[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS, MISS., CALIF., VA.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Wed Feb 9 10:01:35 CST 2005
23-year-old convicted of Northeast woman's 2002 strangling
Justen Grant Hall was convicted Tuesday of strangling a Northeast woman
with an electrical cord more than 2 years ago.
Hall, 23, was found guilty of capital murder by a jury in the 34th
District Court after about 3 hours of deliberations.
The same jury will now decide if Hall, 23, should be sentenced to death
for the Oct. 28, 2002, slaying of Melanie Ruth Billhartz, 29. In Texas,
capital murder is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Prosecutors
are seeking the death penalty for Hall.
The punishment phase of the trial is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. today
before Judge William Moody.
"I'm disappointed. We put a lot of effort and a lot of heart into this
trial. Now we have to get ready to present our case in punishment to see
if we can save his life," Francisco F. Macias, a lawyer for Hall, said
after the hearing.
Hall maintained a stoic expression when Moody announced the verdict. The
Billhartz family, including her grandfather, who rubbed his eye with his
right hand as if to brush away a tear, also remained calm when the verdict
The victim's family declined to comment after Tuesday's proceedings.
Macias and Charles McDonald, Hall's other lawyer, attempted to raise
reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors by saying the El Paso Police
Department conducted a poor investigation and that Billhartz was killed by
But prosecutors argued that several people, including Hall, said Hall
killed Billhartz. Assistant District Attorney Diana Meraz told the jury
that Hall confessed to killing Billhartz through a voluntary statement he
gave to police.
Meraz and Assistant District Attorney Bill Hicks told jurors that Hall
strangled Billhartz to prevent her from telling police about a
methamphetamine laboratory. Methamphetamine, which is commonly known as
speed, is an illegal drug that can be made with inexpensive ingredients,
including some over-the-counter medications, according to the National
Institute on Drug Abuse.
"There is nothing suggesting that she was killed by anyone else," Meraz
Billhartz's body was found by authorities in the desert near La Union,
N.M., about a month after she died. Police were led to the body by the man
who Hall's defense lawyers said is the real killer.
(source: El Paso Times)
No verdict decided on alleged gang members request
Humberto "Gallo" Garzas pre-trial hearing will continue today with
testimony from police officers who arrested the alleged Tri-City Bomber
captain on charges that he planned the 2003 Edinburg massacre.
Garza, 30, is the 2nd of 13 suspected gang members to stand trial for the
Jan. 5, 2003, shooting deaths of 6 men who were found in and around 2
homes at 2915 E. Monte Cristo Road.
He is identified as one of "the leaders of a conspiracy" that led to the
murders, in the probable cause affidavit that led to his arrest on Jan.
Before attorneys can select a jury and begin Garzas trial, 370th state
District Judge Noe Gonzalez is hearing testimony from law enforcement
officers who interviewed Garza after his arrest. Garzas defense attorney
Ralph Martinez filed a motion to not allow the jury to hear what Garza
told Edinburg police officers and FBI agents that he spoke with on Jan. 24
Hidalgo County assistant district attorneys Joseph Orendain and Murray
Moore are prosecuting the case and want the jury to hear all or parts of
the officers testimony.
Martinez said the statements should not be admissible because police did
not adhere to a state law that requires law enforcement officers to either
record or write out statements taken from someone in custody.
He also claims Garzas
statements were given involuntarily because police kept him in conditions
that exerted psychological pressure on him to talk.
"The defendant was kept in custody for about a 15-hour period during which
he was in a little hold-over cell, not given much food or sleep," Martinez
said. "(The police) are parading (Garza) around and scaring him with the
fact he is charged with capital murder."
In addition, the FBI spoke with Garza after his attorney at the time,
Charles Banker, told Garza not to give anymore statements, which violated
Garzas right to counsel, Martinez said.
FBI special agents testified Monday that they spoke with Garza while he
was in Edinburg police custody about an alleged death threat gang members
had against a special agent. The interviewed lasted from around 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 24, 2003, to 3:20 a.m. the next day.
Edinburg Police Detective Robert Alvarez testified Tuesday that Garza was
arrested early in the morning on Jan. 24, 2003, and interviewed for about
20 minutes. Garza told police that he was a captain in the Tri- City
Bombers, a gang which follows a military hierarchy and is named after the
Tri-City area of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo.
Alvarez testified gang members plotted to steal drugs from the Monte
Cristo home after Maritza Martinez, the then-girlfriend of Garzas
codefendant Robert Cantu, 25, saw about 500 pounds of marijuana at the
home at a party the night before the slayings.
Cantu then asked Jorge "Choche" Norberto Martinez, 39, for help in taking
the drugs. Martinez contacted the head of the Tri-City Bombers, Jeffrey
"Dragon" Juarez, 29. who was living in Sugar Land, asking for approval to
steal the drugs. Juarez, also charged in the murders, directed them to go
through Garza first.
The men met to plan the robbery, along with several others charged in the
case, including Juan "Juanon" Arturo Villarreal Cordova, 35, including
Marcial Mata Bocanegra, 27; Salvador "Little Sal" Solis, 27; Reymundo
"Kito" Sauceda, 29; Rodolfo "Creeper" Medrano, 25; Ricardo "Rica" Caballo
Martinez Gonzalez, 22, and Juan Miguel "Perro " Nuez, 29, Juan Raul
Navarro"Ram" Ramirez, 20, and Robert "Bones" Gene Garza, 21.
Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death for the Edinburg murders in
December, while Robert Garza is on death row for the 2002 murders of four
women in Donna. Police are still looking for Nuez and Ricardo Martinez
Gonzalez, while the others await separate trials in Hidalgo County jail.
The men used two vehicles, a truck and a Chevrolet Tahoe, to drive to the
home on Monte Cristo Road.
"(Garza) never got out of the vehicle, him nor Juanon," Alvarez said.
"They needed the vehicles in case the drugs were found. They drove around
and waited for those guys to finish what they are doing."
Garza knew the men were armed with guns, but never told police he planned
the murders, Alvarez said.
After the men returned from the home, Garza and Villarreal picked up the
men. They watched a porno DVD as they drove back to Villarreals home,
Alvarez said police had asked Garza to write down his statement, but Garza
wanted to wait for his mother, Lydia Garza, to arrive. His mother came to
the station with attorney Banker who then advised police Garza would not
make any more statements.
Garza did show police tattoos that Alvarez said indicated his gang
affiliation, including a bomb and the word "Valluco," a prison gang.
the information Garza gave police led the apprehension to others. Garzas
version of the incident was corroborated from statements the other
codefendants gave police, Alvarez said.
Testimony will continue today.
(source: The Monitor)
3 Mississippi Death Row Cases Under Review By U.S. Supreme Court
Appeals from 3 Mississippi death row inmates are scheduled to be reviewed
by the U.S. Supreme Court next week.
A list of cases for conference on February 18th includes appeals from
condemned prisoners Frederick Bell, Blayde Grayson and Stephen Elliot
Bell, who is 34, was convicted in 1993 for killing a Grenada County
grocery store clerk. The state Supreme Court upheld his death sentence in
1998. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his initial appeal in 1999.
Last year, the Mississippi high court told Bell it would not allow a
post-conviction appeal because he presented no new issues that might lead
to a new trial.
Anthony Joe Doss is also on death row for the 1993 murder. At trial, Doss
admitted he was armed when he participated in the robbery, but claimed
Frederick Bell was the triggerman.
Grayson, who is 29, was convicted in the 1996 slaying of 78-year-old
Minnie Smith during a house burglary in George County. In 2001, the
Mississippi Supreme Court upheld Grayson's conviction and sentence.
(source: Associated Press)
Condemned killer's stay stretches on
One year ago tonight, Kevin Cooper was to be executed for one of the
bloodiest mass murders in San Bernardino County history.
But an appeals court spared his life in the final hours, ruling that his
claims of innocence deserved a final look before he was put to death.
What was billed as a brief stay of execution has stretched into a lengthy
reprieve for the convicted killer.
The results of recent scientific tests of evidence have leaned toward
confirming Cooper's guilt. But his lawyers also have raised new questions
about his conviction, strengthening the resolve of supporters who believe
Cooper was framed by police.
An end to the appeals process appears nowhere in sight, and attorneys in
the case say many more years could pass before Cooper feels the sting of
the executioner's needle or wins his freedom.
The wait is maddening for prosecutors and relatives of the victims, who
say Cooper is manipulating the legal system to keep himself alive.
"If we wait a million years, there will always be another test the defense
wants, or they'll have some new theory,' said Mary Ann Hughes, whose son,
Christopher, was one of Cooper's victims. "I don't think he should be
alive. He certainly didn't offer my son a 2nd chance.'
Cooper's lawyers, meanwhile, believe they have raised enough doubt about
Cooper's guilt over the past year to justify a new trial.
"It doesn't do anyone any good if the wrong man is executed,' attorney
David Alexander said.
After spending 20 years on death row, his appeals finally exhausted,
Cooper was to die by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. Feb. 10, 2004, for the
1983 murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen; their 10-year-old daughter,
Jessica; and Hughes, the Ryens' 11-year-old houseguest.
All four were slain with a hatchet and knife inside the Ryen family home
in Chino Hills, 2 days after Cooper escaped from the nearby California
Institution for Men state prison.
Cooper, 47, was in the midst of San Quentin State Prison's death rituals
last year when his execution was called off with less than 4 hours to
Prison officials already had offered him his last meal, given him his
final set of clothes, searched his arms for veins and moved him into a
holding cell attached to the death chamber.
The 11th-hour reprieve came when Cooper's attorneys convinced the 9th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals that prosecutors might have withheld, tampered
with or ignored important evidence.
Key among that evidence was a T-shirt found near the crime scene and
stained with blood from Cooper and the victims. At Cooper's request, the
appeals court ordered that the shirt be tested for a chemical preservative
which, if present, would suggest police planted Cooper's blood on the
The court also ordered DNA testing on hairs found in the hands of the
victims to see if they could have been pulled from the head of some other
The judges, in their ruling, said nobody should be executed if there is
doubt about guilt and an "easily available' test could resolve the
question. The court added it believed the DNA testing could be completed
But the tests have been neither quick nor easy.
Attorneys for Cooper and the state spent the better part of the past year
arguing over whether testing the shirt and hair would prove reliable or
Ultimately, a faint smear of blood from the shirt was tested at Cooper's
request for the chemical EDTA, a crime lab preservative used by police. In
a win for prosecutors, an expert chosen by Cooper found no significant
levels of the chemical, suggesting that police did not plant it.
In another prosecution victory, the hairs, tested in August, all appeared
to have come from the heads of the victims.
Cooper's lawyers, meanwhile, scored some small victories.
They found a handful of previously unknown witnesses who testified they
saw three strange, intoxicated men in a bar near the crime scene on the
night of the murders. At least 2 of the witnesses said they believed the
men were spattered with blood.
Cooper's lawyers also succeeded in proving the shoes that left footprints
at the crime scene were more widely available than jurors knew during
Cooper's trial. Prosecutors argued during the trial that the Pro Keds were
only sold to prisons, and were the same type the Chino prison issued to
Cooper. A Keds employee, however, testified during a hearing last year
that the shoes also were available to retailers, although very few were
Those discoveries come on top of Cooper's long-standing claims that police
ignored an alleged confession from one possible suspect and threw away a
pair of bloody coveralls that belonged to another suspect.
All those issues, coupled with smaller inconsistencies in the case, work
in Cooper's favor, Alexander said.
"I would love to retry the case with the information we have now,'
Alexander said. "I feel very strongly if we were able to present to a jury
all the evidence, including that which his earlier lawyers were unaware
of, Kevin Cooper would not be convicted.'
AND ON TO YEAR 2
Over the past 12 months, a federal judge in San Diego has held 14 days of
appeals hearings and heard testimony from 36 experts and witnesses.
Judge Marilyn Huff released a ruling Tuesday saying she would not allow
any more testimony, suggesting the first round of appeals may be winding
The judge, however, still hasn't issued a final decision on whether
Cooper's conviction will stand.
Huff has appeared unmoved by Cooper's arguments over the past year.
But however she rules, the case is far from over.
The loser of this round almost certainly will appeal, and the case will
again be back in the hands of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the
court that stopped Cooper's execution. The loser of that round certainly
will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Those proceedings could move very slowly because the courts give ample
time for attorneys to file documents and present arguments.
"There's simply no way to know how long this will take,' said Dane
Gillette, the death penalty coordinator for Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Cooper, meanwhile, lives on borrowed time.
He came away from his near-execution tightly focused on his appeals, said
Lt. Vernell Crittendon, a spokesman for San Quentin State Prison who has
regular contact with him.
Cooper routinely writes letters for his Web site, proclaiming his
innocence and railing against the state's capital punishment system, which
he says unfairly targets poor people and minorities.
During an interview on Berkeley's KPFA radio in December, Cooper was
steadfast in his claims of innocence and vowed to fight his death sentence
to the end.
Life on death row is miserable, he said.
"This is an ugly place. It's a dirty place,' he said. "This is a place I
wouldn't wish nobody in. Even my enemies.'
Cooper has a television and a radio inside his cramped prison cell and is
fed 3 meals a day through the bars. He eats every one alone.
He is released from his cell for about four hours of fresh air and
exercise on the prison yard each morning, during which he and other death
row inmates can play cards or basketball and discuss politics and sports.
He has access to the prison's law library at night, gets regular visitors
and causes no problems for staff, Crittendon said.
A GROWING POPULATION
7 killers have been sentenced to death in California in the past year,
raising the total death row population to 640.
Cooper's reprieve, while sparing his life, has not stopped the state from
pushing forward with other executions. Donald Beardslee was put to death
Jan. 19 for the drug-related murders of 2 women in San Mateo County.
Two more executions are possible this year.
Federal courts have cleared the way for the execution of Stan "Tookie'
Williams, a co-founder of the Crips street gang who is on death row for
killing 4 people in 1979, including a Whittier convenience store owner.
And the case of Clarence Ray Allen, who ordered the murders of three
people in 1980 from his cell at Folsom State Prison, is also working its
way toward an execution date.
"In either case, we could be looking at a summer execution,' Gillette
Hughes said she hopes those imminent executions are a constant reminder to
Cooper that his time is coming.
"I certainly hope that makes Kevin Cooper uncomfortable,' she said. "Every
time it happens, I hope he thinks about how it could be him.'
(source: San Bernardino County Sun)
Hard to Believe That Va. Justice Is Colorblind
At a news conference Monday, Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul
B. Ebert announced the indictment of Carlos Diangilo Williams, a black,
26-year-old college-educated man, in the murder of his pregnant former
girlfriend, Cheri Washington, a black 17-year-old high school student.
Williams allegedly used a baseball bat to beat the girl into having a
miscarriage and ended up killing her and the fetus. But while calling the
crime "horrendous," Ebert -- who has placed more convicts on Virginia's
death row than any other prosecutor in the state -- announced that
Williams, if convicted, would face life in prison plus 50 years, not
"His intention was only to kill the fetus," Ebert said. "Otherwise, it
would have been capital."
In a telephone conversation with Ebert yesterday, I mentioned that his
decision was yet another reminder that the death penalty as practiced in
the United States is riddled with racial disparities. For it sure seems as
if black-on-black murders are not taken as seriously as black-on-white
killings -- which are frequently prosecuted as capital crimes.
"I would have liked [to see] his case fall into a category where we could
prove the willful and premeditated killing of the mother with the intent
to terminate the pregnancy," Ebert told me. "Trouble is, after he beat her
up, he dressed her and told her to leave and said if she told anyone what
happened he'd kill her mother. Those are the facts, and I haven't found a
way around them."
Still unconvinced, I asked him would he have found it easier to press for
the death penalty if Cheri Washington had been white -- if some black man
calling himself a former boyfriend had held a white teenager who was five
months pregnant against her will at his home for several hours while
kicking her, stomping her and pounding on her stomach with a baseball bat.
Surely there would have been more of a community outcry and more demands
that Williams get the death penalty if convicted?
"In this jurisdiction, I don't believe race makes that much difference,"
Ebert said. "The people are integrated enough where it wouldn't matter
that the girlfriend was black or white. That might be a concern to some,
but to most of the people in this county, it would not."
And yet, according to an ACLU report about capital punishment in Virginia
from 1978 to 2001, a death sentence was imposed in only 5.3 % of the cases
in which the victim was black but 16.7 % of the cases in which the victim
"In cases of rape-murder, the data suggeststhat a defendant whose victim
was white is 2.3 times more likely to receive the death penalty than one
whose victim was black," said the report, "Broken Justice: The Death
Penalty in Virginia," which was published in 2003. "In cases of
robbery-murder, the data suggests that a defendant whose victim was white
is 3.2 times more likely to receive the death penalty than one whose
victim was black.
". . .While the death penalty was imposed in 70.8 % of all potentially
capital rape-murders, black defendants charged with raping and murdering a
white victim were sentenced to death in nearly every case, while black
defendants charged with raping and murdering a black victim were sentenced
to death in only 28.6 % of the cases."
Ebert cited a study of the death penalty published in 2000 by the Virginia
General Assembly, which noted that prosecutors appear to be "over 3 times
more likely to seek the death penalty if the victim is white." But,
astonishingly, the report concluded that the disparities had nothing to do
with race. The data, according to the authors, "revealed that black
victims in death-eligible cases were more likely to be involved in illegal
activities such as drug use, drug dealing, and prostitution," which made
them less-sympathetic victims.
Once the "character of the victim" was factored in, the authors wrote,
racial disparities lost their statistical significance. Rather than
exonerate the system, that conclusion -- that white victims somehow have
more character than black victims -- strikes me as more evidence of the
problem. And as fair as Ebert might try to be, he still works within a
system in which racial bias taints all outcomes.
(source: Washington Post)
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