[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Wed Nov 23 15:52:15 CST 2005
Death penalty doubts----The case of Ruben Cantu may provide the smoking
gun capital punishment opponents have sought in Texas: the execution of an
Up until his death by lethal injection in the summer of 1993, San Antonian
Ruben Cantu steadfastly claimed that he had been framed at the age of 17
for shooting 2 men during a robbery. One of them died, and the other lived
to bear witness against him. An investigation of Cantu's conviction by the
Chronicle's Lise Olsen provides persuasive evidence that his execution by
the state was a mistake.
Opponents of capital punishment point to the fact that the Texas criminal
justice system is far from fool-proof. Inevitably, they argue, death
sentences will cause innocent people to suffer the ultimate, irreversible
miscarriage of justice. The poor are at greatest risk of falling victim to
a wrongful death sentence, as they must rely on an appointed lawyer who
might not give the case his full attention. Every step of the way, from
arrest to conviction to eventual execution, Cantu's history matches that
The 15-year-old who admitted participating in the crime, David Garza, has
signed an affidavit claiming Cantu was not the gunman and was not at the
scene of the shooting. Garza, incarcerated for an unrelated burglary, says
both he and Cantu took a vow of secrecy not to identify the killer. He
says he's speaking out now because he continues to be tormented by his
failure to prevent the execution of his friend.
The surviving witness, Juan Moreno, testified at the trial that Cantu was
the killer. Moreno claims police pressured him to ID Cantu after showing
him Cantu's picture numerous times. He now says he is sure Cantu was not
the man who shot him.
The individual Garza claims did the killing told police at the time that
Cantu had confessed his role in the murder. There was no physical evidence
tying the defendant to the crime. The jury did not believe Cantu's claim
that he was in Waco stealing pickup trucks when the shooting took place,
despite the fact that his sister corroborated the alibi.
Cantu's death sentence resulted in part from a later, unrelated incident
in which he shot an armed off-duty police officer during a quarrel at a
bar. That officer provided testimony that his shooting was unprovoked.
Cantu claimed both had been drinking and he was defending himself. As the
Chronicle investigation documented, the officer had previous suspensions
for brawling in a bar and abusing a prisoner. Although he was never
charged in that shooting, Cantu was arrested soon after and tried for the
Cantu repeatedly asked his attorney to corroborate his alibi by finding
several brothers who had been with him in Waco, but they were never
located. The Chronicle tracked down one of them, who says that Cantu was
not in San Antonio the night of the murder. Although Garza, Cantu's
co-defendant, tried to alert Cantu's attorney that he was innocent before
his execution, the lawyer never had time to visit him in jail to discuss
As the forewoman of the jury told a Chronicle reporter, the jurors did the
best they could with the information they were given, but "the bottom line
is an innocent person was put to death and we all have our finger in
that." The district attorney at the time, Sam Millsap Jr., says he made a
mistake trying Cantu for capital murder. Today's criminal justice system,
he said, allows people to be convicted based on mistaken or corrupted
Jim Marcus is director of Texas Defender Services, which assists many
Texas death row inmates in their appeals. He says the Cantu case shows the
flaws in a system that frequently provides inadequate or incompetent
counsel for capital murder defendants, both at their trials and during
appeals. "When you have an airplane crash," Marcus said, "the FAA gets
together and commits to an independent investigation to figure out where
the failing was." He suggests a state commission should do the same for
the capital punishment system in Texas.
University of Houston Law Center professor David Dow is the director of
the Texas Innocence Network. He notes that Gov. Rick Perry has appointed a
Criminal Justice Advisory Council, which has a subcommittee dealing with
innocence issues. That group should thoroughly study the Cantu case.
Of approximately 160 Texas convictions overturned following DNA analysis,
70 percent of the wrongful prosecutions had relied solely on eyewitness
identifications. "There isn't any reason to think the Cantu case is
unique," Dow said.
Like Cantu, the next person to face execution in Texas, Tony Ford, also
was convicted of murder on the basis of the accounts of two eyewitnesses,
one of whom knew Ford was a suspect before making the identification.
The execution of one innocent person in Texas is too many at the hands of
the state. The Chronicle's investigation of Ruben Cantu's life and death
strongly argues for both his innocence and the need for new safeguards to
prevent mistakes or malice from sending others to his fate.
(source: Editorial, Houston Chronicle)
San Antonio DA to probe questions over '93 execution
Early Monday morning, Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed told her
staff to order up the archived files on Ruben Cantu.
She wants to see for herself whether evidence supports the allegations,
detailed in stories Sunday and Monday by my colleague Lise Olsen, that the
San Antonio man was executed for a murder he did not commit.
"I found the articles very troubling," she said Monday. "I've always said
it is not our goal that an innocent person will be punished."
Reed is a tough and popular DA who rose through the ranks prosecuting
murders and mayhem, then served 12 years as a district judge before being
elected DA in 1998.
If you read Olsen's stories about Ruben Cantu, you can understand why Reed
found them troubling.
Cantu was executed in 1993 for murdering 1 man and shooting another at
least nine times during a robbery.
But now a man who admits he was in on the robbery says Cantu wasn't there.
He has named the man who he says actually committed the murder.
More importantly, the only witness to the crime, the man who was shot nine
times and survived, says he is absolutely positive it was not Cantu who
Sole witness recants
Juan Moreno, a 19-year-old illegal immigrant at the time, now says he told
the police that Cantu wasn't the shooter the 1st 2 times they showed him
Cantu's photo. He also told them the shooter had curly hair, which Cantu
By the 3rd time, he says, he was intimidated and the police seemed very
certain Cantu was the man.
Their certitude may have been influenced by the fact that Cantu had shot
an off-duty police officer in civilian clothes - an incident for which
Cantu was never tried, apparently because of a botched investigation.
The murder investigation was overseen by a close friend of the officer
shot by Cantu.
"It was difficult to get (Moreno) to make the identification," the lead
investigator, Bill Ewell, told reporter Olsen. "We weren't able to get him
for the police shooting, but we were able to get him for the murder."
Moreno's attorney, Cynthia Orr, says when Moreno learned a Chronicle
reporter was looking into the case, he and his wife prayed hard before
deciding to talk about it.
The district attorney at the time, Sam Millsap, says it was a mistake to
seek the penalty on a crime with little evidence other than a single
Reed tends to agree.
"I'm not sure a 1-witness case is something we want to seek the death
penalty with," she said.
Reed is a prosecutor through and through. She is skeptical about recanted
"Why does someone wait until now to come forward and say, 'I've perjured
myself'?" she asked.
Still, she says she will examine the record in the case "to try to get my
mind around it."
And if she comes to believe Cantu was wrongly executed?
"It's too early to play what-if," she said.
There is no recipe for that situation. It hasn't happened in Texas or in
the nation since the death penalty was restored in 1976, though the chief
prosecutor in St. Louis has for months been looking at a controversial
One possibility would be for Reed and Millsap to ask the Texas Board of
Pardons and Paroles to grant Cantu a pardon posthumously.
The state of Georgia did that earlier this year in the case of a black
woman executed for killing a white man in 1944. The evidence supported her
contention, unsuccessful in the racial atmosphere of that time, that it
Such a posthumous pardon is, however, exceedingly rare. We'd like to
believe it is because such mistakes are rarely made.
District attorneys, of all people, must hope they never are. They don't
want to send innocent people to their death.
That is why, though I covered DA Susan Reed for years and think she will
make an honest effort to assess the evidence in the Cantu case, I don't
think it is appropriate for a DA to be the lead investigator in this case
or ones like it.
On the rare occasion, and this appears to be one, when very strong new
evidence indicates an innocent person may have been executed, an
independent court or some other body should determine the outcome.
That body's report should include an examination of mistakes that led to
the erroneous outcome - and recommendations for avoiding those mistakes in
We do that with plane crashes. We should do it with capital punishment.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Man held in 3 deaths; racial motive probed ---- Fort Worth: Police say
former escapee's victims were black, Hispanic
A criminal who police said may have ties to white supremacy has been
charged in the slayings of three men during his escape last month.
Christopher Chubasco Wilkins, 37, of Houston, already jailed on unrelated
charges, was arrested on suspicion of murder and capital murder. He is
jailed in lieu of bail exceeding $1 million.
Mr. Wilkins is accused of gunning down Gilbert Vallejo, 47, on Oct. 26 as
he left the Lady Luck Lounge on South Jennings Avenue near downtown. Mr.
Vallejo was shot numerous times, police said.
Mr. Wilkins also is accused of fatally shooting Mike Silva, 33, of Hood
County and Willie Freeman, 40, of Fort Worth. They were found Oct. 28
lying in a ditch off the roadway in the 9600 block of Old Weatherford Road
in west Fort Worth.
Both were shot in the head, said Fort Worth police spokesman Lt. Ralph
Swearingin. Police do not have a motive but are looking into Mr. Wilkins'
"His body is heavily tattooed with these signs that reflect Hitler, Satan
and death," Lt. Swearingin said. "I don't know that he's an avowed white
All of the victims were black or Hispanic. Police got their first break in
the cases when a ballistics examination determined that all three men were
shot with the same weapon. Then, they found Mr. Silva's 1987 light gray
Chevy Blazer, which was reported stolen
On Nov. 4, police spotted the stolen vehicle in the 2700 block of Eighth
Avenue. They gave chase, the Blazer collided with another vehicle, and the
driver fled on foot.
Mr. Wilkins was arrested Nov. 5 in another stolen car. Police said he had
picked up a female prostitute and was driving around when he drove his car
off the roadway on purpose and struck a pedestrian, who was not seriously
Police said that when Mr. Wilkins stopped at a gas station, the prostitute
left the car and alerted a clerk to call police. Officers then chased the
man for 11 miles at high speeds into Haltom City, when the stolen vehicle
blew a tire. He was chased on foot by police, captured and arrested on
charges of evading arrest and possession of a controlled substance.
While he was in jail, police obtained additional arrest warrants after a
fingerprint in the Blazer tied Mr. Wilkins to the deaths of Mr. Silva and
Mr. Freeman, police said.
Mr. Wilkins had been living at a halfway house in Houston following his
release from federal prison after being convicted of possession of a
firearm by a convicted felon.
According to federal court records, Mr. Wilkins escaped from Harris County
on Oct. 2 after he was issued a religious pass to attend church.
He was serving a 60-month sentence at the Cornell Corrections Facility, a
privately operated halfway house contracted by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
U.S. marshals filed a criminal complaint this month charging Mr. Wilkins
Police are looking for others who may have associated with Mr. Wilkins.
Anyone with information about him and his time as an escapee in the Fort
Worth area is asked to call homicide detectives at 817-392-4330 or
CrimeStoppers at 817-469-TIPS.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Thompson: 'I was in need of a vacation'
Death row inmate Charles Thompson wrote a letter detailing how he spent
his 4 days on the run.
11 News' Nancy Holland sat down with the recipient of the letter, an
anti-death penalty advocate, and read over Thompson's letter.
In his letter describing his train ride to Louisiana, Thompson said, "I
was in need of a vacation," and "Riding the train was smart - re-entering
society was my downfall."
(source: KHOU News)
Fired deputy faults jail policies
The Harris County sheriff's deputy fired for the escape of condemned
killer Charles Victor Thompson points to nebulous policies and loose
standards at the jail, not simply human error as Sheriff Tommy Thomas
maintains, the deputy's attorney said.
The 12-year veteran is appealing his "severe" punishment on the grounds
that another deputy who allowed the inmate to bluff his way out the front
door of the jail at 1200 Baker received a 10-day suspension, his attorney,
Richard Cobb, said.
Thomas faulted the deputy, not by name, Monday at a news conference for
failing to lock the visitors booth and for failing to properly secure
Thompson in restraints other than handcuffs. Thomas said current policy
will not be revised. He said if the deputy had followed existing policies,
the twice-convicted killer never would have escaped Nov. 3.
Eight other employees were disciplined, one of whom opted to resign.
Discipline for the other seven ranged from a letter of reprimand to 10-day
suspensions without pay.
Deputy Tonya Ward is also appealing her 10-day suspension, said Cobb, with
the Fraternal Order of Police. Ward escorted Thompson from a secure area
on the first floor to the front desk, where deputies asked him why he did
not have appropriate identification. The 35-year-old killer said someone
was waiting for him and he was allowed to walk out of the jail.
Thompson was in Houston for resentencing in the 1998 murder of his former
girlfriend and her boyfriend. Thompson was at the jail, awaiting return to
death row, when he escaped. He was captured three days later in Louisiana.
During Thompson's dash to freedom, he made his way from the unlocked
visitors booth to the first floor, where a deputy there "was the one who
let him out," Cobb said. "That guy winds up with a 10-day suspension."
On the day of Thompson's escape, the fired deputy was about to end his
shift when no one was apparently free to escort Thompson from his cell on
the second floor to a visitors booth on the same floor. The fired deputy
volunteered to escort Thompson to the small visitors room, where an
attorney not tied to his case was waiting to meet with him.
"They were clamoring to have someone put this guy into the attorney booth
and on his way, he does," Cobb said. "He didn't lock the door because he
doesn't have a key."
Still, it is not unheard of for deputies to leave the booth unlocked, Cobb
"Policies are just helter-skelter and used in one area and not in
another," Cobb said.
Cobb said certain deputies on the floor are allowed to carry keys to the
booths, but supervisors also have them, said Lt. John Martin, a spokesman
for the department.
The sheriff said Monday that supervision was lacking on that floor.
"The supervisor was not doing his job," said Thomas, who did not identify
The sheriff also said Thompson told investigators he had smuggled a
handcuff key from death row, civilian clothes and prison ID into the jail.
Cobb said Thompson had the items among his legal documents he kept in an
"The jail has a policy that you don't search legal papers. What do you
expect?" Cobb asked. "He kept his clothes in the expandable files ... not
to search legal stuff - that's just crazy."
Martin said he did not know how Thompson was able to smuggle the items
into the jail, but all should have been kept among his personal items. He
countered Cobb's statement, and said jailers are allowed to search
inmates' legal documents and any item in their cells.
"We don't want to tear up legal papers or give inmates a reason to say we
interfered with the legal process or hindered their case in any way,"
Martin said. "We don't want to violate the attorney-client privilege, so
we may not be as thorough in looking through the documents."
Still, "nothing prohibits us from searching through legal documents."
The claim that the handcuff key originated from death row has led the
Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees state prisons, to
launch an investigation. The issue has rankled at least one high-ranking
Prison official responds
The TDCJ official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the
department's investigation seems tailored to transfer much of the blame
for Thompson's escape on the prison system. When asked if county officials
were attempting to place part of the blame for the escape on the state,
the official replied, "Well, sure they are."
According to the prison official, who requested anonymity because he fears
termination, the findings of the sheriff's office lack credibility.
"The only evidence they have is what he's telling them," said the TDCJ
official. "But it just doesn't add up that he would wait that many weeks
in order to effect that escape knowing that he could be going back (to
prison) any day."
The official also doubts that Thompson would be able to leave death row
with a handcuff key, as county investigators contend. In March 2000, death
row inmate Pochai Wilkerson spit out a handcuff key as he lay strapped to
a gurney awaiting execution. After that incident, TDCJ installed a
metal-detecting chair that inmates must sit on before leaving death row at
the Polunsky Unit near Livingston.
"It will pick up a gnat's (behind) worth of metal on a prisoner," the
official said. "If there's metal on their body, it will detect it. That's
why I don't think he left prison with that key."
Plus, says the prison official, a handcuff key is actually of little value
to a death row inmate while he's on death row.
"When they move those guys, they have a lock box that fits over the holes
in the handcuffs. So they can't get to the cuffs. So the only place that
key would be useful to him is down there at the county jail."
Martin said Thompson was cooperative with the investigation and the
department has no reason to doubt his explanation about the key's origins.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Texas insanity standard out of touch with reality
It was a crime that still haunts the nation. On the morning of June 20,
2001, Andrea Yates, a suburban Houston housewife, made breakfast for her
five children and then methodically drowned each one - Noah, 7; John, 5;
Paul 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months - in the family's guest bathroom. She
then spread 4 of the bodies out on her bed, leaving Noah floating in the
After that, she called the police and her husband to disclose the crime
amid a rambling account of being possessed by Satan.
Yates should have been an easy case for the insanity defense. She had a
long, documented history of schizophrenia and postpartum depression. She
had attempted suicide twice, and only weeks before she had been held in a
Shortly before the murders, her doctor had taken her off her medication.
She soon began to experience delusional communications from God telling
her to kill the children to protect them.
Her treating doctor at the time described her as "one of the sickest
patients I've ever seen."
The senseless horror of the killings strongly supported a claim of
insanity. Even in our collective anger after the murders, many people knew
instinctively that this mother was seriously ill. But Texas has an
insanity standard shaped more by political than clinical realities. Under
that standard, even Yates was found to be sane, convicted and sentenced to
life in prison.
Now, however, she's getting another chance. Two weeks ago, the state's
highest court threw out her conviction and sent the case back for a new
trial because of overzealous prosecutors and false testimony by the
prosecution's key expert witness, Newport Beach, Calif., psychiatrist Dr.
Park Dietz. This time, it is to be hoped that the trial will focus the
nation's attention on the insanity defense and how states such as Texas
routinely ignore clear mental illness in their eagerness to extract
In recent years, states have made it more and more difficult to claim
insanity. After John Hinckley Jr. was found insane in the shooting of
President Reagan, many states adopted new, stricter standards. For
example, Texas used to accept that a person was insane even if he knew
that he was committing a crime, as long as he could convince a jury that
he could not stop himself because of mental illness. Yates would have
easily satisfied that standard.
However, Texas changed the rule in 1983 to require a showing that a
defendant could not distinguish right from wrong. Thus, even if Yates was
obeying Satan, she was still sane if she knew it was wrong on some level.
Of course, the government can always find someone such as Dietz, who makes
a substantial living finding lunatics sane. The Texas standard also
ignores the psychiatric literature questioning the significance of the
In most states, the insanity rule is now a legal version of a Rorschach
test: Juries come away with radically different impressions of sanity and
insanity. Fewer than 1 % of criminal cases raise this defense, but the
inconsistency among the cases is shocking.
For instance, in Colorado this year, Rebekah Amaya was found insane in the
drowning of her two children because she said she was told to do so by a
spider crawling over her hand. Like Yates, the standard was the ability to
distinguish right from wrong. Both women had previous mental illness
aggravated by postpartum depression. Both claimed that the killings were
meant to rid their children and themselves of evil spirits. Yates,
however, was found sane, while Amaya was found insane.
Perhaps Yates should have said her orders came from a spider. Or maybe she
should have said she did it to impress actress Jodie Foster, as did
Frankly, there are plenty of sane motivations for assassinating a
president, but there are few for a mother to kill her children. Yet
Hinckley was found insane while Yates was found perfectly sane.
Even within Texas, similar cases result in radically different results.
For example, Deanna Laney was recently found insane for stoning her
children on orders from God.
It seems that some homicidal messages from God are more believable than
Our insanity laws are now as incomprehensible as their subjects. Unhinged
individuals such as Colin Ferguson (the Long Island Rail Road killer) and
Zacarias Moussaoui (the 9/11 co-conspirator) have not only been found
competent but allowed to represent themselves. We sat and watched as these
barking lunatics pretended to be lawyers while the judges and prosecutors
desperately pretended that they were sane.
The new trial is unlikely to shed new light on the dark delusions of
Andrea Yates. It was never a question of whether Yates was insane. It was
only a question of whether Texas was willing to recognize that fact in its
own mad fit of retributive justice.
Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University and a
practicing criminal defense lawyer. He wrote this essay for the Los
(source: The Amarillo Globe-News)
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