information that reveals how a government spends taxpayer money.

      Texas operates the busiest death chamber in the United States, executing more than twice as many prisoners last year as any other state — 13 in all. Its execution practices have made it a target of death penalty opponents for years.

      The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported Tuesday that Texas has only enough pentobarbital on hand to complete 6 executions "and may be incapable of carrying out further death sentences after June."

      The newspaper quoted Maya Foa, a London-based investigator for Reprieve, an international group that opposes the death penalty.

      Based on state inventory records from a year ago, she estimated that Texas probably has 27 vials of pentobarbital, more commonly known by the brand name Nembutal, left on hand — and the sole U.S. supplier of the powerful sedative has blocked its availability for use in future executions.

      Privately, some prison officials suggested Tuesday that Texas has enough pentobarbital for more than 6 executions. But even so, other public documents hint that Texas and other states face a new difficulty in obtaining pentobarbital in the future.

      In January 2011, the Danish pharmaceutical company H. Lundbeck A/S announced that it would prohibit sales of Nembutal for use in executions. That restriction was continued when the firm sold the trademark drug and 2 others to Akorn Inc., an Illinois pharmaceutical firm, in December 2011, according to a statement about the transaction.

      Echoing previous sentiments from other death penalty opponents and open government advocates, Foa said transparency in the process is a key.

      "Given the recent controversies over execution drugs — illegal imports, botched executions, faulty drugs, etc. — you'd think that a department of corrections would be doing all it could to show that it was acting legitimately and lawfully," she said in an e-mail from London.

      Texas faced the same problem 13 months ago, when the sole U.S. manufacturer of the sedative sodium thiopental permanently halted production after authorities in Italy, where it was made, demanded a guarantee that it would not be used in executions — a promise the company said it could not give.

      At the time, Texas and 33 other states used sodium thiopental in executions. In Texas, the drug was one of three used to sedate and paralyze a convict and then stop the heart.

      Texas subsequently switched to pentobarbital. A barbiturate, it is commonly used to euthanize animals — and other states, including Oklahoma and Georgia, now use it in executions as a replacement for sodium thiopental.

      (Source: Austin American-Statesman)

      Feb. 14

      Texas Executions Threatened As Stocks Of Death Penalty Drug Run Low----Most Prolific Judicial Killing State In America Has Only Enough Sedative For 6 More Executions – And Could Run Out By June

      Texas, the powerhouse of the death penalty in America which last year executed more than twice the number of prisoners than any other state, is running out of supplies of lethal drugs and may be incapable of carrying out further death sentences beyond June.

      The state prides itself on its robust approach to the death penalty, and last year administered the ultimate punishment to 13 death row inmates. The nearest competitor on the league table of judicial killings was Alabama, with 6.

      Yet Texas has only sufficient quantities in its stores of pentobarbital – the middle drug of the triple lethal injection – to serve in 6 more executions. That number of executions are scheduled to take place on the state's books over the next 4 months.

      The dwindling supplies in the nation's most prolific death penalty state underline the crisis that is sweeping the 34 states that still have the death sentence on their books. Last summer, Lundbeck, the Danish company that makes pentobarbital under the trademark Nembutal, placed strict restrictions on its distribution to prevent it falling into the hands of US executioners.

      Georgia, the state that caused outrage in September when it put to death Troy Davis despite considerable doubts about his guilt, is also running low on stocks of the drug it used to kill him. It has only enough pentobarbital to kill four more prisoners – the same number of executions as it carried out in 2011.

      The severity of America's lethal injection drought has been uncovered by the human rights group Reprieve. Using freedom of information appeals, its investigator Maya Foa has calculated the remaining stocks in Texas and Georgia of pentobarbital, a barbiturate used to put prisoners to sleep before they are administered a separate drug to stop their heart.

      Her calculations show that Texas has 27 vials of Nembutal left in its stocks, with each vial containing 2.5g of the sedative. The state needs 2 vials to inject into each condemned prisoner, and a further 2 as a back-up in case of problems with the first, as outlined in its official execution procedures.

      That is sufficient for 6.75 executions.

      The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to confirm how much pentobarbital it had in its stores, saying it was seeking to keep the quantity secret "for security reasons".

      Similarly, Georgia has 17 vials of pentobarbital left, Reprieve has calculated – just over four executions' worth.

      "These shows that the restrictions on sale of medical drugs to US corrections departments are starting to bite. States that practice the death penalty are now reaching a desperate situation," Foa said.

      "It's getting harder and harder for them to get hold of these drugs and eventually they will be forced to recognise that medicines should not be used to execute people."

      Difficulties over lethal injections has already put a halt to executions in several other states. California has a moratorium in place until at least 2013 as a result of legal wrangling over the procedure, while Ohio has also been forced to put its executions on hold because it was found by the courts to be straying from its own protocols in administering the drugs.

      The question hanging over death rows across the country is what happens when states like Texas run dry of pentobarbital. Will they move on to a new alternative sedative in the hope of bypassing restrictions on sales of the medicines, or will they try to procure Nembutal through circuitous routes?

      Legitimate channels through which the drug can be obtained are fast closing. A ban has been imposed since last December across the European Union on selling the constituent parts of the lethal injection to US prisons.

      The next execution in Texas is scheduled for 28 February, when Anthony Bartee is set to die for murdering a 37-year-old man in 1996. Rick Perry, who has presided over 238 executions since becoming governor of the state, wore that record as a badge of pride during his presidential run for the Republican nomination, telling a cheering debate audience that he had never struggled to sleep at night by the idea that anyone might have been innocent.

      (Source: The Guardian)

      Feb. 14

      Berlinale Behind Bars----Werner Herzog Looks for the Human Side of Death Row

      Their crimes are monstrous. But renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog seeks to show that death row inmates in the US are not monsters. His new series of documentaries, showing at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, provides a different look at those up for execution.

      James Barnes sits in his orange colored prison jumpsuit and talks about how he's always been in trouble. As a youngster, he killed his family's cats, set fires and committed other crimes. Now, Barnes is sitting on Florida's death row awaiting execution for killing at least three women, including his wife, whom he strangled and stuffed in a closet.

      Barnes is 1 of 5 inmates featured in "Death Row," a film series directed by legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The series is being shown at the Berlin International Film Festival this week.

      Barnes accepts full responsibility for his crimes and is repentant. In his conversation with the German film director, the inmate does not appear to be a monster at all. And that's just what Herzog wanted to show.

      The purpose of the series is to humanize the murderers, not to excuse their crimes, Herzog, 69, said in a statement released Monday. "The crimes of the persons in the films are monstrous, but the perpetrators are not monsters."

      'I Respectfully Disagree'

      Herzog, a Munich native, is firmly against the death penalty, in line with the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow Germans. "A State should not be allowed -- under any circumstance -- to execute anyone for any reason," Herzog said in the statement.

      He referred to the millions of innocent people killed by the Nazi government of his native country during World War II. But the killing of innocents is a secondary issue, he said. Government-sponsored executions are just wrong.

      Still, says Herzog, his intent with his four-part series about death row, which portrays five people awaiting executions in Texas and Florida, is not to tell Americans what they should do about capital punishment.

      "As a guest in the United States, and being German, I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment," he says. "I would be the last one to tell the American people how to conduct their criminal justice."

      Herzog doesn't excuse the crimes. He tells the story of Linda Carty, probably the most revolting of the series. Carty is one of 10 women on death row in Texas. She was convicted of masterminding a bogus home invasion on a Mexican-American couple with the goal of stealing the family's newborn child. The mother was found dead with duct tape over her nose and mouth and a plastic bag tightly sealed over her head. Though Carty denies any involvement in the gruesome and bizarre crime, there is overwhelming evidence supporting her guilt.

      Reviewing the Death Penalty

      Herzog, in a statement, denied there is any "activist's anger from my side" and said he doesn't commiserate with the inmates or in any way befriend them. "There is no false sentimentality," he said. But "there is a strong sense that these individuals are human beings."

      It is perhaps no coincidence that most of Herzog's portraits are of inmates in Texas.

      The state has been responsible for by far the most executions in the United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a non-profit based in Washington, Texas has executed 478 inmates since 1976. The number 2 spot goes to Virginia, with 109, followed by Oklahoma with 97 and Florida with 71.

      Herzog's film comes at a time in which many state governments in the US are reviewing their death penalty statutes. Last year Illinois got rid of the death penalty. In 2009, New Mexico voted to abolish the death penalty. It was repealed in New York and New Jersey in 2007. In Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber halted all executions last year, though the death penalty is still technically legal.

      The next state likely to abolish the death penalty is Connecticut, DPIC's executive director Richard Dieter said.

      Dieter said popular films may have more of an effect, but documentaries are becoming increasingly important and are attracting more moviegoers in the US. "Anything that will increase the discussion will add to the possibilities of getting rid of it," he said of the death penalty.

      Still an overwhelming majority -- 34 of the 50 US States -- still has the death penalty on the books. That disturbs not only Herzog, but many of his compatriots.

      The Human Side of Death Row

      Last year German Economics Minister and Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler rejected US requests to provide a German-manufactured drug used in lethal injections to US states facing shortages, despite requests from then-US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to help ease the shortage.

      "I noted the request and declined," Rösler said at the time.

      In September, Germany along with countries all over Europe, reacted with protests to the execution of African American Troy Davis, who was put to death in Georgia. Davis was convicted of killing a white police officer in 1989. He maintained his innocence until the end and his supporters said there were serious doubts about his guilt. Davis, 42, was executed by lethal injection.

      Hank Skinner, another subject in the Herzog series, was luckier. The Texas inmate was sentenced to death 18 years ago for the fatal stabbing of his girlfriend and her two mentally impaired sons. His execution has been scheduled three times -- the second time he got his reprieve only 23 minutes before his scheduled execution.

      Skinner, a vivid story teller, gives a harrowing account of his remaining minutes before he thought he was going to die. It's just one of the film series' many moments that shows viewers the human side of death row.

      (Source: Spiegel Online)

      Feb. 3rd

      Death row inmate wins new punishment hearing

      The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thrown out the death sentence of a convicted killer because jurors couldn't adequately consider evidence of his difficult childhood when they were deciding his punishment.

      Rodney Rachal has been on death row since March 1993 for the robbery and fatal shooting of Charles Washington at a Houston apartment complex in 1990.

      Rachal's trial in October 1992 came during a time before guidelines covering punishment phases of capital murder trials were refined by rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.

      The appeals court in 2009 asked his trial court to review the case. The Austin court's decision Wednesday backed the findings of the trial court that the 41-year-old Rachal deserves a new punishment hearing.

      There was evidence that Rachel was a troubled and impoverished youth.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      Feb. 3

      Insiders speak out on the death penalty

      Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was legal in 1976, the state of Texas has executed 478 people.

      For many Americans, the death penalty is seen as a part of a complex judicial system that ultimately protects the majority from a dangerous minority.

      Except in cases of extreme controversy like that of Troy Davis in September, the death penalty is an issue that often goes ignored by the American public.

      "If you think this is not your issue, I would urge you to get out of your naiveté," Rick Halperin, director of the SMU Embrey Human Rights program, said to a packed McCord Auditorium.

      In the upcoming presidential election, candidates on both sides of the aisle are for the death penalty.

      "You should really be aware of the implications of your voting. You are voting for people who have said they would kill someone," Halperin said.

      A panel discussion on the death penalty in Texas on Thursday night portrayed an often-untold perspective of capital punishment.

      Exonerees Anthony Graves and Clarence Brandley along with the Rev. Carroll Pickett, a former death row chaplain, presented their arguments against a punishment often described as inhumane.

      "Most of you weren't even born when I went through this hell 23 years ago," Brandley said.

      Brandley was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a 16-year-old student. He spent 9 years on death row.

      His 1st trial ended in a hung jury. But just a few weeks later, he was sentenced to death.

      Brandley was desperate for media and legal attention when an overzealous prosecution convicted him.

      "I passed my polygraph test and no one cared," Brandley said. "But if I had failed, all the news media would have been all over it."

      He urged the crowd to carefully examine the merits of the justice system in America before deciding on the capital punishment issue.

      "Don't let anyone tell you that your vote doesn't count," Brandley said. "I don't understand how someone can sign a death warrant and go to bed that night.

      I don't know what kind of God he serves."

      Brandley's impassionate speech for political activism was followed by the Rev. Pickett's discussion on the evolution of his views on the death penalty.

      "I was in favor of the death penalty because my grandfather was murdered when my father was just 12," Pickett said. "I assumed that no one was just found to be guilty without cause."

      Pickett was known as the death chaplain at the Huntsville prison because he was the last religious figure that saw death row inmates before their executions.

      The former chaplain now regrets his former stance on the death penalty issue.

      "I buried 4,000 inmates who died in prison and watched over 95 executions," Pickett said. "The longer I was at the prison and talked to people, I realized that the death penalty was wrong."

      Pickett listed multiple reasons for why the death penalty was not a practical punishment.

      He listed the high public costs of the death penalty, cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners and the ineffectiveness of the death penalty as a crime deterrent as reasons to look at other punishment alternatives.

      However, Pickett saved his best reasons for last.

      "We have executed innocent people because of faulty eyewitness testimony," Pickett said. "And even worse, before someone dies, they strip search him and leave him naked in a 9-by-9 room waiting to die."

      A silent crowd, shocked by the horrors of capital punishment, listened to Anthony Graves' story on how he spent 18 years in jail.

      Graves was wrongfully convicted of killing four children, one teenager and an adult woman.

      "I didn't even know the family. I didn't live in that area," Graves said.

      A single personal statement caused the Texas Rangers to pursue Graves for the crime.

      "It was never about seeking the truth [in my case]. Someone just had to pay for the horrendous crime," Graves said.

      Graves criticized the lack of accountability and checks in the judicial system.

      "Prosecutors have total immunity. Politicians have no accountability," Graves said. "This whole notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty' should be thrown out the window."

      According to Graves, there is a very real racial problem in the American judicial system.

      "The post-racial era is a myth. Ask my mother if race doesn't matter when you go to prison and you'll know the truth," Graves said.

      In front of an audience that did not take its eyes off the emotional Graves, he called for individual action from everyone in the crowd.

      "No one here cared when I was locked up, and it's because all of this is being done in your name," Graves said. "You should never buy into the story that the death penalty makes society better and safer. All the power rests in your hands.

      It's time to hold people accountable."

      (Source: SMU Daily Campus)

      Feb 3rd

      Exoneree: Guantanamo Bay Is "Peanuts Compared to What's Going On In" Texas

      As "the death chaplain" at Huntsville prison, Reverend Carroll Pickett has counseled 95 prisoners, one at a time, on the day the state has scheduled to end their life. Death by lethal injection, the chaplain found, is not a quiet exit.

      It's torturous. It's not fool-proof. And there's no guarantee that everyone put to death is guilty.

      "That cruel and unusual punishment starts the minute they walk in the death house ... It's not painless. It is not painless," Pickett said last night at SMU, where was joined for a panel discussion by death row exonerees Anthony Graves and Clarence Brandley. (Brandley also spoke at an SMU death row exoneree panel last year).

      "There are botched executions. I've been there. I saw it," Pickett said.

      He supported capital punishment when he started his job in 1982, but death after tortuous death wore away at him. "This one young man, they tried and they tried and they tried, and they couldn't find a place to put a needle in that would flow properly," he said.

      The man had abused drugs enough to know how to effectively tap into his veins.

      He was permitted to sit up and demonstrate the most effective way to put him to death. His instructions worked, the lethal liquids flowed, and his life drained.

      After 45 minutes of being stuck with needles, "he just wanted the pain over," Pickett said.

      Graves was sentenced to lay on the same gurney for a 1992 murder. The original suspect, who has since been put to death for the brutal small-town Texas homicide, told police that Graves was also involved. After awaiting trial for two and a half years, Graves went to trial in front of a jury of 11 white people and 1 black man. The black foreman of the jury tearfully handed the judge the verdict: guilty. Like his accuser, Graves was sentenced to death.

      He later learned that prosecutors had withheld the man's admission that he lied, and that the prosecution said they would charge the man's wife if he did not implicate Graves. "We have a failed and broken system today," Graves said, stressing a lack in accountability.

      "It changed my whole world. It changed the world of my family," Graves said. "I was the next dead man walking for a crime I did not commit."

      "All that stuff that's going on in Guantanamo Bay, that's peanuts compared to what's going on in your backyard," Graves said. "I was a good father, but the state of Texas took that from me in your name."

      In 2010, after 18 years in prison, police came to Graves's cell and walked him down the hall to meet his attorney. The charges against him had been dropped, she told him. That day, he walked out of prison unshackled and in civilian clothes. He called his mother from the parking lot.

      "Mom, what are you cooking?" he asked, as he always had from prison. This time, instead of imagining the food, he told her, "Your son is coming home."

      Across the United States, 3,200 people are currently on death row; Texas has put the most people to death "out of any jurisdiction anywhere in the free world," said Dr. Rick Halperin, SMU human rights program director.

      "The death penalty is not an act; the death penalty is a process ... of psychological torture that either can conclude in an execution or can conclude in a release," Halperin said. He added that the death certificates filled out when prisoners pass away have several options under "Cause of Death," and that a specific box is checked when a prisoner is purposefully put to death: homicide.

      (Source: Dallas Observer)

      Feb. 2

      SHSU Criminal Justice professor speaks out against death penalty----
      Criminal justice prof. shows his anti-execution stance with solitary candle

      When someone hears that a criminal justice professor is at an execution, they may think he's doing research. Not holding a candle in support of human life, like Dennis Longmire, Ph.D.

      Texas has performed over 400 executions since 1976 According to the Death Penalty Information Center website. The 478th execution happened on Jan. 27 at the Walls Unit, and Longmire was there like he has been since he moved to Huntsville in 1984.

      Longmire, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, focuses his research primarily in capital punishment.

      He stood on the corner of Avenue I and 12th Street outside the prison with other pro death penalty supporters where the executions take place.

      "I don't come to the corner for any particular case," Longmire said. "The issue isn't innocence, [but] when we execute someone, we are taking human life."

      At about 5 p.m., the "vigilers" take post and wait for key signs that signal parts of the execution. Rodrigo Hernandez, an inmate convicted of rape and murder of a 38 year old woman, was was executed for his role in the crime.

      Hernandez was required to provide a DNA sample as part of his parole when he was released in 2002. He was serving time for "beating a man nearly to death", according to txexecutions.org. Hernandez's sample matched DNA found on a woman who was assaulted and strangled back in 1994.

      Longmire held a "mother of Mary" candle, while Kelly Epstein, another pro-death penalty "vigiler" were only two of several pro-death penalty persons at the corner.

      They share it with a few members of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, including very vocal members such as Gloria Rubac and Pat Hartwell. Rubac and Hartwell set up poster boards with the words "Honk to Stop Executions" and "Gov. Perry Texas Owes $800,000 to Clarence Brandley."

      The supporters share a common belief that the death penalty is morally wrong, but take different extremes to get their message across.

      "If somebody's being murdered, you should yell and scream," Rubac said.

      "How many more millions does it cost to keep a prisoner on death row than it does for the amount of time you keep them in prison? It's less," Harwell said.

      Longmire believes that he is witnessing what he calls "the sin and injustice that's taking place."

      The group knows the moments leading up to execution by watching media, as well as family members, enter and exit the building.

      Standing on the corner passers-by can see straight into the top floor of the jail, where prisoners stand watching the pro-death penalty supporters. The prisoners can hear Rubac and others as they shout over the loudspeaker their beliefs.

      "I believe that no matter what the people have done, they're people," Longmire said. "They are humans, they're part of our spirit and soul. It's incumbent upon us to try to help the transition for them and ultimately it's our transition as well."

      (Source: Houstonian Online)

      Jan. 30


      3 men whose paths were scheduled to cross in Texas’ execution chamber in Huntsville will be at SMU Feb. 2 for “The Death Penalty in Texas 2012,” a panel discussion that will highlight the state of the death penalty in Texas and how the lives of 2 condemned men and a prison chaplain took drastic turns.

      The free event, open to the public, will be:
      Feb. 2nd
      7–9 p.m.
      at McCord Auditorium
      306 Dallas Hall, on the SMU campus.

      2 of the panelists, Anthony Graves and Clarence Brandley, were exonerated after serving 18 and 9 years, respectively, for heinous murders. They will join former death row chaplain the Rev. Carroll Pickett — who once had counseled both Graves and Brandley about being at peace with death as they waited for execution. Carroll went from supporting the death penalty to being ardently against it.

      “Watching people put to death who I later learned may have been innocent, and seeing more than 80 people who were almost killed but at the last minute were found innocent, made me begin to wonder if many of the others we executed while I was there were innocent as well,” Pickett says. “I knew I could no longer stand there and watch them die, listen to their last breaths, when there were too many doubts. And the sad thing is,” he adds, “even though Anthony and Clarence are alive, they’ll never be compensated for what happened to them.” Pickett retired in 1995 after working for the Texas prison system for 16 years and overseeing 95 executions.

      “All 3 of these people are part of this terrible system called ‘the conveyer belt of death,’ says Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, which is sponsoring the event. “Clarence Brandley and Anthony Graves are alive today to talk about their experiences not because of the system but in spite of it.”

      For more details about the event call 214-768-8347.

      (Source: SMU News)

      Jan. 26

      Rick Perry Death Watch----Perry becomes killingest governor tonight

      Texas is slated to carry out its 478th execution since reinstatement of the death penalty. For Gov. Rick Perry, the scheduled execution of Rodrigo Hernandez this evening will mark a milestone: the 239th execution he's presided over, meaning Perry will have overseen half of all Texas executions, securing his spot as the killingest governor in the U.S.

      Hernandez was convicted and sentenced to death for the abduction, rape, and murder of 38-year-old Susan Verstegen, a Frito-Lay saleswoman who disappeared in February 1994 while working a late-night shift. Her body was later found stuffed into a 55-gallon trash can behind a San Antonio church. Her murder went unsolved for 8 years until DNA found at the scene was matched to Hernandez, who reportedly supplied the DNA sample to jailers in Michigan, where he was incarcerated on an unrelated charge, as a condition of his release.

      (Source: Austin Chronicle)

      Jan. 26

      ‘Texas 7' Fugitive Gets Execution Reprieve

      One of the infamous “Texas 7? fugitive gang has won a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court 1 week before his scheduled execution.

      Donald Newbury was to die Feb. 1 for his part in the fatal shooting of a Dallas-area police officer. Justice Antonin Scalia granted the reprieve Wednesday.

      Attorneys argued that he should be spared while justices consider an Arizona case that questions whether death row inmates are entitled to better legal help during initial appeals. The court already has heard arguments on that case.

      Newbury and 6 other inmates fled a South Texas prison 11 years ago in the state’s biggest prison break. He would have been the 2nd of the gang executed for the Christmas Eve 2000 killing of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins during a robbery.

      (Source: Associated Press)

      Jan. 20

      Death Penalty Foes March On MLK Day

      “Clarence Brandley!” boomed over the loud-speaker system, and the crowds lining the downtown sidewalks answered, “Pay him now!” The Texas Death Penalty Abolition movement honored Clarence Brandley in the 34th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade Jan. 16 in downtown Houston, sponsored by The Black Heritage Society.

      Brandley, who is known and loved by African Americans as well as activists of all nationalities around Texas, was exonerated off Texas death row exactly 22 years ago. But he is still fighting for compensation from the state of Texas for the 10 long years that were stolen from him.

      Abolitionists and progressive activists, along with their children, formed a spirited contingent in one of the largest MLK parades in the country. They not only demanded an end to the racist and anti-poor death penalty, but also demanded compensation for Brandley. Brandley and his brother, the Rev. Ozell Brandley, rode in the back of a pickup truck covered with signs about Clarence’s struggle with Texas. As children tossed candy to the crowds, activists distributed thousands of leaflets about Clarence Brandley and the death penalty, as well as leaflets about political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. In 1995, after five years of struggling to find and keep a job, Brandley went to Philadelphia to support Abu-Jamal when he had an execution date. Brandley says he was glad to contribute to another innocent man getting a stay of execution, just as others had done for him.

      Today Brandley works with Witness To Innocence, an organization made up solely of people who have been exonerated off death row. (In the U.S., 130 people have been exonerated.) Brandley is fighting to abolish the death penalty in Texas. He says he will never forget his time on death row and will continue to fight for those he left behind.

      (Source: Workers World)

      Jan., 20

      When it comes to executions over the last 30 years in Texas, Harris County with 116 has the most.

      Surprisingly, at number 9 on that list is Potter County with 10 executions.

      What's also a surprise is, Randall County near the bottom of the list with 3.

      Both James Farren and Randall Sims have the same assumption as to why they think numbers have fallen here over the last seven years, and both feel the same when it comes to pursuing the death penalty in court.

      James Farren says when comparing the crime rates in Potter and Randall counties the numbers should be close to the same, but types of crime is where things differentiate.

      "Potter County certainly has more violent crime than Randall County, we have more property crime. Potter County has more drive by shootings, more drugs, more drug cases, more assaults, and more homicides."

      He says prosecutors must be very circumspect when it comes to seeking the death penalty.

      "The death penalty is appropriate in an appropriate case, but with life without parole now available and with changing attitudes people have towards the death penalty, we have to be really careful."

      And Potter county DA Randall Sims agrees.

      "The legislature changed it from the 2nd possibility of being life without parole, and that's also effected the decision making on some of the prosecutors part on whether to try and seek the death penalty or not."

      Farren says for the state to be serious about taking the life of a citizen, the crime must be *very* serious and the evidence has to be overwhelming.

      The last time someone was sentenced to die out of Potter County was in 2005, and in Randall County, it was just last summer.

      (Source: connectamarillo.com)

      Jan. 17

      3 Decades of Capital Punishment in Texas

      35 years ago today, the state of Utah executed Gary Gilmore by firing squad and restarted the death penalty in the United States. Texas followed suit, reinstating capital punishment in 1982 and quickly becoming home to the nation's busiest execution chamber.

      A 1972 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that the states' use of the death penalty was arbitrary and capricious led to a de facto moratorium on the penalty across the nation. States began changing their death penalty laws, and the pause on executions ended with a subsequent high court decision in 1976.

      The 1st post-moratorium execution in Texas was in 1982. Charles Brooks Jr. was executed for the 1976 shooting death of a mechanic. Since 1982, Texas has executed 477 men and women, more than any other state. And there are more than 300 men and women in Texas awaiting execution now.

      Executions in Texas — and nationwide — eventually peaked and then evened out in the 1990s. In 1994, there were 328 death sentences issued nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Starting in 1999, though, use of the death penalty began to drop off dramatically, and by 2009 there were 109 death sentences.

      Last year, Texas executed 13 prisoners, the lowest number in more than a decade. And juries assigned 8 new death sentences in 2010 as well as in 2011, compared with 48 in 1999, according to the Texas Defender Service.

      Below, we've compiled some fascinating data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice about the last 3 decades of the death penalty in Texas.

      In the 1st graph, we have charted both the frequency of executions and the racial makeup of the executed. The graph is broken into 5-year segments starting in 1980 and going through 2011. An interesting trend that becomes visible in this graph is the growing number of Hispanic inmates who are executed. Although the number of executions of black inmates has declined, the number for Hispanic criminals has risen. In 2010 and 2011, more Hispanic criminals were executed than black criminals. The 1st person set to be executed in 2012 is a Hispanic inmate, Rodrigo Hernandez, from Bexar County.

      Despite that trend, the number of black inmates on death row continues to exceed any other, as the graph below illustrates.

      There are 10 inmates who have been on Texas' death row for 30 years or longer.

      Of those men, six are black, including the longest-serving death row inmate, Raymond Riles, who was convicted in 1976 of robbing and murdering a used-car salesman. In 1985, Riles tried to commit suicide by setting fire to his death row cell, according to TDCJ records.

      Like many death row inmates, Riles is from Harris County. That county has sent more Texans to death row and to the execution chamber than any other county in the state. Of the 477 people executed since 1982, 24 percent — 116 inmates — were sentenced in Harris County. More than one-third of the 307 men and women on death row are from that county, a total of 104.

      Polls indicate that Americans, and Texans in particular, continue to support the death penalty.

      But Rick Halperin, director of Southern Methodist University's Embrey Human Rights Program, said in a news release that the drop in executions and death sentences shows that juries are less willing to impose capital punishment. High-profile exonerations and more public awareness of DNA science, he said, have made the public more willing to question the use of capital punishment.

      “We’re in the beginning stages of ending the death penalty in this country,” Halperin said.

      Number of Executions/Offenders on Death Row by County of Incident

      County of Incident ----# Executed--------# on Death Row

      Harris County--------116------------------104
      Dallas County----------4-------------------36
      Tarrant County-------36--------------------19
      Bexar County---------35--------------------21
      Nueces County--------14---------------------6
      Jefferson County-----13---------------------2
      Montgomery County----13---------------------3
      Brazos County--------11---------------------5
      Potter County--------10---------------------2
      Lubbock County-------10---------------------4
      Smith County----------9---------------------8
      Travis County---------8---------------------7
      Denton County---------6---------------------0
      Cameron County--------6---------------------5
      Galveston County------6---------------------1
      Collin County---------6---------------------8
      McLennan County-------6---------------------3
      Fort Bend County------5---------------------2
      Taylor County---------5---------------------0
      Bowie County----------5---------------------6
      Navarro County--------5---------------------1
      Brazoria County-------4---------------------0
      Anderson County-------4---------------------1
      Gregg County----------4---------------------1
      Liberty County--------3---------------------1
      Tom Green County------3---------------------0
      (Source: Texas Tribune)

      Jan. 16

      Death penalty doesn't work

      As president of Lake Highlands Libertarians and Youth for Ron Paul, I talk a lot of politics with my peers. One subject just kills me: the death penalty.

      Many of my Republican peers claim to be pro-life and pro-death penalty. I understand that unborn fetuses are innocent and victims of the death penalty aren't, but it still doesn't make sense.

      When a child lies, do you lie to the child as punishment and hope it will deter others from lying? When a child hits one of his/her peers, do you hit the child as punishment and hope it will deter others from hitting? I hope not.

      When an adult kills someone, do you kill the adult as punishment and hope it will deter others from killing? Unfortunately, in Texas, we do. Capital punishment is morally wrong, expensive, and ineffective as a deterrent. The death penalty must be killed.

      Now, to those who tolerate such an inhumane, cruel and expensive penalty, it may come as a shock to discover that capital punishment does not decrease crime. The New York Times examined FBI data and found that the states with the death penalty had average murder rates that were higher than the murder rates of states without the death penalty.

      No matter what the intentions behind the death penalty are, it clearly does not work.

      Mac McCann, senior at Lake Highlands High School, Dallas

      (Source: Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)

      Jan. 16

      Charity Lee, SA death penalty opponent, to make her stand on Supreme Court’s stoop

      At the death penalty intersection, popular caricatures include both victim’s families pressing up to the glass for a better view of the lethal injection process and those rogue Catholics who’ve worked their way beyond abortion in their pro-life positioning holding signs and chanting outside.

      San Antonio’s Charity Lee has certainly earned a right to permanent front-row seats inside the killing chamber. Her own father was murdered when she was only 6. Then, as a young parent herself, her daughter was raped and murdered in 2007 by her son. Perhaps because of the nature of the intra-family assault, she has instead joined the anti-death penalty camp.

      “Inevitably, at some point if you have a child, they’re going to hit someone. Then you see these parents that are spanking their children and they’re screaming at them ‘You’re not supposed to hit people!’” Lee told the Current from Washington, D.C. “We say all the time, ‘You’re not supposed to kill, but if you kill somebody we’re going to kill you.’ There’s no logic to it.”

      Since her daughter Ella’s death, Lee established the ELLA Foundation, quickly entered the speaking circuit both in the States and abroad. The mission of ELLA is to “prevent violence and to advocate for human rights through education, criminal justice reform, and victim advocacy.”

      Today, Lee is preparing to protest on the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to reinstate the death penalty in the United States in an act of civil disobedience she expects to be arrested for on the Supreme’s front steps tomorrow.

      We interviewed her by phone earlier today.

      From your vantage point, what are the roots of violence that we can address as a culture?

      I really believe violence is a generational thing, and so in order to stop it we have to have more effective policy and law. But we also really need to focus on getting kids really early in the education system, and supporting families more, and not giving single moms that are working three jobs to make ends meet a hard time because their children might be running on the street. I don’t believe all these kids and adults that end up committing crime are bad seeds, you know?

      They’ve lived a lifetime not being educated, they might not have job skills, especially in San Antonio, you have 13 and 14 year old girls popping out babies right and left. I really think if we’re going to address the issue of violence, the first thing we need to do is address the issue of education, employability, sex ed, these basic fundamental issues that should start really, really early.

      We’re too judgmental, we’re too punitive, we’re too harsh. … I definitely agree a person should suffer for their crime, especially if it’s a crime like what happened to Ella. But our efforts at eliminating these problems too date have not worked. We need to start looking at these problems through a different lens.

      Not lock them up and throw away the key, but what can we do to help each other.

      Does fighting the death penalty mean forgiving the killers?

      No. I have many differernt colleages in the field of death-penalty abolition that don’t support the death penalty for many different reasons. Some think it can’t be applied fairly and it’s applied so arbitrarily. There are seriel killers out there who in exchange for their plea, in exchange for information about where the bodies are, a prosecutor will allow them to plea for life, but then a guy, like a friend of mine’s son in Delaware: her son grew up physically and sexually abused his whole life, he obviously abused his girlfriend, and then he ended up shooting her between the eyes. Well, he was given the death penalty.

      Well he only killed one person, and there were a lot of mitigating circumstances. It was not fairly applied.

      I know a lot of people who are opposed to [the death penalty] that still think these people are worthless pieces of trash. That’s not the mentality that I have, but that they have. Some people think it costs too much. Others, I know a lot of people who would support the death penalty if it could be applied fairly and they knew for a fact that nobody innocent could be executed. And then you have people like me who are just morally opposed to it on the grounds that killing is wrong.

      Have you forgiven your son?

      Yes. Yes, I have. I mean … yeah … it’s kind of hard. Our case is different because my son is incapable of remorse to date. … I mean my son is a predator, so it was never a question of forgiveness. Because that would be like forgiving a shark for biting me. He is wired to do what he does. I had to let go of a lot of rage and anger as time went on, but I never really saw it as a function of forgiveness. I have friends who tell me all the time that that’s what forgiveness is: let go of your anger, let go of your range, you don’t want revenge. But I never really saw it that way with my child. But I guess I have. I still only want what is best for him.

      What role does civil disobedience play on death-penalty protest?

      In contemporary America we have forgotten the fact that we were revolutionaries at one point and the First Amendment gives us the right to speak up for what we believe in. … We need to show people in America it’s still OK to take a stand for what you believe in — and that if you truly passionately believe in something enough, you need to put yourself out there.

      (Source: San Antonio Current)

      Jan. 12

      Death Lives On

      When John Holbrook put together a photo essay of Texas death row inmates for Fort Worth Weekly in 2008, he probably little suspected that its effects would still be rippling outward more than three years later. His eerie pictures have been exhibited in Geneva, Rome, and Oslo, and even in a lighthouse inside the Arctic Circle. Holbrook, a private investigator who has worked for attorneys defending death-penalty cases, has become an advocate for abolishing the death penalty — not because he thinks all the people sentenced to death are nice people or innocent of their crimes, but because he came to believe that, “The only way we can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused the suffering.”

      More recently, Holbrook has worked with reporter Renaud Dumesnil of the French Arte TV channel, which Holbrook said is something like PBS in this country. Dumesnil has put together a 28-minute documentary on the death penalty, centered on a Texas death-row inmate. Hank Skinner was convicted by a Tarrant County jury of a 1993 triple murder in Pampa, in which his girlfriend Twila Busby was bludgeoned and her two adult sons were stabbed to death (the case had been moved here on a change of venue). Skinner has come close to being executed several times; currently his execution has been stayed while lawyers seek court rulings on whether new DNA evidence should be tested and allowed to be submitted as evidence in a new trial.

      In October, Dumesnil, who is based in New York, came to Fort Worth and, with Holbrook, interviewed two of the jurors in Skinner’s original trial. Both jurors, Holbrook said, told them that they would not have convicted Skinner had they known of the possibility of new evidence and witness recants.

      Holbrook will have a part in the documentary, which is expected to air in the next few months. More important to him, his Texas death-row photographs, including some of those that first appeared in the Weekly, will be shown.

      In keeping with the often-bizarre nature of his work regarding the death penalty, Holbrook said he and Dumesnil interviewed one of the two former jurors on Halloween with the lightheartedly ghoulish trappings of that holiday all around them.

      “It was a very strange dynamic,” he said.

      (Source: Fort Worth Weekly)

      Jan. 05

      Herzog takes us into abyss of death row

      Werner Herzog does something great reporters know how to do: He listens. He pays attention during conversation. He instinctively asks the natural follow-up question, and that's what often elicits the greatest honesty and the most unexpected emotion.

      In taking on a divisive topic like the death penalty -- especially in a place like Texas, where the punishment is more prevalent than in other states -- Herzog never seems to be judging the people on the other side of his camera in his latest documentary, "Into the Abyss." He simply lets them tells their stories.

      It's hard not to be moved by the horrifically needless crime he's exploring. In 2001, 3 people were shot to death over a red Chevrolet Camaro near Conroe, Texas: 50-year-old Sandra Stotler, her teenage son and a friend of the boy.

      The convicted killers, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, knew Stotler's son and only meant to break into their house to steal the car, but the crime went horribly wrong. Perry was sentenced to death for Stotler's murder, and Herzog spoke to him in prison just 8 days before his July 1, 2010, execution. Perry found religion behind bars, as is so often the case. He smiles a lot. He's beyond calm; he's almost upbeat.

      Burkett, meanwhile, is serving a life sentence. There's a chilling stillness in his eyes. He speaks matter-of-factly.

      Regardless of your own stance on the death penalty, it's impossible not to be shaken by the senseless loss depicted in "Into the Abyss," the overwhelming sadness, but also the possibility of spiritual redemption. Herzog lets all these complicated dynamics speak for themselves, and then lets us decide.

      "Into the Abyss" -- an IFC Films release. PG-13 for mature thematic material and some disturbing images. Time: 106 minutes.

      Watch the Trailer HERE

      (Source News-Leader)

      Jan. 03, 2012

      No change in ‘capital of capital punishment'----Texas will continue as the nation's leading state for executions.

      With 6 executions scheduled for the 1st 3 months of 2012 — and more than twice as many executions as any other state last year — Texas continues to lead the nation in using capital punishment.

      That's despite dropping to a 15-year low in 2011, with 13 executions, even as questions are raised nationwide about the wrongful conviction of inmates and as petitions call on the United States to abolish capital punishment. Last year, 43 prisoners were executed nationwide.

      “Clearly, Texas is known as the capital of capital punishment,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington, D.C.

      “Ultimately, this stems from strong public support for the death penalty in Texas,” he said. “In almost every other state, the death penalty is used more selectively, more cautiously and with greater protections for defendants.”

      Alabama, which had the 2nd-most executions, put 6 to death in 2011.

      Other states with more than 1 execution were Ohio with 5, Georgia and Arizona each with 4, and Oklahoma, Florida and Mississippi each with 2, center statistics show.

      The national numbers are down from 2010, when there were 46 executions nationwide (17 in Texas) and from 2009, when there were 52 (24 in Texas), according to the center.

      “Executions have dropped by about 50 percent since the late 1990s,” Dieter said. “With a growing concern about whether some of those convicted are actually innocent, jurors, prosecutors, judges and legislators (are) more cautious about the use of the death penalty.”

      That gives hope to opponents of capital punishment that Texas and other states at some point will end executions. “I think that we are in the very beginning phases in Texas of the end of the death penalty,” said Rick Halperin, the coordinator of Amnesty International's campaign against state death penalties. “It won't happen in this state anytime soon, but we are reaching a point where, sooner or later, it is going to end.”

      Texas has executed more people than any other state: 477 since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. The states closest to Texas in total number of executions are Virginia, with 109, and Oklahoma, with 96, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

      Recently, at least one drug used in lethal injections — sodium thiopental, a sedative — has been harder to obtain because the European Union began restricting its sale to countries that haven't abolished capital punishment.

      While officials say the supply shortage has delayed some U.S. executions, many states such as Texas had already switched to a different sedative, pentobarbital. But recent reports show that the only U.S.-licensed manufacturer of it is selling the product to a different manufacturer, which could affect the availability of the drug.

      More than 30 states still allow the death penalty, although only 27 have put someone to death in the past decade. Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey and New Mexico are among the states that stopped executions in recent years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

      At its peak in recent years, Texas executed 40 inmates in 2000. Since then, the numbers have fluctuated.

      Some attribute the wane to state prosecutors offering — and juries choosing — life-without-parole sentences, which became an option for those convicted of capital murder after Sept. 1, 2005.

      Since then, nearly 400 people have been sentenced to life without parole, state records show.

      In recent years, the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham prompted a renewed debate about the merits of capital punishment in Texas.

      Willingham was executed Feb. 17, 2004, for setting a 1991 house fire that killed his 3 young daughters. Through the years, he maintained his innocence, and he reasserted that in his final statement just before he was executed.

      Gov. Rick Perry, who described Willingham as a “monster,” and other officials said evidence supported the jury's decision. The state fire marshal has said the investigation was thorough and accurate; 2 arson experts who re-examined the investigation said it relied on outdated concepts and did not support a finding of arson.

      The Texas Forensic Science Commission reviewed the case, concluding in 2011 that discredited scientific methods were used in the investigation, but an attorney general ruling stated that the commission had no jurisdiction.

      (Source: San Anotnio Express-News)


        Editorial: Death penalty on the wane

        Published: 29 December 2011

        Use of the death penalty is losing favor with more and more Americans, and for good reasons, those undeniably being (a) shaken confidence in the system and (b) the alternative of life-without-parole sentencing.

        Lethal punishment is also being sought less often by Texas prosecutors and handed out less often by Texas juries, probably for the same reasons.

        The year-end snapshot of Death Row, USA, offers more upsides, from the perspective of this newspaper’s opposition to the death penalty.

        The number of executions continued to slide nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. And one more state, Illinois, joined the list of 16 non-death-penalty states and became the fourth to repeal the punishment since 2004.

        The number of executions continued to wane in Texas, but this state held on to its position of ignominious prominence: Texas executed, by far, the most people of the 13 states that used the death penalty this year. Thirteen prisoners were put to death in Texas, 30 percent of the 43 who died in the nation’s death chambers in 2011.

        Texas’ distinction as the No. 1 death-penalty state remains in unseemly juxtaposition to the embarrassing developments throughout our criminal justice system.

        For a second straight year, a Texas murder case unraveled in spectacular fashion, this one freeing Michael Morton of Williamson County, who spent almost 25 years in prison of a life sentence for his wife’s bludgeoning murder. The case against Morton ignored evidence that pointed elsewhere and, it appears from DNA tests, allowed the real killer to roam and kill again. Morton’s exoneration produced serious charges of prosecutorial misconduct this month.

        The year before — when Texas executed 17 of the 46 nationwide — the Anthony Graves murder case unraveled, freeing a man who was sent to death row in another instance of alleged prosecutorial mischief.

        Add to that the continuing parade of DNA exonerations across the state, and it’s evident why people have become squeamish about the death penalty. Supporters attest to the certainty of the court system, with its many steps of review, but it so often has taken volunteer lawyers and university workshops to pry free the truth.

        Are there cases where innocent people have slipped through that sieve and gone to their deaths in Texas? None have been proven, but there’s no justification for taking the chance. The justice system will never be foolproof, and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified.

        That sentiment seems to be taking hold nationally, with a Gallup Poll showing the lowest level of support in almost 40 years, with 61 percent in favor. That compares with 80 percent in 1994. A CNN poll found more support for life without parole than death for murderers.

        Qualms about how the death penalty is applied caused the governor of Oregon to call a moratorium and the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court to convene a study commission.

        In Texas, there are ample arguments for both of the above.

        A welcome decline

        New death sentences and executions in Texas:
        2003: 28, 24
        2004: 24, 23
        2005: 14, 19
        2006: 11, 24
        2007: 14, 26
        2008: 12, 18
        2009: 9, 24
        2010: 8, 17
        2011: 8, 13

        NOTE: In 2011, Dallas County sentenced no one to death for the first time in five years. The execution record since resumption in 1982 was 40, in 2000.
        SOURCES: Texas Departments of Criminal Justice, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

        Editorial: Death penalty on the wane

        December 28, 2011

        2 condemned Texas killers lose appeals


        HOUSTON — A federal appeals court has refused appeals from two Texas death row inmates, including one condemned for killing a corrections officer 12 years ago while already serving a life sentence for murder.

        The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments Tuesday from Robert Pruett, 32, and Bobby Lee Hines, 39.

        In December 1999, Pruett was at the McConnell Unit prison near Beeville in South Texas, serving 99 years for a slaying in Harris County, when prosecutors said he used a shank to fatally stab a corrections officer, Daniel Nagle.

        Hines was condemned to death for the 1991 rape-slaying of Michele Wendy Haupt, 26, at her Dallas-area apartment. He was 19 at the time and on probation from a 10-year burglary sentence after spending three months in a boot camp.

        Neither prisoner has an execution date. Their attorneys did not respond to calls seeking comment Wednesday morning. The 5th Circuit rulings can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

        Pruett had argued that prosecutors presented a summary to jurors at his trial for the corrections officer's slaying that was improper and erroneous. The summary described how Pruett tried to recruit friends and solicit his brother and father to murder a neighbor in Harris County in 1995, and said he tried to escape arrest, bragged about the killing, attempted to kill witnesses while in jail and showed no remorse.

        He contended the summary was used improperly to show he would be a continuing threat — one of the determinations jurors must make in deciding a death sentence.

        The appeals court agreed with lower courts and prosecutors that the summary, was prepared three years before the officer's murder, had been intended for prison classification purposes and didn't violate his constitutional rights.

        At Pruett's trial in Corpus Christi in 2002, evidence showed Nagle earlier had told Pruett he couldn't take his sack lunch to a recreation yard. Pruett testified he was upset that he had missed a hot lunch and said Nagle was writing a disciplinary report against him, but he denied killing the 37-year-old corrections officer.

        A fellow prisoner testified that he saw the officer killed and a second inmate said Pruett told him earlier that day he intended to kill Nagle.

        Hines came within two days of execution in 2003 before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped the punishment so he could pursue claims he was mentally impaired and ineligible for the death penalty under Supreme Court guidelines. His appeal before the 5th Circuit was intended to challenge the findings of lower courts that since then have ruled he's not mentally impaired.

        The appeals panel said there's no indication to show the findings were unreasonable and cited a state court opinion that found "broad and consistent evidence that Hines lied frequently and well when his self-interest demanded it."

        The victim in his case, Haupt, was found dead on the floor of her apartment in Carrollton, just north of Dallas. She'd been stabbed about 18 times with an ice pick and strangled with a cord from a stereo. DNA evidence tied Hines to the scene, he was found with items taken from the apartment and had bragged that he had keys to all apartments in the complex because he was staying with complex's maintenance man.

        2 condemned Texas killers lose appeals

        Dec. 13, 2011

        Rick Perry: death penalty delivers “ultimate justice”

        Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a staunch supporter of the death penalty. “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed,” he said at a recent Republican presidential debate. Rick Perry makes no bones about the fact he strongly supports the death penalty.

        Since he took office as the Governor of Texas, he’s presided over 236 executions, more than any other governor in U.S. history.

        And while Perry views have drawn harsh criticism from those who oppose the death penalty, statistics would suggest his tough stance has helped decrease the number of executions.

        From a high of 33 carried out in 2002, executions declined to 17 in 2010. As 2011 draws to a close, the yearly total decreased to 13 executions.

        A recent report released by the Council of State Governments also showed the state’s crime rate had dropped one percent despite a two percent population increase. In addition, during Perry’s time as Governor the report indicated prison costs had declined.

        For many, the results speak for themselves and his hard line on crime has won Perry enormous praise. However, his position on the death penalty remains a different matter for many Texans.

        “He has done more good than any other governor we’ve ever had. He approaches criminal justice issues like a lay person rather than like a prosecutor or judge, which makes him open-minded and willing to embarrass the system. Unless, of course, it involves the death penalty,” Jeff L. Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas said. “On the death penalty, Rick Perry has a profound mental block.”

        The 2004 execution of Kelsey Patterson is a case that illustrates the complicated question of Perry’s concept of “ultimate justice”. Patterson was sent to death row for the 1992 double murder of a well-liked businessman and his secretary in broad daylight for no apparent reason. After the senseless killing, Patterson ran to a nearby yard and threw off his clothes. Horrified witnesses watched as he stood naked waving his arms and howling freakishly until police arrived.

        Patterson had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and previously deemed incompetent to stand trial for shooting coworkers on 2 separate occasions.

        Despite his serious and obvious mental illness, Perry denied requests to commute his death sentence to life in prison.

        "Death penalty decisions are never easy, and this one is particularly difficult - not only because of the brutal murder of 2 innocent victims of this crime, but also because of Mr. Patterson’s mental and criminal history - including 2 prior charges of attempted murder,” Perry said in a released statement. At that time, a sentence of life without the possibility of parole wasn’t possible in Texas.

        "This defendant is a very violent individual. Texas has no life without parole sentencing option, and no one can guarantee this defendant would never be freed to commit other crimes were his sentence commuted,” Perry stated. “In the interests of justice and public safety, I am denying the defendants request for clemency and a stay."

        The question of the death penalty continues to haunt Texas’ longest-serving Governor. But, has Perry ever lost sleep over presiding over more executions than any governor in U.S. history? When asked the question at a recent Republican presidential debate, Perry remained confident about his stance.

        “I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place,” Perry said. “When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that’s required.”

        Saying the death penalty should be put into effect on a state-by-state basis, Perry again voiced his support for what he has referred to as the “ultimate justice.”

        “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.”

        (Source for both: yourhoustonnews.com)

        Nov. 29

        Nearly 400 capital murder convicts get life without parole

        In 6 years, Texas has built a "lifer's row" filled with 398 prisoners who will never be released through parole - a fast-growing group that already has outpaced the number of inmates serving a death sentence in the Lone Star State, a Houston Chronicle analysis of prison records shows.

        Harris County prosecutors, who historically have led the state in seeking death sentences, have so far also been the most aggressive in pursuing capital murder charges and obtaining mandatory life without parole sentences in capital cases.

        Texas became the last of the death penalty states to approve life without parole in September 2005, after Harris County prosecutors dropped their opposition to the change. The law applies only to offenders convicted of capital murder.

        For the first time, it gave jurors and prosecutors a non-death sentence that guaranteed someone convicted of killing a child, killing multiple victims, slaying a police officer or committing another capital crime could not be released on parole.

        In all, 110 Harris County offenders have been sentenced to life without parole since the law took effect, compared with 11 death sentences.

        "Harris County is a tough law and order county on the really bad actors. That hasn't changed," said First Assistant District Attorney James Leitner.

        The change has led to fewer death sentences in Texas and nationwide.

        51 people were sentenced to life without parole in Dallas County. Tarrant County had 26; Bexar County had 22.

        Texas offenders convicted of capital murder were 6 times more often sentenced to life without parole than to death: 66 people got death sentences compared with the 398 lifers. The life without parole law has been used in about one third of all Texas counties at least once, the Chronicle's analysis of state prison records shows.

        Recent sentences

        Nationally, it's viewed as a less expensive option that offers the benefit of being reversible - unlike a death sentence - if innocence evidence or other information becomes available after the fact, said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

        "Texas is certainly down, and life without parole is definitely playing a role there," Dieter said. "And other states have found that as well."

        One of the most recent no-parole sentences went to former Houston Fifth Ward Pastor Tracy Bernard "T.B." Burleson, 44, convicted earlier this year of persuading his 21-year-old son to shoot his 56-year-old wife, Pauletta, May 18, 2010.

        "He could have been injected, but they gave him life, and I'm satisfied with that … I know I can't bring my sister back. But he's going to have ample time where he's going to think about what he did," said Fannie J. Aaron, the victim's sister. "And that's a lifetime. He won't be able to get out and take someone else's life."

        In August, Omar Javier Torres, arrested in North Carolina after 2 years on the lam, received a life without parole sentence for breaking into his ex-girlfriend's apartment and shooting her boyfriend.

        The no-parole option has been most controversial when used against juveniles; the U.S. Supreme Court last year issued a ruling in Graham v. Florida that banned the sentences for youths convicted of non-homicide offenses. Other appeals are pending.

        Juvenile offenders

        From September 2005 to September 2009, Texas allowed life without parole prison sentences for juvenile offenders who had been certified to stand trial as adults. The law was subsequently changed to bar such punishment. By then, 21 people sentenced for crimes they committed before age 18 had been sentenced, including 8 from Harris County.

        Chris Joshua Meadoux, the only juvenile offender serving life without parole from San Antonio, was convicted of killing 2 friends when he was 16.

        Meadoux appealed his no-parole sentence to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing that "juveniles are unfinished creatures whom we cannot label as irretrievably depraved." He lost the appeal in November 2010.

        17 women are serving life without parole. 2 were juvenile offenders. One is Ashley Ervin, a former Harris County area honor student sentenced for her role at 17 as the driver for a murderous robbery ring led by older males.

        Minority groups

        Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit critical of the national explosion in such sentences, argued the offenders are more likely to come from impoverished minority groups who sometimes get unfairly targeted by police.

        "We see that around the country that the race differences in life sentences are generally more extreme," he said.

        So far in Texas, 76% of the state's "lifers" are minorities, compared with 70% of death row inmates.

        (Source: Houston Chronicle)

        Nov. 25


        The 1st British woman to face the death penalty in 50 years has spoken from a Texan jail cell to insist she is innocent and her life is a living “hell”.

        Grandmother Linda Carty, 53, has been on death row for 10 years after being found guilty in a circumstantial case of kidnapping and murdering a mother to steal her newborn baby.

        Human rights groups and a raft of celebrity supporters have blasted her defence lawyer, claiming his handling of the case was shambolic.

        There was no forensic evidence linking her with the abduction and the men who carried out the crime, who claimed they were acting on her orders, only confessed to doing so after making a deal to serve lesser sentences themselves if they blamed Carty.

        The poor track record of her defence lawyer Jerry Guerinot – 20 people he has represented have ended up on death row – has led him to be dubbed “undertaker for the state of Texas”.

        Yet all Carty’s appeals have failed, meaning that at any moment a judge could sign her death warrant leaving her 90 days before a lethal injection.

        Her plight will feature in a TV documentary this month by filmmaker Steve Humphries. He travelled to Mountain View prison in Gatesville, Texas, to hear Carty’s story. From behind the jail’s razor wire, she said: “I know nothing about this murder, nothing about an abduction, I don’t even know the victim.

        This is the pettiest place I’ve been in. The people hate you for being different. It’s hell, hell.”

        Carty was convicted for the kidnap and murder of Mexican-born Joana Rodriguez in Houston in 2001. The 25-year-old was found bound, gagged and suffocated in the boot of a car while her 4-day old son was found uninjured in another. Both vehicles were either used by or belonged to Carty.

        The kidnappers said she was desperate to steal the baby to raise as her own. Police also found a pushchair, baby clothes, a baby bed and a baby bath in one car. They said scissors found in her bag would have been used to cut the baby from Rodriguez’s womb had she not already given birth.

        Carty denies it all and insists she lent the cars to 2 men, Oscar and Chris, who used them without her knowledge in a botched robbery on the Rodriguez home on May 16.

        At her trial, she said Guerinot did not even speak to her. Nor did he contact the British government, which he was supposed to under international law, because she was entitled to consular support having been born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts when it was under British rule in 1958.

        She said: “How would you feel if your trial attorney never spoke to you, never addressed you by your correct name and lied and said he had to bribe me with chocolate to get a conversation going with me when I’m allergic to chocolate?” Paul Lynch, British consul general in Houston, Texas, admitted: “It is a terrible failure of the system and all I can say is that the authorities have changed the system so that it won’t happen again. But that’s too late for Linda Carty.”

        Carty’s last hope lies with Michael Goldberg, of global law firm Baker Botts, who has taken up her case for free. He said: “If you throw out the criminals’ testimony, what does the state have? The state has nothing.” Also in her corner are celebrities including Bianca Jagger.

        Guerinot did little to even uncover circumstances that could be used in mitigation. Had he used the funds he was given to fly to St Kitts he would have discovered that Carty was raised in a well-off religious family and worked as a teacher, but was forced to leave when she gave birth to a daughter as an unmarried mother in 1982.

        In America she attended college while caring for her daughter, Jovelle. When she fell pregnant again after being raped, her life started to unravel. She put the baby up for adoption, but then fell into a series of troubled relationships. One was with a drugs kingpin, which led to her working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

        In her last relationship, she suffered 2 miscarriages, which supporters say may explain the baby paraphernalia in her car. Jovelle, now a mother of 2 boys, said: “My fears are that they’ll win and my mom won’t come home.”

        Carty no longer fears death but says: “If I have to die, I pray that my family, especially my mother and daughter, will not look and not feel ashamed. It isn’t because I am guilty, it’s because the state of Texas has failed and failed me badly.”

        The last woman in Britain to be executed was murderess Ruth Ellis in 1955.

        (Source: Daily Mail)

        Nov. 22

        Death Row Author Draws Ire of Some
        Is it free speech or a legal loophole?

        An inmate on Texas death row has written a book of poetry and essays. The book, published a month ago, is called "Witness To Murder."

        Its author, Tony Medina, is awaiting execution for his role in a southwest Houston drive-by shooting that killed two children, almost 16 years ago.

        Texas has laws that are intended to prevent criminals from cashing in. But it's not clear Medina's book violates those laws.

        "It doesn't look like there's any policies and certainly no statutes to prevent Medina or any other death row inmate (from) publish(ing) a book," says Houston Victim Advocate Andy Kahan.

        The Texas prison system can only step in if Medina's book is considered a "business." That is, if it's making money for him.

        "We have flagged this offender's account," says Jason Clark with the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice. "And we're going to be looking at his trust fund account to see if there were unusual deposits being made."

        When asked by FOX 26 News about account activity so far, Clark replied, "It does not appear that there are any unusual deposits."

        The book's Britain-based publisher, Peter Bellamy, says “Witness To Murder” sold nine copies in its first two weeks of availability.

        "No profits are directly funded to Tony, but come to me in the UK," says Bellamy. "As a supporter, I may choose to increase my donations to his defense fund if I choose, but on the basis of 9 sales, and little prospect of the book ever reaching best seller status, the question is entirely academic."

        Not to Andy Kahan, it isn't.

        "Whether it's one copy, hundreds or thousands of copies, it's irrelevant," says Kahan. "Basically you're looking at constituting what i would consider to be blood money."

        Bellamy insists his author is innocent. Tony Medina claims he was framed by fellow gang members and then sandbagged by incompetent attorneys.

        So far, the courts have not seen things that way.

        (Source: myfoxhouston.com)

        Nov. 4

        Death Row Inmate Dies
        Natural Causes Catches Death Row Inmate Before Execution

        Texas prison officials have announced the death of a death row inmate who had been getting treatment at a psychiatric unit since 2010.

        John Selvage died late Wednesday after he was found unresponsive earlier in the day in his cell at the Jester IV Unit near Richmond, about 30 miles southwest of Houston.

        Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said Thursday that an autopsy will be performed to determine what caused the 61-year-old’s death.

        Selvage was sentenced to death for killing Harris County sheriff’s Deputy Albert Garza during a July 1979 Houston jewelry store robbery. He had faced lethal injection at least 5 times, but won stays each time.

        Selvage’s attorneys argued that he was mentally retarded and his death sentence was unconstitutional.

        (Source: Associated Press)

        Oct. 23

        Hundreds gather to stop the death penalty

        The State Capitol hosted another event in downtown Austin with a more serious tone this weekend.

        Led by 25 death row survivors, hundreds gathered Saturday afternoon for the annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.

        Beginning with a street march, they ended up at the Capitol listening to speeches on why the death penalty should be stopped.

        Texas, along with 34 other states, currently allow capital punishment. Those marching want it stopped because the killing of one Innocent person is too much.

        "There's 139 former death row inmates that have been exonerated in the United States," said Kirk Bloodsworth, who was exonerated from death row. "That means actual innocence, and the truth is, if it can happen to me, an honorable discharged marine with no criminal record or history, it can happen to anybody."

        Texas leads all states in the U.S. in capital punishment since a Supreme Court ruling allowed it in 1976.

        Those in favor of it say that capital punishment deters crime, cuts down on prison costs and it's equal retribution against someone convicted in a crime.

        (Source: KVUE News)

        Oct. 23

        Exonerated death row inmates urge Perry to end executions in Texas

        In an emotional series of speeches on the steps of the state Capitol, about 2 dozen freed death row inmates from across the nation on Saturday called on Texas and Gov. Rick Perry to end the state's death penalty.

        "If I had been in the state of Texas, I'd be dead right now," said Derrick Jamison, who spent nearly two decades on Ohio's death row before his murder conviction was overturned because prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence.

        "I have to come here and speak out about the death penalty, because not another person should die at the hands of the government," Jamison said afterward. "You can't bring them back from the grave if you make a mistake."

        The exonerated inmates then joined a few hundred supporters and death penalty abolitionists for Austin's 12th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. As part of their march through downtown, protesters stopped at the Governor's Mansion, where they called on Perry to return home from the presidential campaign trail and "do what's right."

        Lily Hughes, with the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said Perry's presidential bid was an opportunity for death penalty opponents. "The national spotlight is once again on Texas," she said. "If we succeed here, the national abolition of the death penalty can't follow far behind."

        Texas leads the nation in the number of executed inmates with 475 since the state re-enacted its death penalty in 1974, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of the 136 inmates freed from the nation's death rows since 1973, 12 were from Texas, according to the center.

        Many in the crowd carried mock Perry/Willingham campaign signs, a reference to Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man who was executed in 2004. In April, the Texas Forensic Science Commission determined that fire investigators, including a deputy fire marshal, relied on scientifically invalid techniques to rule that Willingham intentionally set fire to his Corsicana home, killing his 3 young daughters.

        The exonerated death row inmates, many of whom are touring the country to rally support for the abolition movement, sounded a consistent note as they addressed the crowd. "I'm here to tell you that if I had been in the state of Texas, I would not have been here. I would have been dead," said Juan Roberto Melendez, who spent more than 17 years on Florida's death row before being released in 2002.

        Ray Krone was sentenced to die in Arizona, but he was released in 2002 after DNA testing determine someone else committed the killing for which he was convicted. "Thank God for DNA, and thank God it wasn't in Texas," he said.

        (Source: Austin American-Statesman)

        Oct. 22

        20 Death Row Exonerees to Lead 12th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty

        The 12th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty will be held Saturday, October 22nd, 2011 at the Texas Capitol at 2 PM (on the north side of the capitol). A rally will begin at 2 PM followed by a march through the streets of downtown Austin at 3.

        The march will be led by 20 death row survivors who each spent many years on death rows around the U.S. despite being innocent. The 20 exonerees are coming to Texas as members of Witness to Innocence. Some of the exonerees are in Texas for a speaking tour across the state and all of them will be in Austin for the Witness to Innocence "Gathering" from October 20-23. Witness to Innocence is the nation's only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.

        Many people at the rally and march will carry signs that say "Perry/Willingham 2012" to suggest that if Rick Perry becomes president of the U.S., it will be over the dead body of a person whose execution Perry allowed even though he was given information before the execution discrediting the forensic science used to convict Todd Willingham. After Willingham's execution, Perry abused his power as governor to interfere with the investigation of a governmental body into the Willingham case. Rick Perry's actions regarding Todd Willingham raise serious questions about Perry's character and judgement. Perry is not ethically qualified to be president of the United States.

        One of the signs marchers will carry is below:

        From Todd Willingham

        Before his execution, Todd Willingham told his parents,"Please don't ever stop fighting to vindicate me."

        Before his execution, Troy Davis told his supporters in a letter,"There are so many more Troy Davises. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city,state by state and country by country."

        Texas has executed 475 people since 1982 (as of Oct 16, 2011). Under current Texas Governor Rick Perry, 236 people have been executed, including some with a strong case of innocence. 12 people have been exonerated while on death row in Texas, the most recent being Anthony Graves in 2010. Since 1976, there have been 138 death row exonerations in the United States.

        A recent CNN poll showed that when given a choice of sentences between life in prison without parole or the death penalty for the crime of murder, more Americans (50%) would opt for the life sentence than for death (48%).

        "We will be urging all Texans to join us at the March to Abolish the Death Penalty on October 22 in Austin", said Ron Keine, formerly on death row in New Mexico.

        "As they see what the death penalty really means, in my case and others, more and more Texans believe that Texas can do without the death penalty," said exonerated death row survivor Clarence Brandley, from Conroe, Texas, who has been fighting for compensation from the state of Texas for over 20 years.

        Each October since 2000, people from all walks of life and all parts of Texas, the U.S. and other countries have taken a day out of their year and gathered in Austin to raise their voices together and loudly express their opposition to the death penalty. The march is a coming together of activists, family members of people on death row, community leaders, exonerated former death row prisoners and all those calling for repeal of the Texas death penalty.

        The annual march is organized as a joint project by several Texas anti-death penalty organizations and their allies: Texas Moratorium Network, the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Witness to Innocence, Journey of Hope ... From Violence to Healing, Texas Civil Rights Project, International Socialist Organization, Amnesty International at The University of Texas, Kids Against the Death Penalty, The Austin Chronicle, NOKOA, Gray Panthers and Democrats for Life.

        (Source: Burnt Orange Report)

        Oct. 17

        Wrongfully convicted men talk about death row

        Former death row inmates made a visit to the UH Law Center to speak with students about the challenges of wrongful convictions and what it was like to be on death row for a crime they did not commit.

        “Witness to Innocence,” a program founded in 2005 by exonerated death row inmates, aims to change perceptions and put an end to the death penalty by placing Americans face to face with those who have lived through the sentence.

        “We are here to educate; we plant seeds” said Ron Kleine, assistant director of the program.

        “We’ve single-handedly stopped the death penalty in Wisconsin, and we ended it in New Mexico with the help of a lot of other people because we can’t do this alone.”

        Kleine and 3 of his friends spent 2 years on death row in New Mexico for the 1974 kidnapping and killing of William Velten, a student at the University of New Mexico.

        “When we got arrested, we basically were given this attorney (who) walked up to us at arraignment and said, ‘Hi, I’m your attorney. We can make a deal with you—if you confess, we’ll get you life without parole.’”

        What Kleine and his friends did not know was that the whole thing was a cover-up for a cop. Kleine said that the prosecution went so far as to pay one witness, a doctor, $50,000 to testify, though he later admitted to lying. A hotel maid was also bribed to testify against the men.

        10 days before Kleine was scheduled to be executed in New Mexico’s gas chamber, another man confessed to the killing.

        In addition to putting an end to the death penalty, “Witness to Innocence” also helps exonerees readjust to civilian life once they are released from prison. Even though they have been exonerated, many of these people struggle to find jobs because most employers only pay attention to the word “murder.” About 15 percent of funds raised by the program go toward helping members struggling with unemployment.

        “This is the problem with a lot of people who are out on exoneration — there’s nothing for them there,” said Kleine. “If you went to prison for a crime that you did, you get out on parole. You have a parole officer to make sure you can get a job, housing, a way to feed yourself — we don’t have that. I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s.”

        (Source: The (Univ. Houston) Daily Cougar)

        Oct. 15

        The last testimony: The final words of Texas death row prisoners

        In the state of Texas, condemned prisoners can deliver a final statement.

        Since 1982, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has executed 475 death-row prisoners by lethal injection.

        Before they died, each prisoner had the chance to eat a final meal of their choosing (a right which last month was deemed not inalienable, and removed), and to speak their last words in the form of a recorded statement. A final testimony may be a tradition inherited from Britain, but freedom of speech is a concept as hardwired into the American constitution as the right to bear arms.

        Approximately seven minutes after delivering their statement, the speaker is dead, so these words are their arsenal: a last opportunity for the convict to give the world their view on the crime, often horrific, and usually committed many years before.

        Most of the statements, says Robert K Elder, author of Last Words of the Executed, conform in some way with the 'five stages of grief' theory: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And whether there is remorse for the victims or not, there will be grief for the actions that have brought them to their own point of death. "I would like to tell my Uncle Kyle that I am sorry," the 29-year-old convict Carlton Turner said in 2008. "I have been sorry for the last 10 years for what I did. I wish you could accept my apology... I know you can't give your forgiveness..."

        Few statements are long, but all are glimpses of much bigger stories. Some are apologies, flat acknowledgements of actions regretted, deeds unchangeable, the powerlessness to gather back a darkness unleashed. Many show a fractured character: a murderer, yet a caring husband; a killer, but a father who loves his children. "I wish I could... change it, but I know I can't," John Alba says in May 2010. He had murdered his wife nine years before, shooting her repeatedly with a pistol. He thanks his children for their support, praises them for turning into good adults, sends his grandchildren a kiss from their "Papa".

        And, of course, many find faith on death row. This new belief is often spoken of, too, as fervent as a childlike prayer for sleep at bedtime, as the clock ticks towards the end of life in this realm.

        Name: Steven Woods
        Executed: 13 September 2011
        Age at the time of offence: 21
        Age when executed: 31
        Offence: Woods and a co-defendant killed a 21-year-old white male and a 19-year-old white female victim with shots to the head and by cutting their throats.
        "You're not about to witness an execution, you are about to witness a murder. I am strapped down for something Marcus Rhodes did. I never killed anybody, ever. I love you, Mom. I love you, Tali. This is wrong. This whole thing is wrong. I can't believe you are going to let Marcus Rhodes walk around free. Justice has let me down. Somebody completely screwed this up. I love you too, Mom. Well Warden, if you are going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull the trigger. It's coming. I can feel it coming. Goodbye."

        Name: Humberto Leal Jr
        Executed: 7 July 2011
        Age when executed: 38
        Age at the time of offence: 21
        Offence: Rape and murder of a 16-year-old
        "I am sorry for everything that I have done. I've hurt a lot of people... Lord Jesus Christ in my life, I know He has forgiven me, I have accepted His forgiveness. I have accepted everything. Let this be final and be done. I take the full blame for this. I am sorry and forgive me. I am truly sorry. I ask for forgiveness. Life goes on and it surely does. I am sorry for the victim's family for what I had did. May they forgive me. I don't know if you believe me, life goes on... Life goes on, it surely does. I ask for forgiveness. I am truly sorry. That is all. Let's get this show on the road. One more thing, Viva Mexico, Viva Mexico."

        Name: Michael Perry
        Executed: 1 July 2010
        Age at the time of offence: 19
        Age when executed: 28
        Offence: Perry and a co-defendant fatally shot a 50-year-old white female, a 17-year-old white male and and 18-year-old white male.
        "... I want to start off by saying to everyone know that's involved in this atrocity that they are all forgiven by me. Mom, I love you... (crying) I am ready to go Warden. Coming home dad, coming home dad."

        Name: Cary D Kerr
        Executed: 3 May 2011
        Age at the time of offence: 36
        Age when executed: 46
        Offence: Kerr sexually assaulted a 34-year-old white female, strangled her, then pushed her out of a moving vehicle, resulting in her death.
        "... Tell my sister Tracey, I love you. Nicole, thank you and I love you. Wanda and all of my friends, I love you and thank you for your support. To the State of Texas, I am an innocent man. Never trust a court-appointed attorney. I am ready Warden. Thank you, Brad, I'm sorry. Check that DNA, check Scott. Here we go. Lord Jesus, Jesus."

        Name: Karla Faye Tucker
        Executed: 3 February 1998
        Age at the time of offence: 23
        Age when executed: 38
        Offence: with an accomplice, slayed two people with a pickaxe. The bodies of both victims had more than 20 puncture or stab wounds
        "Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you – the Thornton family and Jerry Dean's family that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this. Baby, I love you. Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you."

        Name: Reginald Blanton
        Executed: 27 October 2009
        Age at the time of offence: 18
        Age when executed: 28
        Offence: Blanton and one co-defendant shot and killed a 20-year-old Hispanic male in his apartment. Blanton took jewellery from the victim which was later pawned for $79.
        "I know ya'lls pain, believe me I shed plenty of tears behind Carlos. Carlos was my friend. I didn't murder him... what is happening right now is an injustice. This doesn't solve anything. This will not bring back Carlos. Ya'll fought real hard here to prove my innocence. This is only the beginning. I love each and everyone dearly... They are fixing to pump my veins with a lethal drug the American Veterinary Association won't even allow to be used on dogs. I say I am worse off than a dog. They want to kill me for this; I am not the man that did this. Fight on. I will see ya'll again..."

        Name: Terry Lee Hankins
        Executed: 2 June 2009
        Age at the time of offence: 26
        Age when executed: 34
        Offence: Hankins shot his 34-year-old wife in the head while she was sleeping, resulting in her death. The next day, Hankins shot and killed his 10- and 12-year-old stepchildren in the same manner. After his arrest, Hankins told authorities where to find the bodies of his 55-year-old father and his 20-year-old sister, whom he murdered in 2000.
        "Yes, I am sorry for what I've done and for all of the pain and suffering that my actions have caused. Jesus is Lord. All glory to God."

        Name: Dale Devon Scheanette
        Executed: 10 February 2009
        Age at the time of offence: 23
        Age when executed: 35
        Offence: Scheanette sexually assaulted and strangled a 22-year-old black female.
        "Is the mic on? My only statement is that no cases ever tried have been error free. Those are my words. No cases are error free. You may proceed Warden."

        Name: David Martinez
        Executed: 4 February 2009
        Age at the time of offence: 22
        Age when executed: 36
        Offence: killed girlfriend and her 14-year-old son with a baseball bat, let her 10-year-old daughter run away. No motive offered.
        "... Nothing I can say can change the past. I am asking for forgiveness. Saying sorry is not going to change anything. I hope one day you can find peace. I am sorry for all of the pain that I have caused you for all those years... I can't change the past. I hope you find peace and know that I love you. I am sorry. I am sorry and I can't change it."

        Name: Virgil Euristi Martinez
        Executed: 28 January 2009
        Age when executed: 41
        Age at the time of offence: 28
        Offence: Martinez fatally shot a 27-year-old Hispanic female, her two young children, and an 18-year-old Hispanic male.
        "... First, Veronica's sister. I know what you've been told and that's all a lie. John Gomez killed your kids and sister. I know ya'll love John Gomez but he was a violent man. I wish I would have shot him in the leg, then he would be here. Those investigators were just trying to convict somebody."

        Name: Gregory Wright
        Executed: 30 October 2008
        Age at the time of offence: 31
        Age when executed: 42
        Offence: Wright broke into the home of a white female and stabbed her with a knife, causing her death. Wright took many items from the home and left the scene in the victim's vehicle.
        "... John Adams lied...He made deals and sold stuff to keep from going to prison... John Adams is the one that killed Donna Vick. I took a polygraph and passed. John Adams never volunteered to take one. I have done everything in my power. Donna Vick helped me; she took me off the street... Donna gave me everything I could ask for. I helped her around the yard. I helped her around the house. She asked if there were anyone else to help. I am a Christian myself, so I told her about John Adam. We picked him up at a dope house. I did not know he was a career criminal... I was in the bathroom when he attacked. I am deaf in one ear and I thought the TV was up too loud. I ran in to the bedroom. By the time I came in, when I tried to help her, with first aid, it was too late. The veins were cut on her throat. He stabbed her in her heart, and that's what killed her. I told John Adams, 'Turn yourself in or hit the high road'. I owed him a favour because he pulled someone off my back... Two or three days later he turned on me. I have done everything to prove my innocence. Before you is an innocent man. I love my family. I'll be waiting on ya'll..."

        Name: Michael Rodriguez
        Executed: 14 August 2008
        Age at the time of offence: 40
        Age when executed: 40
        Offence: While on escape from TDCJ [prison], Rodriguez and six co-defendants robbed a sporting-goods store at gunpoint; a police officer was murdered as the co-defendants left the scene.
        "... I know this no way makes up for all the pain and suffering I gave you. I am so so sorry. My punishment is nothing compared to the pain and sorrow I have caused... I am not strong enough to ask for forgiveness... I realise what I've done to you and the pain I've given. Please Lord forgive me. I have done some horrible things. I ask the Lord to please forgive me. I have gained nothing, but just brought sorrow and pain to these wonderful people. I am sorry. So so sorry... Father God I ask you too for forgiveness. I ask you for forgiveness Lord. I am ready to go Lord..."

        Name: Carlton Akee Turner
        Executed: 10 July 2008
        Age at the time of offence: 19
        Age when executed: 29
        Offence: Turner fatally shot his adoptive parents whose bodies were discovered in their garage.
        "First of all I would like to tell my Uncle Kyle that I am sorry. I have been sorry for the last 10 years for what I did. I wish you could accept my apology. I know you can't accept my apology, I know you can't give your forgiveness; it's OK and I understand... I have done what I could to heal the rest of the family... I know I was wrong; I accept responsibility as a man. I take this penalty as a man. This doesn't solve anything, 'cause it hurts others that love me. I am sorry. I love you Kjersti. I love you too Roland. I love you too Uncle Kyle; I am still your nephew, no matter what you believe."

        Name: Mark Stroman
        Executed: 20 July 2011
        Age at the time of offence: 31
        Age when executed: 42
        Offence: Stroman murdered a 49-year-old Middle Eastern male convenience store employee during an attempted robbery.
        "Even though I lay on this gurney, seconds away from my death, I am at total peace. May the Lord Jesus Christ be with me. I am at peace. Hate is going on in this world and it has to stop. Hate causes a lifetime of pain. Even though I lay here I am still at peace. I am still a proud American, Texas loud, Texas proud. God bless America, God bless everyone... it's been a great honour. I feel it; I am going to sleep now. Goodnight, 1, 2 there it goes."

        Name: Milton Wuzael Mathis
        Executed: 21 June 2011
        Age at the time of offence: 19
        Age when executed: 32
        Offence: Mathis shot three victims in the head with a .45 caliber pistol at a known drug house in Fort Bend County, Texas. One of the victims, a 15-year-old Hispanic female, survived the shooting, paralysed from the chest down.
        "...To all my supporters, family and friends; I love y'all and appreciate y'all. To the ones representing me today, thank you for everything. The system has failed me. This is a miscarriage of justice. There are people on death row that need help. I love my family. I love you too, Mom... I asked the Lord to have mercy on me and I hope He has mercy on these people carrying out this mass slaughter. They have no respect for humanity. To Melanie, I never meant to hurt you. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am not asking for your forgiveness... I hope you get better and for the doctors to continue to take care of you. Take care of my mother for me..."

        Name: Lee Taylor
        Executed: 16 June 2011
        Age at the time of offence: 20
        Age when executed: 32
        Offence: in a prison dayroom, Taylor, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, fatally stabbed a black male offender multiple times with an 8" home-made weapon.
        "... Jennifer, I love you. Mom, I love you. Rick, take care of you. For all of you people, I defended myself when I killed your family member. Prison is a bad place. There was eight against me. I didn't set out to kill him. I am sorry that I killed him, but he would not have been in prison if he was a saint... I hope people understand the grave injustice by the state. There are 300 people on death row, and everyone is not a monster. Texas is carrying out a very inhumane injustice. It's not right to kill anybody just because I killed your people. Everyone changes, right? Life is about experience and people change... I hope you don't find satisfaction in this, watching a human being die."

        Name: Michael Wayne Hall
        Executed: 15 February 2011
        Age at the time of offence: 18
        Age when executed: 31
        Offence: Hall and one co-defendant abducted a 19-year-old white female from a public street and drove her to a remote location where they shot her several times. They were caught at the border attempting to leave the state.
        "First of all I would like to give my sincere apology to Amy's family. We caused a lot of heartache, grief, pain and suffering, and I am sorry. I know it won't bring her back. I would like to sing, I would like to sing for that person's dead... As for my family, I am sorry I let you down. I caused a lot of heartache, and I ask for your forgiveness. I am not crying for myself, I am crying for... those that don't know God and have never been set free. I've been locked up 13 years. I am not locked up inside... Here I am a big strong youngster, crying like a baby. I am man enough to show my emotions and I am sorry. I am sorry for everything. I wish I could take it back, but I can't."

        Name: Larry Wooten
        Executed: 21 October 2010
        Age at the time of offence: 37
        Age when executed: 51
        Offence: Wooten murdered an 80-year-old black male and his 86-year-old wife. Wooten stabbed the victims and cut their throats. Wooten then robbed the couple of $500-600 in cash.
        "No sir. Warden, Since I don't have nothing to say, you can go ahead and send me to my Heavenly Father."

        Name: John Alba
        Executed: 25 May 2010
        Age at the time of offence: 36
        Age when executed: 54
        Offence: killed his wife, Wendy Alba, when she was aged 28
        "... First I want to tell the victim's family, Wendy's family, I am sorry for taking something so precious to you and to my kids. I wish I could take it all back and change it, but I know I can't... Sabrina, you are a wonderful daughter, I am proud of you. Jr., John, you turned out to be a great young man. Hector, you too. Amy, thank you for always being there... To my family, I appreciate you always standing by me and everything ya'll have done. Tell, everyone I love them. I'll be OK. You will too. Remember what asked you. Give my love to the grandchildren. Tell Jake and Mia, Papa Alba loves them... OK Warden, let's do it, I love y'all. I can taste it already. I am starting to go."

        Name: James Edward Martinez
        Executed: 10 March 2009
        Age at the time of offence: 26
        Age when executed: 34
        Offence: Martinez fired 20 shots into the victims' vehicle, resulting in the death of a 20-year-old white male and 29-year-old white female.
        "Yes sir, I want to tell my Mom that I love her and thank her for everything that she has done for me. Tell my sister that I love her too thank her for everything that she has done for me. I hope you can move on after this. I'll be fine. I'll be OK. I love you too. I love you too. Take care OK. That's all I have to say Warden. Thank you sir."

        All final statements taken from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
        To view all death row inmates last statement click Here.

        (Source: The Independent)

        Oct. 2

        Is the death penalty about to die?----Millions of dollars wasted on capital punishment in Texas.

        In 2003 there were 28 death sentences handed down in Texas, and last year, only eight. Harris County, which accounts for more than 100 of the 314 people on death row, saw no new death sentences in 2008 or 2009 and only two in 2010.

        Bexar County has seen only three death sentences since 2007.

        It looks like Texas is having second thoughts about death sentences, and executions.

        In 2010, Texas carried out 17 lethal injections, the fewest since 2001. Texas isn’t about to abolish the death penalty, but it may be starting to move away from its infamous grip on the death penalty.

        There are 3 factors afoot:

        There is mounting concern about the execution of innocent people. No one wants to see an innocent person executed. With 12 individuals exonerated and freed from Texas’ death row since 1987, we know the system isn’t faultless.

        Has Texas actually executed an innocent person? No one knows for certain, but death penalty scholars point to 3 executed prisoners who had credible claims of innocence: Cameron Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu, and Carlos De Luna.

        The Texas Forensic Science Commission’s April 15 report did not address Willingham’s actual guilt or innocence in the Corsicana house fire that killed his 3 daughters. However, 9 fire experts who reviewed his case concluded there was no evidence of arson.

        Investigative reporting by the Chicago Tribune on the De Luna case and by the Express-News and Houston Chronicle in 2006 on Cantu threw considerable doubt on the actual guilt of both men. It is immoral to have executed an innocent one.

        The financial costs of the death penalty are staggering. Fiscal conservatives question whether it is worth the price. The cost of a capital trial, the appeals process, time on death row and the execution itself cost an estimated $2.3 million in 1992, according to the Dallas Morning News. In today’s dollars, that would be more than $3.6 million.

        In short, millions of dollars are wasted on a capital sentencing system in Texas. The money could be much better spent on improving policing functions, expanding restitution programs and developing more drug treatment programs — all of which would do far more to enhance public safety than having a death penalty.

        Finally, there is an alternative to the death penalty — a sentencing option that Texas lawmakers adopted in 2005: life without parole. In 2010, Texas juries handed down three life-without-parole sentences in capital cases. The point is, juries don’t have to hand out death sentences.

        Texas may be the death penalty capital of the United States, but, even here, the tide may be starting to turn.

        (Source: Roger C. Barnes chairs the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Incarnate Word)

        Sept. 30

        Former Death Row Chef Says Leave Last Meal Alone

        Amid the east Texas thicket on the shore of Houston County Lake, you will find a cafe and a kitchen run by the reluctant holder of a not-likely-to-be broken record.

        "I worked on 218 executions, prepared the last meals on 189 of those," former Texas inmate and death row chef Brian Price said.

        Long before Price and wife Nita opened the Way Station Cafe to the good folks around Crockett, he spent a decade focusing his considerable culinary skill on a much different clientele: the kind of diners who wouldn't be coming around for seconds.

        When other convict cooks dodged the duty, Brian discovered "a calling" and endeavored to deliver the condemned "Meals to Die For".

        Brian recalls the first review from a death row diner.

        "Hey Price, that guy that they killed last night sent a word of thanks back to you. Told the chaplain to thank you. He really enjoyed that."

        “Well that blew me away," Price said.

        While crafting burgers and chicken fried steaks at the Way Station, he recalled the intense burden carried by those charged with delivering state-sanctioned death.

        He says what frequently emerged behind death row walls were small measures of Christian compassion that often tempered a final and fatal reckoning.

        "Magically, I'd be about to prepare the meal and someone would hand me a bag of shrimp, 'Here, just don't tell anyone where you got it'," he said.

        Faith filled, happily married and free after completing his own 14-year stretch for assault, Brian Price wants his old job back.

        That's because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has terminated the tradition of delivering a requested last meal, borne from the outrage of State Senator John Whitmire who was angered by the eight course supper that reportedly went untouched by executed murderer Lawrence Russell Brewer.

        "I think it's real hypocritical for the state of Texas to give someone the death penalty and then treat them like a celebrity just short of execution," Whitmire said.

        Price calls Whitmire’s action politically opportunistic and mean-spirited.

        "Let’s let the people vote on this. I don't think any one or two persons should have that type of power and if they do have that type of power, I see this as an abuse of it," he said. "Senator Whitmire, what if it was your son on that death gurney?"

        In the meantime Price, owner of the Way Station café, is offering to prepare and deliver, at no expense to taxpayers, any and all last meal requests made by the condemned men and women currently sitting on the Lone Star State's crowded death row.


        "That old saying what would Jesus do? I believe this is just what he would do. Justice is being rendered; let’s not take it any further than that. A last meal requested by a condemned person, why not?" he said.

        The way he sees it: even in a state so thoroughly committed to an eye for an eye, killing and kindness shouldn't be mutually exclusive.

        (Source: myfoxhouston.com)

        Sept. 28, 2011

        The condemned in Texas can no longer choose their last meal

        On September 21st Lawrence Russell Brewer ordered up a feast: 2 chicken-fried steaks smothered in gravy, a supersized cheeseburger, an omelette, fried okra, fajitas, a pizza, a pound of barbecue, half a loaf of bread, and, for pudding, ice cream and fudge with peanuts on top.

        But when it arrived, he decided not to eat any of it. He may well not have been hungry. Mr Brewer, a white supremacist, was about to be executed for a murder committed in 1998, when he and two other men tortured a black man, James Byrd Jr, and dragged him to death behind a truck. It was one of the most notorious crimes in modern Texas history, and one that had already changed the law; in 2001 Rick Perry, the newly inaugurated governor, signed a bill mandating stricter penalties for hate crimes.

        Now Mr Brewer’s final request has brought another change to Texas justice. On September 22nd John Whitmire, a state senator from Houston, sent an angry letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Enough is enough,” he wrote; such privileges are “ridiculous”. The department’s director agreed, and announced that from now on all prisoners will get the same meal.

        The last meal has always been a strange aspect of executions. Eating is for people with a future. Some offenders resist the irony, and request nothing but a glass of water. But most accept some final comfort. And in reading their requests the bathos of the ultimate penalty is impossible to ignore. People facing execution want sugar, salt, fat, and phosphates—fried chicken, ribs, hamburgers, ice cream, pie, pop.

        This move by Texas comes at a time when many people are a little queasy about the death penalty anyway. Nearly two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment; but many of them were horrified during a Republican presidential debate last month, when the audience cheered the fact that Mr Perry had then presided over 234 executions as governor of Texas (Mr Brewer made the 236th).

        And last week hundreds of people protested outside a Georgia prison as that state executed a man, Troy Davis, who was convicted on testimony that was later recanted. Will American support for the death penalty soften as a result of any of this? As the Brewer case makes clear, the death penalty is a sickening business. The grim theatrics of an execution debase the executioner. But capital crimes are also repulsive. And so hopes for abolition are probably still unrealistic.

        (Source: The Economist)

        Sept. 23, 2011

        Death Penalty No Longer Includes a Last Meal in Texas

        Texas may lead the U.S. in executing criminals, but that doesn't mean the condemned are getting cushy treatment: Texas prison officials have halted the practice of letting death row inmates choose their last meal.

        Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, was apparently incensed that Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist who was executed Wednesday for dragging a black man to death behind his truck, ordered a massive meal of 2 chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, 3 fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts and then didn't eat any of it.

        "It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege," Whitmire wrote in a letter Thursday to Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

        Livingston swiftly responded to the criticism, nullifying the practice of offering prisoners a last meal within hours of receiving Whitmire's letter, according to The Associated Press. From now on, inmates about to be executed will be served the same meal as other prisoners.

        Texas has a longstanding practice of accommodating last meal requests so long as they can be cooked in the prison kitchen, using ingredients already on hand.

        Whitmire, a Democrat, said the practice was an attempt to diminish the magnitude of executing someone.

        "We're fixing to execute the guy and maybe it makes the system feel good about what they're fixing to do." said Whitmore. "Kind of hypocritical, you reckon?"

        (Source: International Business Times)

        Sept. 22, 2011

        Texas Prisons End Special Last Meals In Executions

        Texas inmates who are set to be executed will no longer get their choice of last meals, a change prison officials made Thursday after a prominent state senator became miffed over an expansive request from a man condemned for a notorious dragging death.

        Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed Wednesday for the hate crime slaying of James Byrd Jr. more than a decade ago, asked for 2 chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, 3 fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. Prison officials said Brewer didn't eat any of it.

        "It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege," Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, wrote in a letter Thursday to Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

        Within hours, Livingston said the senator's concerns were valid and the practice of allowing death row offenders to choose their final meal was history.

        "Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made," Livingston said. "They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit."

        That had been the suggestion from Whitmire, who called the traditional request "ridiculous."

        "It's long overdue," the Houston Democrat told The Associated Press. "This old boy last night, enough is enough. We're fixing to execute the guy and maybe it makes the system feel good about what they're fixing to do. Kind of hypocritical, you reckon?

        "Mr. Byrd didn't get to choose his last meal. The whole deal is so illogical."

        Brewer, a white supremacist gang member, was convicted of chaining Byrd, 49, to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him to his death along a bumpy road in a case shocked the nation for its brutality.

        Whitmire warned in his letter that if the "last meal of choice" practice wasn't stopped immediately, he'd seek a state statute to end it when lawmakers convene in the next legislative session.

        It was not immediately clear whether other states have made similar moves. Some limit the final meal cost: Florida's ceiling is $40, according to the Department of Corrections website, with food to be purchased locally.

        Others, like Texas, which never had a designated dollar limit, mandate meals be prison-made. Some states don't acknowledge final meals, and others will disclose the information only if the inmate agrees, said K. William Hayes, a Florida-based death penalty historian.

        Some states require the meal within a specific time period, allow multiple "final" meals, restrict it to one or impose "a vast number of conditions," he said.

        Historical references to a condemned person's last meal go as far back as ancient Greece, China and Rome, Hayes said. Some of it is apparently rooted in superstition about meals warding off possible haunting by condemned people once they are put to death.

        The Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based anti-capital punishment organization that collects execution statistics, said it had no data on final meals.

        Since Texas resumed carrying out executions in 1982, the state correction agency's practice has been to fill a condemned inmate's request as long as the items, or food similar to what was requested, were readily available from the prison kitchen supplies.

        While extensive, Brewer's request was far from the largest or most bizarre among the 475 Texas inmates put to death.

        On Tuesday, prisoner Cleve Foster's request included 2 fried chickens, French fries and a five-gallon (19-liter) bucket of peaches. He received a reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court but none of his requested meal. He was on his way back to death row, at a prison about 45 miles east of Huntsville, at the time when his feast would have been served.

        Last week, inmate Steven Woods' request included 2 pounds of bacon, a large 4-meat pizza, 4 fried chicken breasts, 2 drinks each of Mountain Dew, Pepsi, root beer and sweet tea, 2 pints of ice cream, 5 chicken fried steaks, 2 hamburgers with bacon, fries and a dozen garlic bread sticks with marinara on the side. 2 hours later, he was executed.

        Years ago, a Texas inmate even requested dirt for his final meal.

        Until 2003, the Texas prison system listed final meals of each prisoner as part of its death row website. That stopped at 313 final meals after officials said they received complaints from people who found it offensive.

        A former inmate cook who made the last meals for prisoners at the Huntsville Unit, where Texas executions are carried out, wrote a cookbook several years ago after he was released. Among his recipes were Gallows Gravy, Rice Rigor Mortis and Old Sparky's Genuine Convict Chili, a nod to the electric chair that once served as the execution method. The book was called "Meals to Die For."

        (Source: Associated Press)

        Sept. 20, 2011

        Court halts Texas execution of ex-Army recruiter

        The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the execution of a former Army recruiter for the rape-slaying of a woman in Fort Worth nearly 10 years ago.

        47-year-old Cleve Foster was set to die Tuesday evening in Huntsville.

        The high court twice earlier this year had stopped Foster's scheduled lethal injection as his punishment was imminent. This latest court ruling came less than 3 hours before Foster could have been taken to the Texas death chamber.

        Foster was 1 of 2 men convicted and sent to death row for fatally shooting a 30-year-old woman whose body was found in a ditch by pipeline workers in Fort Worth in February 2002. His partner died last year of cancer.

        (Source: Austin American-Statesman)

        Sept. 20, 2011

        Rick Perry Likes the Death Penalty----The Republican presidential candidate has a record of killing kids, innocents, blacks (for being black), and the mentally ill

        Rick Perry likes killing all kinds of people—kid people, innocent people, black people, mentally ill people, and just plain people people. It really doesn’t matter to him.

        The Kids: Napoleon Beazley was a 17-year-old honor student, football star, and senior class president with no criminal record. While trying to steal a car in 1994, he shot and killed a man. During his sentencing hearing in Smith County, the district attorney from the youngster’s Houston County community asked the jury for life instead of death. The trial judge later asked Rick Perry to commute the death sentence. But his reply was hell no, kill ‘em all! Napoleon was executed on May 28, 2002. Three years later, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons banned the death penalty for juveniles as “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

        The Innocents: Cameron Todd Williams was convicted of the 1991 arson deaths of his three young daughters. Dr. Gerald Hurst, a nationally renown arson expert, submitted an official report to Perry’s Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP)—which votes to approve or deny death sentence commutations—indicating that the prosecutor’s fire investigation was woefully flawed and that there was no proof of arson. Another expert, Louisiana Fire Chief Kendall Ryland, who also reviewed the entire case file, agreed. In 2005, the Texas Forensic Science Commission (FSC) was established to address this kind of tragic error. But just two days before the FSC was to hold a 2009 hearing on Hurst’s scathing report, Perry abruptly replaced three members and canceled the hearing. Finally, in 2011, the FSC recommended more education and more training for fire investigators. A lot good that did for Williams. He was already dead, having been executed on February 17, 2004.

        The Blacks For Being Black: Duane Buck was sentenced to death in 1997 for the 1995 murder of his ex-girlfriend. When questioned by prosecutor Joan Huffman during Buck’s sentencing hearing, Dr. Walter Quijano, who is the former chief psychologist of the Texas Department of Corrections, responded “yes” to the question whether “the race factor, black, increases … future dangerousness …” Yep. He sure did. And he did so without even cracking a racist smile. The Texas attorney general at the time, current Republican U.S. Senator and Perry ally John Cornyn, stated in his 2000 report that 6 cases have been so racially polluted by Quijano that Perry should schedule new sentencing hearings for each. In fact, federal courts have done just that in five cases. Even one of the trial prosecutors wants a new hearing because, in her words, “Race should never be put in front of a jury in any case, particularly a death penalty case.” But Buck will die very soon if Perry’s appointed BPP rejects the clemency request.

        The Mentally Ill: In June of 2002, Perry vetoed a ban on the execution of mentally ill inmates, contending, “This legislation is not about whether to execute mentally retarded murderers. It’s about who determines whether a defendant is mentally retarded in the Texas justice system.” And because he, like former Governor George W. Bush is “the Decider,” every inmate in Texas is determined to be Albert Einstein—like Walter Bell who killed two persons in 1974 and who a six-member team of state-employed mental health professionals along with a prison psychiatrist concluded was “mentally retarded.” Despite prosecutors’ repeated arguments throughout the decades, Bell was released from death row after a state judge in 2004, adhering to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision declaring the death penalty for such persons to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” ruled that Bell fit the guidelines for “mental retardation.” But Perry and his gang of state-sanctioned killers, I mean death penalty prosecutors, already knew that. It didn’t take about 30 years of Bell deteriorating on death row for them to realize that. They were well aware that his I.Q. was in the mid-50s and that the threshold for “mental retardation” is 70.

        According to the Death Penalty Information Center, approximately seven percent of the Texas’s “Dead Men and Women Walking” have I.Q.s less than 70. What about the severely mentally ill Kelsey Patterson? After murdering 2 women in 1992 for no reason whatsoever, he wandered the streets dressed only in socks. A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, Patterson had been ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial on other charges. Even the BPP had voted 5-1 to commute his death sentence. But, alas, Perry once again replied hell no, kill ‘em all! Patterson was executed on May 18, 2004.

        During the September 7th Republican presidential debate, Perry was asked this about the 234 executions he approved as Texas governor: “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might be innocent?” He answered “no”—because he had determined that the process is mistake-proof. Does he expect us to believe that every single one of those 234 cases had perfect investigations, perfect arrests, perfect hearings, perfect trials, perfect sentencings, and perfect appeals regardless of income, race or gender? Is he aware that 273 American citizens have been exonerated throughout the country since DNA testing has been available (and that 166 of them are black)?

        Perry kills people who have already been captured and who have already been shackled in jail for life, but he claims to be an evangelical Christian. Yeah, that makes sense. And I’m quite sure that Jesus would do the very same thing.

        (Source: Michael Coard, The Philly Post)

        Sept. 9, 2011

        Rick Perry's Death Penalty Record is Nothing to Brag About

        There were a couple of telling moments in Wednesday's Republican debate. One was when a question about 9/11, and President Obama's decision to attack and execute Osama bin Laden drew not a single clap. The other was when Gov. Rick Perry, with an almost-feral expression on his face, bragged about executing 234 people in Texas, and a large portion of the audience applauded.

        It's entirely possible that Wednesday's audience was what Shirley Jackson envisioned when she wrote The Lottery.

        One of the people put to death, Cameron Todd Willingham, was quite possibly innocent. And if not for an exhaustive Texas Monthly investigation that freed another death row inmate, Perry would have been fine with Texas executing a provably innocent man, Anthony Graves, last year.

        Perry defensively touched on the Willingham case last when he mentioned offenders who kill children—Willingham was accused of murdering his three children by arson. Perry directly intervened to interrupt the exculpatory forensic process in the Willingham case, replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and kept the execution moving forward. He refused a stay of execution, despite mounting evidence against the arson accusation.

        Perry's eagerness and braggadocio on the subject are disturbing. He told moderator Brian Williams that he hadn't lost a wink of sleep at night over any of the executions. I don't know about you, but if I'd presided over the deaths of more than 200 people, it would be cause for more than a few moments of self-reflection

        Several years ago, one of my friends served as a cabinet member for a governor in another southern state. There were multiple appeals for clemency from prisoners on death row. None were granted, and the executions were carried out.

        But those responsible for making recommendations to the governor took their task to heart, did their due diligence, and were acutely conscious that they were signing off on the state putting a man to death. They lost plenty of sleep over it, and they weren't flip about it.

        I am, like many people, conflicted about the death penalty. I recognize that there may be some circumstances in which it can be justified. The world is a better place without Ted Bundy in it.

        But I also believe, despite our best intentions, it is beyond our flawed human capacity to implement the death penalty fairly, and that the Ted Bundys of the world are few and far between. Most death penalty cases are far more mundane and born of a combination of race, poverty, circumstance, and an overburdened judicial system. Too often the death penalty is an instrument of revenge, not justice.

        Rick Perry's enthusiasm to the contrary, bragging about how many people your state has executed isn't an applause line, and it doesn't qualify you to be president.

        (source: Laura K. Chapin is a Democratic communications strategist based in Denver, Colorado, advocating for progressive causes and candidates in the Rocky Mountain West; US News & World Report)

        Sept. 9, 2011

        Exonerated Texas Inmate: “How Can You Applaud Death:?

        Anthony Graves read in the newspaper about the crowd at the Republican presidential debate applauding the fact that Gov. Rick Perry had authorized 234 executions during his tenure.

        “How can you applaud death?” Graves asked.

        Graves is 1 of 12 death row inmates who have been exonerated in Texas since 1973. Five of those exonerations occurred while Rick Perry was governor, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes capital punishment.

        “The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place in which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court if that’s required,” Perry said during the debate Wednesday.

        Perry defended the use of the death penalty in his state and told the audience, “I think Americans understand justice.”

        But Graves said his mother would not be one of those Americans. Graves spent 18 years in prison and 12 years on death row as a convicted murder. In 2010 his conviction was overturned and he was released.

        “He should ask my mother about that,” he says. “She lost her son for 18 years.”

        Graves says he was stunned at the governor’s comments because he was exonerated less than a year ago. “I was exonerated from the very same system that he is boasting about. He’s a politician, but I’m an exoneree and I think I know more about the subject.”

        In fact Perry was quick to admit in 2010 that Graves’ murder conviction had been a miscarriage of justice. The governor worked to pass a bill that lead to Graves being awarded $1 million for his incarceration. But Perry also said last year that Graves case proves that the system worked.

        In 2010 the governor said of the case, ”I think we have a justice system that is working, and he’s a good example of–you continue to find errors that were made and clear them up,” according to an account in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

        Graves had been convicted of assisting in multiple murders in 1992. In 2006, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned his conviction citing that prosecutors had made false statements. A special prosecutor hired for the second trial realized after months of investigation that Graves was innocent.

        Former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler told the Houston Chronicle, “This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn’t make the case anymore. He is an innocent man.”

        Graves says he appreciates the work that Perry did to work for his compensation. “He passed a bill that lead to my compensation, but he knows there is a problem with the criminal justice system.”

        (Source: ABC News)

        Sept. 9, 2011

        Rick Perry’s Lethal Overconfidence

        Despite loads of evidence, Rick Perry says he’s 'never struggled' with the idea that Texas has executed an innocent person. Lawyer David R. Dow on Perry’s foolish hubris.

        Jaws dropped when the governor of Texas, running for president, said on national television that he was “100 percent sure” everyone who had been executed on his watch was guilty. The governor was George W. Bush, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, during his first presidential run. 6 months before Bush’s election, Texas executed Gary Graham, who continued to protest his innocence even as the lethal injection was killing him and whose objections were almost certainly true. Then, just before Bush moved to the White House, Texas executed Claude Jones. Last year, new DNA testing on a hair found at the crime scene cast doubt on Jones’s guilt.

        Rick Perry likes to say that while President Bush went to Yale, he went to Texas A&M, which I guess is meant to imply that Bush is smarter than he is. But when it comes to their confidence in Texas’s executions, the two are equally idiotic. Asked at Wednesday night’s presidential debate if he ever worried that Texas had executed an innocent person on his watch, Perry answered, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.”

        Certainty is cheap if one achieves it by ignoring the actual facts, and indeed, Perry’s answer to the death-penalty question asked of him Wednesday night reflected a staggering inattentiveness to the facts. As the founder of the Texas Innocence Project, I’ve had a couple of dozen clients executed during Perry’s tenure as governor. There are some I think could well have been innocent—Frances Newton, for example, who supposedly killed her husband and two children without getting even a spot of blood or speck of gunpowder on herself; or Charles Nealy, who did not remotely match the description of the person who killed the convenience store clerk. But there was no DNA in either case, and so I am left being unsure.

        It is not weak to be unsure. It is the only reasonable position in those murder cases—and it is the vast majority of them—that lack DNA evidence. Without DNA, certainty is usually impossible. Murderers get convicted on the basis of confessions, which can be coerced; eyewitness identifications, which can be mistaken; and pseudo-science like fiber analysis, which is often junk.

        Perry, however, continues to voice his confidence despite widespread evidence that the system is flawed. Anthony Graves spent 14 years on death row before being exonerated and released in 2010. He’s not the only one: Ernest Willis, Michael Toney, Michael Blair, and Robert Springsteen are just a few of the others who have been released from death row during Perry’s tenure. Maybe Perry has a good reason for believing that these are Texas’s only mistakes, but if he has such a reason, I don’t have any idea what it is.

        Then there’s Cameron Todd Willingham, whose case suggests we probably don’t catch errors all in time. He was executed in 2004–on Perry’s watch–for killing his three children by setting fire to their house. The problem is, every national arson expert to have reviewed the facts (there have been at least four) has concluded that the fire was accidental. A committee investigating the case was preparing to hear from the nation’s leading arson expert who intended to explain why there was no evidence that Willingham had committed any crime. On the eve of the expert’s testimony, Perry dissolved the committee.

        But when it comes to their confidence in Texas’s executions, Bush and Perry are equally idiotic.

        As Perry prepares for his presidential run, he’s showing no signs of doubts. It’s not just his debate answer. Next week, the state is set to execute my client, Duane Buck. At Buck’s trial, the prosecutor urged the jury to sentence him to death on the basis that because Buck was black, he would be dangerous in the future. Earlier this summer, I had a client executed whose lawyer neglected to raise any issues during the very appellate process Perry lauded during Wednesday’s debate as a safeguard against mistakes. Two years ago, I had a client executed after prosecutors had removed all the blacks from the jury. One of my intellectually disabled clients was executed because his previous lawyer neglected to inform the court of the inmate’s IQ score. Another client was executed because the court of appeals refused to stay open past 5 p.m. so we could file a last-minute appeal. I don’t know of any definition of fair that could be applied to these cases.

        Despite Perry’s certainty, and his characterization of a broken and racist regime as fair, the people of Texas seem to have developed a different view. Twenty years ago, there were 35 or sometimes 40 new death sentences a year. Last year there were nine. The year before that there were eight. The very people who have to decide whether someone should live or die seem to know there is no such thing as certainty. The bad news for Perry is that those same people vote for president.

        (source: The Daily Beast)


        Sept. 13--237--Steven Woods----------------------------474
        Sept. 15--238--Duane Buck------------------------------475
        Sept. 20--239--Cleve Foster----------------------------476
        Sept. 21--240--Lawrence Brewer-------------------------477
        Oct. 27---241--Frank Garcia----------------------------478--50%
        Nov. 9----242--Hank Skinner----------------------------479--50 + %

        (Sources: TDCJ & Rick Halperin)

        Sept. 8, 2011

        Rick Perry's big applause moment: Where's the respect for human life?

        It was disturbing to hear people cheer last night when it was announced that Rick Perry had overseen a record number of executions in the modern era. I have to remind myself that these people are cheering justice, an abstract principle, not the ending of human life. On the flip side, though, can you imagine the same crowd's reaction if people at a liberal event cheered a record number of abortions? I realize it's apples to oranges, but there is a basic respect for human life. Even when Americans used to hang people from gallows, they did it with a basic level of dignity and humanity.

        Rick Halperin, Director, Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University, had this response: "The fact that in 2011, Americans, or any audience in a civilized country, would give prolonged and loud applause at the fact that our governor has presided over 234 executions in one state -- more than any other governor in the history of a state -- is a disturbing and disgraceful commentary on America's unwillingness and inability to move beyond embracing violence as a cure for social problems. Inherent flaws in this state under Gov. Perry's tenure are well documented, and questions need to arise about executing those subject to racial prejudice, innocence and mental health issues. It's disturbing to hear Gov. Perry say he's never struggled with any case when so many questions continually arise regarding implementing the death penalty in this state under his tenure. It is well documented that the capital punishment institution in Texas is inherently flawed and mistakes have indeed been made in wrongly convicting, incarcerating and executing the innocent."

        On a related note, tomorrow night is a special SMU event at 7-9 p.m. in McCord Auditorium: "Ending the Cycles of Violence: Reflections on Compassion, Forgiveness and Healing." According to a press release:

        The event will feature a diverse gathering of religious and peace leaders, including 9/11-hate crime survivor Rais Bhuiyan of WorldWithoutHate.org; Mavis Belisle of the Dallas Peace Center; Bill McElvaney, professor emeritus of SMU's Perkins School of Theology; SMU Chaplain Stephen Rankin; Acharya Shree Yogeesh of the Siddhayatan [Hindu-Jain Tirth] Spiritual Retreat Center; Brother ChiSing, a Thich Nhat Hahn-ordained Buddhist minister and director of the Dallas Meditation Center; and Hind Jirrah, co-founder of the Texas Muslim Women's Foundation. The moderator will be Dianne Solis of The Dallas Morning News. The free event is sponsored by SMU's Embrey Human Rights Program in Dedman College and the Dallas Peace Center.

        (Source: Michael Landauer/Editor, Dallas Morning News)

        Sept. 8. 2011

        Execution By Race

        When the United States Supreme Court approved death penalty statutes, it did so on the promise that race would play no role in the decision to execute a person. That, of course, mirrors society's moral stance. Some people believe capital punishment is just. Some don't. But we can all agree that deciding who lives and who dies must not be determined by the color of their skin.

        Despite this broad agreement, our nation has failed to rid race from the decision to execute — take, for instance, the case of Marcus Robinson in North Carolina. And now, shockingly, Texas appears poised next week to execute Duane Edward Buck based on the fact that he is black.

        In Texas, imposing the death penalty in capital cases comes down to one question: is the defendant going to be a "future danger" if he or she is not executed? Mr. Buck was sentenced to die based on testimony by Dr. Walter Quijano, who told jurors that Mr. Buck was more likely to pose a future danger to society because he is black. Dr. Quijano's testimony came in 1997, more than 20 years after Texas promised the Supreme Court that "no correlation exists between the race/ethnic background of a defendant and the probability that he will be either convicted of capital murder or given the death penalty."

        The same psychologist gave similar testimony in a total of seven Texas cases. In 2000, then-Attorney General John Cornyn did something highly unusual for a prosecutor: he called for the retrial of all seven men who had been sentenced to death based on Dr. Quijano's testimony that their race or ethnic background made them more dangerous. This list of seven included Duane Edward Buck.

        Courts granted new sentencing trials to six of those inmates, but upheld Mr. Buck's unconstitutional death sentence on technical procedural grounds (which we have previously noted often lead to unjust results based on form over substance). Mr. Buck was therefore not granted an opportunity to have a new sentencing hearing unbiased by race. He is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas on September 15, 2011.

        Attorney General Cornyn was a vigorous defender of the death penalty in Texas, but made it clear that he wanted no part of calling for executions that were based on this kind of racism: "The people of Texas want and deserve a system that affords the same fairness to everyone." It remains to be seen if the governor agrees.

        We must not allow the execution of a man on the basis of his race. You can help to prevent this injustice: go here to urge Texas Governor Rick Perry and to the board of pardons and parole to intervene before it's too late.

        (Source: ACLU)

        Sept. 5, 2011

        USA - Capital punishment a costly option

        “I no longer believe you can fix the death penalty. (It) throws millions of dollars down the drain. Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.— New Jersey Police Chief James Abbott

        Those Jersey boys know how to lay it on the line. Abbott made that observation years ago when asked his opinion of whether his state should scrap its costly deathpenalty law. New Jersey did so in 2007.

        Forget all the arguments about the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment — if it is a powerful deterrent or morally repugnant, if its use is appropriate for worst-of-the-worst crimes.

        Should death-penalty laws eventually go by the wayside here and elsewhere, their demise won’t be based on philosophical debates.

        The issue will come down to the bottom line. In this era of fiscal peril, legislatures and voters must decide: Do they continue sustaining the nation’s most expensive punishment option — for a relatively small number of convicted murders — when other needs, including education, health care, infrastructure and public safety, go wanting?

        Budget cutbacks in Oklahoma since 2008 have resulted in layoffs and the drastic slashing of services and programs.

        The state’s safety net, which so many people rely upon, is ripping at the seams.

        Prisons are at capacity, yet the per-capita violent crime rate remains among the highest in the U.S.

        No reliable figures exist for how much Oklahoma deathpenalty system costs. Suffice it to say it’s tens of millions of dollars.

        Throwing political caution to the wind, some leaders have suggested dropping the death penalty. State Sen.

        Constance Johnson, DOklahoma City, was roundly ignored when she proposed scrapping that system and going to a far less costly lifewithout- parole system.

        A few states have abolished their systems in light of cost. In the 34 states with a death penalty, some are asking: Can the needs of so many be sacrificed to pay for punishment of so few?

        Death row numbers

        Nationally, about 3,200 people are on state and federal death rows, including 69 in Oklahoma. The average cost, from arrest to execution, for a single deathpenalty case ranges from $1 million to $3 million. Those costs, on a per-offender basis, rank as among the most expensive part of criminal justice systems. That fact has prompted countless studies, including an eye-popping one released in June in California.

        That state has the nation’s largest and costliest death row – 714 inmates. Since reinstating its death penalty in 1978, California has conducted nearly 2,000 capital trials and has executed 13 people. Over those 33 years, the death-penalty system cost the state $4.6 billion.

        Divided up, that equates to $308 million per execution.

        For a state teetering on the brink of financial collapse, here’s how the $4.6 billion broke down: pre-trial/trial costs, $1.94 billion, automatic appeals and state habeas corpus petitions, $0.925 billion, federal habeas petitions, $0.775 billion; costs of incarceration, $1 billion.

        In light of those costs, backers of a stalled legislative bill to abolish the death penalty recently kicked off a campaign to put the question on the November 2012 ballot.

        If approved, California’s death-penalty laws would become history. The measure would do something else, which could persuade voters to pass it: $100 million from the state’s general fund — the estimated savings from eliminating death row — would be distributed over the next 4 fiscal years to local police for solving more homicides and rapes.

        Death-penalty studies

        A North Carolina study also performed a cost-benefit analysis and found a $2 million difference between a death sentence and a lifewithout- parole sentence.

        In Texas, a death-penalty case costs about $3 million, 3 times the cost of imprisoning an inmate for 40 years.

        In Maryland, a death-penalty case costs about three times more than a case in which the prosecutor does not seek the death penalty, according to an Urban Institute study. Since 2000, death sentences across the U.S. have dropped precipitously.

        A 2008 poll of police chiefs, often cited by Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., produced surprising answers. Almost all the chiefs surveyed ranked the death penalty last among their priorities for crimefighting, saying that they did not believe — based on murder rates — that it deterred homicides. Most rated it as the least efficient use of limited taxpayer dollars.

        New York abolished its death penalty in 2007. In the many years the law was on the books, no death sentences were upheld by its courts nor was any offender executed.

        New Mexico abolished its death penalty in 2009.

        The death penalty is widely favored in Oklahoma, which has the executions to prove it. For many, keeping it as an option is crucial — whatever the cost. But is that an informed stance?

        One need not put aside a philosophical beliefs about capital punishment to recognize the financial impracticality of the system.

        Oklahoma leaders should undertake a study to determine the cost of the deathpenalty system here. Relying on those results, Oklahomans could make a more informed choice about whether to keep it. Ultimately, the question comes down to priorities.

        (Source: Tulsa World)

        Aug. 18, 2011

        TEXAS: Rick Perry By The Numbers

        Amnesty International does not comment or take sides on elections. But everyone knows that Rick Perry, Texas Governor for over a decade, is now running for President. And everyone knows that during his tenure as Texas Governor, he has presided over a lot of executions. The total now sits at 234 (40% of all US executions carried out since Perry became Governor in December 2000).

        Many folks also know that at least 1 of those, Cameron Todd Willingham, was probably innocent, and that evidence of his innocence was ignored by Governor Perry in the days and hours before Willingham was put to death. And that an investigation into the dubious forensics that led to Willingham’s conviction was sidetracked when Perry suddenly put Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley in charge (Bradley is now being accused of withholding evidence of innocence in a case in his home county).

        But there have been other cases of possible innocence, and, as currently scheduled, Perry’s 240th execution would be of Henry Skinner, a man whose innocence claim the Lone Star State is refusing to examine.


        9 – The number of prisoners suffering severe mental illness who, according to a 2006 Amnesty International report, were put to death during the first half of Rick Perry’s tenure

        8 – The number of Texas prisoners who “volunteered” to be executed under Rick Perry

        7 – The number of foreign nationals executed under Rick Perry, most of whom were denied their rights under U.S. treaty obligations

        4 – The number of juvenile offenders executed under Rick Perry (before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed such executions in 2005)

        2 – The number of men put to death under Rick Perry for crimes in which they were not the killer

        1 – The number of clemencies granted by Rick Perry that were not required by court rulings

        (Source: Amnesty International USA blog)

        Shooting survivor wants Texas execution stopped

        The Associated Press

        Published: July 14, 2011

        AUSTIN, Texas — Attorneys for a former convenience store clerk shot and wounded nearly a decade ago have filed a civil suit in Austin against Gov. Rick Perry and other state officials seeking to stop the convicted gunman's execution scheduled for next week.

        Mark Stroman faces lethal injection July 20 for fatally shooting Mesquite convenience store clerk Vasudev Padel in 2001. He's one of two clerks killed by Stroman. Rais Buiyhan, whose attorneys filed the suit Wednesday, was shot in a third robbery but survived to identify Stroman.

        Bhuiyah's lawsuit argues his rights as a victim have been violated. His complaints include a contention he should be allowed to meet with Stroman under a remediation program.

        Stroman said he wanted to kill people of Middle Eastern descent after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        Copyright 2011, The Associated Press.

        Shooting survivor wants Texas execution stopped

        SHOWDOWN: Rick Perry Defied The White House And Executed A Foreign Prisoner Tonight

        Steven Loeb
        Jul. 7, 2011

        Barack Obama asks for Texas and Rick Perry to spare Mexican the death penalty
        Texas is preparing to execute a Mexican citizen for a gruesome 1994 murder on Thursday despite an appeal by Barack Obama to spare him because he was not granted the consular help required by international law.

        By Toby Harnden, Washington
        05 Jul 2011

        Humberto Leal, 38, a native of Monterrey, Mexico was convicted of the 1994 rape and murder of Adria Sauceda, 16, whose naked body was found with a large stick protruding from her. She had been bitten and her head crushed by a lump of asphalt.

        The United States Supreme Court is due to decide whether to issue a stay of execution, which Texas state lawyers insist should go ahead.

        If the Supreme Court does not intervene, Leal's fate will lie in the hands of Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who is currently pondering whether to join the 2012 presidential race.

        Texas executes more prisoners than any other US state. In his 10 years in office Mr Perry has refused clemency in 230 executions, almost half the 470 executions in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974.

        Among other evidence against Leal, a bite mark was matched to him and the victim's bloody blouse was found at his home. Leal told police that she had attacked him and had fallen and lost consciousness.

        Even Leal's lawyers concede that it was "plausible" he was responsible for Miss Sauceda's death. But they contend that if he had been given consular assistance rather than a state-appointed defence lawyer he would probably have been convicted of manslaughter.

        The Obama administration, adopting a similar stance to the one taken by President George W Bush's, believes executing Leal could endanger Americans abroad who are also entitled to consular assistance under the Vienna Convention.

        "This case implicates United States foreign-policy interests of the highest order," said Donald Verrilli, Mr Obama's Solicitor General in an amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court case.

        "The imminent execution of petitioner would place the United States in irreparable breach of its international law obligation."

        Executing him, he said, "would have serious repercussions for United States foreign relations, law enforcement and other co-operation with Mexico, and the ability of American citizens traveling abroad to have the benefits of consular assistance in the event of detention".

        There is legislation pending in the US Senate would allow federal courts to review cases of condemned foreign nationals to determine whether the lack of consular help made a significant difference in the outcome of their cases.

        The United Nations, Amnesty International and a number of former diplomats and military officers have requested that the sentence be commuted to life.

        Mr Perry has commuted the death sentences of 31 inmates. Of these, 28 involved cases in which the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the crime and Mr Perry acted after a Supreme Court ruling on the issue.

        Polls show that about 65 per cent of Americans favour the death penalty. Mr Perry's enthusiastic backing for the death penalty would be unlikely to be an issue that could harm him in the Republican primaries. It could, however, became an issue in a general election against Mr Obama, who supports the death penalty but is much more willing to consider exclusions.

        Barack Obama asks for Texas and Rick Perry to spare Mexican the death penalty

        Lawsuit: Void Texas’ new execution procedure

        By Mike Ward
        March 29, 2011

        Texas’ new procedure for executing condemned murderers should be invalidated because prison officials did not comply with state law in adopting it, two condemned murderers alleged this morning in a new lawsuit seeking to block their scheduled date with the death chamber.

        In a suit filed in an Austin state court, attorneys for Cleve Foster and Humberto Leal contend that Texas’ new execution protocol — replacing sodium thiopental with pentobarbital as one of three drugs used in lethal injections — violated the state Administrative Procedures Act.

        Reason: Officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not follow proper procedure in adopting the new protocol.

        According to the suit, TDCJ announced on March 16 — less than three weeks before Foster’s scheduled execution — that it would change the drugs used.

        Foster is slated for execution on April 5.

        The lawsuit contends that since November 2010, Foster made numerous public information requests and pleas for information regarding the drugs TDCJ planned to use to execute him, but prison officials delayed their response and made the decision to change drugs without required public input — or input from Foster and other condemned convicts.

        “Executions, and the manner in which we carry them out, are of unique public interest and importance, and precisely the sort of decisions and procedures that should be aired in the light of day,” said Maurie Levin, Foster’s attorney.

        “The requirements of transparency, deliberation, and accountability reflected in the APA are even more imperative when we are carrying out the ultimate act that Texas can take against one of its citizens. In its rush to execute Mr. Foster, Texas has violated the law and circumvented the open government process.”

        Court officials said no hearing has been set in the case.

        If the Travis County court invalidates the change in drugs because state law was not followed, the state would be forced to resort to using the previous drug — which has become unavailable in the United States.

        Leal, a Mexican citizen, is scheduled for execution on July 7.

        Prison officials said they had no immediate comment on pending litigation. Some officials had earlier said they expected legal challenges when the execution drug was changed.

        Lawsuit: Void Texas’ new execution procedure

        Texas to change death cocktail for condemned inmates

        By PEGGY O'HARE
        March 16, 2011

        The state prison system is making the most substantial change ever to the ingredients of the lethal injections used to execute condemned Texas inmates since 1982 because one of its three main drugs, a powerful sedative, is no longer being manufactured in the U.S.

        But an attorney for a Tarrant County man scheduled to be executed next month said she is "appalled" and "horrified" by the decision because she is concerned the change has not been thoroughly investigated or subject to public scrutiny. The attorney anticipates challenging the matter in court.

        Administrators for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice decided this week to replace sodium thiopental — the sedative given to condemned inmates before they are executed — with pentobarbital, a drug that has similar properties. The change was necessary because the only U.S. company that manufactured sodium thiopental stopped making the drug, said TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons.

        Oklahoma made the same change recently to its so-called "death cocktail" and while some death row inmates' attorneys challenged the move in that state, courts upheld and supported the change there.

        "We're confident that it would also be upheld here in Texas," Lyons said Wednesday.

        TDCJ officials consulted with the Texas Attorney General's Office and its own general counsel and reviewed medical expert testimony from federal litigation challenging Oklahoma's death row cocktail change before making its decision, Lyons said.

        The appellate lawyer for Cleve Foster, 47, a Tarrant County man who is the next death row inmate scheduled to be executed on April 5, said she expects to launch her own legal challenge.

        "I am horrified — I am appalled at the lack of transparency in such an important process," said Foster's attorney, Maurie Levin, who has represented death row inmates in state and federal courts since 1993. "I think that state law and general concerns for openness in government require more than this.

        "My concern at this point is that TDCJ has known since at least early January that their current drug supply of sodium thiopental expired on March 1st and that the producer of that drug was no longer making it. And they waited until less than three weeks before Cleve's execution to either decide or announce the change," Levin said.

        Foster, an oil field worker and construction laborer, was sentenced to death for sexually assaulting and fatally shooting a 28-year-old woman in Tarrant County in 2002. The victim's body was later found in a ditch by workers who were installing pipe there.

        Levin dismissed the courts' approval of Oklahoma's new execution process as irrelevant to what might happen here in Texas.

        "Oklahoma is one thing, Texas is another," Levin said Wednesday from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law's Capital Punishment Center, where she is an adjunct professor. "They had some kind of vetting process in Oklahoma — they didn't have it here. They fact that it's been approved there is irrelevant to Texas' process and certainly irrelevant to the lack of openness here."

        While Texas has made small modifications to the dosage amounts of the three drugs used to execute an inmate since lethal injections began here in 1982, this is the most substantial change ever made to the so-called "death cocktail," Lyons said.

        "We were no longer able to purchase sodium thiopental domestically — the manufacturer in the U.S. announced they would no longer be manufacturing the drug. So we had to look for an alternate drug," Lyons said Wednesday.

        While TDCJ still has a supply of the long-used sedative on hand, it expires at the end of this month, so the agency had to find a new drug before Foster's scheduled execution on April 5, Lyons said.

        A lethal dose of the pentobarbital will be administered first to sedate the condemned inmate, followed by a deadly dose of pancuronium bromide, which acts as a muscle relaxant. The final ingredient, potassium chloride, is then injected to stop the inmate's heart.

        TDCJ has enough of the new sedative in supply to carry out the next five scheduled executions, Lyons said.


        Texas to change death cocktail for condemned inmates

        March 4, 2011

        Editor discusses problems with death penalty

        Dave Mann spoke at MonkeyWrench Books about how false convictions relate to capital punishment Thursday. Mann doesn’t foresee the death penalty going away but does see changes in the review of convicted suspects.

        A considerable number of inmates sentenced to death or life in prison could be innocent, the executive editor of the Texas Observer said in a lecture Thursday.

        Dave Mann spoke at MonkeyWrench Books about the death penalty in Texas. Mann focused on specific cases in which he thought the evidence was insufficient to sentence a person to death, including that of convicted arsonist Alfredo Guardiola.

        Guardiola, a heroin addict, was on the scene of a house fire in Houston that killed 4 people, Mann said. Houston police brought Guardiola in for questioning as a witness, but he soon became a suspect, he said.

        “People often want someone to blame when there is a tragedy,” he said.

        Mann asked the audience of 20 people to be the jury in the case. The audience seemed convinced that Guardiola was guilty, agreeing with the jury that sentenced him to 40 years in prison. Mann then revealed that Guardiola gave a written confession after police interrogated him for 13 hours and showed him pictures of the children killed in the fire. A few days later, Guardiola retracted his confession claiming the interrogators coerced him to confess.

        Guardiola currently has 20 years remaining on his sentence.

        Mann said the case is like many others in which either because of police coercion or botched forensic science, innocent people end up in jail or on death row.

        Dallas has re-examined approximately 200 cases, and more than 20 convicts have been exonerated, Mann said. Some areas of forensics, such as blood spatter and ballistics, are currently not sound enough to sentence a person to death, Mann said.

        “We can’t have the death penalty until we are close to 100-% sure that [a suspect] is guilty,” he said. “Judges could be much more discerning when interpreting forensic evidence."

        Scott Cobb, president of the anti-death penalty group Texas Moratorium Network, said capital punishment is an inefficient policy.

        “We don’t have a need for it in the U.S.,” Cobb said. “The rest of the world has turned their back on it."

        Of the 20 audience members, the majority agreed the death penalty has flaws.

        Mann said a moratorium would be a viable solution to the death penalty.

        “It’s a mystery why these cases don’t catch on,” said Mann. “We could use more scrutiny from the media."

        Republican Party of Texas spokesman Chris Elam said the party stands by the death penalty as an option available to juries.

        “The appropriate legal authorities have declared it as a viable punishment,” Elam said.

        (Source: Daily Texan Online)

        Mar. 2, 2011

        Option of life means fewer get death

        In 1998, it took only 12 minutes for a Jefferson County jury to decide Elroy Chester should die.

        12 minutes - 1 minute for each juror - to sentence a man to death.

        The jury's decision in the fatal shooting of Port Arthur fireman Willie Ryman III was the culmination of what was described as the worst crime spree in the county's history.

        And while the circumstances surrounding Chester's crime wave - in which prosecutors alleged five people were killed, five more were shot and three girls were raped - were extreme, such a verdict is less likely today.

        In fact, it is rare that a Texas jury even arrives at a death verdict anymore, experts say.

        Last year, Texas juries sentenced eight convicted killers to death, the lowest since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court approved new death penalty statutes, according to data from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. By comparison, Death Penalty Information Center data show more than 25 new people were added to the ranks of the Texas death row each year between 1985 and 2004.

        Executions are also down. Texas executed 17 people in 2010, the lowest since 2001. By comparison, the Lone Star State executed a high of 40 people in 2000.

        District Attorney Tom Maness said he cannot readily remember the last death penalty conviction in Jefferson County. Texas prison information shows the most recent Jefferson County killer placed on death row under the state judicial system was more than 12 years ago.

        "Certainly, there is a momentum nationwide to legislatively abolish the death penalty," said Kristin Houlé, executive director for the Texas anti-death penalty coalition.

        "In Texas, there is a growing understanding of the flaws and failures of the Texas death penalty," she said.

        Writers for websites like prodeathpenalty.com, however, would debate there are no flaws with the death penalty except for some media accounts that "turn the death of a convicted murderer into a tragedy ... and the deaths and suffering of countless victims is only an easily ignored statistic."

        No matter what side of the debate you are on, data show death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 70 % since 2003.

        According to legal experts and groups passionate about the issue of capital punishment, the decrease can be attributed to the following:

        - A sentencing option of life without parole that became available in September 2005.

        - Studies showing that it is cheaper to imprison a killer for life than execute him.

        - A growing awareness and concern about the risk of wrongful conviction.

        - An improved quality of legal defense in the state.

        - A perceived shift in attitudes on the part of Texas jurors.

        In the last decades, Maness has seen the shift firsthand.

        "The most important reason is the fact that we have life without parole," Maness said. "That gave prosecutors another tool to use and it gave the jury another verdict to use."

        Maness emphasized that prosecutors consult with the victims' families before deciding on how to proceed with a capital case. He said increasingly, victims are comfortable with the jury assessing life without parole, knowing the killer will never get out of prison and be on the streets again.

        A victim's perspective

        That wasn't an option in Chester's case more than a decade ago and it isn't a decision that Erin DeLeon, one of his young victims, would be comfortable with today.

        For DeLeon - whose uncle was killed by Chester in 1998 when she was 17 - execution is the only just punishment.

        "That kind of person is never going to learn any better. There is no way to rehabilitate," she said in a recent telephone interview.

        The death penalty is not a pleasant idea, she said, "but it is a necessity for keeping society from going chaotic."

        "If you do something wrong, you have to take your punishment," she said.

        DeLeon, now 30, and her then-15-year-old sister were sexually assaulted by Chester at gunpoint in their Port Arthur home in February 1998. When their uncle, a decorated Port Arthur firefighter, walked into the house and tried to stop the attack, the gunman fatally shot him.

        Chester pleaded guilty to killing Ryman. The only issue the jury had to decide was life or death.

        The Enterprise doesn't normally identify sexual assault victims, but the sisters and their mother consented at the time of the trial. DeLeon also agreed to publishing her name for this report.

        DeLeon, who held her uncle's hand the night of the slaying as he lay dying on the kitchen floor, said she plans to witness Chester's execution.

        "I decided that back when I was 17 years old," she said. "We've just been waiting. I know it will be a hard thing. ... It's a hard thing to do."

        A mother now living in Lumberton, DeLeon disputes the perception that people's attitudes have shifted against capital punishment.

        "I think the majority of the people honestly believe in punishment. They are just not out there with signs and getting on TV," she said of anti-death penalty groups.

        "If there is no consequence, there is no reason not to do something wrong," she said.

        Ultimate penalty vs. bottom line

        For some states, the argument for abandoning capital punishment comes down to dollars and cents.

        Studies show that the ultimate cost of prosecution of a death penalty case, coupled with defending the subsequent appeals, is much higher than a non-death-penalty case, Maness said.

        A 1992 study by The Dallas Morning News showed the average cost of a Texas death penalty case is $2.3 million versus $750,000 for life in prison, Houlé said.

        In recent years, challenges to the death penalty have ranged from arguments that capital punishment is unconstitutional to claims that the three-chemical cocktail used to execute the condemned constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

        Earlier this year, the sole U.S. maker of one of the lethal injection drugs announced it is ending production. Jason Clark, a state prison spokesman, said Texas had enough of the drug, sodium thiopental, to carry out executions through the end of February. After that, the state will explore other options, including possibly finding an alternate source for the drug or seeking an alternate drug entirely. There are currently four executions scheduled in Texas, one each in April and May and 2 in July.

        Meanwhile, Houlé, of the anti-death penalty coalition cites 138 exonerations of death row inmates nationwide, 12 from Texas, released because of evidence of a wrongful conviction.

        Also in Texas, Houlé points to 42 exonerations of defendants because of DNA evidence. While the vast majority of those cases did not involve the death penalty, Houlé emphasizes that had those inmates been executed, the outcome would have been irreversible.

        "There's no way to correct for that mistake," she said.

        Is it revenge or justice?

        For Beaumont resident Chris Castillo, national outreach coordinator for Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, revenge for his mother's 1991 slaying in Houston is not his goal.

        Castillo, a former Beaumont Enterprise reporter, said his mother, Pilar Castillo, 52, was strangled to death in her home. Officials suspect the killer or killers were men who were renovating her house who invaded it in the middle of the night and robbed her. To this day, the killers have not been caught.

        Castillo said he experienced myriad emotions after his mother's death, but ultimately decided he wanted to put aside his anger.

        "I don't want someone's execution to be my mother's legacy," he said.

        "I think it is kind of ironic: The way we get back at them is killing somebody else."

        Castillo envisions a day in which more and more states will do away with capital punishment.

        He acknowledged Texas might well be the last.

        To date, 15 states have done away with the death penalty, Houlé said, and Illinois - a state awaiting a governor's signature to abolish the death penalty - might soon join them.

        As for Jefferson County District Attorney Maness, he does not believe Texas should ever do away with the death penalty - what he describes as the ultimate punishment for the most horrific crime. As a hypothetical, Maness described a scene in which a gunman invades a McDonald's restaurant and guns down 20 kids at a birthday party.

        There is always going to be a case in which society demands the ultimate punishment, he said.

        (Source: Beaumont Enterprise)

        Feb. 28, 2011

        Rev. Carroll Pickett: The TT Interview

        Rev. Carroll Pickett holds the world record for witnessing the most state executions as a chaplain. He saw 95 men die by lethal injection during his career as the death house chaplain.

        In the years since he left the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Pickett has written a book and starred in an award-winning documentary that chronicled his work at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. He sat down with The Texas Tribune recently to talk about how he "seduced the emotions" of the condemned, why his views about the death penalty changed and how he now copes with all the death he has witnessed.

        Pickett: Death house is at the Walls Unit, and that’s where I was chaplain. The death house is used only for executions. And I was chaplain for 2,200 inmates on the unit and also when executions were reinstated in 1982 after they had been declared unconstitutional in ’64 I was assigned death house chaplain.

        TT: What were your duties as death house chaplain?

        Pickett: Well the warden’s assignment — and he and I got along really well — his main concern was to seduce his emotions so he won’t fight. It was to be honest with him, to talk to him. I would help them with their last letters, to write letters. If they wanted to make telephone calls, the warden gave me permission to go — we had to go through the secretary’s office to make telephone calls. And mainly it was just to keep them calm, to give them juice or drinks or whatever it was they want. If they wanted to talk about the Bible, we’d talk about the Bible. If they wanted to talk about the Quran, I had a friend up in Dallas who gave me the very most expensive Qurans, a whole case of them, to be used only in the death house. Of course, I only used three. Sometimes they just want to sing. I had one that sang all day long. And I did a bunch of little things that made them happy. For instance, if a guy wanted a Dr Pepper, Dr Peppers aren’t available in the death house but, you know, I’d go next door to my house and bring them one. Little things that to them were important.

        TT: What changed your mind about the death penalty?

        Pickett: The main reason I was in favor of the death penalty was because my grandfather was murdered. And my father never talked about it. I found out through one of his cousins. My father was very strongly in favor of punishment, punishment, punishment, hard punishment. So I live with that. Then I began to see that these fellows, first of all they were not the same people who committed the crime, if they committed the crime. You know, they change. We called it restorative justice. Everybody can change. And then I got to see how much it costs. You know, the third guy that was executed it cost that county $6 million. And then there were many of them — way too many — who I knew were innocent, who did not commit the crime.

        It is cruel and unusual punishment. It is not always painless. We have botched executions.

        TT: What changes are needed in death penalty policy?

        Pickett: Law enforcement agencies have to be a lot more careful. Policies and programs like DNA and blood work — [we need to] do this quicker and not wait 20 years like Anthony Graves and some of these other people. If we are going to continue killing people in the name of the state, let’s get them right.

        TT: Why should lawmakers keep prison chaplains in the state budget?

        Pickett: On our unit, our wardens believed when everything is going smooth in the chapel, the fights and the problems go down. If they didn’t believe in anything, and they came to believe in something — something greater than they were — that would change their life. And many, many lives were changed. I have 78 men that became Christians while I was there who are ministers in different churches throughout the United States.

        TT: How do you cope with all the death you've seen over the years?

        Pickett: I feel like my ministry today is to work with organizations and with people and to go places to explain to people exactly what it’s like. That last day is painful. They are sitting there in Cell One looking at that big, black iron door knowing that at midnight or 6 o’clock they are going in there and they are not coming out.

        (Source: Texas Tribune)

        Feb. 25

        David R. Dow's 'The Autobiography of an Execution' is exemplary: new in paperback

        The Autobiography of an Execution, Twelve, 276 pp., $14.99

        Near the beginning of The Autobiography of an Execution, David R. Dow explains, "Because I used to support the death penalty, it's not so hard for me to have sympathy for the misguided souls who still do."

        Working out of Houston, where he teaches law, Dow has represented more than 100 Texas death-row inmates. Most he hasn't liked, many have committed monstrous crimes, yet he writes, "If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist, unprincipled regime . . . then the death-penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you to no end."

        This clear, firm book is much more than a legal argument. It's about rising to do work each morning that will almost invariably fail, in the teeth of knowing that people die because "their lawyers neglect to dot the i's or cross the t's."

        It's also about the desperation of such work when the client is innocent, as Dow concludes for seven men he represented. His book's emotional resonance comes from the toll of this principled work on the author, his wife and young son.

        After a lunchtime phone call about missing an outing with his boy, Dow wonders, "Why is it that when my six-year-old son says, Okay, Dada, I feel like my entire life is a waste of time?"

        "The Autobiography of an Execution" is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award.

        (Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer)

        Feb. 11, 2011

        Prison director says execution drug will be found

        Texas' prison director says he's optimistic the state can find the drug sodium thiopental or an alternative to carry out executions after Texas' supply expires at the end of March.

        Rick Thaler, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutional Division, said Friday outside a state prison board meeting the issue has been a top priority within the agency for several months.

        Sodium thiopental is 1 of 3 drugs used in the lethal mixture given to condemned killers but the sole manufacturer in the U.S. has suspended production and supplies elsewhere have been scarce.

        2 executions are scheduled this month, including 1 next week. Another is set for early April, days after the current Texas supply expires.

        Texas is the nation's most active death penalty state.

        (Source: Associated Press)

        U.S. drug maker discontinues key death penalty drug

        By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
        Associated Press
        Posted: 01/21/2011

        COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The sole U.S. manufacturer of a key lethal injection drug says it's discontinuing drug's production because it couldn't guarantee Italian authorities that it wouldn't be used in executions.

        Hospira Inc., of Lake Forest, Ill., said Friday that its plant in Italy was the only viable place where the company could produce sodium thiopental.

        Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg told The Associated Press that Italian authorities insisted the company prove the drug would never end up with states using it to put condemned inmates to death. Rosenberg said the company determined after discussions with Italy and Hospira wholesalers that it could not make such a guarantee.

        A shortage of sodium thiopental has disrupted executions around the country since last spring when Ohio nearly postponed an execution when it almost ran out.

        U.S. drug maker discontinues key death penalty drug


        Texas prisoner executed for killing cellmate

        May 19, 2010

        Condemned Texas prisoner Rogelio Cannady has been executed for killing a cellmate while already serving 2 life sentences for a double murder.

        The 37-year-old Cannady didn't deny fatally beating his 55-year-old cellmate with a belt and padlock in October 1993. But he insisted the attack at the McConnell Unit prison in South Texas was in self-defense from an unwanted sexual advance.

        The lethal injection Wednesday evening made Cannady the 10th inmate put to death this year in the nation's most active capital punishment state.

        Cannady's execution came after last-day appeals failed in the federal courts.

        Cannady had argued his original conviction for killing 2 teenagers was tainted because of what he called a coerced confession.

        (Source: CNN)



        The yogurt shop case: Injustice for all

        November 01, 2009

        When it comes to the yogurt shop slayings, calling our criminal justice system a system does great injustice to systems that actually work.

        The case has gone on longer than any of the four victims lived.

        For emphasis, let's put it this way: The parents of the four slain girls now have had to suffer through the botched investigation into their daughters' deaths longer than they were able to enjoy their daughter's lives.

        And there still is no resolution.

        After almost 18 years, several trials and untabulated costs, we again have little more than suspects in the horror that began on Dec. 6, 1991, when Austin Police Officer Troy Gay reported the fire that led to the discovery of the bodies of Jennifer Harbison, 17, her sister Sarah, 15, and their friends Eliza Thomas, 17, and Amy Ayers, 13, at the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt shop.

        We can't believe this is justice for anybody involved, including the former defendants, who, as a result of the latest courtroom maneuvering, are back to being mere suspects.

        The latest depressing twist in the case came Wednesday when Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, faced with little choice, dismissed the charges against Robert Springsteen IV, 34, and Michael Scott, 35, as part of a plan to retry them.

        Springsteen, convicted in 2001, was sentenced to death, and Scott, convicted in 2002, was sentenced to life in prison. Both had confessed to the murders, but lawyers for both argued at trial that the confessions were coerced. Four years after the Springsteen conviction, his death sentence was changed to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute people who were juveniles at the time of the offense.

        Everything blew up for the prosecution when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the convictions because the confessions of each defendant improperly were used at each other's trial.

        Problems with prosecuting Scott and Springsteen were complicated when, in preparing for retrials, updated DNA technology found a sample from an unknown male. Tests showed it came from neither Scott or Springsteen, nor from suspects Maurice Pierce or Forrest Welborn, Capital murder charges against Welborn were dismissed in 2000 when grand jurors declined to indict him. Charges against Pierce were dismissed in 2003.

        In June, prosecutors asked for and were granted a delay in the Scott and Springsteen retrials. In granting the delay, State District Judge Mike Lynch released Scott and Springsteen from jail on bond.

        And Lynch backed prosecutors to the wall on Wednesday with his warning that if they did not proceed to trial he'd consider dismissing the case for violations of the defendants' speedy trial rights.

        Lehmberg, faced with the possibility of a ruling that could preclude retrials, had little choice but to blink and move to dismiss the charges, for now. She called it "the best legal and strategic course to take" and noted it was the "best possible posture to ultimately retry both Springsteen and Scott."

        We're not all the way back to square one, but we may be closer to that than we are to justice that is long, long overdue.

        Fault? It has to all default to investigators who overzealously sought confessions and prosecutors who, to date, have been unable to successfully make the case.

        Victims? Everybody for whom the system has not worked. Unfortunately, that's everybody involved, from the slain young girls to the defendants and suspects. The case is far from closed, and all involved are far from closure — if indeed such is possible in a case this horrific.

        The victim list also includes everybody who counts on a functional criminal justice system. You can see one of those people in your bathroom mirror.

        The yogurt shop case: Injustice for all

        Charges dismissed in yogurt shop case

        By Steven Kreytak
        October 28, 2009


        Travis County prosecutors moved to dismiss the murder indictments against the two remaining defendants in the 1991 yogurt shop murders after announcing in court today that they are still looking for the person whose DNA was found last year in one of the four teenage victims.

        Assistant District Attorney Efrain De La Fuente said in court that the decision came because state District Judge Mike Lynch has ordered that a continuance in the case to conduct further DNA testing would not be considered.

        “We are still testing,” he said.

        The packed courtroom was quiet after Lynch ordered the dismissals. Defendants Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, who were once both convicted in the case, hugged their lawyers and supporters in court.

        Outside the courtroom, lawyers for the defendants called on authorities to find the real killers.

        “Those men that did this back in 1991, they left DNA in there,” said Scott lawyer Carlos Garcia. .”And I don’t know if those guys are still alive …but we have your DNA and sooner or later we are going to match your face to it.”

        Springsteen lawyer Joe James Sawyer said that he and his client believe that it is the families of the slain girls who have suffered the most.

        “We should reserve our sympathy for the families of those girls,” Sawyer said.

        “That is paramount.”

        Scott, gripping his wife’s hand, was reserved outside court.

        “This has been a long time in coming,” he said. “I’m happy to be here.”

        At a press conference following the hearing, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg issued a statement that said in part: “Make no mistake, this is a difficult decision and one I would rather not have to make. I believe it is the best legal and strategic course to take and is the one that leaves us in the best possible posture to ultimately retry both Springsteen and Scott.”


        A critical hearing is set for this afternoon in the capital murder cases against two men accused in the 1991 killings of four teenage girls at a North Austin yogurt shop.

        If prosecutors try to avoid setting a trial date, then state District Judge Mike Lynch may consider dismissing the cases against defendants Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott based on their rights to a speedy trial, Lynch wrote in an August order. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg could also decide to dismiss the case on her own.

        The hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. in Travis County’s 167th District Court.

        Lehmberg has scheduled a press conference following the hearing.

        In June, Lynch released the men from jail on their own recognizance after prosecutors said they wanted more time to identify the source of male DNA found in vaginal swabs taken from victim Amy Ayers, 13. Scott, Sprignsteen and two previous co-defendant were excluded as contributors of that DNA.

        Prosecutors have not yet determined whose DNA it is, according to defense lawyers who have been kept apprised of the testing.

        In a strongly worded order in written in August, Lynch said that the lawyers in the case must announce they are ready for trial today. “Extreme circumstances would be required to obtain a continuance,” he wrote.

        If either party announces they are ready for trial and later asks for more time, Lynch wrote, “it would be a violation of this order” if there was no new reason for the continuance request.

        Today’s hearing is the latest critical juncture for a case that has taken many turns since Dec. 6, 1991, when the bodies of Ayers, sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison, 17 and 15, and Eliza Thomas were found, each bound with their own clothing and shot in the head, at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt Shop on West Anderson Lane.

        In 1999, Scott and Springsteen confessed. Their lawyers later said those confessions were coerced under psychological pressure and lengthy interviews by police. Both were convicted but those convictions were overturned when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that Scott’s confession was improperly used at Springsteen’s trial and Springsteen’s confession was improperly used at Scott’s trial.

        Prosecutors ordered testing using new, previously unavailable DNA technology, and found the DNA on Ayers.

        Defense lawyers say that additional testing found the same unknown male’s DNA in a vaginal swab taken from victim Jennifer, and another partial DNA profile in Sarah, who was also killed in the crime. They also found additional unknown male DNA on clothing used to bind the wrists of Eliza.

        The DNA results were obtained using technology not previously available. The Y-STR profiles can not be run through databases of DNA taken from convicts and others and must be individually compared to known DNA profiles. Scott and Springsteen have been excluded as contributors of any of the DNA found at the crime scene.

        In June, Lehmberg said the DNA found on Ayers had been compared to DNA taken from 130 people, including associates of the defendants, crime scene workers and others. None matched, she said.

        Lehmberg in June would not say whether she go to trial without first identifying whose DNA was found on Ayers.

        Lynch wrote in his order that he would not grant the district attorney more time to prepare the case to conduct further DNA testing.

        If the cases are dismissed by either Lehmberg or Lynch it is likely that they could be re-filed after additional investigation.

        To read about the challenges the DA faces in prosecuting the case, go Here.

        Charges dismissed in yogurt shop case

        Oct. 27, 2009

        28-year-old convicted in 2000 shooting executed

        A man convicted of murder in a San Antonio robbery more than 9 years ago was executed Tuesday evening after proclaiming his innocence.

        Reginald Blanton, 28, received lethal injection for the April 2000 shooting death of Carlos Garza at the 22-year-old man's apartment.

        In a brief statement after he was strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney, Blanton insisted his execution was an injustice and he was wrongly convicted.

        "Carlos was my friend," he said, looking at Garza's mother, wife and 3 sisters, who watched through a window a few feet from him. "I didn't murder him. What's happening right now is an injustice. This doesn't solve anything. This will not bring back Carlos."

        Blanton also complained the lethal drugs that would be used on him weren't allowed to put down dogs.

        "I say I am worse off than a dog," he said. "They want to kill me for all this. I am not the man that did this."

        Then he told friends he loved them and to continue to fight.

        "I will see y'all again," he said.

        He was pronounced dead at 6:21 p.m., 8 minutes after the lethal drugs began flowing.

        "Today is the day we have all been waiting for," said one of Garza's sisters, Sulema Balverde. "My brother Carlos Garza can finally rest in peace."

        The women held hands or wrapped their arms around each other while Blanton spoke. Some wiped away tears.

        "I miss my son dearly and have waited for this day to finally get here," said Irene Garza, the victim's mother.

        The punishment was carried out less than 2 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Blanton's last-day appeals.

        He had always maintained his innocence but a security video submitted at his capital murder trial showed him pawning 2 gold necklaces and a religious medal belonging to Garza about 20 minutes after the shooting. When he was arrested 4 days later, he was wearing more of Garza's jewelry.

        Blanton's twin brother, Robert Blanton, told police his brother broke into Garza's apartment, believing no one was home, and shot Garza when he appeared.

        Prosecutors said Reginald Blanton, who was 18 at the time, took some jewelry and left, then returned 20 minutes later to go through Garza's place. He took about $100 in cash. The necklaces got him $79 at a pawn shop.

        A neighbor called police after seeing the broken door and spotting Garza lying on the floor. Garza died later at a hospital.

        Robert Blanton's girlfriend tipped police about the shooting. Robert Blanton implicated his brother during questioning. Reginald Blanton argued his brother's statement was coerced by police.

        Robert Blanton wasn't charged in the case because authorities couldn't show he was involved in the break-in or shooting, but he's now in prison, serving a 2-year term for an unrelated drug conviction at the Huntsville Unit, the prison where the execution was carried out.

        Reginald Blanton's trial attorneys told a Bexar County jury he shouldn't be sentenced to die, saying he had a horrible childhood with little supervision and he could have been harmed as a fetus because his mother was pushed down the stairs.

        Witnesses testified Blanton smoked marijuana at age 11, spent time at a juvenile boot camp and joined gangs in San Antonio to seek protection his family didn't provide. He had previous arrests for shoplifting, weapons possession, auto theft and marijuana possession. When he was arrested on the capital murder charge, he had 4 bags of marijuana and a shotgun. He was accused of assaulting an inmate while awaiting trial.

        On death row, prison records show Blanton had several disciplinary infractions, including possession of a sharpened steel shank. He also was among death row inmates caught last year with illegal cell phones.

        Blanton became the 19th inmate to be executed in Texas this year. At least 6 more lethal injections are scheduled before the end of the year, including Khristian Oliver, 32, set to die next week for the beating death of a Nacogdoches County man during a burglary in 1998. Blanton becomes the 442nd condemned inmate to be put to death in Texas since the state resumed capital punishment on December 7, 1982. He is the 203rd condemned inmate to be put to death since Rick Perry became governor in 2001.

        Blanton becomes the 42nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1178th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

        On the Net: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Execution Schedule

        (Sources : Associated Press & Rick Halperin)


        Ex-governors death penalty skepticism a welcome step

        Former Texas Gov. Mark White did last week what he could never have done during his 2 campaigns for state attorney general and three bids for the governors office. He said it is time for Texas to rethink the use of capital punishment and replace the death penalty with life in prison.

        You see, no one can run a successful statewide campaign in Texas the death penalty capital of the country without being for capital punishment. Just ask any of the candidates already running for governor in next years election. They wouldn't dare come out against the ultimate legal penalty.

        Even the late Ann Richards, a compassionate soul indeed, felt compelled to talk tough like the good ol boys and declare her stand in favor of this barbaric practice.

        When White ran his 3rd race for governor, in 1990, facing Richards in the Democratic primary, he actually bragged about the people who were executed on his watch.

        19 people were put to death by the state while he was governor, between 1983 and 1987. During an interview on National Public Radio last week, he was reminded of the commercial he ran in that race, which Richards ultimately won.

        Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered, began the conversation by saying, "I'm going to play for you part of a campaign ad from back in 1990 when you ran again. You lost in the Democratic primary, and the ad shows you walking along the portraits of people who were executed while you were governor. Let's listen."

        The sound bite from the ad has White saying, "These hardened criminals will never again murder, rape or deal drugs. As governor, I made sure they received the ultimate punishment: death. And Texas is a safer place for it."

        White's change of heart last week, coming after national news coverage about the 2004 execution of a man who might have been innocent, was heralded by death penalty opponents, including Amnesty International USA.

        "The evolution of Governor White's views on the death penalty in Texas is welcomed news, and it mirrors the change that is taking place nationwide," the human rights organization said in a statement. "As advances in DNA and forensic science have revealed the extent to which our criminal justice system is prone to error, judges, jurors, the public and even some politicians, have begun to question the wisdom of resorting to capital punishment. Those who once supported the death penalty are now significantly less sure."

        With the growing number of exonerations of convicted people in Texas 2 others from Dallas County announced last week one can't help but wonder, "How many innocent people have been put to death for a crime they did not commit?"

        The Texas case getting a lot of scrutiny now partly because Gov. Rick Perry overreacted to a state commissions investigation of it is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of killing his 3 young daughters in a fire. He was executed 5 years ago.

        (source: Editorial, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)


        Death penalty demonstrators march at State Capitol

        Hundreds rallied Saturday afternoon at the State Capitol as part of the 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. They came certain an innocent man was executed and called for an end to the death penalty.

        The protesters drew attention to the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham. He was tried, convicted and in 2004 executed for setting a fire to his house, killing his 3 young daughters. Despite not having a clear motive, investigators accused him of arson. But a new report, commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, says the expert evidence was wrong.

        Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright and Willinghams former pen pal, is convinced of his innocence and was instrumental in helping his family find a fire investigator to examine his case. She believes an innocent man was put to death.

        "We executed a person who didn't commit a crime," she said. "I am hoping to bring attention that if 1 person is executed, thats more than enough."

        Governor Perry has come under fire for replacing several members of a state commission just days before it was to hear a report on the science used to convict Willingham of arson. He has dismissed the criticism as anti-death penalty rhetoric. He says the panel will move forward with the investigation and maintains Willingham was guilty.

        "Willingham was a monster," said the Governor. "This was a guy who murdered hi s 3 children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that, quite frankly, you all aren't covering."

        There were counter-demonstrato rs at the rally.

        Willingham's mother, Eugenia, had been scheduled to speak at the rally but organizers said lawyers had advised her not to attend. In a written statement handed out by organizers, she wrote: "At this time, my primary concern is that the Texas Forensic Commission be given the opportunity to continue the investigation into Todd's wrongful death." She wrote about receiving letters of support from death row inmates, saying her son's execution has caused appeals courts to take a closer look at their cases. This won't bring Todd back, but I take comfort in knowing that others may be freed because of him."

        (source: TXCN News)


        Protesters march to call for an end to executions
        Recent remarks by Perry fuel anti-death penalty rally.

        By Joshunda Sanders
        October 25, 2009

        Anti-death penalty protesters gathered at the Capitol on Saturday in part to voice their disapproval of Gov. Rick Perry's remarks this month regarding Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young children on Dec. 23, 1991.

        The 10th annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty occurred in the midst of a renewed debate over capital punishment, largely spurred by Willingham's case. Most recently, former Texas Gov. Mark White said the state should reconsider its use of capital punishment "so we don't look up one day and determine that we, as the State of Texas, have executed someone who in fact was innocent."

        White's comments came as Perry has been criticized for replacing four members of the Texas Forensics Commission and delaying consideration of a fire scientist's report questioning the 2004 execution of Willingham. Perry has described Willingham as a "monster" and said he is certain of his guilt.

        One of the lawyers who represented Willingham in his appeals disagreed.

        "Todd Willingham was a person who deserved to be treated fairly, and he didn't get that," said Walter Reaves, Willingham's appellate attorney. "No one could ever make the case that if we knew then what we know now that he would have been convicted, tried and executed."

        Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit group that works to overturn wrongful convictions, said that the Willingham case "represents an opportunity for Texas to fix a broken criminal justice system."

        Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, a nonprofit organization that aims to mobilize support for a moratorium on state executions, said about 50 organizations were responsible for organizing Saturday's march.

        The event attracted hundreds of people, who carried signs with photographs of inmates currently on death row and posters bearing slogans such as "Stop All Executions."

        About a dozen protesters sat on the steps of the Capitol, holding white posters with lists of the hundreds of inmates who have been executed in Texas since 1982, when the state resumed executions.

        Austinite Jeanette Popp, 60, came to the march with a different perspective.

        On Oct. 24, 1988, Popp's 20-year-old daughter, Nancy DePriest, was found dead with her hands bound behind her back at the North Austin Pizza Hut where she worked. Two men were wrongfully convicted of her death and served 12 years in prison. They were freed in 2001, after DNA evidence implicated another man.

        The confessed killer, Achim Josef Marino, said that he had shot DePriest as part of a satanic sacrifice. Eventually, Popp lobbied for Marino to be spared the death penalty, which he was.

        Despite the time that has passed, Popp said, the conversation on capital punishment has not changed.

        "It's the 21st anniversary of my daughter's murder, and we're still talking about murdering people with the murdering machine," she said.

        jsanders@statesman.com; 445-3630

        Protesters march to call for an end to executions

        Oct. 24, 2009

        A change of heart: Sex offenders who kill deserve the death penalty

        This will be one of my shortest op-ed pieces within 9 years of writing them, but I must come clean. In as much as I say that I am pro-life where I have stated I am pro-life from cradle-to-grave, I must, I must take back that mantle especially when it comes to child sexual predators. These monsters will at times take the lives of innocent victims, namely children. Our precious children gone before the promise of their lives not realized to all of us.

        If a writer is to be honest with their readers, then they must be honest with themselves first and foremost. Over the years I have read up on pedophilia and have written of it. There are no words to adequately describe my feelings towards these predators. If I had to choose one word, it would be 'hate'. That word at times seems tame.

        In delving into the heinous world of pedophilia, one cannot take enough hot showers to clean themselves from reading story-upon-story of children raped and murdered by demons. I want these demons dead. I cannot stomach their apologists or those who try, try to explain away their deviant behavior. How dare they?! Let them face a child who has survived a predator or a parent whose child was taken by one.

        I do not want these demons out within our neighborhoods being told to register under Megan's Law, I want them locked up. Is that so much to ask of our stupid politicians who think this is the best way of dealing with sexual offenders? In doing so, it is their abdication of judicial responsibility to deal with these predators. They expect us to deal with them instead of them. I have stated that from the get-go, yet, yet no one listens.

        Tonight, I had to put out a tweet on Twitter.com and my Facebook.com page this entry: "My tears and anguish go out to Diena Thompson whose daughter Somer was killed by a child predator.
        Fry him!"

        It is my sincere hope that you sit and listen to Diena Thompson openly grieve fully knowing that her beloved Somer will not come back to her again and murdered at the hands of a predator. Whose rights should we as a society be protecting? The rights of the victim(s) or the rights of the predator(s)?

        Somer Thompson and children just like her namely Jessica Lunsford will not be coming back to their loved ones or to us and it is time we stand up for them. We as a society must demand of our politicos that if you sexually harm a child and are declared a level 3 sex offender, you are never getting out of prison. If you kill a child in the act of any sexual act, you will face the death penalty. It is the least we can do for those most innocent amongst us; our children.

        So, I guess I am not pro-life from cradle-to-grave; but justice for the most innocent amongst us rings louder in my ears. I hope that you hear them too.

        (source: Mary MacElveen, OpEdNews)


        Death Penalty Is Too Expensive for States; Study Finds----State and Local Governments Facing Budget Crunches Can Realize Big Savings by Eliminating the Death Penalty

        A group opposing capital punishment is urging government officials to reassess the costs and benefits of the death penalty in light of America's economic troubles.

        State and local governments facing dire budget crunches can realize substantial savings by replacing capital punishment with a regime that sentences the worst offenders to life in prison without parole, according to a report released Tuesday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

        The number of death sentences handed down in the United States has dropped from roughly 300 a year in the 1990s to 115 a year more recently.

        Executions are falling off at the same rate, the report says.

        In the meantime, some 3,300 inmates remain on death row.

        "[T]he death penalty is turning into a very expensive form of life without parole," said Richard Dieter, DPIC executive director, in a statement. "At a time of budget shortfalls, the death penalty cannot be exempt from reevaluation alongside other wasteful government programs that no longer make sense."

        Despite the report's findings, the death penalty has the support of most Americans. According to an October 2008 Gallup survey, 64 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. Thirty percent oppose it.

        Only once in the past 70 years (in 1966-67) did more Americans oppose capital punishment than support it, the poll results show. In that time span, 47 % opposed it, while 42 % supported it.

        The DPIC study does not address American attitudes toward capital punishment. Instead, the report focuses on the economic costs.

        A 2008 study in California found that the state was spending $137 million a year on capital cases. A comparable system that instead sentenced the same offenders to life without parole would cost $11.5 million, says the DPIC report, citing the study's estimates.

        New York spent $170 million over 9 years on capital cases before repealing the death penalty. No executions were carried out there.

        New Jersey spent $253 million over 25 years with no executions. That state also repealed capital punishment.

        Some officials may be tempted to try to cut capital-punishment costs, notes the DPIC report, but many of those costs reflect Supreme Court-mandated protections at the trial and appeals-court levels. "The choice today is between a very expensive death penalty and one that risks falling below constitutional standards," the report says.

        Nationwide, the report estimates, at least $2 billion has been spent since 1976 for costs that wouldn't have been incurred if the severest penalty were life in prison. The figure is based on an estimate in a 1993 North Carolina study that found the average extra cost of a death sentence in this state was $300,000. The average extra cost of capital punishment is significantly higher in several other states like California, Florida, and Maryland, the report says.

        Bills calling for an end to capital punishment have been introduced in 11 state legislatures this year. Also this year, New Mexico abolished the death penalty, and Maryland narrowed its use. The Connecticut governor vetoed a law that would have ended capital punishment.

        The DPIC report includes the results of a recent poll of 500 police chiefs nationwide. 57 % of the chiefs polled said they agreed with the statement that the death penalty does little to prevent violent crimes because perpetrators rarely consider the consequences when engaged in violence.

        39 % of police chiefs disagreed with this statement.

        The DPIC study concludes that capital punishment is a wasteful, expensive program that no longer makes sense. "The promised benefits from the death penalty have not materialized, "the report says. "If more states choose to end the death penalty, it will hardly be missed, and the economic savings will be significant."

        (source: ABC News)

        Oct. 23, 2009

        Abolish the death penalty today

        After spending 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Mark Clements was finally set free in August. Here, he comments on the case of Reginald Blanton, who is scheduled to be executed on October 27 by the state of Texas.

        Texas is still under fire for the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, but on October 27, 2009, the state is scheduled to execute Reginald Blanton, despite his claims of innocence.

        In the Willingham case, Texas Gov. Rick Perry carried out the execution.

        Now that new evidence has surfaced that strongly suggests Perry killed an innocent man, he wishes to insist that he do likewise in the Blanton case.

        Gov. Perry has ignored the opinion of millions around this nation who firmly believe that Willingham was indeed innocent. He has called him a "monster" even as he has disregarded key evidence by fire experts that Willingham never set the fire that killed his children, but rather that it was caused by some kind of accident.

        In the Reginald Blanton case, Blanton was convicted on faulty evidence--that a shoe print belonged to him. The shoe print is now known to have been two sizes larger than his shoe print. His trial attorneys were ineffective, and there was not one eyewitness in the case. The witnesses against Blanton have since come forward to claim that police forced them to sign statements. The Texas courts once again allowed African Americans to be excluded from the jury.

        This is a case that Gov. Perry should be pleased to reexamine, but he has told the media that he will carry out the execution of Reginald Blanton as planned--which amounts once again to a smack in the face of African Americans all across this nation.

        No other race has suffered injustice like African Americans in this country. In the state of Illinois, it is a known fact that innocent men have been beaten and tortured by racist police detectives-- framed and convicted, and placed on death row.

        History is repeating itself once again. Slavery still exists. If you think it does not, then try walking in the shoes of Reginald Blanton, Kenneth Foster, Troy Davis, Rodney Reed, Stan Tookie Stanley Williams, Stanley Howard and many others.

        The state of Texas' criminal justice system serves as the spotlight on why the death penalty in this country should be abolished today, not tomorrow.

        (source: Socialist Worker)


        Uncomfortable jokes about executing prisoners by former Texas Death House warden

        Joking about executions was more than some students and college professors were ready to hear, especially when the stand up comic was in charge of executing so many Texas prisoners.

        The warden who oversaw the Walls Unit in Huntsville, giving the order to go ahead with 89 executions, joked about sending inmates to their death as he spoke to a University of Houston Downtown lecture Tuesday night, but some students and staff expressed discomfort as they talked about it outside the event.

        Jim Willett had copies of his two books for sale as he addressed the UHD Criminal Justice Lecture Series.

        Now head of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, he never focused on one single theme or message as he addressed a room full of around 80 students, faculty and visitors. He began telling several stories and then stopped, midway, and told the audience he needed to back up or he had forgotten details.

        In answering one student's question, Willett said an inmate had clearly told the prison chaplain minutes before his execution that he was innocent of the crime he was about to die for. As the audience sat and digested his statement, he said he meant to say that the inmate had admitted his guilt.

        Willett was responding to a question about whether he ever gave the command to execute an inmate that he believed may be innocent. Willett said the inmate in his botched story had told the chaplain that he really was guilty, but he gave a final statement professing his innocence because he just couldn't stand the thought of telling his family he was guilty.

        While joking or making fun may be an understandable part of on-the-job stress relief for prison workers when no one else is around, Willett's jokes about sending prisoners to their death took students, faculty and others in attendance by surprise.

        He said that one inmate was strapped to the gurney and asked for a piece of gum because his mouth was so dry. In a move of compassion, the executioner stepped up and opened a piece of candy and plopped it into the inmate's mouth. The warden said that inmate just started chewing and chewing on that candy.

        Then Willett said he stepped around to the inmate's other shoulder and asked the inmate if that happened to be a Livesaver. While a few uncomfortable laughs were heard in the UHD auditorium, others looked to the floor.

        Willett then continued his story and said the inmate replied that he was hoping that it was, indeed, a Lifesaver, but he didn't think it was working.

        Willett also says he joked with another inmate who was about to die, over the gesture the warden would give to start the execution. He said that the inmate had heard a national radio interview, in which Willett said his signal to the executioner was to simply take off his reading glasses when the inmate's final statement was finished. When the glasses come off, the executioner starts the lethal drugs flowing through the IV.

        Willett gleefully said he asked this particular inmate how he'd know when the final statement was finished, and he said the inmate replied that he would just tell the warden to take off his glasses.

        But that joke wasn't over for the UHD crowd.

        Willett said he sternly told the inmate not to say such a thing during his final statement to the witnesses in the execution chamber. He said he was very firmly telling him not to do something, but he chuckled with the UHD college crowd and said he found it strange that he was threatening an inmate who was about to die. After all, said Willett, what could he possibly threaten this person with anyway?

        Willett's story about taking off his glasses to signal the executioner has been repeated many times since he started selling books. He told a KPRC Local 2 interviewer about his trademark move for a report that aired after his retirement from TDCJ. It was also immortalized in that radio broadcast that the now deceased convict had mentioned hearing, since that NPR broadcast received a Peabody Award.

        At the UHD event, he admitted that he copied that move from the past warden. Perhaps that past warden didn't take so much joy in telling about this move, which is why it's ripe for this warden to use as new material.

        Willett also said he followed the advice of that past warden by waiting exactly 3 minutes from the time the inmate appears to die before calling in the doctor to pronounce the inmate dead. He said the past warden had indicated this was 'just to be safe' so he figured he should follow that protocol.

        On the first execution he presided over, he said it was the longest 3 minutes of his life.

        Willett told several stories of how he was compassionate in the final hours or moments of a convict's life, almost as if he was bragging.

        In one case, he says he allowed a series of phone calls that are normally off limits, in other cases he says he allowed cigarettes for the condemned even though TDCJ has been smoke free since the 90's.

        At first, Willett said there were almost never any problems in finding a vein to insert needles on both arms of the inmate. Then later, he was asked a specific question and he admitted one instance where veins could not be easily found so only a single needle was inserted in one arm. After he gave the order to start the execution, he said the inmate turned to him and announced the needle had fallen out.

        Willett said he closed the curtains to shield the witnesses, and those witnesses were led out so that they could be led in to start all over again once the needle had been replaced.

        He said he often tapped people who are not state employees to help him with the difficult task of starting the final IV's for executions under his watch. When pressed for exactly what he meant, he remained vague but he said he would sometimes find people who had experience in starting IV's during the Vietnam War since they would be perfect for the task in the stressful Texas Death Chamber.

        On the subject of needing to round up help in executing convicts, Willett said several employees who executed Karla Faye Tucker asked to be removed from the execution detail. He said some called in sick the following day and others sought counseling, while others said it changed how they looked at executions.

        Tucker was one of two women to be executed on Willet's watch. The other, he said, went smoothly. However, Tucker's was complicated by the immense national media attention since she had claimed to be a born-again Christian and shots of her praying were all over the national news as her execution approached in 1998. She was condemned for a barbaric 1993 drug-fueled pickax slaying of 2 people.

        Willett said his entire 'strap down team' and anyone having any part of the execution always handled it with professionalism and that was always important to him. He said that he would watch carefully because anyone who seemed to enjoy executions had no place in the execution process.

        He said he would quickly call them in and take them off the execution detail if they seemed like they'd be unprofessional about such a somber task.

        In this reviewer's opinion, Willett should follow his own advice and take himself off the execution detail for his book tour.

        From a reporter who has been an official witness of 2 executions and covered dozens more: This UHD book-selling lecture was likely the worst example of insensitivity and glee from a TDCJ Death House employee being on display in such a disturbing manner.

        (source: Stephen Dean, Houston Examiner)

        Oct. 21, 2009

        Death Row Inmates in Texas Tell Their Stories in New Book

        The U.S. state with the busiest death chamber and one of the largest prison populations is Texas, where public opinion polls show the death penalty is supported by more than 70% of the population.

        A new book by students at a Texas university compiles writings and art work done by condemned prisoners.

        The book, Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days, Voices from Texas Death Row, was published by Texas Review Press, on the campus of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville - a city that is the location of one of the state's largest prisons and where executions are carried out.

        The book provides a rare look into the minds of men who await their moment in the death chamber.

        Texas courts have condemned nearly 350 men and 10 women to be executed. The men are kept in a high-security prison near Livingston, Texas, a short drive from Huntsville, where the execution chamber, known as Ellis Unit One is housed.

        One of the men on death row is 31-year-old Robert Will, who, at the age of 22, took part in a crime that resulted in the murder of a police officer.

        Robert Will

        When asked to write something for the book on Texas' death row, he chose not to write about himself, but about a fellow inmate who took his own life. "My friend was a genuinely good person who just made some bad choices in life," he wrote. Will says many inmates on death row struggle with guilt over the people they killed as well as the anxiety of knowing they are condemned to die."

        "There is more stress on a person's psyche, because you are living under a sentence of death and that can weigh heavily on a person's mind. I mean I have seen guys literally go completely insane," he said.

        In addition to writings, the new book contains art work done by death row inmates, many of whom Will regards as true artists. "There is so much talent back here. And I know that this might sound outrageous, but if someone reads that book, perhaps it will not sound so outrageous. You have individuals back here who, I mean, you have artists who are brilliant, absolutely brilliant artists," he said.

        Paul Ruffin with students

        The idea for the book on death row originated with Sam Houston State University English Professor Paul Ruffin, who teaches a class in which students develop a book from inception to printing. He says this book gives a voice to people who society has cast off. "What we wanted to do was give them an outlet for their work, for their expression. We wanted to know what it was like, day-to-day, living on death row," he said.

        Around 50 male inmates submitted writings and art work. But none of the condemned women responded, much to Ruffin's disappointment. He says they, like many male inmates, might have distrusted the motives of the people working on the book. A photo of a torn-up request for submissions is featured in the book.

        Paula Khalaf, student editor

        But one of the book's seven student editors, Paula Khalaf, says those who did contribute seemed to like the idea. "One of the inmates said, 'Thank you for the opportunity to show that we are not monsters; we are human beings,'" she said.

        Khalaf says that before working on this book, she never thought much about the death penalty, but she was deeply touched by reading the stories of men who often grew up in broken homes and who, as one inmate says, "became lost souls as children." "I have to say I have probably changed my feelings about the death penalty. Probably, if I had to come down as either for or against it at this point, I would be against it," she said.

        James Ridgway

        But fellow editor James Ridgway has mixed feelings about that issue and the prisoners themselves. "The first reaction is to be sympathetic, like, 'Oh, wow, these are really sad stories and I feel bad.' And then, the second thing that happens is you look up the crime and you are horrified," he said.

        Although the book does not describe the crimes committed by the inmate contributors, the information is provided online by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

        Ridgway says working on the book challenged him intellectually and emotionally. You are reading these things and this kind of dark mood sets over you and again, whether you are for or against the death penalty, that is not my point - it is that sifting through enough of that [writing] sort of puts that mood on you," he said.

        There is so much interest in the book that Professor Ruffin says his new class is already at work on a follow-up book that will include creative writing by inmates and various kinds of art work as well. One early submission is a dice game made of scrap material by an inmate who also included detailed, handwritten instructions on how to play the game he invented in his cell.

        Ruffin says one goal of this project has already been accomplished in that the condemned men are no longer just names and numbers. "They have become something like people we know now, whereas before they were obscure," he said.

        Copies of the Texas death row book were sent to the inmate contributors.

        Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days, Voices from Texas Death Row is available for purchase in bookstores as well as online.

        (source: Voice of America News)

        Oct. 21, 2009

        Texas Gov. Could Face Criminal Charges for Interfering with Death Penalty Review

        Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) is facing questions about his responsibility for wrongfully executing Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of arson for a fire that killed his daughters, despite new expert analysis showing there was in fact zero evidence of arson. An investigation into the execution has already found that Perry was given the new evidence to review which should have shown him that all the evidence of guilt was actually scientifically unfounded testimony but chose not to stay the execution pending review of the trial process and evidence.

        When the investigation began looking into Gov. Perry's review of the process, what he knew and when he knew it, he refused to reappoint the sitting chair of the commission and replaced him and two other members with conservatives sympathetic to his point of view. The new commissioner has canceled testimony from a leading arson expert that would discredit the case used to execute Willingham.

        Gov. Perry is locked in a serious challenge within his own party from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who says his politicization of the death penalty has put the entire system at risk. There are also mounting concerns the governor in fact saw the new evidence and even received a direct communication from Willinghams lawyer requesting a stay, but deliberately chose to ignore clearly exculpatory evidence for political reasons.

        If that is indeed the case, Gov. Perry might face legal consequences for knowingly putting an innocent man to death to further his own political career. That question has not been put forward explicitly by the state's investigators, and Gov. Perry's moves to change the makeup of the panel by appointing potential allies are a clear attempt to prevent it from being posed formally, but allegations the governor's office sought to halt the investigation suggest precisely the possibility he knew he was executing an innocent man and umis worried about the legal and political fallout should his actions be formally investigated.

        For his part, Gov. Perry is now aggressively attacking Willingham in the court of public opinion, seeking to make his death seem a welcome end to a reign of terror by calling him a "monster" and saying he beat his wife to force her to have an abortion. Perry hopes to persuade a majority of voters to see him as a man who did his civic duty in putting a murderer to death. But even Republicans are now questioning Perrys personal responsibility and commitment to the integrity of the system.

        Could a governor empowered by law to approve death sentences, but also to halt them before they are enforced, actually face homicide charges, should he be seen to have knowingly executed an innocent man for personal gain? Certainly federal law provides ways such a charge and/or verdict could come to pass for instance felony murder based on abuse of office, or violating a citizens civil rights by denying him his day in court (with the new evidence).

        What is perhaps more surprising than that this situation has arisen or that such questions are being raised this has long been expected to some degree, given the radically pro-death penalty political climate in Texas is the fact that Gov. Perry appears to have so brazenly and publicly sought to interfere in the process and evince his personal wishes that the matter never be fully reviewed.

        The point has many times been made, by both opponents and responsible proponents of capital punishment, that everyone, every citizen and every politician, had the same very real interest in making sure the system never permits an innocent person anywhere near death row. Perry, however, seems determined not to take any action that would ensure the integrity of the system.

        Either he does not claim and does not want any responsibility over the system, in which case, one imagines he is unfit to serve at the top of it, or he has taken it upon himself to impede the progress of justice, conceal evidence and unilaterally assert the reliability of a process, while refusing to use its last true humane tool to scrutinize the process and side with justice, in which case.

        It gets easier to see over time why Perry wants the investigation halted.

        He has put far more Americans to death than any living official. And Willingham was not the first case he simply shrugged off as settled and in no need of review. How many of those cases will suddenly become suspect, if 1) Willingham is formally found innocent and 2) evidence emerges that the governor ignored exculpatory evidence and executed an innocent man, not just as a result of a travesty of justice but with specific personal political and professional gain in mind? In how many of those cases did Perry consciously or even explicitly consider personal political benefit as tied to ending a human life?

        Opponents of the death penalty already smell blood in the water and are beginning to view Perry as easy prey. If they can show that the single most prolific executioner in the United States ignored evidence, gamed the system and put people to death banking on the political benefits of having done so, it will breathe new life into the abolitionist movement. Perry must fight not only that political battle, but also the perception that his attempt to end the investigation might be a criminal coverup.

        (source: CafeSentido. com)

        Oct. 21, 2009

        Study: Death penalty is a waste of taxpayer money

        If you live in a state that provides a taxpayer-funded program no one is using, is it worth keeping?

        So why do we still have a death penalty?

        A new nationwide study puts things in stark terms: The death penalty is a waste of money:

        "A group opposing capital punishment is urging government officials to reassess the costs and benefits of the death penalty in light of America's economic troubles.

        State and local governments facing dire budget crunches can realize substantial savings by replacing capital punishment with a regime that sentences the worst offenders to life in prison without parole, according to a report released Tuesday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC)." --Christian Science Monitor

        The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit information warehouse on capital punishment that also opposes the death penalty.

        Execution Chamber, San Quentin (Sacramento Bee) Their study found that death penalty costs can average $10 million more per year per state than life sentences. The increased costs are due to more expensive security requirements and guaranteed access to an often lengthy appellate process.

        States often must assign public defenders and pay for the costs of the prosecution as well. Cases are more costly to prosecute and can take over four times longer to try, requiring additional moneys for lawyers, jurors, court personnel and other related costs.

        States can't afford that, so cases take longer, executions are fewer (down from a record 98 a decade ago to 40 so far this year), inmates remain on death row longer, where their incarceration is more expensive to maintain.

        Some 3,300 inmates remain on death row in the 35 states where capital punishment remains on the books.

        The death penalty needs to go. I'm not squeamish about executions. I just don't like wasting money, and the death penalty is a waste of money.

        New Jersey is a good test case. In December of 2007, Jersey became the first state in modern times to repeal its death penalty. It was 1 of 5 states where capital punishment remained on the books but has been unused for decades. Another 5 states have each executed only one prisoner during the past 40 years.

        With a blue-ribbon commission, the state of New Jersey came to what I think was a rational conclusion: capital punishment --which requires a more elaborate process at trial and in appeals-- costs too much, financially and emotionally, to maintain it as an empty gesture.

        The state had spent a quarter of a billion dollars above and beyond the cost of non-capital murder trials to try to satisfy the exacting standards for death penalty cases established by U-S Supreme Court and interpreted by skeptical lower courts. And in those appeals, of the 60 death sentences recommended by New Jersey juries under the current law, 57 have been reversed on appeal. The emptiness of a penalty that is so rarely imposed convinced state lawmakers that the death penalty served no purpose, and the state decided that a life sentence without possibility of parole can accomplish as much but without the added financial burdens.

        California, where I live, still has its death penalty. It has 678 death row inmates. We haven't executed anyone in four years. Since 1992, we've executed 13 people. From the time capital punishment was reinstated in 1978 until 1992, we've executed no one.

        A death penalty in which no one is put to death is not a death penalty; it's life without parole, just a more expensive form of it.

        Yet we pay for its upkeep. A California prison inmate in the general population costs the taxpayer about $50,000 annually. On death row, it's $90,000, over $60 million annually for all 678 inmates just for the jail cell.

        Last year, a blue ribbon panel put the entire cost of maintaining California's death penalty system at $137 million a year. Imagine the t-shirt: "We spent $137 million and all we got was a lousy 13 executions in 17 years."

        Why so much? Because a fundamental right in our system of government is due process and a defendant must have every opportunity to avail himself of all legal remedies before the state can take his life. There's no money to adequately fund the courts to quickly move defendants through the system. To do so, it would cost California taxpayers another $96 million, according to last year's panel.

        On the other hand, a system imposing a maximum penalty of life without parole would cost just $11.5 million per year.

        It's a simple choice: Spend $137 million on a death penalty system that executes no one, $233 million to execute more people more quickly, or $11.5 million to lock 'em up for good.

        And yet, the governor, who's been demanding budget cuts and keeps cutting state worker salaries, approved a plan to rebuild the state's death row at a cost of $356 million to the taxpayer. For what, to spend the next 17 years executing another 13 more death row inmates?

        States are starting to get it. The nation is moving towards abolition. Before repealing their death penalties in 2007, New York and New Jersey had spent a combined $433 million on capital cases over the previous 25 years. They executed no one.

        This year, New Mexico abolished the death penalty, Maryland narrowed its use and bills calling for an end to capital punishment have been introduced in 11 state legislatures. Should California follow suit?

        Even in Texas, passion for the death penalty is fading. Changing attitudes reflect broader changes in the cultural, political and social climate, and a key change in state sentencing laws now allow Texas juries to levy a life-without- parole sentence, dubbed LWOP. The LWOP sentencing provision, though vociferously opposed by the Texas prosecution bar, was passed by a conservative legislature and signed by a conservative governor in 2005.

        And again, there is the cost. In Texas, capital cases usually cost county government on average around $2.3 million each. That's three times higher than the locking up someone in maximum security for 40 years, around $770,000. Question: You have $2.3 million dollars. You can spend it on an execution, or you can spend 1/3 of it on life in prison without parole and the other two-thirds on something else that might benefit the taxpayer: Education, infrastructure like roads or public transportation, a valuable social service --whatever is of the greatest value while being cost effective. Do you want to spend $2.3 million for vengeance, or is it just as well to lock the criminal up forever with no chance of parole, get rid of the more-expensive- to-operate death row, even eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person, and use $1.4 million normally spent in that endeavor for something that actually fulfills more of a need than a simple human emotion?

        Before you answer those questions, you might ask yourself some personal questions about capital punishment:

        a) How much of your support for the death penalty is strictly about personal revenge?

        b) Is the chance of executing an innocent person a small price to pay to eliminate the lengthy appeals process?

        c) Is the law of the land which requires due process, including the lengthy appeals process, important to you; that is, do you respect that we are a nation of laws and that we be civilized enough to abide by them, even if we don't like them?

        d) The cost, because if we are not executing prisoners on death row in a manner that is cost-effective to the taxpayer, it just may not be worth keeping?

        Would you say the death penalty is worth keeping if we're not even using it? Is it worth it for a state like California to spend another $96 million it doesn't have to make sure they do use it? Can you tell me how that makes sense when life without parole is just as effective at a fraction of that cost? The real question is: How is the greater public good served, or more specifically, how is the taxpayer being served? What are we buying for our tax dollars?

        As far as I can tell, not much. The death penalty is getting us nowhere and yielding us nothing. What's the point of spending money on something like that?

        (source: Bruce Maiman, The Examiner)

        Once Convicts’ Last Hope, Now a Students’ Advocate

        Tom Dunn worked with death row inmates; now he works with students like Halima Osman, a sixth grader in Atlanta.

        Published: October 18, 2009

        ATLANTA — “Pick your head up, buddy,” Tom Dunn said to Darius Nash, who had fallen asleep during the morning’s reading drills. “Sabrieon, sit down, buddy,” he called to a wandering boy. “Focus.”

        Mr. Dunn’s classroom is less than three miles from his old law office, where he struggled to keep death row prisoners from the executioner’s needle. This summer, after serving hundreds of death row clients for 20 grinding, stressful years, he traded the courthouse for Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

        The turmoil of middle school turns many teachers away, said the school’s principal, Danielle S. Battle. Students’ bodies and minds are changing, and disparities in learning abilities are playing out.

        “A lot of people will say, ‘I’ll do anything but middle school,’” she said.

        But this is precisely where Mr. Dunn chose to be, having seen too many people at the end of lives gone wrong, and wanting to keep these students from ending up like his former clients. He quotes Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

        The school has institutional architecture that brings prisons to mind, but Ms. Battle has warmed it with colorful paint and brighter light. Ninety-three percent of students are black and 5 percent Hispanic; some 97 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

        “I just walked in here and fell in love with the place,” Mr. Dunn recalled. His day begins at 8 a.m., when he stands by the school’s buzzing metal detector, checking bags, as nearly 600 students file through in a half-hour. It is not a popular job, but he uses the time like a politician working the plant gate at shift changes. Saying hello with a smile, he taps the bags, peeks inside, sends the students along. But he is also no-nonsense, with a “hey-hey-hey!” to pull back the ones who try to slip around the detector. Ms. Battle drops by to greet the students.

        As a lawyer, Mr. Dunn said, he saw his job as “telling stories,” to help judges see each client as a human being who may or may not have done terrible things, but who suffered wrongs at trial or earlier in life — and who deserved fairness under the rule of law, perhaps even mercy.

        He told clients’ stories while defense counsel in the Army Trial Defense Service, in Florida, in New York State and most recently at the Georgia Resource Center, the nonprofit law firm he led. Though the center does not keep a scorecard, the strategy has resulted in delayed executions, commuted death sentences and even overturned convictions, said Brian Kammer, who took over as executive director.

        “If you’re just talking about the legal niceties of the case, you’re boring the heck out of the audience,” Mr. Kammer said. “You’re squandering the moral force of your argument.”

        After decades of accumulating such stories, Mr. Dunn said, he recognized a common thread: the lack of a supportive authority figure like a teacher, of a helping hand that might have meant “the difference between a good life and a ruined life.”

        Illness forced his decision to leave the law. In 2006, he ignored a sore throat and worked through two months of grueling hearings in four cases back to back. Bacteria entered his bloodstream, causing toxic shock; the infection caused deterioration in his spine and led to congestive heart failure. He recovered, but not fully; this year, Mr. Kammer recalled, Mr. Dunn met with the staff and said: “I have the heart of a 70-year-old man. If I continue to do this work at the level I want to do it, I’m going to die.”

        The same day that he left the center, he showed up at the Atlanta training program of Teach for America. During his training, he focused on special education, recalling that he saw learning disabilities “in nearly every case” on death row. He now works mainly in classrooms that blend special education students with the general population.

        When he interviewed with the administrators at King, though, he encountered skepticism. “I was just baffled by why he’d want to come here,” said Barbara Shea, an assistant principal, standing with Mr. Dunn as the hallways cleared and an afternoon class began. “I tried to warn him — I wanted him to understand it was not an easy job.”

        Across the hall a classroom door opened, and the teacher pulled a tall, angry student out by his arm and asked Mr. Dunn for help. “He’s having a Taylor moment,” Ms. Shea said, referring to a girl in the class. “He wants to sock her in the mouth.”

        The boy walked toward the exit, but Mr. Dunn argued him back to a chair where he sat, stormy and silent. Mr. Dunn talked softly to him, helping him to settle down. Walked to his office, Mr. Dunn chuckled at the thought that Ms. Shea might have seen him as a dreamer. “You can’t be a starry-eyed idealist and do defense work in capital cases for 20 years,” he said.

        Propped against the wall in the office — actually, a converted teacher workroom that his colleagues pass through to get to a restroom — is a clipboard with a paraphrase of a quotation from former Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the United States Supreme Court: “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” It was from a dissent in a 1994 case in which the justice argued that “the death penalty experiment has failed.”

        Mr. Dunn was in the office in August when he got word that the Supreme Court had ordered a lower court to reconsider the case of one of his best-known former clients, Troy Davis. At that moment, being out of the game was “really hard,” Mr. Dunn said.

        But in the classroom, there is no hint of regret. In the afternoon, a student, Shamon Nations, abruptly asked, “What made you come to school and give up your other job?” He replied, “Because I love you guys.” Somehow, it does not sound saccharine.

        Shamon was not satisfied. “Yeah, but what about the money?”

        “I made a lot more money last year,” Mr. Dunn acknowledged. “But it’s not about money.”

        Between classes, as he walked down the halls and the class bell rang, he stopped stragglers who might have been tempted to keep wandering. “Hey, buddy,” he asked one. “Where are you going?” He slipped an arm around the boy’s shoulder, and used it for leverage to give a gentle shove in the right direction.

        Once Convicts’ Last Hope, Now a Students’ Advocate

        Oct. 18, 2009

        Screams, flames among horrors of botched US executions

        US executions are meant to be clinical and humane, but for some they end up resembling medieval torture, complete with the smell of burning flesh, screams, and scenes so gruesome that witnesses faint.

        "We put animals to death more humanely," reporter Carla McClain said of a 1992 execution she witnessed, in which Donald Eugene Harding writhed and thrashed in an Arizona gas chamber for over 10 minutes before dying.

        Last month, Romell Brown became only the 2nd man to leave a US execution chamber alive, after 18 failed attempts to administer the lethal injection.

        Authorities in Ohio decided to halt his execution after officials spent two hours trying to inject him with lethal chemicals.

        Many of those executed in the United States in the last 25 years were not so lucky, suffering through executions in which flesh caught on fire, blood saturated shirts, and witnesses watched and listened as the condemned convulsed and screamed with pain.

        In 1999, Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw reacted with horror to pictures of Allen Lee Davis, who was put to death by electric chair.

        "The colour photos of Davis depict a man who -- for all appearances -- was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida," Shaw wrote.

        Davis had been strapped into an electric chair especially designed to fit his 160kg frame. As he was electrocuted, but before he was pronounced dead, blood poured from his mouth, soaking his white shirt and oozing through the buckle holes of the strap holding him down.

        Michael Radelet, a professor at the University of Colorado, worked with the Death Penalty Information Centre to collect testimony on more than 40 botched instances from the witnesses required to be present at executions.

        Horror stories have emerged about all the execution methods commonly used in the United States, including the electric chair, lethal injection and gas chamber, with most of the disasters due to human error.

        In 1983 in Alabama, a 1st jolt of electricity caused the electrode attached to John Evans' leg to catch fire. Smoke and sparks also came from under the hood placed over his head, near where an electrode was strapped to his left temple.

        A 2nd jolt was administered, but despite the smoke and smell of burning flesh, doctors discovered Evans' heart was still beating and applied a 3rd jolt that finally killed him after 14 minutes.

        2 years later, in Indiana, William Vandiver received 5 separate jolts of electricity over the course of 17 minutes before his heart stopped.

        Jesse Joseph Tafero was sentenced to death by electric chair in Florida in 1990, but a synthetic sponge that was used during his execution caught fire, causing 6-inch flames to erupt from his head.

        Sentenced to death by gas chamber in Mississippi in 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray had the misfortune to be put to death by an executioner who later admitted he was drunk. Gray's gasps and moans so horrified observers that the witness room was cleared by officials.

        In recent years, several lawsuits have challenged the lethal injection as "cruel," but it continues to be used by most US states practicing the death penalty and the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 2008.

        But for Bennie Demps, who spent 33 minutes of agony as execution technicians tried to find a back-up vein that could support an alternate intravenous drip in case the first one failed, the pain was excruciating.

        "They butchered me back there. I was in a lot of pain. They cut me in the groin, they cut me in the leg. I was bleeding profusely. This is not an execution, it is murder," he said in his final statement.

        In Angel Diaz's case, in Florida in 2006, a single dose of the lethal cocktails that anesthetise, paralyse and then stop the recipient's heart was not enough. The 1st injection went through his vein and out the other side, dispersing the chemicals into his muscles, forcing a 2nd dose to be given.

        At times, the scenes have been gruesome enough to physically affect observers.

        In 1989, in Texas, which holds the record for the most US executions, a male witness fainted after watching Stephen McCoy's violent writhing.

        Some of the most recent horror stories come from Ohio, where Broom's execution was halted.

        "It don't work! It don't work," yelled a sobbing Joseph Clark in May 2006, as the vein that executioners had worked 22 minutes to find collapsed while the chemicals were being administered.

        A year later, Ohio authorities took 2 hours to successfully find veins and administer Christopher Newton the lethal injection. The process took so long, he was authorised to take a bathroom break.

        The only other person to have survived execution in the United States was young black man named Willie Francis who survived a Louisiana electric chair in the 1940s. He was later put to death on a 2nd attempt.

        (source: Agence France Presse)

        Oct. 5, 2009

        Texans sent to death row by bad science

        On September 3, the Dallas Progressive Examiner reported on the conclusion reached by Maryland's Dr. Craig L. Beyler, that two men were sent to Texas' death row, because of bad science. Dr Beyler was hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, to run a study of the investigations of two fires resulting in deaths . Ernest Willis was convicted in 1987 of killing 2 women by setting a fire. In 2004, a new district attorney, suspected that bad science had been used in the original investigation. The D.A. ordered a new one, which cleared Willis. The 2nd case, was that of Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana, who was convicted in 1992 of setting the fire which killed his 2 year old daughter and 1 year old pair of twins. He was executed in 2004

        The Commission was scheduled to hold a hearing on Friday, October 2 in Irving, at which Beyler was to testify about the study. 2 days before that hearing, Governor Perry removed the chairman and two others from the commission. The new chairman, reputed to be one of the most conservative prosecutors in Texas canceled the hearing, and refused to say whether it will be rescheduled.

        Beyler, a nationally-recogniz ed expert in fire science, released his findings in August. He found that there was no way that an investigator could determine that Willingham intentionally set the fire that killed his children. Willingham's prosecutor admitted that the fire science used to prove that Willingham set the fire was bad, but said there were other reasons he knew Willingham was guilty, such as the fact that Willingham's feet weren't burned, as they would have been, if he had tried to rescue his children. Beyler said that there was extensive documentation showing that Willingham was burned.

        Shortly before Willingham's execution, his attorneys found indications that the investigation had been flawed, and applied to the governor for a 30 day stay, so that they could submit their findings to the court.

        Perry denied the stay. He said that he didn't accept Beyler's findings and felt there was further proof of Willingham's guilt.

        Many experts condemned Perry's action of dismissing the commissioners.

        Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project compared the firings of the commission members to the Saturday Night Massacre, in which Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, before he was compelled to give Cox the Watergate tapes. Sam Bassett, the chairman of the commission who was replaced, said that forensic investigations should not be stopped by political ramifications. Gerald Hunt, a chemist with an explosives corporation who wrote Perry before the execution saying the investigation had been faulty, said he is not surprised by Perry's actions, but that he had not expected the governor to go so far. He thinks Perry doesn't want the public to hear from Beyler, because Beyler's professional credentials are impeccable.

        Perry's opponents in the gubernatorial race also spoke up. His Republican opponent, US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, said that she is pro death penalty, but only when we are sure of the person's guilt. Democratic candidate Tom Schieffer said that "No one in public life should ever be afraid of the truth", and called for the hearings to be rescheduled.

        Most of the developed countries have abolished the death penalty. A list of the nations who execute the most people is telling. The top 3 in order are China, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Texas executes more people than any other state.

        (source: Dallas Progressive Examiner)

        Oct. 5, 2009

        Welcome to Texas: The Death Penalty State

        You know those billboards you see on the side of freeways advertising new subdivisions built in rural areas outside of town? "If you lived here, you'd be home by now."

        Someone needs to throw up a similar one next to the "Welcome to Texas" signs you hit when coming in on I-10.

        "If you'd done what our Governor has done, you'd be executed by now."

        As the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, sinks like a rock, the truth has started to float to the top and the rats are streaming out from all sides, led by none other than Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry has reason to be running - his office denied clemency to Willingham just before he was executed, despite the fact that new information was submitted from arson experts stating that "no evidence of arson" was found (see Dare Devils: Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Death Panel----below).

        This is the same Rick Perry - as a native Texan who voted for the Democrat in that election, I feel honor-bound to remind you - who won with only 39% of the vote in 2006. Even Texans know that at best this makes him unpopular. It also means that our Governor, his hair a-glaze, has his work cut out for him in his re-election race.

        So it should come as no surprise that Perry is now pawing the ground like a cat in a litter box, covering his tracks. Inconveniently for him, the stink remains. As the state's Forensic Science Commission, which was set up to investigate the Willingham case, was preparing a report on the validity of the arson investigation, Governor Perry decided to replace three of the nine members appointed to the commission. The chairman of the commission was replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who the Dallas Morning News calls "one of the most conservative, hard-line prosecutors in Texas." The timing, according to the Dallas Morning News, disturbed the former chairman, Austin lawyer Sam Bassett.

        "In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues in cases simply because there might be political ramifications, " Bassett said.

        But political ramifications, particularly to a professional politician who's been called everything from a "cyborg" to "Tricky Ricky," are exactly what keeps our Texas Governor up at night, not the death of innocent people, under-funded public schools, teen pregnancy rates or children without health insurance.

        For the rest of us, Willingham's final words are a chilling reminder echoing in the news around the world this week nearly 6 years after his execution: "I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."

        But, ultimately, Governor Perry's statement regarding his not-so-covered cover up says it better than anything I could ever write. In one moment at a press conference this week, he took all that was taken from Cameron Todd Willingham - a breath of life, a beat in his heart, an air of innocence - and said, straight faced, that his decision to replace the board members was, simply, "Business as usual."

        Welcome to Texas.


        Dare Devils: Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Death Panel

        I've chosen to ignore most of the health care rhetoric. I know what I believe -- the health care industry is so clearly broken that a thousand monkeys typing explanations of benefits could come up with that conclusion -- and I'm sick of hearing Republicans argue otherwise. But on the subject of death panels, which Sarah Palin dropped into her recent Wall Street Journal op-ed with a wink, like a 12-year old flashing a passing car -- "Dare me, guys?" -- I find the conservative argument bordering on the edge of delusional. Republicans like Sarah Palin need to stop playing truth or dare with people's lives.

        Since when do conservatives care about anyone dying? With the exception of their fetish for protecting a few eggs produced by women's ovaries every twenty-eight days, the Republican Party has historically shown zero regard for whether anyone lives or dies. People die every day, buried with medical bills and coughing blood from their graves. The slaughter of Iraqis is neither shocking nor awesome. Immigrants scrambling across the border are not deserving of a life in this country, legal or otherwise.

        Former Republican Party of Texas vice chairman David Barton, now enjoying an appointment by the Texas Board of Education, has so little regard for a human's life that he wants to strike Cesar Chavez from the history books.

        In Barton's "expert" review of Texas schools' social studies curriculum, he says Chavez "lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of others." He forgot to add, "Who are white" after that statement.

        But the most disturbing representation of a life lost was the one sentenced to Cameron Todd Willingham, who in 1991 lost his three children in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas and was sentenced to death after refusing a plea-bargain for life in prison. The New Yorker recently took an in-depth look at the case, asking, "Did Texas execute an innocent man?"

        Willingham, who maintained his innocence up to his death, spent 12 years in prison going through the government's appeals process. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, whose presiding judge is conservative Sharon "We Close at 5 O'Clock" Keller, "was known for upholding convictions when overwhelming exculpatory evidence came to light." The court denied Willingham of his writ of habeas corpus and a month before his execution, his file landed on the desk of Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and fire investigator who began reviewing the case. Hurst's report, which concluded there was "no evidence of arson," (a conclusion which has since been reached by three additional investigations) was sent to Governor Rick Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles along with Willingham's appeal for clemency. The board members are not required to review any submitted materials, and "usually don't debate a case in person." Instead, they cast their votes by fax -- a process which, the New Yorker article states, "has become known as 'death by fax.'" Even more troubling: "Between 1976 and 2004, when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas had approved only one application for clemency from a prisoner on death row."

        It is, in fact, Texas' own death panel.

        Health care reform at best will offer an alternative to the people who need it the most, stymie medical costs, and create change within an industry that has been allowed to run rampant. At worst, it would be symbolic proof that the option can be supported and improved from there.

        In either case, it is not going to create a government panel to put people to death. We already have one.

        "The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne."

        - Cameron Todd Willingham's final statement, February 17, 2004

        (source: Rachel Farris, Huffington Post)

        October 3, 2009

        Texas governor accused of covering up innocent man’s execution

        The head of a Texas anti-death penalty group has accused that state's governor of scuttling an investigation into a possible wrongful execution for political reasons.

        "[Texas Governor Rick] Perry saw the writing on the wall," Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network, told CNN. "He moved to cover that up."

        The "writing on the wall" Cobb was referring to was the investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission into the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 for the 1991 arson deaths of his three daughters.

        Forensic investigations done since Willingham's conviction have found no evidence of arson. Nonetheless, Perry refused to grant Willingham a stay of execution in 2004, even though credible questions had already been raised about Willingham's guilt.

        On Wednesday, Gov. Perry ordered the removal of three members of the forensics commission, and instituted a "political ally," as CNN described him, to head the committee. That ally is reported to have ordered the investigation into Willingham's execution delayed indefinitely, saying he "couldn't begin to guess" when the commission would reconvene.

        As CNN's Randi Kaye noted, since Willingham's conviction, "three forensic investigations found there was no evidence of arson. None."

        What's more, as RAW STORY reported in August, Gov. Perry was informed before Willingham's execution that the claim of arson made by fire officials and the prosecution in the 1991 trial was likely unfounded.

        Put together, those facts may make Gov. Perry "the first governor in history to preside over the death of [a known] innocent man," CNN stated in a report aired Friday.

        "Critics suggest he's trying to delay or maybe even derail the state's own investigation" into the Willingham case, CNN's Kaye stated. And the reasons for it may be quite obvious: The commission's final report would likely have arrived weeks before the primary gubernatorial election Perry faces next year.

        Asked about the removal of the three commissioners, Perry stated: "Those individuals' terms were up, so we replaced them. There's nothing out of the ordinary there."

        But, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram notes, some of those removed had already had their terms renewed.

        CNN's Kaye noted that Perry "declined to make the time for an interview" for its report.


        "Gov. Perry said that the change was 'business as usual,'" the ACLU wrote on its blog Friday. "Unfortunately, his words ring all too true. Willingham is not the first likely innocent person executed by the State of Texas. Others include Carlos De Luna and Ruben Cantu. But the state has never acknowledged any of these tragic mistakes. Business as usual, all right."

        The ACLU statement described the governor's timing for the removal of the three commissioners as "extremely suspicious, to say the least."

        But some observers have gone further. Glenn W. Smith at FireDogLake states that Gov. Perry may have violated federal law when he shut down the investigation into Willingham's execution.

        Smith argues Perry could be prosecuted under USC.18.1001, which makes it a crime for anyone "in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States" to "falsify, conceal, or cover up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact."

        The federal statute applies, Smith argues, because Texas takes money from the federal government for its justice system, and the funding guidelines refer to the law directly.

        "If firing three members of the commission and bringing to a screaming halt an investigation and hearing about the execution of an innocent man is not a trick to cover up material facts, nothing is," Smith wrote.

        Source: The Raw Story

        October 3, 2009

        Executions enliven death penalty debate

        John Allen Muhammad's scheduled Nov.10 Virginia execution enlivens the debate over capital punishment, sampling the cadence of every high-profile death penalty case marching to the beat of the count-down "drum."

        Karla Faye Tucker, sentenced to death in the so-called "pickax murders," played unwitting but pleasant host to a media-frenzied event, attended by reporters, and festooned in satellite trucks beaming up images of demonstrators for and against the death penalty.

        In such cases, the "wisdom of crowds," bristling with symbolic "sticktights" and "hitchhikers" for their trouble, departs the field of screams. In other words, we are no better and no more enriched by hoopla, hype, and talking heads. The buzzing in our ears comes from too much sound, and not from the jury.

        Such grassroot convocations--whether flashlight-illumined or candle-lit, in fertile acres of controversy and grim reaper statistic-keepers--propagate a sub-culture of their own.

        You've seen their huddled masses. Outside prisons on the day of execution, in virtual or real-time attendence: popes and "nopes," cardboard sign-wielders and murmuring prayer groups, most whose hearts and thinking drive what they do.

        Back home, the death penalty should--and maybe has--become dinner table conversation, peppered with newscasts and children's questions: "Mommy, Daddy, what is a death penalty?" Grown-ups linger over coffee and dessert, wondering can the issue itself ever die?

        To that end, scholarship and organized discussion have much to add. Googling "death penalty" produces 4,500,000 results, while "capital punishment" yields slightly fewer, or 4,420,000 returns. Likely, the latter phrase reflects word usage and semantics.

        Often, the heart moves to little beyond the sound of its own beat. From brainstem to wishful thinking, be it the desire for life or for the life of the one who has taken another's, the issue is just that simple: it isn't.

        Looking at 2007 murder rate comparisons of the top 12 executing states (below), as compared to murder rates of non-death-penalty states, lively discussions ensue:

        According to the above graphs:
        [MY NOTE:

        1. Louisiana, "landlord" of legendary penitentiary Angola's death chamber-- portrayed in the award-winning documentary, "The Farm: Angola USA" -- had the highest 2007 per capita murder rate of surveyed death penalty states.

        2. Iowa--a non-death penalty state--had 2007's lowest murder rate at approximately 1.2 per 100,000 people.

        3. Non-death penalty states Maine and Hawaii also experienced relatively-lower murder rates in 2007.

        4. Arizona's 2007 murder rate per capita somewhat surpassed that of Texas. To which death penalty advocates might say that the highest number of executions--26 in Texas as compared to 1 in Arizona in 2007--acted as deterrents, when comparing the murder rates of the two states. What's more, according to the top graph, Texas death rates are actually below the average or mean of 6.89--just under 7 per 100,000 people of the "Top 12 Executing States."

        5. Overall, both graphs may prompt a question: excluding drugs, impaired mental capacity and other medically-related bearings on murder, do criminals who kill in death penalty states have death wishes of their own? Or does race--not specified in these graphs--figure in? These are clearly complex issues.

        Moreover, at the time of their capital offenses, does knowing the state will likely convict and execute them influence, even drive some crimes? Could such aspects echo "suicide by cop" in a long-term sense? Such questions are for experts to answer; lay-persons interested in criminal behavior also might want more information.

        While a first impression of the graphs makes one case for abolishing the death penalty, such representations may generalize, when each crime is unique. It is impossible to rely solely on numbers, because people are neither numbers nor bars on a graph.

        Still, if "trending" is not just a Twitter creation, in a NY Times article by Dan Frosch, when asked if there is a general trend toward fewer executions, or to abolishing capital punishment altogether, the Death Penalty Information Center's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, states, " I wouldn't say that the death penalty is being rejected by the public, but there's definitely a reconsideration underway."

        For some survivors of the murdered, capital punishment is one guarantor of justice. For others, however, forgiveness and redemption offer measures of life's continuum, after the funerals and tears.

        (source: True Crime Examiner)

        Sept. 30

        Local prosecutor has no idea why Perry removed him from Forensics Commission

        A lawyer in the Tarrant County district attorney's office has no idea why Gov. Rick Perry replaced him on the Texas Forensic Science Commission this week.

        Perry abruptly removed three members of the board, causing the cancellation of Friday's high-profile meeting in Irving on a report that a faulty investigation may have led to the execution of an innocent man.

        The panel was considering a report critical of the arson finding leading to Cameron Todd Willingham's 2004 execution for the deaths of his 3 daughters in a 1991 fire, according to The Associated Press.

        Alan Levy is one of 2 local members that Perry removed from the board Tuesday. The other, Aliece Watts, is a forensic scientist in Euless.

        Levy's term had expired Sept. 1 but he didn't know that Perry was going to replace him.

        "What his reasons for doing it, I have no idea," Levy said. "I feel like a jilted lover except that he's prettier than I am."

        Levy said he wasn't going to assume that Perry replaced the board members as a way of forcing the meeting to be canceled until after the March primary.

        "I've got my own thoughts but I don't have any way of knowing," Levy said. "It's just odd. I'll assume that this was just part of the normal process; but if it was, it certainly wasn't handled the way it should have been."

        Levy said he got a call Tuesday about 4:30 p.m. from someone in the governor's office. The person said the governor was "going in a different direction," Levy said.

        "I felt like a decaying fish they were trying to dispose of," Levy said. "Since the job doesn't pay anything, I've been thrown out of better places."

        Levy had high praise for the way Commission Chairman Samuel Bassett of Austin ran the commission.

        Levy said he had no idea why he, Watts and Bassett were replaced.

        "Sam and I were the two lawyers. Everybody else was a scientist," Levy said. "The only thing that links us is Governor Perry, which of course isn't much of a link anymore."

        (source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

        Perry replaces head of commission on execution

        Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
        Sept. 30, 2009

        In a surprise move, Gov. Rick Perry today appointed two new members to a state commission investigating case of a Corsicana man who some believe was wrongly executed for murdering his children — forcing the cancellation of a meeting on the case scheduled for Friday.

        Named to head the Texas Forensic Science Commission was John Bradley, district attorney in Williamson County. Bradley cancelled Friday's meeting at which the panel was to accept fire expert Craig Beyler's analysis of arson investigators' work in the deadly December 1991 house fire.

        Three children perished in the blaze. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham, was convicted of capital murder and executed. Bradley, who has been his county's chief prosecutor since December 2001, said he called off Friday's meeting because he didn't have adequate time to study the arson case.

        Beyler's report was extremely critical of the investigations by Corsicana and state arson investigators, concluding they based their arson ruling on outdated and sloppy procedures.

        Beyler's was the third review to fault the arson investigators.

        Outgoing commission chairman, Sam Bassett, an Austin defense lawyer, expressed “disappointment” at Perry's timing in the naming of new commissioners, but noted, “I understand that I serve at the pleasure of Gov. Perry.”

        Also replaced were commission members Alan Levy, head of the Tarrant County District Attorney's criminal division, and Aliece Watts, quality director at Euless-based Integrated Forensic Laboratories.

        Perry named Norma Farley, chief forensic pathologist for Cameron and Hidalgo counties to the panel, and will name a third member in the near future.

        A spokeswoman for the commission, which is headquartered at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, said the outgoing members' two-year terms technically expired on Sept. 1.

        Spokesmen for Perry's office did not offer immediate comments on the timing of the appointments.

        Levy, who, like Bassett, had served four years on the panel, called Perry's timing on the appointments “unfortunate.”

        “It will raise suspicions whether they are justified or not,” he said. “This is a very important case. What this is going to do is raise the temperature, and that will not be a good thing.”


        Perry replaces head of commission on execution


        High Cost of Death Row

        Published: September 27, 2009

        To the many excellent reasons to abolish the death penalty — it’s immoral, does not deter murder and affects minorities disproportionately — we can add one more. It’s an economic drain on governments with already badly depleted budgets.

        It is far from a national trend, but some legislators have begun to have second thoughts about the high cost of death row. Others would do well to consider evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization that opposes capital punishment.

        States waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.

        There is also a 15-to-20-year appeals process, but simply getting rid of it would be undemocratic and would increase the number of innocent people put to death. Besides, the majority of costs are in the pretrial and trial.

        According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole.

        North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

        Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution. This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.

        Money spent on death rows could be spent on police officers, courts, public defenders, legal service agencies and prison cells. Some lawmakers, heeding law-enforcement officials who have declared capital punishment a low priority, have introduced bills to abolish it.

        A Republican state senator in Kansas, Carolyn McGinn, pointed out that her state, which restored the death penalty in 1994, had not executed anybody in more than 40 years. In February, she introduced a bill to replace capital punishment with life without parole. The bill gained considerable attention but stalled. Similar arguments were made, unsuccessfully, in states such as New Hampshire and Maryland. Colorado considered a bill to end capital punishment and spend the money saved on solving cold cases. But this year, only New Mexico went all the way, abolishing executions in March.

        If lawmakers cannot find the moral courage to abolish the death penalty, perhaps the economic case will persuade them to follow the lead of New Mexico.

        High Cost of Death Row


        Perry's certainty about execution ignores science

        September 25, 2009

        When a nationally respected fire engineer rebuked an arson investigation that sent a Texas man to his death, the country took notice.

        The question of whether our state executed an innocent man spurred a national discussion, as media outlets from Nightline to The New Yorker explored whether the fiery deaths of Cameron Todd Willingham's three young children were a tragic accident or capital murder. A growing number of experts have rejected the finding that the fire was arson, arguing that investigators relied on folklore and junk science to reach that unsupported conclusion.

        Most recently, an expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a scathing report that detailed the many failings of the original arson-murder investigation. Dr. Craig L. Beyler wrote that investigators' conclusions could not be supported by modern science.

        Beyler's emphatic rejection of the arson conclusion, coupled with similar findings by other forensic experts, have rightly compelled many to take a hard look at whether Texas got it wrong. On Friday, the Forensic Science Commission will take up Beyler's report and decide how to proceed in this case.

        But Gov. Rick Perry has not let expert reports or modern science shake his belief that Willingham must be a murderer. So certain is the governor that he's delivered his own guilty verdict without bothering to wait for the Forensic Science Commission's own conclusions in the case.

        Perry flippantly dismissed the findings of "supposed experts." Just in case his sarcasm wasn't evident, he added air quotes with his fingers to dismiss the nationally respected scientists.

        The governor says he's seen nothing that would cause him to question this capital murder conviction. That's disappointing.

        While it's difficult to say definitively whether a dead man was actually innocent, the prosecution' s original case appears to be unraveling. At the very least, Willingham would have sought a new trial and a chance to allow a jury to hear the more scientifically sound findings.

        Prosecutors have said that other evidence – such as Willingham's strange behavior at the time of the fire – proves his guilt. But if they could not credibly argue that this was arson, how did he kill his family?

        The very foundation of this case has been debunked, so it requires a leap in logic to argue that without proof of arson, Willingham somehow still was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

        Just as advances in DNA science have shed new light on physical evidence from old cases, improved scientific methods have helped experts understand how fire behaves and have provided new insights into arson investigations. To ignore these advances is irresponsible and risks the possibility of the state making a fatal error.

        The governor would be wise to allow the commission to finish its work before making such definitive determinations. And as Perry considers this case, he should not allow reflexive certainty to trump science.

        Meeting this week:

        The Texas Forensic Science Commission will meet at 9:30 a.m. Friday at the Omni Mandalay Hotel at Las Colinas. On the agenda: a review and discussion of a new report that rebukes an arson investigation that led to Cameron Todd Willingham's capital murder conviction. The meeting will include a public comment period.

        Perry's certainty about execution ignores science

        Convicted Dallas-area cop killer wins reprieve

        Associated Press Writer © 2009
        The Associated Press
        Sept. 23, 2009

        HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday night stopped the scheduled execution of Texas death row inmate Kenneth Mosley a day before he was to receive lethal injection for the fatal shooting of a suburban Dallas police officer.

        The court agreed to halt the lethal injection until it resolves an Alabama death penalty case that Mosley's attorney said could affect his case.

        The Alabama case, to be heard by the high court in November, centers on whether a trial lawyer was constitutionally deficient in failing to raise objections during the punishment phase of the trial.

        Mosley's attorneys have raised similar claims, saying his trial attorneys were deficient for not objecting to victim impact testimony from the officer's wife and for not calling witnesses to testify about Mosley's drug and alcohol addictions.

        Mosley, 51, was condemned for the February 1997 shooting death of Garland Officer Michael David Moore.

        Moore was responding to a 911 call about a robbery at a bank.

        One of four bullets to hit Moore struck over the top edge of his protective vest. Mosley was shot in the wrist by another officer waiting outside and was arrested in the parking lot. Authorities found he was carrying a holdup note.

        "As far as him committing the actual crime, it was open and shut," said Jason January, a former Dallas County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case. "Plus we had a videotape of the event taking place and eyewitnesses."

        Mosley declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his scheduled punishment. He had an extensive criminal record he blamed on drug addiction. Evidence at his trial showed he sexually assaulted a woman, was arrested for possession of marijuana and illegal knives, got busted for stealing merchandise from a Home Depot and then returning the items for cash refunds and for robbing a Home Depot.

        At the time of the shooting, he was wanted for a fast-food restaurant robbery five days earlier in nearby Mesquite and had been fired from his last known job at a Coca-Cola bottler for testing positive for cocaine.

        Jurors who decided the Flint, Mich., native should be given the death penalty also heard how he told deputies guarding him during his capital murder trial that it would "make his day to kill another cop," according to court documents.

        Mosley's trial lawyers didn't deny the shooting but argued it was accidental, that as he was trying to surrender the weapon it went off five times.

        Moore was 32, married and the father of three. He went to high school in Middletown, Ohio, served four years in the Marines and in 1987 joined the Garland police force. He'd won numerous awards and commendations during his 10 years on the job.

        Tuesday evening, Christopher Coleman, 37, was put to death for the slayings of three people in a Houston drug deal robbery. Next week, John Balentine, 40, faces lethal injection for the slayings of three teenagers at a house in Amarillo in January 1998.

        Governor Rick Perry defends execution of Corsicana man some experts say was innocent

        September 20, 2009
        By TODD J. GILLMAN
        The Dallas Morning News

        WASHINGTON – Governor Rick Perry today strenuously defended the execution of a Corsicana man whose conviction for killing his daughters in a house fire hinged on an arson finding that top experts call junk science.

        "I'm familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it," Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.

        Even without proof that the fire was arson, he added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed "clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children."

        These were the governor's first direct comments on a case that has drawn withering criticism from top fire experts.

        Death penalty critics view the Willingham case as a study in shoddy – or at least outdated – science, and they consider it the first proven instance in 35 years of an executed man being proven innocent after death.

        "Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch. Literally all of the evidence that was used to convict Willingham has been disproven – all of it," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that has championed the case. "He is clearly refusing to face reality."

        Three independent reviews over the last five years, involving seven of the nation's top arson experts, found no evidence the fire was set intentionally. The most recent is a report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

        The author, renowned arson expert Craig Beyler, blasts the investigators who handled the Willingham case, finding that they misread the evidence and based their conclusions on a "poor understanding of fire science."

        The commission says it is reviewing the Beyler report and other evidence and will issue a conclusion next year.

        The fire took place two days before Christmas 1991, and claimed the lives of Willingham's three daughters: 2-year-old Amber, and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron.

        State fire investigators and Corsicana fire officials maintained that burn patterns, cracked windows and other signs pointed to arson.

        Willingham, 24 at the time and an unemployed auto mechanic, had only superficial burns. He said he'd run outside after Amber alerted him to the fire, looking for the others, and couldn't reenter because the blaze grew so quickly.

        He had a criminal record for burglary and grand larceny. He had once beaten his pregnant wife, and a jailhouse snitch said he'd confessed.

        At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Willingham had intentionally left his daughters to die in a burning home.

        But myriad scientists say that conclusion of arson was based on outdated training that, at the time of trial 15 years ago, had already been replaced by science-based methods that would have pointed to bad wiring or a space heater.

        Willingham protested his innocence to the end. Strapped to a gurney awaiting lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004, he asserted that "I am an innocent man -- convicted of a crime I did not do."

        The Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by the governor, had rejected the appeal his lawyers had filed three days earlier. Hours before the execution, the lawyers appealed directly to Perry.

        The appeal included a report from a widely respected fire expert, Gerald Hurst, that cast serious doubt on the arson finding.

        Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was chief scientist for the nation's largest explosive manufacturer, says the signs used as proof that an accelerant had been poured were almost certainly the result of "flashover" – an intense heat burst that causes an entire room to erupt in flame.

        The effects of flashover can mimic arson.

        In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked three fire experts to evaluate the case. Their testing confirmed Hurst's report. The case was recently featured in an extensive article in The New Yorker, launching a new round of questions.

        Perry, in Washington for a campaign fundraiser today and a speech tomorrow to conservative activists, said during an hour-long session with reporters that he does not believe the state executed an innocent man.

        "No," he said. "We talked about this case at length. One of the most serious and somber things that a governor of Texas deals with is the execution of an individual.… We go through a substantial amount of oversight."

        In 2006, the Innocence Project, using state open records law, obtained records from Perry's office regarding the last-minute appeal. The governor's office provided no documents that acknowledged the contents of the appeal or its significance, Scheck's office said – a "lack of action" that indicates the governor ignored critical analysis.

        Perry, whose authority as governor is limited to delaying an execution for 30 days, said he reviewed the case extensively.

        "I get a document that has all of the court process. It gives you all of his background, all of the court machinations on the legal side of it, and the recommendation of both my legal side and the courts. It's pretty extensive amount of information, " he said. "I have not seen anything that would cause me to think that the decision that was made by the courts of the state of Texas was not correct."

        Governor Rick Perry defends execution of Corsicana man some experts say was innocent

        Sept. 20, 2009

        Last Words

        Last week, reports of executions one postponed in Ohio, one carried out in Texas punctuated the news more frequently than usual. These reports prompted me to reflect on an archive of executed prisoners' last words I found on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site while researching parole terms. The archive's earliest entry dates from Dec. 7, 1982; the most recent was added after Stephen Moody was executed on Wednesday by lethal injection for murder.

        What follows are quotations taken from inmates' last statements in Texas.

        The statements, delivered before family members, relatives of victims, friends and the press, are compiled out of chronological order.

        CLAIRE CAMERON, the author of "The Line Painter"

        Go ahead?

        Nothing I can say can change the past.

        I done lost my voice.

        I would like to say goodbye.

        My heart goes is going ba bump ba bump ba bump.

        Is the mike on?

        I don't have anything to say. I am just sorry about what I did.

        I am nervous and it is hard to put my thoughts together. Sometimes you don't know what to say.

        Man, there is a lot of people there.

        I have come here today to die, not make speeches.

        Where's Mr. Marinos mother? Did you get my letter?

        I want to ask if it is in your heart to forgive me. You don't have to.

        I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am.

        Could you please tell that lady right there can I see her? She is not looking at me I want you to understand something, hold no animosity toward me. I want you to understand. Please forgive me.

        I don't think the world will be a better or safer place without me.

        I am sorry.

        I want to tell my mom that I love her.

        I caused her so much pain and my family and stuff. I hurt for the fact that they are going to be hurting.

        I am taking it like a man.

        Kick the tires and light the fire. I am going home.

        They may execute me but they can't punish me because they can't execute an innocent man.

        I couldn't do a life sentence.

        I said I was going to tell a joke. Death has set me free. That's the biggest joke.

        To my sweet Claudia, I love you.

        Cathy, you know I never meant to hurt you.

        I love you, Irene.

        Let my son know I love him.

        Tell everyone I got full on chicken and pork chops.

        I appreciate the hospitality that you guys have shown me and the respect, and the last meal was really good.

        The reason it took them so long is because they couldn't find a vein. You know how I hate needles. ... Tell the guys on death row that I'm not wearing a diaper.

        Lord, I lift your name on high.

        From Allah we came and to Allah we shall return.

        For everybody incarcerated, keep your heads up.

        Death row is full of isolated hearts and suppressed minds.

        Mistakes are made, but with God all things are possible.

        I am responsible for them losing their mother, their father and their grandmother. I never meant for them to be taken. I am sorry for what I did.

        I can't take it back.

        Lord Jesus forgive of my sins. Please forgive me for the sins that I can remember.

        All my life I have been locked up.

        Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.

        I am tired.

        I deserve this.

        A life for a life.

        It's my hour. Its my hour.

        I'm ready, Warden.

        (source: Op-Ed, Claire Cameron, New York Times)

        Sept. 20, 2009

        Should doctors be allowed to assist in the execution of death-row inmates?---- A not-so-lethal injection raises queries

        Hippocrates famously wrote that doctors should do no harm, but physicians are among those being consulted by Ohio prison officials as they look for a method to successfully put Romell Broom to death.

        Officials are talking with medical advisors about the possibility of using veins other than those in the arms and feet to administer a lethal injection to Broom, a convicted killer from Cleveland who last week became the 1st U.S. inmate since the 1940s to survive an execution attempt.

        Doctors are part of the discussion, said Julie Walburn of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

        Experts said that appears to be in violation of the American Medical Associations code of ethics, which forbids "an action which would assist, supervise or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned" and "rendering of technical advice regarding executions."

        Broom's case underlines the dilemmas found at the intersection between lethal injection and medical ethics.

        "A problem inherent in lethal injection is, the persons most qualified are the ones who are unable to do it ethically," said Dr. Jonathan Groner, professor of clinical surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. "People have called it the Hippocratic Paradox."

        Broom, 53, was sentenced to death for raping and killing a 14-year-old girl he abducted while she was walking home from a football game with friends 25 years ago. He stabbed Tryna Middleton 7 times.

        On Tuesday, Sept. 15, executioners at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville pricked Broom 18 times over two hours as they tried to find a vein that wouldnt collapse. In an affidavit filed in court Friday, Broom claimed he cried out in pain as executioners hit muscle and bone with intravenous needles. He assisted his executioners in trying to find a viable vein.

        Gov. Ted Strickland granted a one-week reprieve and said executioners should try again on Tuesday. But a federal judge on Friday ordered a temporary delay and set a hearing for Sept. 28 on defense attorneys' bid for a preliminary injunction against the execution. Brooms attorneys also have filed suit in the Ohio Supreme Court. They say a 2nd execution attempt would amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

        Broom is the only inmate to survive an execution attempt since the lethal injection method was introduced in 1982. But 2 other Ohio inmates, Joseph Clark in 2006 and Christopher Newton in 2007, endured lengthy executions as executioners labored to find usable veins. The state changed its execution protocol after those cases.

        "We have absolute faith in the process and the team members," Walburn said.

        But Ty Alper, associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, said, "I think what happened with Mr. Broom should give no one confidence in the process or the people. Mr. Broom had to help them. I mean, the whole thing is kind of ghoulish."

        Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York, said the history of lethal injection "has been abysmal. It's been botch after botch after botch."

        The corrections department wont identify its executioners, but under its policy, the execution team must include people qualified under state law to administer injections who have at least one years experience as a certified medical assistant, phlebotomist, emergency medical technician, paramedic or military corpsman. Doctors arent involved, except to declare the inmates dead.

        Joan Wehrle of the Ohio Medical Board said state law outlines 40 grounds for disciplinary action against doctors, from reprimand to permanent license revocation, including breaches of the AMA ethics code. Holly Fischer, general counsel for the Ohio Nursing Board, said nurses also could face disciplinary action for assisting in executions.

        But Alper, author of an upcoming North Carolina Law Review article on the subject, said doctors have participated in executions, even directly, in other states. In fact, an Oklahoma anesthesiologist invented the three-drug lethal cocktail used by most states. "No doctor has ever been disciplined for participating in an execution in this country, and every court to consider the matter has concluded that state medical boards cannot impose discipline," Alper wrote.

        Walburn said prison officials are being advised on different procedures for inserting intravenous lines and whether those procedures require people with higher credentials than those on the execution team. She said officials won't disclose the names of those giving the advice.

        Groner said it usually requires a physician to put in central lines in the large veins in the neck, chest or thighs. "That would require a physician in the execution chamber," he said.

        He thinks direct or indirect physician participation in executions is a "stain on the face of medicine."

        "It defiles the profession in that they use the same skills they learned for healing to kill somebody," Groner said. "Thats what the Nazi doctors did."

        (source: Dayton Daily News)

        Sep. 19, 2009

        Texas: The Kinder, Gentler Hang 'Em High State

        By Hilary Hylton / Austin

        Tim Cole couldn't tell his own story and so his family recounted the saga to the hard-bitten Texas legislators last spring. The convict had insisted he was innocent right up to the day he died. He had refused parole because that would have required him to admit he was guilty of raping a fellow student at Texas Tech University. The ordeal was wrenching: Cole wept during the nights as he awaited a trial that would sentence him to 25 years in jail. Twice during his prison term he was found unconscious in his cell, the result of the asthma that had plagued him since childhood. The third time he suffered an attack, Dec. 2, 1999, he died from heart failure. Then, in 2007, another man confessed to the crime and Cole was declared innocent. The Texas lawmakers wept at the tale; and as a result, the state that has the reputation of being toughest on crime came up with one of the most generous and supportive programs to compensate those wrongfully convicted: the Tim Cole Act.

        "I think Tim Cole's story moved a lot of people," says Lubbock attorney Kevin Glasheen, who represents 12 men exonerated after serving lengthy terms for rape. "As far as the politicians go, there are a lot of Republicans who do not like abusive government power."

        But the legislators from both parties did more than shed tears. Apart from the Tim Cole Act, they passed a second law this spring creating a well-funded office of expert appellate lawyers to represent death row inmates, a move to overcome the tales of sleepy defense attorneys and inept lawyering. The two new laws are now being implemented and their backers hope they will mitigate the state's hang 'em high image. (Read a story about the decline in the number of death sentences in Texas.)

        The Tim Cole law provides $80,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration and adds free college tuition, and financial and personal counseling. Unlike past lump sum payments, the new compensation will be paid out in a mix of monthly payments, an upfront lump sum and an annuity which can be passed on through a recipient's estate. The new law also sets up an investigative panel, the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. (Read how the tide is shifting against the death penalty.)

        Glasheen's 12 clients are among 38 Texas prisoners cleared by DNA testing thanks to the efforts of the New York-based Innocence Project. He filed federal civil rights lawsuits on behalf of his clients against several Dallas-area police departments and municipalities. Facing a long, arduous legal process, Glasheen also proposed a legislative solution to Dallas area civic leaders. The legal fight would be expensive for both sides, Glasheen told them, and the fundamental question was one of fairness. This spring, State Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat and a longtime champion of the innocence projects, and State Senator Bob Duncan, a Republican and, like Cole, a Texas Tech alumnus, sponsored the Tim Cole Act.

        Glasheen, a self-described Republican from the "Libertarian wing of the party," hopes new DNA testing on old evidence will free more prisoners. However, that hope is limited: Dallas County kept evidence on file, hence the large number of exonerated prisoners from that area, but evidence in Houston was lost in a flood, and smaller counties across Texas did not keep evidence once the appeals process ran out. "There's a whole bunch of guys down there who were convicted on just eyewitness identification, " Glasheen says, as Cole was. There is now a national campaign to press a best practices written policy for lineups and eyewitness evidence. Dallas has adopted the new standards.

        The second law passed by the legislature will set up new standards and funding for indigent defense appellate counsel programs. Texas was embarrassed by the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ordered a new trial for a death row inmate whose lawyer slept through much of his proceedings in Houston in 1984. It responded after the ruling by boosting funds for indigent counsel. Despite that, studies showed death row inmates were still often badly served by appellate counsel.

        "Since 2004, 2005 there has been documented some horrible lawyering," says Andrea Marsh, executive director of Texas Fair Defense Project.

        In one case, a habeas appeal was filed by an attorney who simply cut and pasted an old appeal and changed the defendant's name, leaving the facts of the old case in place, Marsh says.

        "These cases piled up and there got to be a consensus that something should be done," Marsh says. The conservative- dominated appeals court, the Republican-led legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Perry were not opposed to reform. "The courts, officials were tired of being embarrassed all the time," Marsh says. The new Office of Capital Writs, scheduled to be in place by 2010, will deal with new cases, not those already in the pipeline.

        The Tim Cole law and the new state-funded appellate office may not change the image of Texas justice beyond the state. How outsiders feel about Texas justice "probably depends on whether you are universally opposed to the death penalty," Marsh says. "But the hope [in Texas] is that we will stop seeing stories where the defendant never had a fair shot."

        Find this article at:
        Texas: The Kinder, Gentler Hang 'Em High State


        Error-prone death penalty system ensnares innocent


        Cameron Todd Willingham's unthinkable story has shocked the conscience of many Americans. The state of Texas executed Willingham in 2004 for supposedly murdering his three children by setting their house on fire. His conviction was based in substantial part on testimony by the state's arson experts about the cause of the fire. A recent report by a fire expert hired by Texas condemns the state's arson testimony as bogus and unscientific.

        In other words, Willingham almost certainly was innocent — as he desperately maintained until his last dying breath.

        The expert's damning report has led to an onslaught of publicity about the case. However, this publicity should not mislead Americans into thinking Willingham has been the only innocent victim of our error-prone system of capital punishment. There have almost certainly been at least nine others, and possibly many more given the flaws in our criminal justice system revealed by the recent explosion in DNA exoneration. These include Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, Gary Graham, Larry Griffin and, perhaps, Sedley Alley — names no doubt unfamiliar to most Americans.

        The state of Texas executed DeLuna in 1989 for stabbing to death a clerk at a convenience store. At his trial, DeLuna's lawyers attempted to show that the murder was committed by a man named Carlos Hernandez. The lead prosecutor called Hernandez a “phantom.” Hernandez was real. A post-execution investigation by the Chicago Tribune showed that Hernandez almost certainly committed the crime, and Hernandez's family acknowledged that he boasted about getting away with the murder.

        Cantu was executed by the state of Texas in 1993 for an attempted robbery-murder. His conviction was based on testimony from his co-defendant and a surviving victim of the attempted robbery. After Cantu's execution, both men recanted, and the victim disclosed that he had been coerced by police to identify Cantu. The prosecutor in Cantu's case, Sam Millsap, has since become a vocal campaigner against the death penalty.

        In 2000, the state of Texas executed Graham, who changed his name while in prison to Shaka Sankofa. The evidence against him consisted of one eyewitness who, after being subjected to a suggestive photo lineup, said she saw Graham through her car windshield in a dark parking lot from 20 to 40 feet away. Other witnesses stated that Graham was not the murderer because the murderer was much shorter than he was.

        Missouri executed Griffin in 1995 for a murder that occurred during a drive-by shooting. Prior to his trial, no one bothered to interview a surviving victim of the shooting who knew Griffin. When contacted after Griffin's execution, this victim stated categorically that Griffin was not involved in the crime.

        Also after Griffin was put to death, the first police officer on the scene gave a new account that thoroughly undermined the testimony of the one witness who had identified Griffin as the murderer.

        Not everyone is convinced that these men were innocent. Some assert that they have not been shown to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. That may be true in some of the cases.

        However, absent DNA evidence, which exists in only about 10 percent of murder cases, a death-row inmate often has a nearly impossible time proving beyond a reasonable doubt that they did not commit a crime. As the old saying goes, it can sometimes be impossible to prove a negative. That is one reason why our criminal justice system requires prosecutors to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and does not require criminal defendants to prove their innocence.

        DNA evidence did exist in Alley's case but it didn't do him any good. The state of Tennessee executed Alley in 2006 for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old servicewoman. Alley had confessed to the crimes, but a leading expert on false confessions concluded that his confession was probably false. There was a simple way to find out. The Innocence Project, which took on Alley's case, asked the courts to allow it to test the DNA evidence to see whether Alley was innocent. The courts and the state of Tennessee refused. Alley was put to death, despite the serious doubts about his guilt.

        Willingham's case would be frightening enough if it were unique. The fact that there may be several innocent people who have been executed is abhorrent and should give any capital punishment proponent serious pause.

        The execution of an innocent person is an irrevocable event that, as Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once wrote, comes perilously close to murder. No society should tolerate it. Of that, there can be no doubt.

        Holdridge is director of the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project; Christopher Hill is state strategies coordinator for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.

        Error-prone death penalty system ensnares innocent


        Forgotten Families? A Visit to Death Row

        Kevin's eyes were dark, wideand sad. Sad beyond anything I'd ever seen in one so young. It was obvious he had experienced far too much in his brief four or five years of life. And though he undoubtedly didn't understand why things were as they were, he knew enough to realize his life wasn't like that of other boys his age.

        I met Kevin briefly nearly 15 years ago, and I haven't seen him again since, though I've often wondered what became of him. A child who sees his father only once a month under such stringent conditions has a tough road ahead of him, to say the least.

        My one-time meeting with Kevin and several others, including his mother, took place on San Quentin's infamous Death Row, a place that has housed such inmates as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. I had been invited to come to the Row one Sunday afternoon, to meet and talk with one of the inmates and to learn more about the prison ministry in which I was so deeply involved at the time. Though I had mixed emotions about going, I readily accepted.

        As expected, I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get inside the Row's visiting area, more even than the usual number of hoops required to gain entrance into any other correctional facility. But the inmate I met with, whose wife had escorted me inside, had become a devout Christian since his arrest and conviction years earlier, so our visit was a joyful one. Even the correctional officers commented on the deep and genuine faith of this particular inmate, referring to him as "the preacher" and proclaiming how he freely shared that faith with anyone who would listenprisoner or guard alike.

        But it was the families of the inmates who most caught my attention.

        Though we occasionally hear of someone who was falsely convicted of a crime and eventually proven innocent due to new DNA technology or some other breakthrough, for the most part I realize that nearly every resident of San Quentin's Death Row is there because he murdered someone. But guilty or not, repentant or not, most have families somewheresome who at least occasionally come to visit them, some who don't. Whatever the personal family situations, I couldn't help but wonder at the pain those families endured.

        Now I've always been a strong victim's advocate, and my heart goes out to the families of those who have lost loved ones as a result of a violent crime. But that day on Death Row opened my eyes to the unique trauma experienced by those whose father or son, husband or brother, prayed for a miracle even as he counted his days until he walked the "green mile." As a result, I have become a supporter of Angel Tree and other ministries to families of those who are incarcerated. If you could have seen the look on little Kevin's face that day as he visited his daddy on Death Row, you'd understand and join me.

        Of course, I've had many experiences during my jail/prison ministry days that affected me just as strongly as my encounter with Kevin, one of which was the opportunity to interview Charles "Tex" Watson, formerly of the Manson Family. Though Tex was one of the actual murderers of both the Tate and LaBianca families that awful night so many years ago, he has now become a strong believer and ministers to many who live in the dark world that exists behind bars. On another occasion, I had the opportunity to help David Berkowitz (formerly known as "Son of Sam" but who has now become a Christian and as such is known as "Son of Hope") edit his prison memoirs, which are now published. I can tell you without hesitation that I have no doubt of the sincerity of either of these men's faith.

        Both of these experiences were real epiphanies for me, as I saw firsthand what God can do with those who would often be considered unredeemable. But as we know, with God nothing is impossible. I now pray for those within the prison system whose lives have been changed by a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ and who now work to share that encounter with others.

        Some of the greatest evangelizing and discipling I've ever witnessed is carried out by these transformed inmates.

        I know. I'm walking a fine line here, between justice and mercy, and I am not even getting close to expressing an opinion on the death penalty issue. I am simply trying to bring a fresh awareness of families whose loved onesfor whatever reasonare behind bars, families who might otherwise be forgotten. I pray the result will be that it helps us all reach out to the Kevins of this world, as well as the David Berkowitzes and Tex Watsons, even as we humbly respect the law, defend the victims, and deal justly and mercifully when it comes to crime. For isn't that what God has called us all to do?

        He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NKJV)

        (source: Kathi Macias is the author of nearly 30 books and numerous articles, including My Son, John, which deals with a woman whose mother is a murder victim and her grown son, the perpetrator. My Son, John contains resources for prisoners, their families, and those who minister to them. Kathi can be reached via her website at www.kathimacias.com or her blog http://kathieasywritermacias.blogspot.com/.----Crosswalk.com)


        Death penalty: a divided debate

        The official definition for capital punishment, the death penalty or execution, is the killing of a person by judicial process for retribution, general deterrence, and incapacitation. The debate over the death penalty has been going on for as long as anyone can remember.

        Either Americans are finding they believe the death penalty is a harsh and violent way to punish someone for committing a crime, or they believe that those sentenced with the death penalty deserve to be killed.

        In the end, it comes down to whether one believes the golden rule do unto others as you would have them do unto you or their own rule, which goes a little more along the lines of: Do unto others as they did unto others.

        Personally, I am not in favor of implementing the death penalty as a serious option, not only because of the moral and ethical beliefs that have been instilled in me but also because it isnt very economical to do so. It actually costs more to use the death penalty than it would be to keep that same person in prison for the rest of their life. In California alone, the death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the costs of keeping convicts locked up for life.

        These taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each of the states executions. In Florida, enforcing the death penalty costs taxpayers $51 million more than the cost of convicting their murderers to a life imprisonment in jail.

        In Texas, the cost of the death penalty is almost three times the amount of simply holding someone in a cell for 40 years.

        According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are only 15 states that do not allow the death penalty to be used. That means that 70% of Americans believe murdering criminals is an appropriate way to punish wrongdoers. The top 5 death penalty states are Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia and Missouri. These 5 states alone accounted for 66% of all United States executions since 1976. Most of these states are located in the southern part of the United States and consequently, the South accounts for more than 80% of executions. According to Amnesty International, in 2008 the United States had one of the highest amounts of executions at a whopping 37 people. Funny how the United States is also in much more economic trouble than the rest of the world.

        According to a survey done in May of 2006, overall support of the death penalty was down to 65% from the 80% of 2 years before. In that same 2006 survey, it was discovered that when given the option between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, more people would choose life imprisonment over the death penalty. In 2009, a survey showed that 88 % of the people surveyed do not believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime.

        Outside of the United States, world leaders are also beginning to remove the death penalty. For instance, in Kenya this past August, President Mwai Kibaki announced that he was commuting all criminals who face the death sentence to life imprisonment. He said that the wait for those 4,000 criminals in his country to face the death penalty was "undue mental anguish and suffering."

        Even within the United States, more and more state governors are beginning to change their laws in objection to the death penalty. New Mexico's governor Bill Richardson said that ridding his state of the death penalty was "the most difficult decision in my political life." (New Mexico had previously banned the death penalty from its state, but it had been reinstated in 1976.)

        I can understand the dilemma people have on choosing which side they will stand on. I also realize that, for many people and many issues, things are not simply black and white there are some gray areas as well. But in my case, I simply see it as killing someone. No matter whether a person committed a horrible crime or not, what gives us the right to be able to choose when and how they die? How is what we are doing any different than first-degree murder? Even the definition of the death penalty itself states that it is the killing of a person. Although this person may have done something in the past and may have gone against the laws of the United States of America, it does not justify the killing of a living, breathing, thinking being.

        (source: Katrina Widener is a second-year magazine major, Drake University, The Times-Delphic)

        Sept. 14, 2009

        Is Rick Perry Responsible for Texas' Wild Increase in Executions?

        Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) presided over 200 executions between taking office in 2001 and June of this year. During that time, Texas executed 3 times more people than the next 3 states combined had executed since 1976. New investigations are now raising the question of just how many innocent people were sent to their deaths by a governor and a system that ignore legal obligations to examine new evidence or counter prosecutorial or judicial misconduct?

        Perry has been one of the most radical proponents of capital punishment in American politics, refusing to issue a posthumous pardon to Tim Cole, an innocent man, proven to be so, who died in prison and ignoring exculpatory evidence in what appears to be a standard procedure that mystically discounts the possibility of wrongful conviction in capital cases.

        Gov. Perry may either be a moral coward, afraid to offend a radical hard-right base that believes society will unravel without an aggressive death penalty system, or he may be more eager to put people to death than he is to achieve justice.

        As detailed in a lengthy New Yorker feature for the Sept. 7, 2009, issue, "Trial by Fire", Perry ignored a raft of damning scientific evidence showing an arson case against a man on death row was unsubstantiated "junk science."

        On 17 February 2004 after Gov. Perry refused to stay his execution and falsely claimed to have judged the "facts of the case" to show guilt, Todd Willingham was executed for a crime scientific examination appears to show he did not commit.

        For the first 18 years the Texas death penalty system was in place, Texas executed 238 people, or about 13 per year. Since Perry took office, the figure has risen dramatically, to 22 per year. That particular statistic raises questions about what has changed under Rick Perry's governorship.

        For one, more cases are coming to the fatal moment of execution that are affected by Republican control of the State Court of Criminal Appeals.

        Since 1995, when elected Republican judges won a majority of seats on the Court, the rate of execution has skyrocketed. And those judges openly pledged during their campaigns for elected judgeship to favor the prosecution and be "tough on crime", a strange claim for a judicial candidate whose job is to be tough on adherence to facts and to the law, not tough on the accused in particular, who are supposed to be presumed innocent.

        With at least one judge accused of professional misconduct for making summary judgment on a death penalty appeal and a review panel that is reported to essentially not carry out its investigative responsibilities, operating on the assumption that the system does not fail and never actually meeting to discuss a case, Texas is not only facing the likelihood it will be proven to have executed an innocent man; it is the state considered most likely to have failed its legal responsibilities in that way.

        That under Gov. Perry, the rate of executions has so dramatically accelerated has raised the ire of human rights groups that say the state's actions are putting the US on short lists of major violators of habeas corpus and fundamental judicial rights that include Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and China. Some death penalty advocates say that only with aggressive application of the stiffest penalty allowed by law can violent crime be curbed, but there is mounting consensus among legal experts that Texas' system is riddled with serious due process flaws that significantly increase the likelihood of carrying out executions of innocent people.

        Opponents of the Texas system say instead of deterring crime, the open bias of politicians and judges toward the prosecution and toward the application of the death penalty means the state is collaborating in the escape of those who really did commit crimes that innocent people have been convicted of. With a growing problem of human trafficking and drug running, and the attendant violence, Texas may need to halt all executions until the system is fixed and at last there is a means for determining when prosecutorial mistakes or misconduct have let the guilty off by targeting the wrong suspect.

        (source: CafeSentido.com)

        Sept. 9, 2009

        Another reason to abolish the death penalty

        The death penalty in the United States should be abolished because it functions as a potent agent of racism and class oppression. African Americans and Latino/as represent the majority of those on death row. And executions are reserved almost exclusively for the poor. 90% of those awaiting execution could not afford to hire a trial attorney.

        In addition, death penalty abolitionists have known for decades that many of those executed are also innocent. Now the corporate media has finally covered one such case in which recent evidence reveals that another innocent person was executedand where else but in the state of Texas.

        Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized arson expert, wrote in an August report for the Texas Forensic Science Commission that a 1991 fire which killed Todd Willingham's 3 young daughters was not arson. Willingham was executed for their murder in 2004.

        As he lay on the gurney in Huntsville, Willingham had said, "I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."

        Todd Willingham was innocent and theres a simple reason for his 2004 execution: He was poor.

        We are taught in school that justice is blind, but in no civics book does it say how expensive it is.

        His stepmother, Eugenia Willingham, who raised Todd from the age of 13 months, spoke to hundreds in Austin, Texas, in 2006 at the Seventh Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty. The marchers had left a letter at the gates to the Governor's Mansion for Gov. Rick Perry, asking him to investigate the case and stop all pending executions so that no other innocent person would be put to death.

        Today, Texas may become the 1st state in the modern era forced to acknowledge that it executed a legally and factually innocent person.

        Death penalty activists know the names of many other innocent people who have been executed: Shaka Sankofa, Frances Newton, Carlos de Luna, Joseph Nichols, Ruben Cantu and Carlos Santana, to name but a few.

        More than a few innocent people set to be executed are still living on death row and should be exonerated before they, too, are killed by the state: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Troy Davis, Howard Guidry, Cesar Fierro, Jeff Wood, Rodney Reed, Max Soffar, Darlie Routier, Anthony Graves and many more.

        Modern legal lynchings

        The U.S. was founded on the theft of Native land. It developed riches through the super-exploitation of enslaved Africans. From Reconstruction until the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, Black people were frequent victims of vicious lynch mobs.

        Today"s executions are modern-day lynchingsand almost 90% of executions take place in former Confederate states.

        An innocent Black man in Conroe, Texas, Clarence Brandley, was picked up by cops along with an equally innocent elderly white man in the late summer of 1981 to be questioned about the rape and murder of a white teenager. The sheriff was under pressure to find the perpetrator of this awful crime before school started.

        He looked at Brandley and said, "You're the n-er, so you're elected."

        Brandley spent nine years on death row before being exonerated.

        As Shaka Sankofa lay strapped on the gurney in Huntsville on June 22, 2000, he said, "They know I'm innocent. They've got the facts to prove it.

        ... But they cannot acknowledge my innocence, because to do so would be to publicly admit their guilt."

        Sankofa continued, "Slavery couldn't stop us. The lynchings in the South couldn't stop us. This lynching will not stop us tonight. We will go forward . ... It's state-sanctioned lynching, right here in America and right here tonight. Our destiny in this country is freedom and liberation.

        We will gain it by any means necessary. We must avenge this murder and continue to move forward to stop all executions of the poor and of Black people."

        We must put Shaka Sankofa's words into action and abolish the racist and anti-poor death penalty.

        (source: Editorial, Workers World)

        Tabler blogging from death row

        Richard Tabler, the convicted murderer out of Bell County who last year was at the center of a controversy about cell phone usage by death row inmates, has again captured the attention of the state senator in charge of corrections in Texas - this time through a blog post.

        In a statement released Thursday, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he is upset that Tabler continues to get messages out from death row, some of which threaten him and his family.

        Less than 11 months ago, Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, led a sweep of the Texas prison system for contraband after Tabler called him on a cell phone.

        Whitmire said then that Tabler made threatening comments to him and Whitmire vowed to clean up the Texas prison system and rid it of smuggled cell phones. But now Tabler has apparently found a new way to communicate and threaten people.

        Since May, he has had a letter posted on an Internet blog for inmates. In the letter he inquires about the health of one of Whitmire's family members and writes "that just because I'm on death row does not mean that you cannot be gotten to or your family."

        "Once again, I must express to you my utter dismay at the level of security that continues to be present at the Polunsky death row Unit," Whitmire said in a statement. "If Richard Tabler was a political opponent, I would ignore him; however, he is a convicted capital murderer."

        Whitmire made sure top officials in the Texas prison system heard his message Thursday. In his statement outlining his frustrations he mentioned by name Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and Oliver Bell, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.

        The ability of a death row inmate to continually author these threats represents a threat to all Texans and our public safety, the statement said.

        "I specifically ask how an inmate on death row is allowed to openly send letters out to the public that are designed to intimidate,threaten and retaliate against an elected official or any citizen of this state. I am also appalled that no one within TDCJ has even contacted me concerning this issue," Whitmire said.

        The Web site that is posting the letters is dedicated to teaching the public about "the hearts of the coldest killers," according to a post that explains why the site was created.

        (source: Temple Daily Telegram)


        Questions About an Execution

        Published: August 30, 2009

        People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.

        Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.

        After the fire, investigators decided, based in large part on burn patterns on the house’s floors, that it was intentionally set.

        Prosecutors charged Mr. Willingham, who escaped from the burning home, with capital murder. Mr. Willingham protested his innocence until the day the state killed him by lethal injection in 2004.

        The following year, Texas created the Forensic Science Commission to investigate charges of scientific mistakes or misconduct, and the panel began looking into the Willingham case. It commissioned Craig Beyler, a nationally recognized fire expert, to examine evidence.

        Mr. Beyler issued a report last week that painted an ugly picture of what passes for expert scientific investigation and testimony in a capital case in Texas. The report found that the official inquiry into the Willingham fire did not meet prevailing scientific standards of the time, much less current ones.

        The investigators “had poor understandings of fire science,” Mr. Beyler said, and their “methodologies did not comport with the scientific method.” He determined that the opinions of one main investigator were “nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

        The report concluded that a “finding of arson could not be sustained.” The Forensic Science Commission is now asking the state fire marshal’s office for its response. It anticipates issuing a final report next year.

        The commission is to be commended for conducting this inquiry, but it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before.

        A version of this article appeared in print on August 31, 2009, on page A18 of the New York edition.

        Questions About an Execution

        Houston woman's killer dies on death row

        Aug. 30, 2009

        HOUSTON — A convicted killer on Texas' death row for nearly three decades has died in prison, prison officials said.

        Danny Dean Thomas was found dead Saturday, a day before his 54th birthday, on death row at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Polunsky Unit near Livingston. Prison officials said an autopsy would be performed but initially were attributing his death to natural causes.

        Thomas changed his name to Shozdijiji Shisinday since his conviction for the July 1981 abduction and murder of a Houston woman. Sylvia Elaine Harrison, 19, was fatally shot and her body was dumped in the San Jacinto River in Harris County.

        Thomas' 1982 conviction for her slaying was overturned on appeal and he was retried and sentenced to death again in 1998. Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case.

        He did not have an execution date. He was 26 when he first arrived on death row and spent more than 27 years there.

        Thomas had won a second trial because the Texas attorney general's office missed a deadline to appeal a federal judge's decision to overturn his conviction.

        According to evidence at his trials, Thomas explained bloody clothing he was wearing by saying he'd hit a dog and that he and a friend had put the bloody animal in their car before dumping it in the river. He told others he had shot the dog because it would not stop whimpering.

        Thomas, however, later acknowledged that he and a friend, Zendal Peels, stopped to help Harrison, who was having car trouble. She thanked them for repairing her car and invited them to her home where court documents indicated they had drank beer and smoked marijuana.

        In his statement to police, Thomas said Peels unexpectedly struck Harrison in the head, knocking her out. Then the two took some items from her home, carried the unconscious woman to their car and drove around. When she regained consciousness, according to his statement, Thomas shot her in the head at close range. They drove to the river, removed her clothing and tossed her in the river after tying concrete blocks to her feet.

        Peels' family was upset to find blood in the car. Thomas was arrested after seeking psychiatric treatment at a hospital where he claimed people were blaming him for killing a person when he had killed a dog.

        A case against Peels, who was 17 at the time of the attack, was dismissed for lack of evidence.

        At his second trial, where jurors were deciding between life in prison or a death sentence, a life term would have made Thomas immediately eligible for parole because of time served for his first conviction.

        Defense attorneys had described him as mentally unstable, tired, hungry and scared when he spoke with police and signed a confession about 23 hours after he was taken into custody.

        The Harris County jury considering his case at the second trial decided he should die.

        Testimony showed Harrison repeated “God help me” until Thomas shot her in the head.

        Houston woman's killer dies on death row

        August 23, 2009

        My thanks to maligned Judge Keller

        I'd like to express my gratitude to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

        She has made Texas' supreme court for criminal matters into a better institution.

        Unfortunately, she didn't do it by bringing organizational skills to a court that must deal more than any other state court in the nation with the pressures of last-minute appeals in death penalty cases.

        But she did it.

        The firestorm of criticism that followed her decision not to keep the clerk's office open for a late filing, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from earlier in the day, of a man scheduled to be executed an hour after closing time, has produced some improvements.

        According to her own testimony and that of other court officials during this week's four-day trial, the court had a protocol for dealing with execution day filings, but it was something of a secret.

        For one thing, it wasn't written.

        For another, the court staff was not given any formal training on it.

        Part of the procedure was the appointment, on a rotating basis, of a single judge to whom all communications regarding the pending execution would be directed. But the name of that judge was not to be disclosed to anyone outside the court, including lawyers for the condemned man.

        In Keller's 7 years as the court's chief judge, that was the state of things.

        Now, due to the allegations that she violated that procedure by not referring the call seeking to file a late plea for a stay of execution to Judge Cheryl Johnson, the assigned judge for that execution day, everyone knows the procedures.

        The court's judges, some of whom were waiting around in expectation of a filing and were angered to learn days later of Keller's actions, agreed to put the protocol in writing. And the protocol has been widely publicized in the controversy.

        There is another improvement. Ed Marty, the general counsel who took the request to Keller rather than to Johnson (who testified she would have accepted late pleadings), retired.

        His replacement, Sian Schilhab, said she contacts the appropriate attorneys days ahead of the prosecution to make sure they know she is available up until the execution takes place. She said she not only gives them her cell phone number, but forwards the office phone to her cell.

        She also says all outside communications not only "clearly go to the assigned judge, but I try to communicate them to all the judges, or at least their staffs."

        She said that's not because of the recent controversies, but because "I believe in more communication rather than less."

        If Keller had instructed Marty to do that, we wouldn't have had this firestorm.

        Keller's attorney argued this week that the defense lawyers had orchestrated media coverage creating the firestorm.

        Truth in advertising

        The coverage was not always fair and not always accurate, but I'd suggest that Keller herself made the ground fertile for belief that she would violate court policy to coldly reject the last-minute appeal.

        When she first ran for the court in 1994 she wrote in the Dallas Morning News that she was "pro-prosecutor. " It was truthful advertising.

        When DNA evidence showed a man imprisoned for raping a girl who was also murdered did not contribute the semen, she ruled against his appeal, saying he might have worn a condom.

        When prosecutors put on an expert in another case who testified a convicted man was a threat to society and therefore should get the death penalty because he was Hispanic, she voted not to require a new sentencing proceeding. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

        When a district judge ruled that the evidence "unquestionably established" that a man had been pressured into falsely confessing to raping his stepdaughter, Keller voted with the minority against his release from prison.

        I'll say this for her. She is hard working. In the midst of this week's trial, she voted not to hear an appeal in a death penalty case. 6 of the 9 members of the all-Republican court voted the other way.

        (source: Commentary, Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle)

        August 23, 2009

        Justices lost on death penalty

        According to a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, innocence is not enough to stop the government from executing you. All that matters is that you had a legally "fair trial."

        If you prove your innocence after that trial ends in a death sentence, too bad. Back the hearse up to the prison.

        Upholding the supposed integrity of the system is more important than your life, your innocence, or even the knowledge that the person who committed the crime is on the loose and probably committing others.

        That's the argument U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas recently made in a death penalty case.


        "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent," Scalia wrote.

        Law professor Alan Dershowitz put Scalia and Thomas' logic into simpler terms: "If a defendant were convicted ... of murdering his wife and then came to the Supreme Court with his very much alive wife at his side ... these 2 justices would tell him, in effect: 'Look, your wife may be alive as a matter of fact, but as a matter of constitutional law, she's dead, and as for you, Mr. Innocent Defendant, you're dead, too, since there is no constitutional right not to be executed merely because you're innocent.'"

        From a legal standpoint, Scalia and Thomas don't seem to believe a person can actually be innocent, only "guilty" or "not guilty," because that's the only thing the system is designed to determine. That's an incredible view of our justice system, one that deserves much more debate.

        And to think, many spent weeks arguing against Sonia Sotomayor because she "hopes" a "wise Latina" can make better judgments on certain issues than white men.

        Let a Puerto Rican woman show pride in her heritage, and critics unleash a Category 4 hurricane of complaints, arguing Democracy itself is under attack.

        Let long-serving white and black male Supreme Court justices suggest the constitution provides no protection for "actually innocent" people, and the resulting outrage doesn't even amount to a tropical depression.

        Fortunately for Troy Davis, who was convicted 20 years ago of murdering off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail, the other justices displayed common sense.

        They forced a lower court to re-consider the evidence.

        No physical evidence linked Davis to the murder. More than 2 dozen former prosecutors and judges said Davis should get a new hearing. 7 of the 9 eyewitnesses used to convict him have recanted, saying they were pressured to name Davis.

        And according to a mountain of research, eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate.

        I can't tell you if Davis is guilty. I can tell you it is beyond absurd to believe that even if he proves his innocence, he should still take a trip to Georgia's death chamber.

        But that's one of the problems with what we call the justice system. The outcomes aren't always about justice.

        Even in South Carolina, if you are innocent - meaning you didn't do it - but get stuck with a lawyer who isn't very good, the chances are almost zero you'll win an appeal.

        Why? Because appeals aren't about making sure justice prevails. It's often about making sure all the legal 't's' have been crossed and 'i's' have been dotted.

        If your lawyer didn't make the right objections during your initial trial - those that could later help prove your innocence or show things weren't fair - the appeals court may not even consider it.

        The legal logic says we shouldn't try cases into perpetuity, that it would put too much chaos in the system, that there has to be a point where cases end.

        According to Scalia and Thomas, the Constitution doesn't protect innocent men from death at the hands of the government, because the system the government created isn't designed to detect innocence.

        Good thing they didn't prevail, for if they had, Davis wouldn't have been the only casualty of such thinking.

        They would have effectively put a needle in the arm of justice, too.

        (source: Myrtle Beach Sun News)

        August 22, 2009

        The Snitching Blog

        Snitching Blog is about a part of our criminal system that most people know little or nothing about: criminal informants, or snitches.

        At any given moment, thousands of informants are trying to work off their own criminal liability by giving information to the government.

        These informants may be in court, in prison, on the street, or in the workplace.

        Police and prosecutors often rely heavily on information obtained from snitches--especiall y in drug enforcement but also in white collar crime, organized crime, and terrorism investigations.

        In fact, it is impossible to fully understand the U.S. legal system without understanding snitching.

        Nevertheless, there is very little public information available about this important public policy.

        That's where Snitching Blog comes in.
        The Snitching Blog

        *See Related Article Below.

        Re-posted; August 22, 2009
        July 30, 2008

        The Rat Trap

        Death row exonerations expose failings of the ‘snitch system’

        By Christopher Moraff

        Levon Jones was freed from North Carolina's death row in May after a paid informant recanted her testimony.

        Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row -- more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony Levon Jones is supposed to be dead.

        If the state of North Carolina had its way, Jones, 49, would have been strapped to a gurney years ago, hooked to an IV and pumped full of a lethal, three-drug cocktail until he asphyxiated.

        Instead, on May 2, he walked out of prison a free man after spending 13 years on death row, and another 24 months locked up awaiting retrial — all for a murder he almost certainly did not commit.

        Jones — known to friends and family as “Bo” — was released with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Capital Punishment Project after the prosecution’s star witness recanted her testimony against him. (Lovely Lorden, a former girlfriend, admitted she’d collected $4,000 in reward money in exchange for testifying against Jones.)

        He was an easy target: an African-American ex-con with a history of mental illness and violent behavior. When Lorden came forward with her story — a full three years after the 1987 shooting of a local bootlegger named Leamon Grady — Jones was doing time on an unrelated assault charge.

        The prosecution felt little obligation to question the veracity of Lorden’s claim. And if the witness is to be believed today, investigators actually helped her keep her story straight.

        As a result of Lorden’s testimony — and despite the lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime — a jury convicted Jones in 1993 and he was sentenced to die for Grady’s killing.

        What Jones’ attorneys didn’t know at the time — and, as it turns out, didn’t really bother trying to uncover — is that Lovely Lorden had made something of a career out of testifying against people close to her. By her own admission, she has aided law enforcement in dozens of investigations and says she helped police make cases against several other boyfriends, as well as her own brother and sons.

        What’s more, her work as a confidential informant didn’t stop after Jones was sent to death row. Jones’ attorneys sent In These Times copies of receipts that show Lorden was paid money at least seven times for her work as a confidential informant from December 2003 to April 2004, while Jones sat in jail.

        Today, Lorden contends she testified against Jones under pressure from the police, in particular Dalton Jones (no relation), the lead officer in the case.

        That doesn’t surprise Jones’ ACLU attorney, Brian Stull, who says it’s not uncommon for police to find a suspect first and worry about making a case later.

        “I think often times they look at the usual suspects,” Stull says. “I think Dalton Jones was thinking, ‘This is a dangerous person, and whether he did it or whether he didn’t, I’m going to get him off the street.’“

        Jones owes his freedom in part to an astute federal judge who sensed something amiss with Lorden’s testimony during a 2006 penalty appeal.

        In granting Jones a new trial, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle, of the Eastern District of North Carolina, noted Lorden’s statements to police were “riddled with inconsistencies” and “reflect that Lorden is unable to fairly and reliably describe the circumstances of the offense.”

        Unfortunately, the case of Levon Jones is not an anomaly. He is the fifth death row prisoner to be exonerated in the past year. Since December, North Carolina alone has released three inmates from death row after it was determined that they did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Of these three men, two, including Jones, were convicted on the false testimony of snitches.

        The other, Jonathon Hoffman, was released in December 2007 after spending seven years on death row. His freedom came when the prosecution’s key witness — Hoffman’s cousin — admitted that he had lied to get back at Hoffman for stealing money and had been both paid for his testimony and given a reduced sentence for bank robbery. At the time of Hoffman’s trial, prosecutors withheld the deal from defense attorneys, the jury and even the judge.

        A recipe for disaster

        In a country where more than one out of every 100 citizens is now incarcerated, criminal justice advocates are scrutinizing the way in which police and prosecutors go about getting the information to pursue and prosecute suspects.

        This inquiry has increasingly focused on the extent to which incentivized informants and jailhouse snitches are contributing to the convictions of innocent people.

        A cursory review of the Jones case would be enough to suggest something is wrong. But a thousand Levon Jones stories don’t elicit the same amount of outcry as one Kathryn Johnston case does.

        In November 2006, Atlanta police gunned down Johnston — an elderly Atlanta grandmother — inside her home. The officers, who were from the city’s narcotics task force, claimed to be acting on information they received from a confidential informant that drugs were being sold from the house. That allegation turned out to be false.

        The Johnston tragedy shined a spotlight on the cavalier use of informant information to obtain arrest and search warrants. The Justice Department launched a federal probe and, nine months after the shooting, in July 2007, the House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on law enforcement’s use of confidential informants.

        “We’ve got a serious problem here that goes beyond coughing up cases where snitches were helpful,” said committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) at the hearing. “The whole criminal justice system is being intimidated by the way this thing is being run, and, in many cases, especially at the local level, mishandled. … A lot of people have died because of misinformation.”

        It isn’t known if any of those people have died at the hands of the state; but judging by some of the relevant corollary statistics, it’s plausible that some have.

        Falsified informant testimony accounts for nearly half of all wrongful convictions in capital cases nationwide, according to data from Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row — more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony, according to the Center.

        Alexandra Natapoff, an associate professor of law at Loyola University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on the problems with paid informants, thinks that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

        “We have the most data on capital and homicide convictions because they are the most high profile,” she says, “so we have no idea how many wrongful convictions there are in larceny cases or assault cases or any other because nobody is paying any attention to those.”

        Natapoff has written extensively on the role of snitch testimony in wrongful convictions and says that informants have become law enforcement’s investigative tool of choice.

        “The government’s use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable,” she says. “This lack of oversight and quality control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law and sometimes even official corruption.”

        She continues: “If the criminal system can’t get homicide cases right, then it’s very unlikely that we’re getting other things right.”

        A broken system

        With the expansion of the “war on drugs” during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, police began to abandon traditional investigative work in favor of insider cooperation. Cops say it’s almost impossible to make a drug case any other way. But critics say the practice has led to a “dumbing down” of police work across the board.

        “The drug war has eroded law enforcement practices,” says investigative reporter Ethan Brown, whose recently published book, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice, traces the genesis of the informant culture and its effect on communities.

        Those who study the snitch culture trace the problem to a criminal justice policy that has created the perfect atmosphere for what Brown calls the “cooperator institution” to thrive.

        Most notably, Brown says, federal sentencing guidelines, adopted in 1987, have exacerbated the growth of the cooperator institution over the past two decades.

        Until a 2005 Supreme Court ruling gave judges more flexibility in sentencing, the guidelines made cooperating with authorities the only real option for defendants seeking leniency.

        “Those guidelines really forced drug defendants into cooperating,” says Brown. “Very few people will look at that kind of prison time and not cooperate.”

        But over the years, a practice once confined mainly to drug investigations has become standard operating procedure for the prosecution of all kinds of crime.

        The reasons are myriad, but the simple matter of resources looms large. In a system severely taxed by an unwinnable drug war, relying on informants is a cheap and easy investigative option. It can cost thousands of dollars to house, feed and protect an actual witness until trial, and, depending upon the offense and the defendant, such protection can carry on for years after conviction. By contrast, criminal informants are often compensated with leniency or are paid small sums, and often simply released into the same streets from which they came.

        “It’s all about this staggering misallocation of resources,” says Brown. “We have this incredible institution for cooperators and informants, yet, for the kind of cooperating we need the most, there are really no resources.”

        This mutually beneficial relationship between police officers and their informants is what Natapoff calls “a disturbing marriage of convenience.”

        Prosecutors and police know the pitfalls, but in many cases write them off as the cost of doing business and making cases.

        In a 1999 study published in the Fordham Law Review, Ellen Yaroshefsky, a law professor from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, interviewed a number of assistant U.S. attorneys from the Southern District of New York and found that while most said they made every effort to be diligent in assessing the veracity of informants, they admitted it’s easy to get in too deep and lose objectivity.

        In her study, Yaroshefsky described this as “fall[ing] in love with their rat.”

        “You’re not supposed to, of course. You are trained to maintain your objectivity,” an anonymous participant in Yaroshefsky’s study said. “But you spend time with this guy, you get to know him and his family, you like him. You believe that he has come clean. Hopefully the assistant has a skeptical mindset, but the reality is that the cooperator’s information often becomes your mindset.”

        Still, other times investigators are already working under an assumption of guilt and are simply seeking confirmation.

        “[Sometimes] prosecutors are convinced they have the guilty guy, then they go about seeking to convict and do not carefully look at things that are funny about their case,” one of Yaroshefsky’s sources said.

        Former prosecutor and now Howard University law professor Andrew Taslitz says that when he started out in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, his youth and ambition often clouded his judgment when it came to reliance on informants who had received incentives. He says he thinks his experience is the norm.

        “Most prosecutors are very, very young, especially at the state level,” Taslitz says. “They’re new graduates of law school or they’ve done some other job for a few years but they’re mostly in their late 20s, early 30s tops, with very little experience. It’s one of the reasons that office policies that just tell them what to do are so important.”

        Another problem is that many of the assumptions that courts make about how witness testimony is received simply don’t pan out.

        The Supreme Court established the constitutional basis for using paid informants in 1966 with U.S. v. Hoffa, which decided that rewarding a witness for testimony does not violate due process. In its opinion, the court wrote: “The established safeguards of the Anglo-American legal system leave the veracity of a witness to be tested by cross examination, and the credibility of his testimony to be determined by a properly instructed jury.”

        But Natapoff says, in practice, those mechanisms are deeply ineffective at protecting defendants from lying informants.

        “Let’s say the government does disclose [compensation] and the jury knows about it,” she says. “You would think, and the Supreme Court certainly thinks, that that will make a difference. Well, psychological research has found that it makes almost no difference, that jurors ignore the fact that the witness is compensated.”

        And that’s only for the cases that go to trial. Because 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, defendants rarely get the chance to challenge an informant’s story or credibility.

        “The Supreme Court has held that while defendants who go to trial are entitled to impeachment material about their informants, defendants who plead guilty are not,” Natapoff says. “So that means that most defendants will never see the deal that the informant got.”

        In spite of all the potential pitfalls, police and prosecutors say the benefits of informants outweigh the potential for abuse.

        Ronald E. Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, calls informants “indispensable investigative assets” and cautions against issuing a blanket judgment on the use of confidential informants by police officers for “a few instances of mismanagement or wrongdoing.”

        “When we appropriately manage informants, great cases, ones that make our community safe are the result,” he says. “When informants are improperly used, the results can be devastating. But without the ability to freely use informants, law enforcement would have very few significant investigative successes.”

        Levon Jones was freed from North Carolina's death row in May after a paid informant recanted her testimony.

        Since 1973, 129 innocent people were released from death row -- more than 50 of whom were sentenced to death based partly or wholly on false informant testimony A call for reform

        Since the 2007 House Judiciary Committee hearing in the wake of the death of Kathryn Johnston, little headway has been made in reforming the practice of using incentivized informants to send people to jail — and, possibly, execution.

        According to the American Bar Association (ABA), 18 states now require corroboration of an accomplice’s statements. Those that require corroboration for other forms of incentivized witnesses, however, are few and far between.

        Illinois currently mandates corroboration in capital cases, and courts in Nebraska and Oklahoma have required corroboration for jailhouse snitches.

        Texas, meanwhile, has a different requirement, not for jailhouse snitches, but for undercover drug operatives working for the police.

        Criminal justice reformers say they want to make sure police and prosecutors are following protocol in how and when they use paid or incentivized informants.

        Taslitz, who serves in the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, says more transparency is needed during the discovery phase. For example, he’d like to see defendants who are negotiating a plea agreement have access to the information and witnesses being used against them.

        In a 2005 ABA resolution that Taslitz helped write, the association urged federal, state and local authorities to require that informants meet certain standards of credibility and that courts mandate corroboration in all cases that involve jailhouse snitches.

        But so far there has been little in the way of reform.

        “It’s a slow process,” Taslitz says, “and it doesn’t have to necessarily be a matter of legislation, but it could be a matter of individual prosecutors’ offices adopting specific policies; it can be a matter of local ordinances; it can be case law where judges start to intervene. It’s a slow process and, as of yet, there is no uniform informants act.”

        For cases that do go to trial, Natapoff has been pushing for “pre-trial reliability hearings” as a potential remedy. Under such a system, the burden would be on the government to prove witness reliability by a preponderance of evidence. Courts would be required to consider such factors as the criminal history of the informant, any compensation for their testimony, and other cases in which the informant has testified, among other things.

        “Given the prevalence of informant falsehoods in wrongful capital convictions, such hearings should be mandatory in capital cases, even where the defense intends to concede guilt and move directly to the sentencing phase,” Natapoff says.

        Considering that for every innocent person convicted of murder, a real murderer escapes justice, requiring such checks and balances is as much a victim’s rights issue as a matter of criminal justice.

        For his part, in spite of losing a decade and a half of his life, Levon Jones says he holds no grudge against the snitch that put him on death row.

        Rather, he attributes his ordeal to a miscarriage of justice.

        Says Jones: “It was the system itself.”

        Christopher Moraff is a writer and photographer who frequently contributes to In These Times, The American Prospect online and Common Sense magazine. He currently serves as a features correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and is associate editor of the finance magazine the Monitor, where he specializes in covering corporate fraud. He lives and works in Philadelphia.

        The Rat Trap


        An Unfit Judge

        Published: August 20, 2009

        Judge Sharon Keller, the Texas appellate court judge who closed the clerk’s office before a death row inmate could file a last-minute appeal, is fighting to keep her job. At a hearing on Wednesday, she said in a crowded courtroom that if she had it to do again, she would do the same thing. That testimony is further proof of why Judge Keller needs to be removed from the bench.

        On Sept. 25, 2007, Michael Richard’s lawyers called the court clerk’s office to say they were running late in delivering the papers for his appeal. The Supreme Court had unexpectedly issued an order in another death penalty case that they believed provided grounds for putting off his execution. When the request to keep the office open reached Judge Keller, she insisted it would close promptly at 5 p.m. The appeal was not filed, and Mr. Richard was executed hours later.

        Judge Keller is now facing five counts of judicial misconduct and a possible recommendation that the state judicial system remove her from the bench.

        In court this week, Judge Keller lashed out at the condemned man’s lawyers, blaming them for the controversy. She argued that Mr. Richard could still have filed his appeal by seeking out another judge, but that misses the point. She did not follow appropriate procedures. And clearly, under any interpretation of the rules, given that a life lay in the balance, the clerk’s office should have stayed open.

        Judge Keller’s profound lack of appreciation for the seriousness of taking a life — and the obligations it places on the state — is similar to the disturbing dissent that Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas delivered this week in the Troy Davis case. They suggested there was no constitutional problem with executing a man who could prove he was innocent.

        We believe the death penalty is in all cases wrong. But people who support it should still insist that it be carried out only after a prisoner has been given every reasonable chance to make his case. Judge Keller’s callous indifference in a case where the stakes could not have been higher makes her unfit for office.

        A version of this article appeared in print on August 21, 2009, on page A26 of the New York edition.

        An Unfit Judge

        August 20, 2009

        Here's a good case for killing the death penalty

        Opponents of the death penalty have reason for hope this week.

        2 high-profile cases are exposing the sick, barbaric folly of execution in America.

        When the U.S. resumed executions in 1977, only 16 nations had abolished the death penalty; the number has since grown to 92. 5 nations now carry out more than 90% of the world's executions: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China - and the United States.

        We're in pretty grim company.

        But this week, America took a step toward evolving in the direction of the civilized world.

        In Georgia, a man on death row got an extremely rare ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

        And in Texas, a high-ranking judge is herself on trial - prosecuted for misconduct after callously refusing to hear the 11th-hour appeal of a prisoner who was about to be executed.

        The latest development in the Georgia case of Troy Anthony Davis is awe-inspiring.

        For the first time in 50 years, the justices ordered a federal court to reopen a state murder case - even after a long line of appeals - and hear newly discovered evidence that might exonerate Davis.

        As I've written in columns since 2007, the evidence of Davis' innocence is overwhelming. He was convicted in 1991 of the point-blank shooting of a Savannah police officer in a case with scant evidence: There was no murder weapon found, no confession, no fingerprints or other physical evidence.

        Davis was sent to death row on the strength of 9 witnesses. 7 have since recanted in sworn statements, with many claiming police coercion. An 8th witness first told cops he didn't know who the killer was, then "remembered" it was Davis 2 years later.

        And the 9th witness, who originally pointed the finger at Davis, may be the real killer. Three new witnesses now say he was the shooter. (Details about the case are at troyanthonydavis.org.)

        It took marches, rallies, media coverage and an active international movement and appeals from well-known people - including former FBI Director Williams Sessions, ex-Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict - to get the high court to act.

        The Supreme Court ruling signals that actual innocence counts for something in a land where so many scream for blood.

        Another encouraging scene is unfolding in Texas, where Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, yesterday took the witness stand in her own defense.

        Keller has been charged with misconduct by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct and could be kicked off the bench for her actions on the night in 2007 that the state executed Michael Wayne Richard, a rapist and murderer.

        On the day Richard was scheduled to be killed, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a halt to executions in Kentucky based on a claim that lethal injections might be painful and therefore an unconstitutionally cruel form of punishment.

        Richard's lawyers, frantically attempting to stay his execution based on the ruling in the Kentucky case, called Keller's aides shortly before the court's closing time, begging them to keep the court open for 15 to 30 minutes - long enough to allow papers to be filed.

        At 4:45 p.m., the request was passed to Keller, who presides over the very last stop for criminal defendants in the Lone Star State.

        "We close at 5," she said. Richard was executed at 8:23 that evening. And on the stand yesterday, Keller said that, if faced with the same situation, she'd slam shut the doors of the courthouse again.

        That stiff-necked indifference to fairness and justice make Keller - "Killer Keller" to her critics - a poster child, along with Davis, for why we must end the death penalty.

        (source: Opinion, Errol Louis, New York Daily News)

        Keller trial wraps up with harsh criticism

        Decision will come later on whether judge violated court rules regarding 2007 execution appeal.

        By Chuck Lindell
        August 21, 2009

        SAN ANTONIO — Dismissing most of Judge Sharon Keller's defenses as legally irrelevant, prosecutor Mike McKetta said the state's highest criminal judge failed to perform her job competently in one of the most crucial areas of the law: the death penalty.

        "What kind of telephone call can you get on execution day that could be more urgent than this one: 'We are trying to file'?" McKetta asked Thursday as Keller's four-day misconduct trial came to an end.

        And yet, he said, "we know she said no. ... We know she said no a second time. We know she said, 'We close at 5 p.m.' She knew a filing was anticipated, and what did she do? 'No. No.'"

        Defense lawyer Chip Babcock, in his closing arguments, blamed the charges against Keller on a well-orchestrated attack by death penalty opponents and lies repeated by lawyers for death row inmate Michael Richard, whose missed appeal and execution in 2007 formed the basis of the case against Keller.

        "To even suggest that this fine woman, this fine judge willfully violated the law is frankly an outrage," Babcock said.

        "She and her family — and the family of Mrs. Dixon, frankly — are being put through this ordeal because some very vocal people don't like the way Judge Keller rules," he said.

        Marguerite Dixon was raped and killed by Richard in 1986. Two of her daughters, Marijo and Paula Dixon of Austin, were in the courtroom Thursday.

        Keller's trial ended without a resolution.Under rules governing cases of alleged misconduct against judges, District Judge David Berchelmann Jr. will compile "findings of fact" for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

        The 13-member commission will rely on the findings to decide among three options: drop the charges, censure Keller or suggest that she be removed from office. A removal recommendation would be ruled on by a specially created panel of seven appellate court judges.

        In his closing arguments Thursday, McKetta urged Berchelmann to focus on conduct — "what Judge Keller knew, said, thought, decided, did and failed to do."

        Keller, he said, failed to follow the court's execution-day procedures, which required "all communications" about a pending execution be referred to Judge Cheryl Johnson, who was assigned to handle any late appeal from Richard.

        Knowing she was not the assigned judge, Keller still chose to address and dispose of a request from Richard's legal team for more time, McKetta said.

        "She circumvented procedures" that are an important safeguard against the misapplication of capital punishment, he added.

        "The death penalty can be accepted in a civilization only when people can have confidence that it be so carefully administered that it precludes premature or erroneous executions," McKetta said. "Executions cannot be undone."

        Babcock said the charges against Keller assume that "we live in a black and white world. I think our society, and what happened here, is a little more nuanced than that."

        By saying the court clerk's office closes at 5 p.m. — a time set by state law — Keller did not stop lawyers with the Texas Defender Service from filing any appeals, Babcock said.

        Those lawyers failed to remember, or did not know, that appellate rules allow the court's general counsel or any of its nine judges to accept pleadings, he said.

        "Judge Keller didn't close the court to anyone. Mr. Richard's lawyer never knocked on the right doors, and they gave up," Babcock said.

        On the day of Richard's execution, the U.S. Supreme Court said about 9 a.m. that it would examine the legality of lethal injections. Even so, Babcock said, TDS lawyers didn't begin writing briefs until shortly after noon. By then, 40 percent of the time until 5 p.m. had evaporated, he said.

        TDS also assigned the task of drafting four briefs to a first-year lawyer, Alma Lagarda, and offered her no supervision until TDS litigation director David Dow arrived in the Houston office about 2:45 p.m., Babcock said.

        Babcock's harshest criticism was reserved for "lies" told by TDS lawyers that, he said, produced a flurry of negative publicity and scathing media accounts.

        Prosecutors used those news stories to allege that Keller brought discredit on the judiciary.

        There were no computer problems that delayed the creation of Richard's legal briefs, Babcock said.

        The often-told claim that the court would not stay open for only 20 minutes is refuted by the Texas Defender Service's own admission that the briefs weren't completed until almost 6 p.m., he added.

        "This is a tactic of TDS — to attack the Court of Criminal Appeals," Babcock said. TDS lawyers rebutted many of Babcock's claims, sometimes angrily, in testimony this week.

        McKetta urged Berchelmann to look past many of Babcock's claims, noting that they had nothing to do with the charges against Keller's conduct.

        Keller, he noted, made her decision to close the court without knowing that TDS had claimed computer delays, had made legal choices that would be questioned later or would criticize her about the Richard case in the months to follow.

        "She blames TDS solely and in its entirety — that the only reason for criticism around the world was TDS, TDS, TDS, instead of acknowledging that her noncompliance with the execution-day procedures must have accountability," McKetta said.

        Berchelmann has no time limit to make the findings beyond a state rule that says he must act promptly.

        clindell@statesman.com; 912-2569

        Keller trial wraps up with harsh criticism

        Judge Keller: No one did anything wrong

        San Antonio Express-News
        Aug. 18, 2009

        SAN ANTONIO — Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller on Tuesday disagreed with prosecutors about her perception of a phone call two years ago that preceded the execution of death row inmate Michael Richard.

        “I just don't think anybody did anything wrong,” said Keller, the state's highest-ranking criminal judge, at her ethics hearing.

        Keller faces possible removal from office after being charged with five counts of judicial misconduct, including the failure to follow the appellate court's execution-day protocol when she didn't notify fellow Judge Cheryl Johnson of the Sept. 25, 2007, request to accept a late appeal. Johnson testified earlier she was at the court after hours, waiting for the expected last-minute appeal.

        “You knew someone had called about that scheduled execution and at minimum (that they) were not ready to file?” asked special prosecutor Mike McKetta, to which Keller responded, “Yes.”

        Keller recalled the court's general counsel Ed Marty saying that night, “They wanted to file something, but they were not ready.”

        She responded, telling Marty to advise Richard's attorneys that the clerk's office closes at 5 p.m. Richard, convicted in the April 1996 rape and shooting death of a Hockley nurse, was executed three hours later.

        During her hourlong testimony Tuesday, Keller said she didn't believe she was making a decision regarding the court accepting an appeal, but an administrative one about the clerk's office hours.

        “I think it was not a substantive matter,” she said, “but I can see why other people think it was.”

        Prosecutors are expected to continue questioning the judge this morning. Prosecutors will likely rest their case by the end of the day, and it is possible the defense will as well, attorneys indicated Tuesday.

        Richard's sister, Betty, who traveled from Houston to watch the proceedings, choked back tears during a break in Keller's testimony Tuesday.

        “She knows it was wrong,” she said. “My brother was not an animal. He was a loved human being.”

        ‘You didn't ask'

        Keller's testimony came after a long and sometimes bruising exchange earlier in the day between Richard's appellate lawyer and her attorney.

        David Dow, a law professor and litigation director for the nonprofit Texas Defender Services, occasionally raised his voice as he fielded questions from defense attorney Chip Babcock that suggested Dow spun false allegations to the media and lied about computer problems the day he was trying to file a last-minute appeal for Richard.

        Babcock said Dow should have known to call Johnson or to call the court's general counsel that day after his paralegal was told the clerk's office closes at 5.

        “You weren't denied (the appeal),” Babcock said. “You didn't ask.”

        Keller later said, “I would have thought a good part of (the execution-day procedure) was known to defense attorneys who practiced in our court.”

        Dow said he wasn't aware at the time that he could call others. He assumed after talking to his paralegal no other options were available.

        “It's reasonable for me to believe the clerk's office is the court,” Dow said. “I don't draw a distinction between the clerk's office and the court the way you do.”

        Both agreed there could have been some confusion that day as a result of the chain of communication. Dow was giving orders to another attorney in his office, who was in turn talking to a paralegal in Austin, who called the court clerk, who called the general counsel, who called Judge Keller.

        A pointed question

        Babcock, whose previous high-profile clients include Oprah Winfrey and the Chicago Tribune, occasionally glanced into the audience as he offered his questions Tuesday. Keller sat at the defense table, occasionally taking notes.

        “Do you think Judge Keller should be removed from office because you didn't think about (calling others) that day?” Babcock asked.

        Dow gathered his thoughts for a moment before responding.

        “I don't have an opinion on whether Judge Keller should be removed from office,” he said.


        Judge Keller: No one did anything wrong

        Aug. 17, 2009

        The case against death row----Instead of imposing ineffective death penalty, we should build tougher jails

        Seeing another wave of violence, Israelis turn to the "deterrence Messiah" that would save all and cease fatal violence on the streets the death penalty. Seems tempting, I agree knowing that a criminal who murdered another human being would be killed himself by our hand feels somewhat soothing. Let the criminals know the revenge is coming.

        The public should not rush to decide on the issue, however. Let emotions subside and look straight at the facts. And here they are.

        The state of Texas has one of the highest executions rates in the United States.

        The Lone Star state had seen 439 persons executed by the judicial system since 1976, yet crime rates are still high, with 10,869 individuals murdered since 2000. Furthermore, in the past 14 years, murder rates hover around same range (between 1,217 and 1,693), with the Texan public suffering 5.9 murders per 100,000 citizens. This is in contrast with, for example, to Wisconsin, which sees 3.3 murders per same amount of inhabitants, with no single execution since 1976 and only a single death row inmate killed beforehand; Connecticut sees 3 murders per 100,000 with a single execution as well.

        While statistics certainly differ, they also clearly portray another picture more executions do not necessarily mean less violent crime. Georgia, having executed 45 inmates, holds steady at the 7.5 murders mark, with North Carolina trailing at 43 executions and 6.5 murders.

        The call for a death penalty law strikes a cord with many, but I believe the data presented clearly one point death rarely deters those willing to kill another human.

        Secondly, we must recall that the wheels of justice are ill-advised, at times.

        Inventors and scientists work tirelessly to discover new crime investigation technology that would uncover precise evidence in police's search for justice; technology that could exonerate those deemed guilty.

        Mistakes could be made. You cannot revive a dead man.

        So what is a better solution to the problem? Here is an idea: The government should establish an isolated, high-security, hard-labor prison, in the desert under military control. In the hot weather, prisoners should be forced to work 18 hours a day under harsh conditions. They should be given an hour of free time each week, on Saturdays. Radio and TV sets, as well as books should be barred from prison cells, with jailed individuals having access to those once a week, during the free hour.

        Moreover, the media should be called upon to visit the prison, with news crews filming the conditions and the suffering of the inmates. Other reporters should be allowed as well, with the option to interview pre-selected inmates.

        Too cruel? Perhaps. Yet never was law enforcement agencies' need for means to prevent crime as dire as it is now. The offered solution would therefore aim to show villains the true face of justice if you do the crime, the time would be long and painful.

        (source: Jonathan Boyko, Opinion, YNet News)

        Embattled judge faces own trial

        Judge Sharon Keller is expected to testify during this week's hearing.

        By Craig Kapitan - SAEN
        August 17, 2009

        For almost two years, critics have called for the resignation of Sharon Keller, one of Texas' highest-ranking judges, over charges of unethical conduct after she refused to accept a last-minute appeal from a death row inmate.

        Starting today, a rare hearing will begin in San Antonio that could help settle the matter.

        Keller — the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the criminal equivalent to the State Supreme Court — will sit before state District Judge David Berchelmann Jr. at the Bexar County Courthouse as special prosecutors for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct present evidence against her.

        The process — which has never involved a judge as high-ranking as Keller — could result in the judicial misconduct charges being dismissed, or could be the beginning of a protracted legal battle to boot her from the bench.

        Keller is no stranger to controversy.

        In 1998, she wrote an opinion denying a new trial to a mentally disabled man who'd been convicted of rape and murder even though DNA tests appeared to clear him.

        The latest firestorm, a frequent launching point for criticism of Texas' death penalty policies, began with a short telephone conversation minutes before 5 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007.

        The execution of death row inmate Michael Richard was scheduled to begin in less than 90 minutes, and his lawyers were racing to file an appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court had announced that morning that it would determine whether lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

        Richard's lawyers wanted a stay of execution until the Supreme Court could decide the matter.

        “They want to hold the court open,” general counsel Edward Marty recalled telling Keller over the phone, according to documents that State Commission on Judicial Conduct prosecutors filed earlier this year. Keller refused, saying the clerk's office closed at 5 p.m.

        Despite several attempts that night to talk to the deputy clerk by cell phone, Richard's attorneys said they were stonewalled. At 8:20 p.m., Richard was executed for the August 1986 rape and shooting death of Marguerite Dixon, a Hockley nurse.

        Keller, who had gone home early that afternoon to meet a repairman, had an ethical duty to advise fellow Appeals Court Judge Cheryl Johnson of the conversation, according to the prosecutors for the Judicial Conduct Commission. As was policy, Johnson was on call that night in the event a last-minute appeal was filed.

        “Neither Judge Johnson nor the other judges who remained at the court after 5 p.m. were aware that Mr. Richard's lawyers had called to ask whether filings after 5 p.m. could be accepted,” prosecutors alleged in court documents.

        And because the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed that morning to review lethal injection practices across the country, Keller's colleagues had been expecting an appeal. The nation's highest court eventually rejected the notion that the practice constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but no death row inmate — in Texas or elsewhere — was executed during the six months of debate and review.

        But Keller never intended to obstruct Richard's attorneys from filing an appeal, said her lawyer Charles “Chip” Babcock.

        “If you believe this story that's been spun, it kind of looks bad for Judge Keller,” he said. But in truth, he said, the brief phone conversation she had with Marty was solely about office hours, not an appeal.

        “She picked up the phone and she answered a simple question,” he said. “There's just no way she violated any code of conduct.”

        Richard's attorneys could have easily filed the appeal by calling the on-duty judge, he said, adding that Keller can't be blamed for their dereliction of duty.

        Calls last week to Texas Defender Services, which handled Richard's appeals, were referred to Houston attorney Neal Manne. Placing blame on the respected nonprofit is a classic smokescreen tactic, said Manne, who represented the agency's staff during depositions for the hearing.

        “I understand why she wants to change the focus away from herself, but I think it's a cheap shot,” he said. “It's legally irrelevant.

        The focus is and should be on what she did or didn't do.”

        Keller, who couldn't be reached for comment last week, is expected to testify during this week's hearing. Others expected to testify include fellow Court of Criminal Appeals judges, Texas Defender Services staff and the court's former general counsel.

        The hearing will mirror a civil trial with the exception of its resolution. When concluded, Berchelmann will issue a report stating the facts of the case as he sees them to the 13-member State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

        The panel then will choose one of three options at a public meeting: dismiss the case; issue a public censure; or recommend to the Supreme Court that Keller be removed.

        If she appeals the commission's decision, attorneys said the process from there could take years.

        Keller is the 96th judge in the State Commission on Judicial Conduct's 44-year history to undergo formal proceedings. However, few of those cases have resulted in public inquiries because judges have generally accepted plea deals or resigned before the hearings could take place, Willing said.

        This week's hearing will mark the first such proceeding since 2003.

        Embattled judge faces own trial

        July 30, 2009

        Catholicism 101 - Does the church allow the death penalty?

        Kelsey Grammer has been in the news for his planned appearance at the parole hearing of the man who murdered his sister in 1976. Detained by a weather delay at the airport, Grammer was unable to attend the hearing but sent word pleading that the man who abducted, raped, stabbed and left for dead, 18 year old Karen Grammer should not be set free.

        Since the original conviction of death in the gas chamber, Denver law changed.

        It is now possible for this man to be released. Another parole hearing is scheduled for 2014.

        The story is horrible and the crime, brutal. Such a crime not only brings death and destruction to the individual and their family but also harms the whole of society. It cries out for justice which can only take the form of punishment. What does the church say about it?

        Because of the commandment, you shall not kill which extends toward anger, hatred and vengeance, many believe that the church forbids capital punishment. That is not true.

        Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for ones own right to life (CC 2264).

        According to the Catholic Catechism (2265), "Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another persons life, the common good of the family or of the state."

        The church understands that the scale for punishment should reflect the gravity of a crime. "Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm." The traditional teaching of the church "acknowledges the right and duty of public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty" (CC 2266).

        The church ascribes to the correctional aspects of incarceration with an attitude toward reform. "The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When punishment is voluntarily accepted, it takes on the value of expiation. Punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. It (punishment) has a medicinal value and should contribute to the correction of the offender." (CC 2266)

        For feelings of vengeance, it is best to pray for healing for self, all victims and healing for the perpetrators as well.

        There have been miracles of conversion in prisons and converts such as Carla Faye Tucker, executed for her crime of murder, have died in the grace of God.

        But even if there is little hope for reform, the church advises using capital punishment only as a last resort. "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

        (source: Karen Dudek, Examiner.com)

        July 29, 2009

        Life without parole helps build anti-death penalty support

        A report last week issued by the Sentencing Project, a national organization that works for a fair criminal justice system, pointed to the ongoing problem in the United States of racial disparities in sentencing and the challenges posed by the growing number of people who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

        In light of the report, the Sentencing Project is calling for the elimination of life-without- parole sentences.

        While the organization' s desire to fix problems in the way justice is allocated is certainly laudable, abolishing life without parole as a sentencing option would be a mistake and undercut one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment that we as a society can keep the most dangerous prisoners off the streets permanently and punish them appropriately without resorting to state-sponsored executions.

        Reform, not abolition

        The Sentencing Project's report points out that nearly 1/3 of inmates serving life sentences some 41,000 have no possibility of parole. 2/3 of "lifers" are non-white.

        Such racial disparities, which are also evident in the way the death penalty is administered in the United States, point to the need for an overhaul of the criminal justice system so that it is indeed just for all, particularly the poor and people of color.

        Sentences of life without parole should be given to only the most dangerous and violent criminals who pose a persistent threat to public safety. They should be handed out carefully, judiciously and as infrequently as possible, but they shouldn't be eliminated as a sentencing option.

        While the intention of those who propose eliminating life-without- parole sentences isn't to increase support for the death penalty, it's not difficult to imagine lawmakers and the judicial system coming under added pressure to advocate for capital punishment if permanent prison sentences are no longer a guaranteed option.

        It would begin undoing the progress that has been made in recent years in some states thanks in large part to Catholics to enact capital punishment moratoriums and repeal death penalty laws. Such efforts have been successful in part because of the support of church leaders, such as Pope John Paul II, who called the death penalty "both cruel and unnecessary, " and the U.S. bishops, who rightly pointed out in their 2005 statement "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" that "it is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life."

        Choosing life over death

        Unlike the death penalty, sentences of life without parole, when administered properly, cost the public less and uphold the human dignity of crime victims as well as perpetrators who have an opportunity while in prison to reform and rehabilitate their lives.

        Life without parole is a better option than the death penalty, and it is a necessary one if efforts to abolish capital punishment are to be successful.

        (source: Editorial, Joe Towalski, The Catholic Spirit)

        Capital Writs office to give Texas death-row inmates help with appeals

        July 29, 2009
        The Associated Press

        HOUSTON – Condemned killers in Texas will get more legal help with their appeals when a state-backed office opens in 2010.

        The Office of Capital Writs, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a nine-person staff, will be funded by redirecting money already in the state budget. Its attorneys are expected to handle most state appeals.

        An alliance of the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and public defense advocates endorsed the measure before the 2009 Legislature.

        State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston sponsored the measure creating the office in response to reports about how death row inmates' lawyers had mismanaged appeals. He said the lack of a public defender to oversee key death row appeals has been an "international embarrassment." He introduced the bill in 2007.

        Texas, the nation's most active capital punishment state, put 18 convicted killers to death last year.

        "I think that everyone agrees [death row inmates] deserve one fair shot at presenting their issues, whether they're meritorious or not," said Andrea Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. "We saw too many cases where poor state habeas representation forced people to lose appeals."

        Capital Writs office to give Texas death-row inmates help with appeals

        The Associated Press

        July 28, 2009

        State to handle capital appeals

        Texas, which executes more convicts than any other state in the nation, will open its 1st capital defense office next year to manage appeals for death row inmates after years of reports that appointed private attorneys repeatedly botched the job.

        "The status quo has been an international embarrassment," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the law that created the office. It was supported by an unusual alliance between the State Bar of Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals and public defense advocates, who all backed it in the last legislative session.

        The law was inspired by a series of stories about Texas inmates who lost crucial appeals after court-appointed attorneys missed deadlines or filed only so-called "skeletal" writs documents with little information often copied from other cases. It represents a significant reform for Texas, one of the only capital punishment states that lacks a public defender to oversee key death row appeals known as state writs of habeas corpus.

        The office, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a staff of 9, won't open soon enough to help any of the inmates whose appellate rights were squandered recently.

        "Better late than never," said Juan Castillo, 1 of 4 death row inmates whose state appeals were never filed by the San Antonio attorney assigned to represent them. "This is a start. There's a lot of cases" that have been screwed up.

        Ellis first introduced the bill in 2007 in response to reports about how death row inmates' lawyers had mismanaged appeals. But the bill was blocked then by last-minute lobbying from Harris County's former DA.

        Deadlines blown

        In the aftermath, appellate mistakes continued. The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this year that 3 attorneys had repeatedly blown state or federal appellate deadlines for their death row clients, effectively surrendering their clients' rights to appeal. The Court of Criminal Appeals recently found 2 attorneys in contempt of court for their shoddy work, including Castillo's lawyer, Suzanne Kramer, and referred them to the State Bar of Texas for possible disciplinary action.

        Kramer has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

        Governor signed bill

        By the 2009 legislative session, remaining opposition to establishing a state capital defense office had virtually disappeared, Ellis said. The law was approved late in the session and signed by the governor last month.

        "I think that everyone agrees (death row inmates) deserve one fair shot at presenting their issues, whether they're meritorious or not," said Andrea Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. "We saw too many cases where poor state habeas representation forced people to lose appeals."

        The Office of Capital Writs will be funded by redirecting money already in the state budget: $500,000 formerly used to pay private attorneys for appeals and $494,520 from the state's Fair Defense account, already earmarked for indigent defense. Ultimately, its attorneys will likely handle most state appeals about 10 a year, if the current pace of death sentences continues.

        State writs of habeas corpus are considered the most critical step in death row appeals. It is at that stage that any innocence claim, allegation of prosecutorial misconduct, flawed trial defense or other issue involving omissions or case errors must be raised or the arguments cannot normally be raised later in the process.

        The state writ of death row inmate Keith Thurmond, a former Montgomery County mechanic on death row for the 2001 murders of his wife and her lover, first was assigned to an inexperienced attorney who badly botched it. He next was given a Houston attorney, Jerome Godinich, who failed to file his federal appeal on time. Godinich, who has missed deadlines in 3 federal death row appeals, has blamed the mistake in Thurmond's case on another lawyer and a faulty after-hours filing machine.

        Thurmond fears that he will be executed before his innocence claim, or any other challenges to the outcome of his 2002 trial, are ever heard by any appellate judge.

        "I'm lost," he said. "I don't know what to do. I haven't had no representation since I've been here."

        (source: Houston Chronicle)

        July 28th, 2009

        Texas Seeks To Improve Image In Death Penalty Cases

        Texas, the death penalty capital of the country, seems to be looking to change its ways.

        The state has passed legislation creating a capital defense office next year, which will handle appeals for death row inmates, according to this article from the Houston Chronicle.

        The appellate office will have a staff of 9 and a budget of about $1 million.

        Texas has gotten roundly criticized over the years for its handling of capital murder cases. There have been strange capital murder tales coming out of the Lone Star state in recent years, including a capital murder defendant represented by a sleeping lawyer; a defendant sentenced to death by a judge who allegedly was having a secret affair with the prosecutor in the case; and a defendant who was executed after he was barred from filing an appeal after the 5:00 pm closing time of the state's highest criminal appellate court. That later case prompted a move to impeach Sharon Keller, a judge on the state's court of criminal appeals.

        The Chron reports that the legislation creating the capital defense office was inspired by stories of Texas inmates who lost appeals because their lawyers missed deadlines or filed "skeletal" writs, which contained only scant information often copied from other cases.

        "The status quo has been an international embarrassment," state senator Rodney Ellis, who sponsored the legislation, told the Chron.

        (source: Wall Street Journal)

        July 23, 2009

        The Death Penalty for a Hate-Crime?

        The Matthew Shepard Act, as part of the 2010 Department of Defense Authorization Bill that it is attached to, has now officially cleared the Senate and is making its way toward President Obama's desk but first must make a stop at a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation before final votes in September, but it does so after having had four amendments made to it, one of which adds a death penalty provision.

        Details on the Four Amendments Made to the Matthew Shepard Act

        Approved on Monday, 3 of the amendments were conceived by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.); they accomplish the following:

        Authorizing the possibility of the death penalty for certain hate-crimes.

        Extending the hate-crimes law to include "injury" against U.S. military service members and their families.

        A requirement that all hate-crime prosecutions adhere to guidelines as set out by the Attorney General, and that they operate on a "neutral and objective" basis.

        A further amendment was then added by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) seeking to place conditions on the application of the death penalty provision, restricting the measure's use until the attorney general of the state where the hate-crimes law is being applied has created the appropriate standards for the use of capital punishment as a sentence for a hate-crime conviction.

        All 4 amendments were approved, 3 with unanimous consent, and the amendment to extend hate-crime protections to military service personnel passing with a vote of 92-0.

        According to this article by the Washington Blade, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) explained that the amendments made to the Matthew Shepard Act were part of a deal with Republican Senators in order to have the hate-crimes provision clear the Senate. Leahy also states that he supports all 4 of the amendments "in modified form".

        How Have LGBT Groups Reacted to the Matthew Shepard Act Amendments?

        Not well. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups have decried the addition of the death penalty. The American Civil Liberties Union have perhaps said it best through Christopher Anders, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel, when noting:

        "The expansion of the federal death penalty stands in stark contrast to furthering the cause of civil rights in the United States"

        In a letter sent by a coalition of gay rights, civil liberties and religious groups amounting to 50 sponsors in total, the addition of the death penalty was denounced. You can read the letter here.

        The Human Rights Campaign group have called the the amendments "poison pills" introduced by Jess Sessions, a Senator that gave a 50 minute speech as to why hate-crimes should not be extended to include LGBTS, to kill the bill.

        This, in itself, also infers the bitter irony inherent in a man arguing that extending hate-crimes legislation to include LGBT protections could endanger the liberty of moral objectors and religious persons, then adding a federal death penalty clause.

        Personally, I think three of the amendments are ill conceived and arbitrary. One places undue demands on the Attorney General to redefine hate-crimes when there has long been a perfectly applicable definition in existing law.

        The second extends protections to military personnel and their families which, firstly, is a move poorly defined - what constitutes "injury", or, indeed, "family" - and secondly, is unneeded due to existing tougher penalties for attacks made on service members or veterans already being in place.

        The death penalty provision we will come to below.

        Lastly the final amendment designed to curtail the death penalty's enforcement is a reactionary damage limitation exercise from the Democrats indicative of the difficulty that making concessions to the Republican opposition has left them in.

        What's Next for the Hate Crimes Legislation?

        The Hate Crimes legislation will go to a conference committee where the disparities between the House and Senate versions of the bill will hopefully be reconciled.

        One thing is clear, a Matthew Shepard Act including the death penalty is an insult to the young man that it was named after, violating the spirit of the legislation as it was intended and making bitter any sense of victory or joy that could have been had from its long overdue passage.

        The Matthew Shepard act has already been attached to a DOD authorization bill, a move which no one really wanted. But we accept, we adapt and we move forward.

        On the issue of the death penalty provision, though, we can not accept, we can not move forward. Instead, we must fight for it to be removed. There is no other way.

        Luckily, there is now such a gulf between the House and Senate versions of the bill that there will be room to maneuver, but it is imperative that we make Senators and Representatives mindful of the fact that they must remove the death penalty provision from the hate-crimes legislation whilst still making it known how vital the nature of the Matthew Shepard Act, or what was once the Matthew Shepard Act, is.

        Take Action and Stop the Death Penalty Provision:

        You can reach the capital switchboard at 202.224.3121. You will be asked who you wish to speak to. Ask for your Senator or Representative's office. Don't know who they are? Find out here, where you'll also be able to access a list of email addresses and direct office phone numbers if you wish to contact your representatives that way.

        Once you are in touch with your Representative or Senator's office, reiterate your support for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention legislation, but also urge them to work toward removing the death penalty provision when the bill goes to conference.

        You may wish to cite the general consensus opinion that the House version of the bill has always been more comprehensive, better structured and well targeted than its Senate counterpart. Reverting to that format would allow the hate-crimes prevention legislation to operate in the way that it was intended.

        Lastly, please pass on any emails or contact information you do have to friends and family and spread the important message that whilst we do want hate-crimes legislation and therein equal status, we do not want it with the spectre of the death penalty being allowed along for the ride.

        (source: Care2.com)

        July 22, 2009

        Inmate set to die for '99 murder gets reprieve

        Associated Press Writer

        HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday stopped the scheduled execution of a condemned inmate after misplaced evidence surfaced related to the abduction, robbing and fatal shooting of a Dallas man a decade ago.

        Roderick Newton, 31, was set to die Thursday. Prosecutors and defense attorneys had anticipated a reprieve after Dallas County authorities gave Newton's lawyers a police questionnaire uncovered in a review of the case.

        The evidence was given to them within the last two weeks.

        Newton was condemned for the death of Jesus Montoya, 20, of Dallas, who in 1999 was abducted from a car wash, forced to make an ATM withdrawal, robbed of his jewelry and then shot and dumped in a vacant lot in Mesquite.

        Dallas County prosecutors cleared the way for the reprieve when they agreed Tuesday with Newton's attorneys that the courts should review the possible impact of the questionnaire, which was filled out by a key prosecution witness at Newton's trial but never given to Newton's trial lawyers.

        It was the first of three statements made to Mesquite detectives by a co-defendant who testified against Newton.

        Only two, however, were known to Newton's trial attorneys.

        The inmate's appeals lawyers, seeking to block the lethal injection, told the Court of Criminal Appeals it was improperly withheld and could have been used to discredit the co-defendant's testimony.

        Police arrested the co-defendant, Julian Paul Williams, whose fingerprints were found in Montoya's truck, and Williams told them of Newton's involvement in Montoya's slaying. He served a 10-year prison term and is now free. Newton got death.

        Prosecutors found the written questionnaire from Williams in a police file while recently reviewing the 10-year-old case. In the questionnaire, Williams told police he knew nothing of the slaying and wasn't involved, a story he changed in subsequent statements.

        The appeals court returned Newton's case to his Dallas County trial court for a hearing on the evidence issue. The appeals court also agreed with Newton's lawyers that their claim Newton was mentally impaired and ineligible for execution should be reviewed.

        The court dismissed other defense claims that Newton should have had a hearing on his competency to stand trial and that he had deficient legal help at his trial.

        Newton had more than two dozen misdemeanor and felony offenses on his record and was a probation violator when he became wanted for Montoya's slaying. He was arrested hiding in a garbage bin after fleeing on foot following a car chase that had ended with him crashing into a parked car.

        Texas leads the nation with 16 executions this year. At least 10 inmates have execution dates in the coming months. Scheduled to die next is David Wood, 52, a convicted serial killer facing lethal injection Aug. 20 for the slayings of six women and girls in the El Paso area over three months in 1987.

        Inmate set to die for '99 murder gets reprieve

        Copyright 2009, The Associated Press.

        July 21, 2009

        Respected magistrate hangs up his robes but will continue his research at UT-Arlington

        Allan Butcher was known as one of the top death-penalty attorneys in Texas and an advocate for poor criminal defendants when he became a magistrate quietly working away in the basement courtroom at the courthouse a decade ago.

        His switch from writing appeals for death row inmates to simply approving pleas on routine legal matters may have bewildered others, but it made sense to Butcher, who said the job gave him time to continue his research and teaching.

        "Most lawyers like the drama of the courtroom. I like the solitude of the library," Butcher said.

        Butcher, however, hung up his robes Friday after changes in the schedule forced him to work 5 days a week, every week. That made it harder to continue his research, especially into the courts indigent-defense system.

        "When I took the job, we worked 7 days on and had 7 days off," Butcher said. "That gave me a large block of time every other week to devote to my research."

        A 5-member judicial committee has screened about 35 applicants for the magistrate's job and picked 6 finalists, who were interviewed Friday. The county's 19 criminal court judges will make the final selection this week.

        University life

        By the time his successor takes the bench, Butcher plans to be back in his office at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he will continue researching the death penalty, indigency and judicial selection issues that have become synonymous with his name.

        Butcher had 3 careers before becoming a lawyer more than 30 years ago, and he tried a few cases before finding his niche as an appellate attorney. There, he earned a statewide reputation after winning reversals on 1/2 of the 18 death penalty cases he appealed.

        "He was probably the leading appellate lawyer that judges would use in death-penalty cases," said state District Judge George Gallagher, who practiced law with Butcher for 13 years. "He was considered the best because of his thoroughness and knowledge of the law."

        Butcher gave his best to all his clients, not just those facing the death penalty, Gallagher said.

        He recalled a case in which a defendant tried on a felony charge was convicted of a misdemeanor. Still, Butcher appealed the case on the grounds that the judge should have given the jury a legal definition of reasonable doubt.

        It took a year and a half before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed.

        Even though the court reversed itself 6 years later, Butcher continues to fight for his clients and the law, Gallagher said.

        "What struck me about this case is that it was really no big deal as far as the severity of the offense," Gallagher said. "But Allan seized on what he thought was a gap in the law and tried to change it."


        Butcher gives the same careful attention to the hundreds of defendants with whom he interacts only briefly, his staff say.

        "He treats them as individuals," court coordinator Rita Dickerson said. "He tries to convey how important it is for them to get an attorney in time to do them some good but to get someone they're comfortable working with."

        Dickerson said Butcher is equally attentive to the police officers who bring him search and arrest warrants to sign.

        Butcher, a professor emeritus at UT-Arlington, acknowledges that his teaching side kicks in when hes trying to ensure that officers include details needed for him to sign the warrants.

        "I'm the person between the police who want to search and the civilian's right to privacy," he said. "The officer has to convince me he has the reason to do it. I like to think that Im rigorous yet sensitive to the rights of the defendant."

        For the near future, Butcher will return to his research on indigent defense, which already has improved poor defendants access to attorneys throughout the state.

        He'll also continue trying to find ways to ensure that the death penalty is imposed in a fair and consistent way, although he no longer is sure that is possible.

        "I'm not ready to retire," Butcher said.

        (source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

        July 20, 2009

        Texas reporter's seen unrivaled number of U.S. executions

        Texas reporter has covered executions in Texas since the early 1980s Graczyk stopped counting, didn't want "notches on my gun belt" Inmates waiting to die have greeted him by name, called to check up on him He says he doesn't worry about the mental toll and has declined counseling.

        It takes 7 minutes to execute a death row inmate, according to the state of Texas.

        Mike Graczyk poses outside the Texas death chamber prior to an execution in January.

        At that rate, Mike Graczyk has spent about 40 hours of his life watching men -- and a few women -- die.

        Graczyk, a correspondent for The Associated Press, is believed to hold a macabre record. He's almost certainly watched more executions than anyone else in the United States.

        "I can't possibly imagine there's been someone present at more than Mike," said Michelle Lyons, the spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which uses lethal injection at its execution chamber in Huntsville.

        Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, no state has executed more inmates than Texas. And no one has witnessed more of them than Graczyk.

        He's on the witness list for 315 of the state's 439 executions -- more than any other reporter