Texas Court of Inquiry to Examine Prosecutorial Misconduct

A Texas Court of Inquiry is set to review allegations of prosecutorial misconduct by former District Attorney Kenneth Anderson, who withheld critical information in a first-degree murder case in Williamson County. Although prosecutorial misconduct has played a role in many wrongful convictions, including death penalty cases, such an oversight hearing is unusual. Sam Millsap, the former District Attorney of Bexar County, Texas, said, "I’d love to be able to tell you I am the only former elected prosecutor in the country who finds himself in the position of having to admit an error in judgment that may have led to the execution of an innocent man, but I know I am not." If the Court finds that Anderson's alleged misconduct rises to the level of a crime, the case may be referred to a grand jury. Anderson, who is now a Texas judge, presided over the prosecution of Michael Morton (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to life for his wife's murder in 1987. Evidence suggesting Morton's innocence, including a bloody bandana found near the crime scene, was kept from the defense. DNA testing of the bandana led to Morton's exoneration in 2011, and implicated another man who is also suspected of subsequently murdering another woman. Anderson's successor as D.A., John Bradley, who fought against allowing DNA testing in Morton's case, has said he now believes he was wrong, adding, "We shouldn’t set up barriers to the introduction of new evidence." 

EDITORIALS: Preserving Independent Funding for Death Penalty Representation

A recent editorial in the Miami Herald applauded a court decision finding that the costs of represening defendants in Florida death penalty cases should be kept separate from the judges’ annual budget. A state judge held it would be unconstitutional to have judges making decisions about attorneys' fees when the money for such expenses comes from the judges' own resources. The editorial stated, "We depend on the court system to dispense justice—period. Not justice on a budget, not justice on the cheap, not justice with 'ka-ching' in the back of a judge’s mind." The costs formerly came out of general state revenue. Death penalty attorney David Markus said the law would have made “judges think twice about paying a lawyer, knowing that he or she has to also think about paying his secretary or buying copier paper.” The editorial called on lawmakers to heed the recommendations of the Florida Innocence Commission, which made several recommendations to correct the high rate of wrongful convictions in the state. The editors wrote, “Lawmakers truly interested in reform would take the recommendations seriously, even though they require more-adequate funding. Instead, the Legislature has steadily chipped away at courts’ budgets for the past six years, while the volume of cases has increased. That’s a stumbling block to real reform.” Florida leads the country in exonerations from death row, with 23 wrongful convictions overturned since 1973.  Read full editorial below.

Family of Man Executed in Texas Seeks Posthumous Pardon

The family of Cameron Todd Willingham announced they will petition the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant him a posthumous pardon based on new evidence that has emerged since his execution in 2004. Willingham was sentenced to death for the murder of his three children in a housefire in 1991. At his trial, investigators testified that Willingham had intentionally set the fire, but later developments in the science of fire investigation have led experts to believe the fire was accidental. The other evidence presented at Willingham's trial included the testimony of a jailhouse informant who later recanted his statement that Willingham admitted to the crime. The family's petition states, "[S]ince his trial, scientific advances have shattered every assumption underlying the testimony of the two fire investigators who declared to the jury and the court that Willingham had set the fire that killed his children. In fact, today, no credible arson expert would make such a declaration." In a statement, Willingham's family said, "It was Todd's last wish that we help clear his name. It's time for the state of Texas to own up to its mistake and give Todd the justice he deserves." The Innocence Project in New York has taken the lead in working for Willingham's exoneration.

NEW VOICES: California District Attorney and Veteran Police Chief Now Would End Death Penalty

George Gascon served for 30 years as a police officer, including as a police chief in Arizona and California.  He is currently the District Attorney of San Francisco.  Although he formerly supported the death penalty, he now believes it should be replaced with life without parole. In a recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, Gascon wrote: “I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in the development and implementation of public safety policies at every level. I have seen what works and what does not in making communities safe. Given my experience, I believe there are three compelling reasons why the death penalty should be replaced. (1) The criminal justice system makes mistakes and the possibility of executing innocent people is both inherently wrong and morally reprehensible; (2) My personal experience and crime data show the death penalty does not reduce crime; and (3) The death penalty wastes precious resources that could be best used to fight crime and solve thousands of unsolved homicides languishing in filing cabinets in understaffed police departments across the state." He concluded the death penalty is "fatally flawed" and "broken beyond repair.”  Read the full op-ed below.

INNOCENCE: Louisiana Death Row Inmate Exonerated Through DNA After 15 Years

On September 28, Damon Thibodeaux was freed from death row in Louisiana after an extensive investigation, including DNA testing and the cooperation of Jefferson Parrish District Attorney Paul Connick. Thibodeaux was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of his cousin. He at first confessed to the attack after a nine-hour interrogation by detectives. He recanted a few hours later and claimed his confession was coerced.  In releasing Thibodeaux, Connick said, "I have concluded that the primary evidence in this case, the confession, is unreliable. Without the confession the conviction can't stand, and therefore in the interest of justice, it must be vacated." Thibodeaux is the 141st person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, and the 18th person released through DNA evidence. The Innocence Project in New York, which worked on his case for years, counts Thibodeaux as the 300th exoneration achieved through DNA testing in the U.S. (capital and non-capital cases). Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, said, “The 300th exoneration is an extraordinary event, and it couldn’t be more fitting that it’s an innocent man on death row who gave a false confession. People have a very hard time with the concept that an innocent person could confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. But it happens a lot. It’s the ultimate risk that an innocent man could be executed.” 

INNOCENCE: Award-Winning Play About Former Death Row Inmates Returns

This Fall the Culture Project is hosting a limited engagement of its award-winning production, The Exonerated. The play is a groundbreaking dramatization of the real-life stories of six death row inmates who were freed after being cleared of their capital charge. The production, which premiered a decade ago and traveled the country, is culled from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and court records. Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno described The Exonerated as follows: "What has been done tonight through this play is one of the most extraordinary events I have ever seen and it will do more to promote justice than any literary efforts I have seen. The play will feature a rotating cast of high-profile actors, including Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy, Steve Earle, John Forté, K’naan, Delroy Lindo, Lyle Lovett, Chris Sarandon, and Brooke Shields. The presentation will also include a series of "Talk-Backs" with leading criminal justice experts, including Christina Swarns, NAACP Legal Defense Fund (October 16), Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA (October 24), and Stephen Bright, President, Southern Center for Human Rights (October 31). The Exonerated will run for seven weeks, beginning on September 15, at the Culture Project’s 45 Bleecker Street theater.

INNOCENCE: Wrongful Convictions Demonstrate Risk with California Death Penalty

Several cases in California illustrate the inherent risk with the death penalty that an innocent person could be executed.  Lee Farmer was freed from death row in 1999 after winning a new trial based on newly discovered evidence that an accomplice admitted to the crime for which he faced execution. Farmer was acquitted of murder at his retrial. Troy Lee Jones (pictured) was sentenced to death even though there were no eyewitnesses to the murder of which he was accused. Jones’s conviction and sentence were overturned in 1996 because he received inadequate representation. The state dropped all charges.  Patrick Croy and Jerry Bigelow had their death sentences overturned by the California Supreme Court.  Both were acquitted of the main charges against them at retrials.  Oscar Lee Morris's capital conviction was overturned because prosecutors withheld crucial evidence. The state eventually dropped all charges.  Charles Bonneau, a lawyer for an inmate who was released after 14 years on death row, said cases like these should lead to the conclusion that "it's just a bridge too far for human beings to try to make that judgment" between life and death.

EDITORIALS: Sacramento Bee Ends Support for Death Penalty

The Sacramento Bee announced in an editorial that it is reversing its historic 150-year support of the death penalty and endorsing the repeal of California's capital  punishment law. The editorial called the state's death penalty an "illusion," which is rarely carried out, despite the large number of death sentences. It cited the high cost of the death penalty as one of the reasons for supporting repeal, noting, "California has already spent billions of dollars – one recent study pegged the figure at $4 billion – administering the death penalty since 1978, with little to show for it....In a state prepared to further cut public education, universities and public safety, do we really want to invest in accelerated executions?" The Bee also spoke to the needs of victims' families, who, rather than getting closure from the death penalty, "are being tormented by the inflated expectations that California's judicial system has foisted on them." It concluded, "The state's death penalty is an outdated, flawed and expensive system of punishment that needs to be replaced with a rock-solid sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole." Read full editorial below.