Texas

Texas

Editorials in Major Death Penalty States Call for Its Abolition

Recent editorials from leading newspapers in three of the largest death row states critique flaws in the death penalty and call for its abolition. The Sacramento Bee quoted federal district court judge Cormac Carney's recent ruling finding California's death penalty unconstitutional because executions are so rare that they "serve no retributive or deterrent purpose." The Bee called the state's capital punishment system "an abject failure" and said, "[t]he death penalty has not worked, and never will." In the wake of the exoneration of Alfred Brown from Texas' death row, the Dallas Morning News said, "Brown’s release underscores the unacceptably high potential for killing innocent people despite clear flaws in the prosecutorial system." That editorial concluded,"The criminal justice system is too riddled with imperfections to merit reliance on a sentence that cannot be revisited or reversed once it’s carried out. Not when life without parole is an alternative." In Pennsylvania, The Harrisburg Patriot-News said, "The state should not be in the business of killing people." It urged Gov. Tom Wolf to go beyond the moratorium he imposed on the death penalty earlier this year and "seek an end to the practice entirely." Citing the rarity of executions in Pennsylvania and the difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs, the editorial said, "Justice can be served through imprisoning a murderer for the rest of his or her life. Vengeance against the accused is not justice."

Texas Disbars Prosecutor for Misconduct in Sending Innocent Man to Death Row

On June 12, the State Bar of Texas disbarred Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor whose misconduct led to the wrongful conviction of death row exoneree Anthony Graves (pictured, r.). The bar found that Sebesta violated no fewer than five of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including making a false statement to a court, using evidence known to be false, and failing to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Graves' conviction, finding that prosecutors elicited false statements and failed to provide key evidence to Graves' attorneys. Graves was exonerated in 2010, when a special prosecutor re-examined the case, found no credible evidence against Graves, and dropped the charges against him. Assisted by pro bono attorneys Neal Manne, Charles Eskridge, and Kathryn Kase, Graves filed a grievance against Sebesta in 2014 because, according to his attorneys, "even after Mr. Graves' exoneration, Mr. Sebesta continued to claim he had done nothing wrong in prosecuting Mr. Graves. Grotesquely, Mr. Sebesta continued to torment Mr. Graves and his family by insisting both in public statements and on a web site he maintained that Mr. Graves really was a murderer and was guilty of the crimes." Graves said, "No one who makes it a goal to send a man to death row without evidence—and worse, while hiding evidence of my innocence—deserves to be a lawyer in Texas."

INNOCENCE: Alfred Dewayne Brown is Released from Texas Death Row; Nation's 154th Death-Row Exoneration

Harris County, Texas prosecutors announced on June 8 that they have dismissed charges against Alfred Dewayne Brown, who had been sentenced to death in 2005 for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a robbery. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had overturned Brown's conviction last year because prosecutors withheld a phone record that supported Brown's alibi. Prosecutors in 2013 said that the phone record had been inadvertently misplaced. Brown had long maintained that he had been alone at his girlfriend's apartment at the time of the murder, and that he had called her after seeing reports of the shooting on television. Defense lawyers argued that the time of the phone call established that Brown could not have been at the store when the murder occurred. There was no physical evidence against Brown, and a series of Pulitzer prize-winning columns by Houston Chronicle writer Lisa Falkenberg disclosed irregularities in the grand jury process, that Brown's girlfriend had faced intimidating questioning and threats of perjury by a police officer who was the grand jury foreman, and that she had been jailed for seven weeks until she changed her testimony to implicate Brown. She has since recanted that testimony. District Attorney Devon Anderson said, "After very careful consideration, I have decided that at this time, there is insufficient evidence to corroborate the testimony of Brown's co-defendant. Accordingly, we dismissed Alfred Brown's capital murder case earlier today. It is the right thing to do." Since 2007, Brown's attorneys have compiled strong evidence that the murder was committed by another man with a history of robbery and connections to the co-defendants in the crime. Despite a 2008 motion to test the alternate suspect's DNA, such a test has not been carried out. Alfred Brown is the 154th person exonerated from death row since 1973, the 13th in Texas, and the fourth in 2015.

Death Sentences Fall Across Texas, Support Drops in County That Leads U.S. in Executions

Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed more men and women than any other county in the United States, but a recent poll shows that a strong majority of its residents now support alternative sentences. A report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that only 28% of respondents in Harris County prefer the death penalty to life without parole as punishment for first-degree murder. The poll also found that overall support for the death penalty was at a 20-year low, with 56% saying they were in favor of capital punishment.  As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so have Harris County death sentences. The County handed down a combined 44 death sentences from 1994-1996, but sentenced only 5 people to death from 2012-2014. Death verdicts are also down statewide. According to a Dallas Morning News commentary, Texas imposed 11 death sentences in 2014, down from 39 in 1999.  No death sentences have been imposed in the state so far this year. (Click image to enlarge.)

NEW VOICES: Effects of the Death Penalty on Those Who Carry It Out

Four retired death-row prison officials - two wardens, a chaplain, and an execution supervisor - recently described the effect that carrying out executions has had on them. Frank Thompson (pictured), who served as a warden in Oregon and Arkansas, said he believed in capital punishment until he thought "about those flaws in the back of my mind that I knew existed with capital punishment. It’s being administered against the poor; it lacks proof that it deters anything." He trained his staff to carry out executions, but, "I realized that I was training decent men and women how to take the life of a human being. In the name of a public policy that after all these years couldn’t be shown to increase the net of public safety." Terry Collins spent over 32 years working in corrections, including time as the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He said seeing exonerations gave him concerns about the death penalty: "[T]the system does make mistakes. I don’t think you can make a mistake when you’re talking about somebody’s life." Jerry Givens, who oversaw 62 executions in Virginia, raised similar concerns, "I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row...You have two types of people on death row. The guilty and the innocent. And when when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row." Rev. Carroll Pickett was a chaplain on Texas's death row for 15 years and during 95 executions. He commented, "Standing by the gurney almost 100 times, and watching innocent men killed, watching repentant men killed, and seeing the pain among families and men and my employee friends, cannot leave my memories."

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.”

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