[Deathpenalty]death penalty news-----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Wed Apr 20 18:34:20 CDT 2005
Tex. Pressed on DNA Exonerations----Group Is Urged to Probe Cause of
Erroneous Murder Convictions
In the state with the nation's busiest death row and an increasing number
of post-conviction DNA exonerations, legislators are urging the governor
to investigate the causes of mistaken convictions.
On the eve of the 5th scheduled execution this year of a Texas inmate, a
state senator proposed giving the newly created Governor's Criminal
Justice Advisory Council subpoena power and the authority to examine the
cases of exonerated inmates, and to identify the causes of the erroneous
To date, 15 inmates have been released from prison as a result of DNA
testing. Lawyers involved in the exonerations said Tuesday the cases of
two inmates, executed by lethal injection in 2000 and in 2004, should be
reexamined through DNA testing or other means to determine whether their
death sentences were appropriate. A council with investigative powers
could do just that, said Barry C. Scheck, co-director of the New
York-based Innocence Project.
"Texans deserve a criminal justice system they can trust protects the
innocent and punishes only the guilty," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D).
He lauded Gov. Rick Perry (R) for creating the council but said it needs
certain tools "to take the next step toward reaching" the governor's
stated goal of ensuring "justice, fairness and public confidence in the
criminal justice system."
Those tools, Ellis proposed in a bill discussed Tuesday by the Senate
Criminal Justice Committee, would include subpoena and other investigative
Perry announced the creation of the council in mid-March, saying it would
move Texas toward "a more perfect system of justice." He said the council,
whose members have yet to be appointed, would research and advise state
officials and legislators on issues such as advancements in DNA testing.
The panel would also review state laws to ensure criminal procedures allow
the use of new technologies and that courts have adequate authority in
post-conviction legal proceedings "to ensure that justice is carried out."
But using subpoenas and other investigative techniques to look into
individual cases is "not the vision the governor has," Perry spokesman
Robert Black said.
"The council is not intended to be a vehicle to examine or reexamine guilt
or innocence," Black said. "It is designed to recommend general changes in
the procedures or policies we operate under -- if there need to be changes
in those. . . . Guilt and innocence are determined in a courtroom and
vetted through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles."
Although some states recently have been reexamining the death penalty,
Texas continues to lead the country in the number of executions. Last
week, the New York Legislature refused to reinstate the death penalty,
while North Carolina and Alabama legislators are seriously considering
death penalty moratoriums. Since 1982, Texas has put 340 prisoners to
death. At least 5 more are scheduled for lethal injections this month and
Death penalty moratorium bills have been introduced in the Texas
Legislature this session, but observers give them virtually no chance of
passing. So scrutinizing systemic and specific problems within the state
criminal justice system -- such as recently exposed problems with the
Houston police lab or suspected misconduct among officials involved in
death penalty cases -- is needed, said a proponent of criminal justice
"The governor has taken a 1st step to resolving this," said Steve Hall,
director of Stand Down Texas, a group that advocates a moratorium on
executions in Texas.
But, he said, the new council needs investigative authority.
"There's widespread recognition that there needs to be this kind of
examination, and hopefully, the governor's council will do that," Hall
said. "Let's do everything we can to make it work."
(source: Washington Post)
Texas may have put innocent man to death, panel told -- Nobody would
listen, lawyer, expert say
With Texas' criminal justice system the subject of intense scrutiny for a
crime lab scandal and a series of wrongful convictions, a state Senate
committee heard testimony Tuesday about the possibility that Texas had
experienced the ultimate criminal justice nightmare: the execution of an
Fourteen months after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in the nation's
busiest death chamber, a renowned arson expert and Willingham's lawyer
told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that they believed Willingham
might have been innocent but found nobody willing to listen to their claim
in the days before the execution in February 2004.
"This was a frustrating case, and it was frustrating because it appeared
that we could not get anybody to listen," said attorney Walter Reaves, who
"To say that this case was thoroughly reviewed," Reaves added, "I have my
The execution of Willingham, convicted of the December 1991 arson fire
that killed his 3 young daughters, was a focus of a hearing into a
proposed innocence commission.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has, by executive order, set up his own committee.
But critics, including state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a longtime advocate of
criminal justice reform in Texas, and Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the
New York-based Innocence Project, told the senators that to be effective
the governor's panel needed to subpoena sworn testimony, obtain documents
and seek forensic testing. Ellis, a Houston Democrat, has sponsored
legislation to beef up the power of Perry's panel.
"Without subpoena power and the ability to order testing, I don't see how
the committee can get to the bottom of these cases," Scheck said after
testifying. "I haven't heard of a committee that didn't want all of those
things. If you want to find out the truth, you have to have the mechanisms
to do it."
A Tribune investigation of the Willingham case last December showed that
he was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that
have since been repudiated by scientific advances--a fact backed up by
testimony Tuesday by one of those experts, Gerald Hurst.
According to Hurst and three other fire experts who reviewed evidence in
the case at the Tribune's request, the original investigation that
concluded the fire was arson was flawed, relying on theories no longer
considered valid. It is even possible the fatal fire at the Willingham
home in Corsicana, a small town about an hour south of Dallas, was
accidental, according to the experts.
Nonetheless, before Willingham died by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004,
Texas judges and Perry turned aside a report from Hurst in which he
questioned the arson evidence and suggested the fire was an accident.
"The state," Hurst testified Tuesday, "needs to take an interest in these
Willingham maintained his innocence until the end. Strapped to a gurney in
the death chamber last year, an angry Willingham said: "I am an innocent
man, convicted of a crime I did not commit."
The scientific advances that Hurst and the other experts cited in the
Willingham case played a role in the exoneration last year of another
Texas Death Row inmate, Ernest Willis. Hurst told the Senate committee
that the two fires were identical, and that an investigation is needed to
determine why Willingham died and Willis lived.
Many prosecutors oppose expanding the power of Perry's committee, called
the Criminal Justice Advisory Council. Barry Macha, the district attorney
in Wichita County, testified legislators should first give the governor's
panel a chance to work as designed.
But that drew a skeptical response from the committee chairman, state Sen.
Bush role in 2000 case
"The problem is, they're appointed by the governor," Whitmire, also a
Democrat from Houston, said of the council's members. "I would almost give
them subpoena power and the 1st time they abuse it, we'll all come back."
Scheck also pointed to the case of Claude Jones, executed in December 2000
for the murder of Allen Hilzendager, who was shot and killed in a 1989
liquor store robbery. In that case, Scheck said, counsel for then-Gov.
George W. Bush prepared a recommendation for Bush that did not mention
that Jones' request for a 30-day stay of execution was to allow DNA tests
to be done on a hair found at the scene. Bush denied the request for a
Last year, the Tribune asked to see the recommendation in the Willingham
case to try to determine whether Perry was informed of Hurst's last-minute
analysis. But the Tribune's request was rejected by state officials who
said the documents are considered confidential.
Scheck told the Senate committee he believed the hair in the Jones case
was still in evidence and that an innocence commission with broad powers
could seek to test the hair to determine if Jones was guilty. Without that
ability, Scheck testified, the commission "would be hampered or powerless
in its ability to get to the bottom of this very important case."
(source: Chicago Tribune)
Life-without-parole proposals debated
A House committee considered proposals that would revamp the state's life
sentence Tuesday by removing any hope for parole in cases of capital
One version of the bill would let juries sentence defendants to death or
send them to prison without any chance of parole; at the same time, it
would erase altogether the current life sentence, which offers potential
parole after 40 years.
While that version passed last week in the Senate, some witnesses at the
House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing urged representatives to
support an alternative that would let juries choose between all three
"Texas juries know how to count to three," Keith Hampton, the legislative
director for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association told
lawmakers. "There may be an appropriate case where a jury wants to give a
defendant a glimmer of hope after 40 years."
The committee did not take any action on the proposals, but its chairman,
Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, endorsed the version that completely erased
parole. He has predicted it would pass the full House.
Should the measure become law, Texas would join 47 other states that
already punish capital murderers by imprisoning them without any chance
Seen by some as tough on crime and by others as a way to undermine the
death penalty, the proposal has divided prosecutors and has failed in at
least three previous legislative sessions.
The 1st witness at Tuesday's hearing was the widow of a Travis County
sheriff's deputy who said she wished that her husband's murderer could
have received life without parole.
Because prosecutors declined to seek the death penalty, Bernadette Ruiz
said she worries her sons will someday have to confront the possibility
that the killer could be released.
"By passing this law," Ruiz told lawmakers, "you give families the
certainty that the person who murdered their loved ones will never ever
She was followed by prosecutors from Harris and Dallas counties, who
opposed all the proposals.
A representative from the Dallas County district attorney's office
suggested a more severe life sentence might lead juries to return fewer
death sentences and ultimately weaken support for capital punishment.
"We believe the death penalty is an appropriate punishment in some cases,"
John Rolater said. "We see life without parole is viewed by opponents of
the death penalty as an important step toward eliminating what we see as
an important option."
The bill received a boost this year when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed
the execution of convicts who committed their crimes as juveniles.
As depicted by sponsors of the bills, such as Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas,
life without parole would ensure that these young criminals could never
get released now that they can't be executed.
"It's final and certain and they can throw away the key," he said.
(source : San Antonio Express-News)
Bill to create crime lab board clears the Senate
The state Senate approved legislation Tuesday that would create an
oversight board to certify and audit crime labs across the state.
The measure establishing the Texas Forensic Science Commission now moves
to the House, where little opposition is expected.
"This commission addresses the need for credible, objective oversight of
crime labs," said Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Criminal Justice
Committee. "It creates an independent, arms-length commission that is free
from police departments."
Whitmire, D-Houston, sponsored the bill in response to concerns about the
work of forensic labs in Houston and elsewhere in Texas.
The Houston police crime lab's DNA division has been closed since December
2002, when an outside audit revealed widespread problems that may have
compromised evidence analysis. Questions also have been raised about the
quality of work of some labs operated by the Texas Department of Public
In the past 2 years, at least four men have been released from Texas
prisons after it was discovered that faulty forensic work led to their
The DPS is responsible for accrediting crime labs in Texas. If Whitmire's
bill becomes law, oversight of such labs would fall to the commission.
The panel would have 11 members, including forensic experts from 5 state
Police, FBI tie more crimes to one gang----At least 20 MS-13 members have
been nabbed and 5 charged
A notorious Central American gang tied to a Huffman child's shooting death
has waged a war of violence across Houston since last year, culminating in
a SWAT standoff that netted several arrests, police said Tuesday.
Five of the 20 arrested so far have been charged in connection with 4
homicides in the Houston area, including the slaying of 18-month-old Aiden
Naquin, who was shot in the head while strapped in an infant car seat
Houston police would not identify the gang by name because of restrictions
imposed by a departmental policy. It is believed to be the violent MS-13
gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha.
Harris County sheriff's detectives have said they believe Miguel Angel
Castro, 21, the man charged in the death of the Naquin child, is a member
of MS-13. Houston police acknowledged the homicides they have investigated
in recent weeks involved "multiple members of a single gang."
"Their crimes run the gamut, from robberies to gang rivalries - that kind
of thing," said Houston Police Department Homicide Lt. Murray Smith, who
was part of a three-week initiative that linked the homicides.
"In most cases, I believe, the victims were random ... Certainly, they
targeted the Hispanic community." Smith said some of the suspects have
admitted to being part of the gang.
Almost all of those arrested during the SWAT standoff last week and in the
months leading up to it are believed to be illegal immigrants, Smith said.
One was confirmed to be from the United States, he said.
Most claim to be from Mexico, while others are believed to be from El
Salvador or Guatemala. The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs
Enforcement will help Houston police determine the men's identities and
Besides Castro, 4 others have been charged in other homicides.
Many of the 20 arrested were caught last week when police went to an
apartment in the 6400 block of West Bellfort to serve 4 arrest warrants
for robbery and aggravated assault.
Some of the men were caught immediately when they tried to flee, but
others stayed in the apartment and were arrested after a SWAT standoff.
Castro, also known as "Emente," is believed to be the one who got away
that night. He was arrested Saturday when police found him at an apartment
in the 11300 block of Fondren.
Police said they linked the homicides to the same gang when five homicide
investigators began studying the cases full-time last month, looking at
ballistics evidence, witnesses statements and interviews with people. They
started with a list of crimes linked by one gun.
During this three-week initiative, three more homicides occurred,
involving the same gang - the toddler's shooting death in Huffman and two
slayings in Houston.
Smith said he was surprised to find this many people involved in this much
criminal activity in such a short time span.
"They're a very vicious group, like most of the gangs when they come to
our attention ... Obviously, they have very little regard for human life,"
Smith said the members are located all across Houston.
The gang also is involved in drugs and immigrant smuggling, Smith said. He
said there is no evidence to suggest any of the crimes were part of a gang
"initiation." Some of the suspects told police they had jobs, but most are
believed to have derived their income from robberies or illegal activity,
Those suspects who are not charged with state crimes likely will be turned
over to the federal government, Smith said.
The FBI, which assisted Houston police with the investigation, said the
MS-13 gang problem is no more prevalent here than it is in other major
cities, but Houston's proximity to the border contributes to its presence
"Our vision is to put these people out of business," said FBI spokesman Al
Tribble. "These individuals have grown up with violence they're
desensitized to it."
The FBI has been working on the MS-13 gang for more than a year, Tribble
"We don't want these gangs to become organized," Tribble said. "I believe
their objective is just to raise money, to obtain money. I'm not sure what
they're doing with it."
- Angel Gregory Lopez, 28, charged with aggravated assault, engaging in
organized criminal activity
- Rodrigo Perez Mendez, 19, charged with aggravated robbery
- Ulises Ivan Lopez, 25, charged in December with aggravated robbery and
burglary of a habitation
- Edgar Ortiz, 20, charged with aggravated robbery and burglary Suspects
Also charged with evading detention or arrest after the standoff on West
- Joel Arturo Carranza, 23
- Carlos Cruz Alvarez
- Felix Enex Blanco, 29
- Sergio Palacios Jimenez, 19
- Jose Adelmo Erazo, 17
- Miguel Mayen-Cardona, 20
- Carlos Estrada-Mejia, 18
- Daniel Santos, also known as Daniel Delasantos, 19
- Julio Mega, 24
- Ronney Donney Sanchez-Fonseca, 18
- One juvenile whose name was not released.
- Edgar Rolando Gonzalez, 23, also known as "Shaggy" and "Chi," is charged
with murder in the Feb. 16 shooting death of Isaac Bermudez, 18, at 7245
Hillcroft. The victim and another man were in an apartment parking lot
when 4 men in a car drove up and asked to what gang they claimed
membership before opening fire.
- Jairo Daniel Rodrigues, 22, and Miguel Camay Porex, 23, also known as
"El Joker" and "Blackie," are each charged with murder in the Oct. 18
shooting death of Franco M. Lopez, 28, at 10201 Harwin. Lopez was sitting
outside drinking a beer when 2 men confronted him and shot him numerous
times, police said.
- Roger Francisco Palacios, 23, was charged last year with murder in the
Nov. 20 death of Eustacio M. Garcia, 40, who was shot in the neck after a
fight at a nightclub at 7633 Dashwood.
Police said more killings may be linked to the gang. They confirmed they
are reviewing at least 4 other homicides but declined to give details on
those cases Tuesday.
(source for both: Houston Chronicle)
WILLIAMS INDICTED ON DRUG CHARGE
Johnny Lee Williams Jr. was indicted for possession of cocaine as well as
the capital murder of a 19-year-old Wal-Mart clerk.
A Smith County grand jury handed up the 19-year-old's charges on April 7
in Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent's 114th District Court. The defendant's
capital murder charge, for the killing of Megan LeAnn Holden, was made
public April 8 but his drug indictment was not released until Tuesday with
the rest of the charges.
He was charged with possessing less than 1 gram of cocaine, a state jail
felony that carries a sentence of 180 days to two years in a state jail
facility if he is convicted.
Williams, 13352 County Road 3140, was arrested on Dec. 5 after authorities
found him in Arizona. He allegedly abducted Ms. Holden as she walked out
to her pickup in the parking lot of Wal-Mart Supercenter, 3820 Texas
Highway 64 West, after her shift there as a clerk.
In his capital murder indictment, Williams is charged with kidnapping,
sexually assaulting, strangling her with his hands and arms, and shooting
to death Ms. Holden, whose body was found discarded in a West Texas ditch.
He could face the death penalty if convicted of capital murder and if
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham decides to seek capital
punishment for the crime.
A convenience store clerk at an RV park near Bowie, Ariz., shot Williams
as the suspect allegedly attempted to rob him. Authorities located
Williams and Ms. Holden's pickup on Jan. 21 at a hospital in Willcox,
Ariz., where he was seeking aid for a gunshot wound.
Judge Kent issued a restrictive and protective order even before Williams
was indicted, limiting the information those involved in the case can
disseminate to the public.
Williams is being represented by Tyler attorney LaJuanda Lacy.
(source: Tyler Morning Telegraph)
Mathis granted stay of execution
A 26-year-old man scheduled for execution on Wednesday evening was granted
a stay on Tuesday, in order to allow his lawyers to continue their
Lawyers for Milton Wuzael Mathis say he is mentally retarded and exempt
from the death penalty under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and they
had been asking Fort Bend County Judge Brady Elliott to postpone the
execution date pending all appeals.
Elliott was the presiding district court judge in the 1999 capital murder
trial against Mathis, where Mathis was found guilty of killing 2 men and
leaving a 15-year-old woman disabled in a drug house in 1998.
Elliott was scheduled to hear the issue in the 268th District Court on
The order was written on Tuesday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,
which is the highest state appeal court, and it states that it granted the
stay in order to allow the defense to continue pursuing their claims
through the appeals court system.
Neither defense attorneys Stephen Doggett or Winston E. Cochran nor
prosecutor Fred Felcman could be reached on Tuesday.
However, motions filed on Friday filed in Fort Bend County reveal the
arguments of both sides in the case.
In the defense's motion to withdraw death warrant, the defense lawyers
write that Mathis scored a 62 on a prison-administered IQ test in 2000 and
point out that the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia
outlawed executions of the mentally retarded.
Prosecutor Fred Felcman, who tried the original case, however, strongly
denies the claim that Mathis is retarded, and he believes the ongoing
appeals are little more than "filing last minute appeals and holding
hostage the courts."
"In fact, Mathis is a street smart individual who lived the life of a
thug; who planned crimes; waived formal rights in multiple criminal cases
and uses legal terms in his vocabulary...." writes Felcman in his
opposition to the withdrawal motion.
Felcman points out that Mathis took an IQ before the trial, in which he
scored an 85, and the IQ test in question occurred following his death
Felcman argues that Texas had already included mental retardation as
mitigating factor that could prevent the death penalty from being applied.
Doggett said he does not dispute his client's guilt.
Mathis' case has already been through extensive appeals. The Texas Court
of Criminal Appeals in 2002 rejected the first appeal by lawyers, which
did not include the issue of mental retardation.
Doggett said he wants to present the retardation issue before the U.S.
Supreme Court and then through the Texas courts.
(source: The Herald-Coaster)
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