[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Sep 19 13:15:28 CDT 2004
No letup in death sentences
Texas has resisted a national trend by imposing death sentences at a
steady clip while the rest of the country has turned sharply away from
capital punishment, a new analysis states.
Courts nationwide handed out about half as many death sentences in each of
the past 4 years as they did on average in the 1990s, according to an
analysis issued last week by the Death Penalty Information Center in
Death penalties in Texas declined only 6 % in that time span. Similarly,
while the study cites no local figures, state data indicate the pace of
capital punishment did not change noticeably in Bexar County.
The report from the nonprofit center suggests that the nation grew wary of
courts condemning the innocent as the number of inmates freed from various
death rows climbed to 116.
"When you have these cases, people really say something is wrong and they
are hesitant about imposing" capital punishment, said Richard C. Dieter,
the center's director and the study's author.
The center acknowledged homicide rates also have declined in recent years;
but the report noted that crime rates started falling before death
penalties did and that the number of people incarcerated for murder
actually has increased.
The report from the nonprofit group does not focus on specific states.
However, Dieter and others speculated that two factors largely have
insulated Texas from shifting attitudes about the death penalty.
Although it's the 2nd-largest state in the union, Texas has not been
scandalized by a rash of wrongful convictions that led to death row
inmates being exonerated and released.
As defined by the center, exoneration means the inmates were pardoned or
their convictions were overturned, and either prosecutors decided not to
retry them or juries subsequently acquitted them.
Out of 116 death row inmates exonerated since execution chambers reopened
in 1976, 7 came from Texas, compared to 21 from Florida, 18 from Illinois
and 8 in Louisiana.
Another reason Texas courts have continued to hand out death sentences,
Dieter said, is that juries may feel they have no acceptable alternative.
Texas and New Mexico are alone among the 38 death-penalty states in that
they don't offer sentences of life without parole. In Texas, a life
sentence in a capital murder case comes with a chance for parole after 40
Proposals to create life without parole repeatedly have faltered in the
Texas Legislature. Locally, the idea has received as little backing as the
center's suggestion that support for capital punishment is ebbing.
Bexar County First Assistant District Attorney Michael Bernard said
decisions about seeking the death penalty hinge on details about
individual cases, not on concerns that lethal injection is less accepted
in society these days.
Bernard said he doubts that juries condemn killers to death because they
can't tolerate even a slim possibility that the defendants might be
released 40 years later.
"The age of defendants are such that I can't believe juries are worried
about parole," Bernard said.
Dieter, the report's author, had another suggestion to explain why the
death penalty still thrives in Texas: If the state has had relatively few
exonerations, it simply may not have looked closely enough.
Florida, for instance, funds an office of public defenders that does
nothing but death penalty appeals, he said.
Also, the appeals courts that review Texas death penalties are
conservative and raise a high hurdle for appeals of capital murder
St. Mary's University law professor Gerald Reamey cited as an example the
1995 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' ruling that a lawyer sleeping
through portions of a death penalty trial did not significantly affect the
"Cases like the sleeping lawyer case certainly are to me indications that
it's very difficult to get death sentences overturned" in Texas, Reamey
Former prosecutors such as Robert Kepple, director of the Texas
Association of District and County Attorneys, rejected the suggestion that
capital convictions have not been closely examined in this state.
They note that in 1995, Texas started funding, besides the automatic
appeal required by law, constitutional challenges to capital murder
"It seemed like the Texas death penalty was the No. 1 target of the media
during the Bush campaign" in 2000, Kepple said. "It's hard for me to say
we haven't been scrutinized enough."
(source: San Antonio Express-News)
Victims' family anguished by death row inmate's longevity
Ted Vicha worries that Billie Wayne Coble is going to outlive him.
Fifteen years ago last month, Coble murdered Vicha's older brother,
sister-in-law and nephew after ambushing them at their homes in Axtell.
Coble, who was 40 at the time of the killing spree, has been on death row
since June 1990, and the 73-year-old Vicha and other frustrated family
members of Coble's victims want to know why Coble is still alive.
"When somebody brags about how he murdered your family, there is no reason
why he should be allowed to live for this long," Ted Vicha said. "It has
taken way too long for justice to be served. Why would you keep him in
there all this time, wasting taxpayers' money on somebody who is no good
for nothing? We have been waiting for justice for years, and I guess I'll
die before he will."
Vicha's wife, Carol, shares his frustration.
"We were told at the beginning to expect it to be 6 to 8 years before he
would be executed," Carol Vicha said. "10 years has come and gone and now
there isn't even an execution date set. What is wrong with our system? If
we have a system where we have the death penalty, why can't we execute it.
We feel like we have been led on."
In a death row interview last week, Coble declined to talk specifically
about the violent deaths of his in-laws, Robert and Zelda Vicha, and his
brother-in-law, Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha, because of pending federal
appeals. Instead, he chose to speak philosophically about broader topics,
like life, the death penalty and societal ills.
"The reason the death penalty is wrong is because people do it for hate,"
Coble said. "They want the death penalty for hate, and hate can never be
right. The people that are hollering that want me executed have hate in
"But if they was spending their time finding ways to make society better
instead of hating me, they wouldn't even have time to know I was around.
If I strive to make myself a better person today, tomorrow I will have an
easier task of it. That is how I look at every day," he said.
Coble was convicted of capital murder in Waco in April 1990 and sentenced
to death. Trial testimony revealed that Coble, a welder who had lost his
job, was despondent about the impending breakup of his 3rd marriage and
because he faced prison time on charges that he kidnapped his estranged
wife, Karen Vicha, at knifepoint outside a Waco nightclub after they
separated a month before the triple murders.
Bobby Vicha, 39, a veteran police officer, was shot in the side of the
neck at close range, in the thigh, in the right knee and in the right
index finger. His body was found inside his car in the garage of his home,
which was a quarter-mile from his parent's house.
Investigators believe that Bobby Vicha, Karen Vicha's brother, and Coble
struggled over a gun when Vicha was shot in the leg. They think Vicha
scrambled back to his car to get a .357-caliber revolver that he carried
off-duty when he was struck by the fatal shot to his neck.
Robert Vicha, 64, whom investigators believe died first, was shot twice in
the back of the head. Zelda Vicha, 60, who was killed last with her son's
gun, was shot in the left side of the face at close range.
Before killing the Vichas, Coble tied up three of Karen Vicha's daughters
and Bobby Vicha's son while he waited for Karen Vicha to come home from
work. He later kidnapped Karen Vicha and told the girls that he intended
to kill himself and their mother.
Karen Vicha testified at Coble's trial that he pistol-whipped her and cut
her with a knife. She said he drove into a field, where he molested her
and tried to convince her that their year-old marriage could be salvaged.
Later that night, they were injured in a traffic accident after a
high-speed chase with Bosque County deputies.
Coble told her his initial plan before deputies spotted their car was to
keep her hostage for 2 weeks and torture her, according to her trial
testimony. After they pulled Coble and Karen Vicha from the wreckage,
deputies found Bobby Vicha's pistols, his father's wallet and $916 in cash
that was taken from Karen Vicha.
Coble said he would not talk about the facts of the case without his
attorney, Richard Ellis of Mill Valley, Calif.
"What causes events to happen? Where was society? How do you know that by
the grace of God that something might not tragically happen to your great
life to take that all away? How do you know where your breaking point is?
What would make you go off?" Coble asked. "So when you are losing your
family and somebody is taking everything away from you. ... All people
want to look at is what happened after. But they never want to look at
what led up to it all."
Over the years, Coble, a military veteran who served in Vietnam, has
received two stays of execution. He has alleged in appeals that his trial
attorneys were ineffective. However, his appeal likely has languished for
three years in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans
because there are a number of cases under review, including Coble's. The
delay may be over a state law at that time relating to how judges
instructed juries to consider punishment evidence.
Ed Marshall, an assistant attorney general who is handling Coble's federal
appeals, said the New Orleans court probably has been waiting for the U.S.
Supreme Court to rule in a Texas case known as Tennard vs. Dretke, which
the Supreme Court sent back to the 5th Circuit in June for further review.
When Coble was tried, jurors were asked if the defendant committed the
killing deliberately and if there was a probability that he would be a
danger in the future. However, because of other court rulings around that
time, judges across the state also instructed juries that if they found
sufficient mitigating evidence to warrant sparing someone from the death
penalty, to answer one of the special issue questions in a manner that a
life sentence would result.
The law has since been changed. Now in death penalty cases, juries are
asked to decide if a defendant will constitute a danger in the future and
if there are sufficient mitigating reasons why the death penalty should
not be imposed.
Ellis, Coble's attorney, said he thinks Coble should be entitled to a new
sentencing hearing at the very least because of the mitigating factors
that Ellis claims precluded Coble from being capable of forming the intent
"I strongly believe that Mr. Coble is not guilty of premeditated capital
murder, and that is what we were saying all along," Ellis said. "He was
not in his right mind when this happened. He was suffering from a variety
of mental illnesses, most notably post traumatic stress disorder from his
time in Vietnam, and that he was not capable of formulating in his mind
the specific intent for capital murder."
Ellis acknowledged that not everyone under as much stress as Coble was at
the time kills three people and ties up 4 kids.
"I would submit that we don't know until we are there. It is an unknown.
We don't know because we are not subject to that particular set of
circumstances and stress factors," Ellis said. "It was like every one of
us on our worst day multiplied by 1,000."
Karen Vicha and her daughters were hesitant to be interviewed for this
story. They say that even though they all have moved on with their lives,
they still have vivid, frightful memories of what they went through and
still fear that Coble will be released one day. They also said they are
mindful that he has family who might take offense to what they might say.
"This man just came into our family for a short time and caused such
havoc," said Carol Vicha. "Karen lost her mother, her father and her
brother. The 4 children were tied up and it was a miracle that they
weren't hurt. Terrible things can happen to people, but they have gone on
with their lives."
While Coble has been on death row too long to suit the Vicha family, there
are 69 inmates who have been there longer, according to state prison
records. As of Sept. 1, there were 460 inmates on death row, according to
the prison records. The average length of time on death row prior to
execution is 10.4 years. Excell White was on death row for 24 years before
he was executed in 1999.
Walter Bell Jr. of Jefferson County, who has been on death row since May
1975, currently is the longest-serving death row inmate.
2 of Karen Vicha's daughters, Tracy and Ann-Marie, who both asked that
their last names or other identifying information not be revealed, said
that they were able to endure the ordeal of being tied up and led to
believe that they would never see their mother again because of their
mother's uncommon strength.
"Today, my sisters and I laugh when one of us has a problem and we aren't
sure what to do," Ann-Marie said. "We will say, 'Call mom for the famous
speech.' No matter how big or small the issue in our lives, my mom's
advice is always the same - 'I love you with all my heart and we are a
strong family and strong women. We have been through much worse in our
lives and survived and we can get through this.'"
Tracy admits to being frustrated with the justice system, but also
insisted that her family has survived only with the guidance of her
"She is the most courageous person I have ever met," Tracy said. "To go
through a situation like that and to be the perfect mother and always to
be there and always give out the perfect advice, she is absolutely
amazing. She is a fighter and a very smart woman."
State District Judge Ralph Strother, who helped prosecute Coble as a
member of former District Attorney Paul Gartner's staff, said there is no
question in his mind that Coble is guilty and deserves the death penalty.
"I've always thought that Mr. Coble was the poster boy for those who favor
the death penalty," Strother said. "He took 3 innocent lives with no
scintilla of remorse - during or since - and for absolutely no reason."
(source: Waco Tribune-Herald)
Guest Column: TV valuable management tool for condemned
This concerns your Sept. 9 editorial, "TV or not TV is not a question for
Texas death row inmates."
Clearly the editorial board did no research into this issue. The editorial
evidences an absolute ignorance of the history of conditions on Texas'
death row, the management of a sensitive population and the effective use
of management tools in a penal institution.
If the board had made even a minimal effort to research this issue, it
would have learned that 37 of the 38 death-penalty states in the country,
and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, use television in one form or another -
either in-cell or out-of-cell - as a management tool for its death-row
These 37 states, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have successfully
developed and implemented policies and practices that allow the use of
television as a management tool while at the same time maintaining and
increasing the safety of their employees and institutions.
These 37 states - and the BOP - have determined that television is a
useful tool for controlling a sensitive population, promoting good
behavior, modifying conduct and enhancing the security of its staff and
The male death-row population, when it was located at the Ellis Unit, had
access to television. The men were divided into two groups: "work capable"
and "non-work capable." To achieve and maintain work capable status,
prisoners had to maintain a clean disciplinary record.
They were allowed to recreate in groups, attend worship services and work
in the garment factory. They had access to television and were allowed to
work with crafts and art supplies.
After the Martin Gurule escape from Ellis, the death row population was
moved to Polunsky, its current unit. At Polunsky, the prisoners have been
isolated, segregated and subjected to severe sensory deprivation. They are
confined to single-man cells 23 hours a day. They eat in their cells. They
are not allowed worship services. They are not permitted to work. No arts
and crafts supplies are allowed.
These restrictions were put into effect after the Gurule escape, even
though the the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's own internal review
of the incident attributed the event to employee negligence. The
investigation found that TDCJ employees failed to follow established
policies and procedures that would have prevented the Gurule escape. It
did not find that worship services, group recreation, the work program,
television or any other program caused or contributed to the escape.
If the Globe-News editorial board had done any research into this issue,
it would have learned that the management tools TDCJ uses to encourage and
reward good behavior in genera population and administrative segregation
prisoners are generally not applicable to the death row population. Loss
of good time and loss of a mandatory date are meaningless. Death row
inmates are not allowed contact visits, so that tool is not available. And
reductions in line class and custody class do not affect them.
The only authorized tools available to TDCJ are restrictions (commissary,
recreation and cell) and loss of level, which results in the temporary
seizure of certain personal property and temporary limited visitation
pending the prisoner's promotion in level. Television is a powerful
incentive to encourage death row prisoners to modify their behavior and
conform to the rules and regulations of the unit.
If the editorial board had made any legitimate attempt to actually
understand this issue, it also would have learned that, given this
history, the current confinement status of the population, TDCJ's interest
in increasing the number of management tools, and the fact that all other
death rows in the country allow prisoners to have television, the outright
rejection of the issue, without any study or consideration, is not only
arrogant and self-serving but absolutely confounding. Many legitimate TDCJ
interests can and will be served if the TDCJ implements a sound policy
that uses television access as a management tool to encourage and reward
Finally, if the editorial board had a true interest in informed opinions,
it would make a point of knowing its subject matter prior to the
publication of its editorials and, in this case, it would have recognized
that Christina Crain's summary dismissal of the issue, without
explanation, is strangely suspect.
Surely a real journalist would at least take the time to learn how it is
that Christina Crain, a woman with absolutely no criminal justice
experience, was appointed to chair the Texas Board of Criminal Justice in
the first place, why she refuses to speak to the media directly about this
matter, who directed the summary dismissal and how the prison
administrators and guards who work with the death row population feel
about Crain's pandering to public misperception.
If the editorial board had done any of these things, it could have
published an intelligent, educated editorial rather the piece that ran
Sept. 9. (source: Guest Editorial, Amarillo Globe-News); Yolanda M. Torres
is the litigation director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project
of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas)
If inmates buy TVs, who cares if they watch?
In reference to your Sept. 9 editorial on television for death row
inmates, please remember that those on death row are human, and that they
are still alive and may not remain on death row until they are dead.
7 % of death row convicts are later released and their innocence proven.
Others who have been executed were later found innocent.
The states that do provide these inmates with TV say it is a good way to
keep the incarcerated people in control.
If it cost the public nothing, and the inmates purchase the TVs, does it
matter to the public if the people on death row get to watch TV?
It is probably not the main thing you worry about when you're going to
work, or relaxing at home . . . in front of your TV.
How about withholding newspapers from death row?
In reference to your Sept. 9 editorial, "TV or not TV is not a question
for Texas death row inmates," I wonder if you would hold the same opinion
if it were newspapers, instead of television, that were being denied death
row inmates - or any inmates, for that matter.
Does the fact that I'm incarcerated mean I don't have the right to have
access to the news or culture of the world outside? If so, what difference
does the medium in which I receive it make?
J.F. Howell III----Amarillo
Is death not punishment enough for inmates?
I am writing to ask that you rethink your attitude toward Texas death row
inmates. They should be allowed the same privileges that other death row
inmates around the country have and did in Texas, until recently.
Other states allow these prisoners to work and do crafts and other
activities that help them use their remaining days in a productive manner,
and it is not a problem. Surely you must know that these activities
contribute to the safety and well-being of prison staff and help ensure
public safety by occupying the hands and minds of people who are scheduled
to die. These men and women already have been sentenced and are serving
their punishment, the completion of which will be to give their lives for
Death row inmates must be treated humanely
Your Sept. 9 editorial arguing that death row inmates should forfeit the
right to watch TV displays little knowledge of the conditions on death
In the Polunsky Unit, inmates are confined to 8-by-5 cells for 23 hours a
day with almost no human interaction. Meals are eaten alone. The sporadic
visits are across a glass plate with no opportunity to touch a family
member or friend.
In the Ellis Unit, which previously housed death row inmates, prisoners
were allowed to work; not so in the Polunsky Unit.
I would ask the writer of the editorial to try out such conditions for a
week and see how he likes the sensory deprivation.
Television, no matter how bad the programs, provides one tenuous link with
the rest of the human race and decreases the sense of isolation.
Prisoners left in total isolation for prolonged periods often go mad and
That hardly is a desirable situation for corrections officers.
Anyone who willfully takes someone else's life deserves to lose his
liberty and civil rights, but we must treat such prisoners according to
accepted standards of human decency.
(source: Letters to the Editor, Amarillo Globe-News)
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