Texas

Texas

Dying Texas Death-Row Inmate - Possibly Innocent - Seeks Relief from His Conviction

Attorneys for Texas death row inmate Max Soffar, who is dying of liver cancer, continue to seek a reversal of his case, even though judicial action - if it comes - may be too late. Soffar maintains his innocence in the 1980 murders of three people during a bowling alley robbery. The sole evidence against Soffar is a confession he signed after three days of unrecorded interrogation that is inconsistent with the facts of the case and, he maintains, is false. The confession also does not match the account of the murders provided by a man who survived the shooting. No physical evidence links Soffar to the crime and Soffar has presented evidence that another man, a serial killer, was much more likely to have committed the murders. Governor Rick Perry rejected a clemency petition last year that sought to allow Soffar to spend his last days at home. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said that Soffar isn't eligible for clemency because there is no warrant for his execution. Andrew Horne, one of Soffar's attorneys, said, "Justice is where there's a fair system that was followed and offered an outcome that was rational. To me, Max is an injustice because there was never a fair system, and the outcome was completely irrational."  

States Struggle with Determinations of Competency to Be Executed

A recent article in Mother Jones examines lingering questions in the determination of which inmates are exempt from execution because of mental incompetency. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that a person could not be executed if he or she was "unaware of the punishment they're about to suffer and why they are to suffer it." The 2007 ruling in Panetti v. Quarterman updated that decision, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it." Scott Panetti (pictured), the inmate involved in the 2007 case, knew that the state of Texas planned to execute him for the murder of his in-laws, but also sincerely believed that he was at the center of a struggle between God and Satan and was being executed to stop him from preaching the Gospel. Even after the case with his name was decided, Panetti remained on death row, and the Texas courts found him competent to be executed based upon the testimony of a single psychiatrist who claimed Panetti was faking his mental illness. Panetti came within hours of execution on December 3, 2014, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued a stay. In Missouri, Cecil Clayton -- a brain-damaged man with an IQ of 71 -- was executed on March 17, 2015 without a hearing to determine his competency. By contrast, a recent mental competency hearing for Indiana inmate Michael Overstreet included four days of testimony from 13 witnesses and nearly 1,300 pages of medical records. In a 137-page opinion, the state judge concluded, "Delusions or other psychotic symptoms cannot simply be discounted because a petitioner has a cognitive awareness of his circumstances." Indiana's Attorney General said that the decision adhered so well to the Panetti ruling that there was nothing for the state to appeal.

Key Witness In Cameron Willingham Trial May Have Testified In Exchange for Reduced Sentence

A previously undisclosed letter written by jailhouse informant Johnny E. Webb, a crucial witness in the trial of Cameron Willingham (pictured) in Texas, indicates that Webb's sentence may have been reduced in exchange for his testimony that Willingham had confessed to intentionally starting a house fire that killed his three daughters.  The defense had never been informed of the existence of any deal between Webb and prosecutors in the case. Willingham was executed in 2004, but he consistently maintained his innocence, and forensic evidence of arson in the case was later discredited. Webb testified that Willingham had confessed to him while they were held in the same jail, but later recanted that testimony. Prosecutor John Jackson is now under investigation by the Texas State Bar for his handling of the Willingham case and the alleged deal with Webb. Webb's 1996 letter to Jackson said, “Recently, as I was going over my case notes, I noticed that you had told me that the charge of aggravated robbery would be dropped, or lowered, to robbery. . . . You told me this would be done before my transfer to TDC [Texas Department of Corrections].” He added that if Jackson did not take care of the change, Webb might file a court motion, possibly making their deal public. In a recent interview, Webb told The Marshall Project, “I did not want to see Willingham go to death row and die for something I damn well knew was a lie and something I didn’t initiate. I lied on the man because I was being forced by John Jackson to do so. I succumbed to pressure when I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was told, ‘You’re either going to get a life sentence or you’re going to testify.’ He coerced me to do it.”

Texas Case Illustrates Trend Away From Death Penalty

Midland County, Texas, District Attorney Teresa Clingman (pictured) recently accepted a sentence of life without parole rather than seeking the death penalty for Dan Higgins, a man who pled guilty to killing a Midland County Sheriff's Deputy. Clingman's decision was part of a larger trend of prosecutors choosing life without parole even for the most serious crimes. West Texas A&M criminology professor and former prison warden Keith Price said, "Capital death has so many requirements -- it's so expensive. Capital death: the convicted dies in prison by lethal injection. Capital life: the convicted dies in prison whenever his natural life is over. From an incapacitation standpoint, the DA has accomplished the same thing. That particular person will never see the Texas public again." As a result of similar decisions by other prosecutors, and juries preferring life without parole more often, death sentences in the U.S. have declined by about 75% since their peak in the mid-1990s. Clingman cited a request from the deputy's widow not to seek the death penalty, saying, "The reasoning is because we can't punish him any more than we're already punishing him. It saves the victim in that case from having to go through a trial. [The victim's widow] also took into consideration that Mr. Higgins will now spend his time in general population rather than on death row in a single cell by himself for the rest of his life." Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter supported the prosecutor's decision, saying, "I think saving the county money, saving the heartache for the families involved is the best solution for this particular case. The Midland County's Sheriff's Office not only lost a brother and a friend, this county lost a great employee. Only time right now can help settle the feelings right now."

UPCOMING EXECUTION: New Evidence Raises Doubts About Texas Inmate's Guilt

Attorneys for Rodney Reed, a death row inmate in Texas, have filed a petition in a county court with new evidence supporting an alternate theory of the crime that led to Reed's conviction. Reed is scheduled to be executed on March 5 for the murder of Stacy Stites. The petition included affidavits from three forensic experts who contend Stites died much earlier than police originally said, and that her body was stored for several hours in a different location than where it was found. They also said that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that Stites had been sexually assaulted. Attorneys for Reed said Stites was likely killed by her fiance, a former police officer who is now in prison for the abduction and rape of a young woman while on duty. Affidavits from two of Stites' coworkers state she would "deliberately hide" from her fiance because “she was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and … didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.” Reed previously sought DNA testing of Stites' shirt and the belt used to strangle her, but that request was denied by the Bastrop County District Court.

NEW VOICES: Conservative Leaders Seek Reprieve for Severely Mentally Ill Inmate

A group of conservative leaders has joined in an effort to save the life of Scott Panetti, a Texas death row inmate with a history of severe mental illness. Members include several law enforcement officials and notable conservatives, such as Mark Earley--former Attorney General of Virginia, Harold Stratten--former Attorney General of New Mexico, David Keene--the Washington Times opinion editor, James Miller III--director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan; and Richard Viguerie--chairman of ConservativeHQ.com. The group filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, stating, "Even for those who favor a measured and just system of capital punishment, the execution of Panetti would be a moral scandal that would only undermine confidence in such a system." Panetti's attorneys say that he is mentally incompetent and therefore ineligible for execution. Panetti, who represented himself at trial wearing a cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy and the pope, has not had his mental competency evaluated in seven years, and his attorneys say his condition has worsened. The conservatives' brief concluded, "Panetti should be given the time and resources he seeks, and the case should be remanded so that he can prepare a petition for writ of habeas corpus raising a claim that he is incompetent to be executed."

January's Executions Underscore Core Death Penalty Problems

Even as executions have declined in the U.S., those being carried out often illustrate serious problems that have plagued the death penalty for many years. Of the six executions January, two (in Florida and Oklahoma) involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Warren Hill, an inmate who was found intellectually disabled by state doctors, but who failed to meet the state's highly unusual standard of proving his disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Texas executed Robert Ladd, an inmate with an IQ of 67. Texas courts have devised their own largely unscientific criteria for determining intellectual disabilty. That leaves Arnold Prieto, also executed in Texas. He was offered a plea bargain and probably would have been spared if he had testified against his co-defendants. Of those involved in the brutal crime, only Prieto received the death penalty.

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.

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