Texas

Texas

New Evidence Points to Possible Execution of an Innocent Man

New evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham suggests Texas may have executed an innocent man in 2004. The key evidence presented against Willingham at trial was from an arson "expert," who said the fire that killed Willingham's children was intentionally set. That evidence has since been discredited by a series of other experts who concluded the evidence did not support arson. Now attorneys for the Innocence Project have uncovered a prosecutor's note implying that a jailhouse informant--who testified Willingham admitted to the crime--was given preferential treatment in exchange for his testimony. The note indicated charges against the informant should be reduced "based on coop in Willingham." Prosecutors had explicitly denied that a deal had been made with the witness. Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, called the new evidence a "smoking pistol," and added, “We’re reaching out to the principals to see if there is an innocent explanation for this. I don’t see one.”

BOOKS: "The Wrong Carlos" Argues Texas Executed an Innocent Man

One of the strongest accounts pointing to the execution of a probably innocent man in recent times concerns the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in Texas in 1989. In a forthcoming book, The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, Professor James Liebman of Columbia Law School describes his investigation into the case, along with a team of students. The investigation uncovered serious problems in DeLuna's case, including faulty eyewitness testimony and the police's failure to investigate another potential suspect. DeLuna maintained his innocence and said another man, Carlos Hernandez, committed the crime. Hernandez and DeLuna looked so similar that their own families mistook photos of the men for each other. Moreover, Hernandez had a history of violent crimes like the one for which DeLuna was executed. The book and its accompanying website provide evidence of a grave mistake with police and witness records, trial transcripts, photographs, and more. The Wrong Carlos will be released in July 2014 but is available for pre-order now.

Rare Execution of a Woman Approaching in Texas

On February 5, Texas is scheduled to execute Suzanne Basso. Basso would become the 14th woman executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Basso is confined to a wheel chair and has a history of mental illness. Basso was convicted of murdering a mentally disabled man, ostensibly for insurance money. Others convicted in the offense did not receive the death penalty. A recent article in the Arizona Republic noted an unusually high number of captial prosecutions in that state. There are 2 women on Arizona's death row and 3 more are facing capital trials or re-trials. Elizabeth Rapaport, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, explained the low number of women on death row nationally: “The death penalty is mostly about crimes against strangers. That really frightens people,” she said. Those crimes often include rapes and robberies, “and women just don’t do those kind of crimes.”

STUDIES: Exonerations for Crimes Reaches High in 2013

According to a new report released on February 4 by the National Registry of Exonerations, 87 people had their criminal convictions dismissed in 2013, the most for any year in the Registry, which begins with 1989. Those exonerated last year included Reginald Griffin, who had been sentenced to death in Missouri 30 years ago. Griffin became the 143rd person on DPIC's Innocence List, which includes those exonerated from death row since 1973. The National Registry has recorded 1,304 exonerations since 1989. Of those exonerated in 2013, 31% were in cases where no crime actually occurred; 17% occurred in cases in which the defendant had pled guilty. Texas led the country with the most exonerations (13). Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and author of the report, noted the impact of wrongful convictions on defendants: "They've lost 10 years, or in some cases, 30-some years of their life. Their children have grown up if they had children, their spouse may have left them, their parents may have died, they have no skills. For many people, the destruction that has occurred is irreparable."

Correctional Officers' Union Calls for Improving Death Row Conditions

Prison officials in Texas are reviewing policies currently requiring all death row inmates to be isolated one to a cell for 23 hours a day. Executions in Texas are carried out in Huntsville, and the local chapter of the correctional officers' union supports changing death-row practices. Chapter president Lance Lowry said, “The correctional officers and taxpayers would benefit from an easing of the current policies. Most death row offenders could be housed two to a cell. Some of them could be given work privileges and allowed to watch TV. An inmate who has nothing to lose is a dangerous inmate.” Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of California's San Quentin prison, which houses the country's largest death row, agreed, “When inmates are permanently and automatically housed in highly restrictive environments — as they are in Texas — it is more difficult to control their behavior. To make matters worse, complete idleness breeds mental illness, causing inmates to act out and putting correctional officers at risk.” The correctional officers' union is one of a dozen organizations that support easing the restrictions. The others include mental health organizations, the Texas Defender Service, and several religious groups. The coalition is asking prison officials to allow death row inmates contact visits with family members, communal recreation, religious services, and work assignments.

NEW VOICES: Former Texas Governor Calls for Hearing for Edgar Tamayo

In an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman, former Texas Governor Mark White called for a new hearing for Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican national scheduled for execution on January 22. Foreign nationals charged with crimes in the U.S. are entitled to assistance from their consulate under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, but Tamayo was denied that right. White joins U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Mexican Foreign Minister in calling for hearings to determine whether assistance from the Mexican government would have affected Tamayo's case. White highlighted the importance of upholding the Vienna Convention, saying, "If American states, including Texas, fail to honor Vienna Convention rights for citizens of other countries, then how can we expect those other countries to protect our own rights?" He concluded, "I hope that Governor Perry and Attorney General Abbott will do the right thing and protect Texas’ integrity at the same time, by allowing a court to hear Tamayo’s claims of prejudice." Read the op-ed below.

Upcoming Death Penalty Events in 2014

As the new year begins, there are several notable events related to the death penalty likely to occur in the next few months. The first execution of the year is scheduled for January 7 in Florida. The execution of Askari Muhammad had originally been scheduled for December 3, 2013, but was stayed due to a challenge to the state's new execution protocol. The Florida Supreme Court approved the new protocol, and the execution was rescheduled, though legal challenges are continuing in federal court. Ohio has scheduled the execution of Dennis McGuire for January 16, and the state plans to use a lethal injection protocol never tried before in any state. Ohio will use midazolam and hydromorphone, drugs formerly listed in the state's backup procedure. This latest change in Ohio was caused by a shortage of the drug pentobarbital, after restrictions on its use were imposed by its European manufacturer. On January 22, Texas is scheduled to execute Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican citizen who was denied consular access at the time of his arrest, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Objections to the execution have been raised by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and by numerous other governments. On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a challenge to Florida's strict procedure for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. The Court previously ruled that intellectually disabled defendants are barred from execution.

Experts Call for Exclusion from Death Penalty for Veterans with PTSD

Some legal and psychiatric experts have concluded that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder should be ineligible for execution. In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, mental health experts Drs. Hal Wortzel and David Arciniegas wrote, “The tragedy of the wounded combat veteran who faces execution by the nation he has served seems to be an avoidable one, and we, as a society, should take action to ensure that it does not happen.” A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation estimated that about 300,000 of the 1.64 million military members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan had post-traumatic stress disorder. The study also found that only 53% of those with such a diagnosis had received treatment in the previous 12 months. In 2008, the New York Times reported 121 cases in which veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with killings. In Texas, an Iraq veteran named John Thuesen is on death row for shooting his girlfriend and her brother in 2009. Thuesen suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and his attorneys have argued he would have received a life sentence if the jury had been fully informed of his illness.

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