death penalty news-----TEXAS, IDAHO, OHIO, N.Y., N.C.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Mon Apr 11 03:50:34 CDT 2005
Texas warden who presided over nearly 100 executions writes about career
Jim Willett figured he could make more money and better accommodate his
class schedule at Sam Houston State University by quitting his job pumping
gas and taking a job as a prison guard.
"I had no intention of staying there," said Willett, whose first day on
the job was just down the street from his school in downtown Huntsville at
the legendary Walls Unit, the flagship of the state prison system.
He manned a picket - a guard tower - right above the Texas death chamber.
"As soon as I got my degree, I was getting out," Willett said.
He got out. 30 years later.
His experiences - tragic, humorous, grim and personal - are chronicled in
"Warden: Texas Prison Life and Death from the Inside Out," an
autobiography being released in April.
Co-written with Ron Rozelle, Willett's former college roommate and now a
creative writing teacher in the Brazosport Independent School District,
the book follows Willett's moves through a Texas corrections agency that
grew from about 20,000 inmates when he started in 1971 to among the
nation's largest at more than 150,000 by the time he left.
Willett, who grew up in Groesbeck, rose through the ranks from a rookie
"boot" to Texas "Warden of the Year" before retiring in 2001 at the Walls
Unit - officially the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice, but known by its nickname for its tall red brick walls.
Along the way, Willett had a front-row seat for some of the most
spectacular events in modern Texas prison history and gained notoriety for
presiding over nearly 100 executions, more than any warden in America.
"I would hope somebody who reads the book would say they found it
entertaining, educational and learn some inside stuff about the prison
system," Willett, 55, said in an interview at the Texas Prison Museum,
which he now directs.
He writes about being on the front lines during the longest prison siege
in U.S. history. For 11 days in 1974, inmates at the Walls Unit took
hostages in a standoff that ended with the deaths of 2 inmates and two of
the 8 hostages.
Willett was among officers who went through the clothing worn by the
inmates killed, "wishing I was wearing gloves and a mask, and flicked away
tiny particles of skin and bone when I came to them," he writes.
Willett also was outside the death house in 1982 as inmate Charlie Brooks
was set to become the 1st condemned prisoner in America to receive lethal
"The only thing I was sure of was that I was damned glad to not be in
there," he writes. "I figured that I could go the rest of my life without
watching someone die."
That wouldn't happen, and Willett in the late 1990s, after taking over as
warden in Huntsville, became almost synonymous with the most active
capital punishment program in the country.
"To the best of my memory, I have never physically hurt anybody in my
life," Willett said. "To be associated with this, it's just an ironic
"My way of making it through all those things was: You're just a cog in
In the book, he laments about the incessant requests, particularly from
media, for a glimpse into his deadly duties.
"They were always about executions," he writes about interview requests.
"Our inmates made toys for orphans, raised money for a child burn victim,
and bought canned food at the commissary to donate to the poor. That
"Me taking off my glasses (his sign to the executioner to begin the flow
of lethal drugs) and shutting a human life down was news."
Willett focuses on a handful of lethal injections in the book, which took
about a year to assemble. His first was notable because the needle
unexpectedly popped out of inmate Joe Cannon's arm and had to be
In 2000, he gave the signal to execute convicted murderer Gary Graham, who
resisted violently as officers tried to get him from a holding cell to the
death chamber while hundreds of people demonstrated outside Willett's
prison and officers in riot gear stood watch.
Then there was notorious serial killer Kenneth McDuff, believed to be the
only condemned inmate in the nation ever paroled and then returned to
death row for another murder. Executed in 1998, he was linked to 14
"Executions are still the worst part of my job. Hands down," wrote
Willett, who kept a journal of executions he presided over. "There have
even been nights when my heart - at least a part of it - has gone out to
the inmate himself, stretched out on the gurney.
"Not tonight. Tonight, no matter what the opponents of capital punishment
might say, I know that we've ridded the world of a man that it will be
better off without."
One drama Willett managed to avoid during his career was being in charge
of a prison where an escape occurred.
"On that last night, when I got out and started to drive off, I thought
how lucky I was," he said. "Nobody had escaped. That's your worse fear, at
least it was for me.
"What a great thing to not be that guy who lost one."
(source: Associated Press)
Jury is divided on Wilson verdict----Deliberations will resume Monday in
capital murder case
Jurors deliberating in the capital murder trial of Bevy Wilson, who is
accused of beating a Flour Bluff man and his 10-year-old son to death with
a claw hammer, asked Friday to recess until Monday morning, saying they
are divided on a verdict.
In closing arguments Friday, defense attorneys repeatedly tried to poke
holes in testimony implicating Wilson in the deaths of Richard Carbaugh,
34, and his son, Dominic. The 2 were found lying next to each other on the
kitchen floor of their Barton Street apartment in Flour Bluff in February
Defense attorneys Douglas Tinker and Scott Ellison told the jury that
Thomas Sower, who testified for the prosecution that he witnessed the
crime, was a liar who was probably responsible for the murders.
Ellison and Tinker also claimed that the police investigating the crime
did a sloppy job and that adequate testing was not done at the crime
"All they really have is Tom Sower, and how can you believe him?" Ellison
Prosecutor Mark Skurka countered that Sower's testimony was consistent
with the evidence, and even if his testimony was discounted, testimony
from other witnesses solidified their case. Wilson's friend Marine Soliz
testified that Wilson had shown up at her house saying he had killed
Carbaugh, and a nurse at the jail said Wilson admitted to committing the
crimes the night he was booked.
Sower testified during the 9-day trial that he and Wilson went to
Carbaugh's Flour Bluff apartment Feb. 9, 2003 and smoked marijuana and
Sower told jurors that Wilson became increasingly agitated and began
intimidating then hitting Carbaugh with a hammer. After he finished
hitting the father, Sower told jurors Carbaugh turned to the boy and asked
if he wanted to go for ice cream. He then hit the child in the head with
the hammer, Sower testified.
Jurors deliberated about 3 hours Friday and sent out a series of notes
asking for evidence, including a knife found stuck in the elder Carbaugh's
head, pictures from the crime scene and testimony from one of the
Deliberations will resume Monday in District Judge Sandra Watts' court.
(source: Corpus Christi Caller-Times)
Gone and forgotten----Convicts' final resting place provides a lesson in
Southeast of the center of this East Texas town, under an umbrella of
tall, manicured pines, a mournful breeze blows across a 22-acre hillside
plot. It is a cemetery, and cemeteries are expected to be melancholy
places, but this one seems especially forlorn.
It is the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery, formerly known as Peckerwood Hill,
and it is where state prisoners are buried. It is a cemetery of last
resort, a place where the bodies go when no one claims them. It is a
historically neglected place, and the lives of the men and women buried
there have nearly been erased.
Hundreds of blank crosses indicate where the graves are, but they give no
hint of who's buried there. Hundreds more provide only a prison number. No
more data, no sentiments.
These were prisoners, and no one expects grand statues or monuments. But
they were also people, with husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.
Ideally, even convicts should get some final words; not a tribute,
certainly, but an acknowledgement.
Jim Willett, former warden at the Walls Unit and a 30-year veteran of the
Texas prison system, has studied the Byrd cemetery. As director of the
Texas Prison Museum, Willett has become a prison system historian, and
even he is surprised by some of his findings.
"Can you believe there was no written record of who was buried here until
1974?" he said on a recent visit to the grounds. "This cemetery was used
for 120 years before there were any records. There are about 260 people
buried here who we don't even know who they are."
Willett's research shows that the cemetery was begun in the early 1850s.
Apparently, a few burials were carried out before state officials realized
that the property didn't belong to them.
The land was eventually donated to the state by Sanford Gibbs and George
W. Grant. Willett said the deed describes the land as "the same upon which
convicts from the State Penitentiary have been buried since the
establishment of said institution, said Burial Ground having been located
there-on by mistake."
For the first 100 years, the state used wooden crosses to mark the graves.
Over time, the wood rotted and weeds covered the fallen crosses. Capt. Joe
Byrd, a longtime assistant warden at the Walls Unit, took it upon himself
to clean up the neglected grounds in 1962. But by then, many graves
couldn't be identified.
The 312 unidentifiable graves were marked with simple white concrete
Byrd and his crews located more than 900 graves. Some of the dead were
identified using the prison numbers engraved on the crosses; other graves
had a tablet-style headstone that was discontinued in the 1940s.
The 2 most notable markers on the hillside are the large headstones for
Kiowa Chief Satanta and a prisoner named Lee Smith.
Satanta was a warrior chief and one of the first American Indians in the
Southwest to be tried in a civil court. He was sentenced to be hanged, but
that sentence was commuted. He was released from prison but later
rearrested and returned to Huntsville. In 1878, he jumped from a 2nd-story
window and died. He was buried at Peckerwood Hill until 1963, when his
body was moved to Fort Sill, Okla.
Less is known about Lee. He died in 1941 and was apparently a cowboy
well-liked by other inmates. His headstone says: "At Rest, In Memory of
Lee was killed while trying to steal another inmate's commissary goods.
Inmates are supposed to be buried at the cemetery only if no one claims
the body. Willett said that many times relatives could claim the deceased
but don't. They rely on the state to pay for the burial.
In recent years, about 25 percent of deceased inmates have been buried at
the cemetery, he said. Inmates are buried in a simple casket, which is
placed inside a 2-piece plastic shell. Funeral costs run about $2,000
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Camachos mental state still in question----Court awaits results as trial
Angela Camacho is scheduled for trial next month, but attorneys from both
sides of her capital murder case are still awaiting results of a state
exam to determine whether she is mentally retarded.
The 25-year-old Brownsville woman is accused of decapitating her three
children in her downtown apartment, but her trial has been delayed for two
years as defense attorneys try to prove she is mentally retarded and
ineligible for the death penalty.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the mentally retarded cannot be
Prosecutors and defense attorneys met Friday with Judge Ben Euresti in the
107th state District Court in a closed pretrial conference to discuss the
progress on the case, which is headed to trial in May.
First Assistant District Attorney John Blaylock said after the meeting
that the results of their expert were not ready but should be completed
"We'll compare and contrast the experts reports and make a decision on how
to proceed," he said.
Based on the results of their own study, defense attorney Ernesto Gamez
said his client is mentally retarded.
"I am not going to accept that this woman will receive the death penalty,"
If convicted and sentenced to death, Camacho would be the 1st Mexican
woman to be executed in the United States, Gamez said.
"We're never going to let this pass," he said.
Camacho and her common-law husband John Allen Rubio, 24, were arrested in
March 2003 and charged with the capital murder of their children.
Rubio was convicted and at his own request given the death penalty in
November 2003. He later changed his mind and is appealing his sentence.
(source: Brownsville Herald)
Idaho death-row inmate to stay in jail after inconclusive DNA tests
An Idaho death-row inmate will stay behind bars after inconclusive D-N-A
George Junior Porter had hoped that tests of pubic hair and fingernail
scrapings would exhonerate him of his girlfriend's 1988 murder.
But the 48-year-old's lawyer says the scrapings belonged to the murdered
woman, Theresa Jones.
And testing on 2 of 3 pubic hairs also didn't prove Porter's innocence.
Porter, who is from Nez Perce, insists he didn't kill his then 29-year-old
He's been fighting his 1990 murder conviction for 15 years.
Results of additional tests are due in July.
(source: Associated Press)
Judge pulls back death sentences; Citing recent Supreme Court decision,
Stegner rules Shackelford's penalty is unconstitutional
The death sentences of double murderer Dale Carter Shackelford were set
aside Friday by 2nd District Judge John R. Stegner of Moscow.
Stegner, whom a defiant Shackelford challenged to hand down a death
sentence if he was "man enough," declared his October 2001 sentences
unconstitutional. The order, said Stegner, is based on a recent
retroactive Supreme Court decision and subsequent case law that requires
juries to impose death sentences or at least be involved in such
The judge's reversal, in effect, leaves Shackelford unsentenced until
further action is taken. Stegner told the Lewiston Tribune if Latah County
Prosecutor William Thompson Jr. drops pursuit of the death penalty, he
(Stegner) could resentence Shackelford.
But if Thompson continues to seek a death penalty, Stegner said a jury,
possibly the one that heard the case 4 years ago, would have to be
assembled to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances in connection
with the murders.
Shackelford was convicted in 2000 of two counts of first-degree murder for
killing his ex-wife, Donna Fontaine, and her boyfriend, Fred Palahniuk.
Their charred bodies were found May 29, 1999, in a burned-out building
near Kendrick. Both had been shot.
"Mr. Shackelford, may God have mercy on your soul," Stegner told the
defendant at sentencing.
Moscow attorney D. Ray Barker said Friday Shackelford called him from
death row to alert him about Stegner's finding. Barker, who was co-defense
counsel at trial, refused further comment about what Shackelford said to
him from prison in Boise.
Thompson said the Idaho Department of Correction has authority over
custody and he wasn't sure whether Shackelford would be removed from death
row pending whatever comes of Stegner's ruling. Thompson said he had
contacted the Idaho attorney general's office where the matter was already
The Supreme Court decision, called Ring v. Arizona, has been applied to
several cases in other states. And Stegner decided the decision, coupled
with case law, makes clear the need for jury involvement.
"A jury, not a judge, is required to weigh mitigating circumstances
against aggravating factors to determine whether a death sentence is
appropriate," Stegner wrote in his 16-page memorandum decision and order.
The ruling was 1 of 4 Stegner made in response to a petition by
Shackelford for post-conviction relief. The judge denied 3 other arguments
having to do with witness statements, jury instructions and jurisdiction.
In addition, Stegner granted a prosecution motion for dismissal of a slew
of assertions Shackelford made in an effort to have both his conviction
and sentence overturned. The assertions included alleged prosecutorial
misconduct at the grand jury, pre-trial and trial levels; alleged
ineffective representation by Barker and co-defense attorney Steve
Mahaffy; and alleged deprivation of right to a lawyer of choice.
The sentencing matter aside, Thompson lauded Stegner for ruling in the
prosecution's favor on all other fronts. Shackelford remains behind bars
on a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder and 55 years total for
convictions, including arson and perjury.
Stegner said that by setting aside Shackelford's death sentences he has
perhaps steered Idaho's legal system into uncharted waters. He said he
wasn't certain at this time whether members of the original Shackelford
jury would be called back into session if the prosecution continues to
seek the death penalty. A new panel, he said, might lack the background
necessary to deliberate on sentencing.
Shackelford, who throughout his trial smiled and from outward appearances
seemed to enjoy the attention, was rendered expressionless when Stegner
imposed the two death sentences. His "man-enough" challenge was later
countered by his repeated attempts for post-conviction relief.
Shackelford's appeal attorneys argued at one point that their client had
an "anti-social personality disorder" brought on be erratic parenting.
Stegner's written findings at sentencing stated though there were
mitigating circumstances, such as Shackelford's troubled childhood and the
fact that a court-appointed doctor found him to be a psychopath, they did
not outweigh the aggravating circumstances.
Juror Jon Kimberling of Moscow said in an e-mail to the Tribune after
sentencing that he didn't personally support the death penalty, but
Shackelford deserved it. He said a "mountain" of evidence proved guilt and
exposed the defendant to be "as cruel a human being as one can imagine."
Shackelford was prosecuted by former Latah County Chief Deputy Prosecutor
Robin Eckmann of Pullman, who recently resigned to move with her family to
(source: The Lewiston Morning Tribune)
Judge throws out death sentence against convicted murderer
A judge has spared a man sentenced to death in 2001 for killing his
ex-wife and her boyfriend.
Latah County District Court Judge John Stegner threw out death sentences
on Friday against Dale Carter Shackelford - the same judge that sentenced
him to die for killing Donna Fontaine and her boyfriend Fred Palahniuk six
years ago and then burning the bodies.
Stegner ruled Friday that the penalty was unconstitutional because it
violated a 2003 law dictating death sentences be imposed by a jury, not
Defense attorneys Mark Ackley and Kimberly Simmons filed a petition for
post-conviction relief claiming several violations of Shackelford's
Stegner dismissed claims the defendant's right to confront witnesses was
violated. He also threw out claims the jury was not instructed well enough
to make the decision of guilt and that Latah County lacked jurisdiction to
Stegner's ruling, in effect, leaves Shackelford without a sentence.
He could be granted a new sentencing hearing, or higher courts could
choose to reinstate the death penalty, said Latah County Prosecuting
Attorney William Thompson Jr.
"I think it is too early to say, at this point, what will happen," he
If Thompson continues to seek the death penalty, Stegner said, a jury
would have to be assembled to weigh aggravating and mitigating
circumstances in connection with the murders.
Stegner said he may file to assemble the original jury that found
Shackelford guilty of the murders near Kendrick, Idaho. He said a new
panel might lack necessary background on the case.
Meanwhile the state Court of Appeals may review Shackelford's sentence,
"It is still subject for review," he said. "This is just the first step in
a long process."
(source: Associated Press)
Award honors faculty for research
3 Ohio State faculty members from the College of Social and Behavioral
Sciences have been chosen to receive an annual cash award to further their
David Jacobs, professor of sociology, John P. Bruno, professor of
psychology and Mei-Po Kwan, professor of geography, will receive the Joan
N. Huber Faculty Fellows award.
Over the next three years the recipients will receive $5,000 annually to
fund research projects, said Judith Woodall, an administrative assistant
in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Jacobs, who has been at the university since 1997 but conducting research
since 1975, said he is working on research projects in sociology and
"I'm looking at the politics of capital punishment," he said. "I'm also
looking at what happens to people at death row."
He also said he is studying survival on death row and the concept of the
death penalty as a substitute for lynching.
Jacobs said he is not currently teaching this quarter, but plans on
teaching next year.
Bruno has conducted research for 28 years and has been with the university
"I've had a long career and I have conducted research in 5 or 6 different
areas, including behavioral neuroscience, study between the brain and
behavior, development, aging, cognition and the recovery of function after
brain damage," he said.
(source: The Lantern (Ohio State University)
Movement being made on death penalty bill
Assembly Republicans filed a motion to discharge a bill that would fix the
now unconstitutional death penalty out of committee and onto the floor for
public debate and vote by all 150 members.
If the Committee on Codes, however, acts on the bill by killing it or
putting it on hold, the motion to discharge fails. The committee could
also vote to send the bill to the floor. The committee, chaired by
Assemblyman Joseph Lento, D-Brooklyn, is expected to address the issue
If they take no action, the bill could come to the floor as soon as April
18 under the motion to discharge, a rarely successful technique to bypass
the committee structure.
"Our goal is to bring it to the full house because we want a resolution to
this once and for all," said Kelly Cummings, spokeswoman for Minority
Leader Charles Nesbitt, R-Brockport, sponsor of the bill. "It should not
be decided by a select few. We are asking to bring it to the floor and let
representatives of the entire state decide if New York has a death
The death penalty has been on hold since last June, when the Court of
Appeals ruled it unconstitutional because sentencing guidelines coerced
jurors into imposing a sentence of death. Earlier this year, the state
Senate passed a bill that would presumably fix the flaw. The Assembly bill
is not the same as the Senate's but the differences are marginal, Cummings
Rather than implement a quick fix like the Senate, the Assembly Democrats
held a series of five public hearings across the state. The resulting
58-page report did not draw any concrete conclusions, but only summarized
the testimony of the 170 witnesses.
Time, however, is of the essence in Rensselaer County, where the trial of
Michael "Murder" Hoffler is expected to start at the end of the month or
the beginning of May.
Shortly after the court's decision, Rensselaer County District Attorney
Patricia DeAngelis filed a notice to seek the death penalty against
Hoffler and Gregory "G" Heckstall for the shooting death of Christopher
Drabik, a confidential drug informant.
A jury convicted Heckstall last month, but without a death penalty in
place, the maximum he faces is life without parole when sentenced by
Rensselaer County Judge Patrick McGrath on April 12.
Drabik was set to testify against Hoffler 6 days after the Watervliet
native was gunned down in Lansingburgh on Dec. 30, 2003. If the
Legislature fixes the death penalty before a jury is selected, the
24-year-old could face the death penalty.
Earlier this year, a jury convicted a third man in the conspiracy, Lance
"Ninja" Booker, and he is serving life without parole. Late last year,
Hoffler was convicted in Albany County court on felony drug sales, without
Drabik's testimony, and the three-time felon is serving 35 years in
prison. Motions to discharge are seldom successful, but there is a
different climate in Albany this year. A budget is in place by the April 1
deadline for the first time since 1984, and there is a new-found
transparency and spirit of inclusion and cooperation among lawmakers of
"I'm in favor of the discharge. The death penalty should be voted on by
all members. It is a major issue in front of the public," said Assemblyman
Roy McDonald, R-Wilton, a proponent of the death penalty. "I think the
public wants to see a debate on this issue and I think a debate is
required. Like getting an on time budget, it is our job to debate issues
on the floor."
In 1995, the death penalty easily passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly
94 to 52. However, some who voted yes a decade ago have changed their
Lentol, who would not return phone calls, voted for the death penalty in
1995 but reports say he is now on the fence. And Assemblyman Ronald
Canestrari, D-Cohoes, unlike 10 years ago, said he would not vote in the
affirmative this time around because the wide spread use of DNA evidence
led to finding innocent people sitting on death row. Assembly Speaker
Sheldon Silver is a proponent of capital punishment but many of his more
liberal members are not.
By most accounts, the politically charged bill would generate a fierce
debate and a close vote.
The Republican caucus also asked for a motion to discharge a controversial
civil confinement bill from the Assembly Mental Health Committee. The
bill, which the Senate passed, would isolate convicted sex offenders from
the general population after their prison term expires.
Other bills Republicans are asking be brought out of committee to the
floor include a comprehensive package to combat the growing
methamphetamine problem, three bills that would increase penalties for
certain sex crimes and a power plant siting bill.
(source: The (Troy) Record 2005)
Young N.C. killer won't be executed, high court rules
The state Supreme Court has vacated the death sentence of a man convicted
of fatally shooting a female motorist because of a recent U.S. Supreme
Court decision barring executions of young killers.
The justices upheld Lamorris Chapman's conviction of 1st-degree murder of
16-year-old Seleana Nesbitt. She was killed when a spray of bullets struck
her and another teenager from behind as they traveled home from a Zebulon
But the court said Thursday it vacated the sentence because Chapman was 17
years old at the time of the shooting. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in
March that it's unconstitutional to execute juvenile killers because it
violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Chapman, now 22, is one of four people on North Carolina's death row whose
cases were affected by the high court ruling because they were 17 at the
time of their crimes.
Writing for the court, Justice Ed Brady ordered that the case be returned
to Johnston County court for a new sentencing proceding.
(source: Associated Press)
More information about the DeathPenalty