[Deathpenalty] death penalty news-----TEXAS

Rick Halperin rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Jun 18 05:17:34 UTC 2006

June 17


Fate of woman accused of starving boy up to jury

A Tarrant County jury on Monday will begin deciding the fate of Lisa Ann
Coleman, who is accused of participating in the starving death of
9-year-old Davontae Williams.

Closing arguments in the capital murder trial are scheduled to begin in
state District Judge Everett Young's court at 9 a.m.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys rested their cases Friday, ending 1 1/2
weeks of testimony.

Coleman, 30, could face the death penalty if jurors find her guilty of
participating in the beating, kidnapping and starving death of Davontae.
Police found the youngster dead in his mother's east Arlington apartment
July 26, 2004.

His mother, Marcella Williams, 25, faces her own trial later.

Coleman and Williams, who were lovers, are accused of beating Davontae
while they starved him, according to testimony.

Davontae died of malnutrition with pneumonia as a contributing factor,
according to testimony during the trial.

He weighed 35.8 pounds and was 44.5 inches tall when Arlington authorities
found his body inside the apartment.

Prosecutors are trying to prove that Coleman, like Williams, was
responsible for Davontae's welfare. Starving Davontae was part of ongoing

Defense attorneys contend that the abuse was part of discipline by
incompetent parents and that Davontae was malnourished because he was

(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)


How the high court may have changed the death penalty

We welcome a pair of decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court this week
regarding death-penalty cases.

In one ruling, the high court gave death-row inmates in Texas and across
the country a key legal tool to challenge the legality of the 3-drug
cocktail that states use to kill them. In a separate ruling, the court
decided that an inmate was entitled to a new hearing based on evidence and
DNA testing brought forward after he was convicted.

The lethal injections ruling was based on a Florida case. Death-row inmate
Clarence Hill, who was convicted of killing a police officer, challenged
the legality of the method (lethal injection using certain drugs) Florida
uses for executions. The Florida courts threw out the case. In its ruling,
the U.S. Supreme Court focused on the narrow issue of whether inmates can
bring lethal injection challenges under civil rights law. The good news is
that such challenges are permitted, so states no longer can throw them

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court didn't answer the larger question of
whether the combination of drugs used to execute people is so painful that
it violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That
leaves the door open for Texas and other states to continue executing
inmates using at least one drug that isn't fit for putting down dogs.

It remains to be seen what other states will do. Some experts said the
ruling wouldn't slow executions in Texas, which has the nation's busiest
execution chamber. But it will focus more attention on whether the system
of executing inmates is humane.

There is some research that suggests the combination of drugs used in
executions doesn't effectively anesthetize some prisoners, so they feel
pain when the other chemicals are injected into their veins. They are
unable to call out, however, because of the paralyzing effects of
pancuronium bromide. Other medical professionals insist the combination
and dosages of drugs used are enough to kill quickly and painlessly.

Since 2003, we've called on state officials to modernize lethal
injections, and particularly to ban the drug pancuronium bromide. The
Legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of that drug for putting down
dogs, cats and reptiles because of its potential to cause unnecessary pain
and suffering.

We continue to question why a drug that is deemed unsuitable for putting
down animals is OK for killing humans.

It is unrealistic to expect that Texas abandon capital punishment. Even
so, it would be a huge improvement if the state updated its procedures and
set minimum standards for carrying out executions - including requiring
some kind of medical training and certification for those who are
administering injections. There should be some kind of oversight or
monitoring of lethal injections to ensure that they are being carried out

Since 1982, Texas has used the same chemicals for lethal injections that
it now uses. Public dollars pay for prisons and executions, from salaries
of guards to inmates' last meals. So when the public asks who is
administering injections, what standards are in place for carrying out
executions and whether the execution process is regularly audited or
reviewed, the public should get an answer. We're still waiting for answers
to those questions.

The separate ruling by the Supreme Court regarding new evidence might make
a difference in exposing wrongful convictions in Texas. That decision
gives instruction to lower courts about the correct way to handle new
evidence, and particularly DNA testing, when it undermines the
prosecution's case.

Texas courts, particularly the Court of Criminal Appeals, relies too
heavily on process.

We hope the ruling brings more balance to the system.

(source: Editorial, Austin American-Statesman)


Right call on DNA evidence

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision to allow a
Tennessee death row inmate to introduce new DNA evidence in his
20-year-old case.

It marks the first time the court has allowed the introduction of modern
DNA evidence in re-examining a death sentence.

That is welcome news in Texas, the nation's foremost purveyor of the death
penalty. To date, 366 inmates have been executed since 1982. Another 399
await the ultimate penalty on death row.

Nationwide, 14 people sentenced to death or who have served time on death
row have been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence
Project in New York City.

The high court's decision opens a legal door for those with compelling new
DNA evidence to get another trial. While not necessarily an indication of
changing attitudes toward capital punishment, the ruling levels the
playing field when it comes to appeals.

Execution is the final punishment, and cannot be retracted. Those alleging
a wrongful conviction should not be denied the chance for exoneration,
whether through DNA evidence or other critical exculpatory information.

(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News)


Insanity issue remains focus of Yates' 2nd trial

Andrea Yates often struggles with deep depression or hallucinations around
June 20, the day in 2001 when she drowned her 5 children in the bathtub.
This year, Yates will be in court at her second murder trial around the

In July 2004 Yates was hospitalized after starving herself for up to 6
weeks, losing about 30 pounds, according to the University of Texas
Medical Branch Hospitals' discharge records. She believed she saw "babies
yelling for help," the records showed.

Jurors in the retrial who will be selected beginning Thursday, will hear
largely the same evidence as in the first trial, but also will hear about
her psychotic episodes since her 2002 conviction that was later overturned
on appeal, defense attorney George Parnham said.

"We've got four years of mental health records to show she's still
severely mentally ill," Parnham said.

He maintains that severe postpartum psychosis prevented her from knowing
that drowning her children, ages 6 months to 7 years, was wrong.

But prosecutors still insist that Yates does not meet Texas' legal
definition of insanity: not knowing at the time that one's actions are
wrong. Prosecutors plan to present the same evidence of how Yates killed
the children after her husband left for work and before her mother-in-law
arrived to help, and how Yates called 911 to report the crime.

"Everything I've seen has reaffirmed that she was sane at the time she
killed her kids," prosecutor Kaylynn Williford said. "What's at the crux
of this case is: You can be mentally ill and know right from wrong and be
held criminally responsible."

Yates once again is pleading innocent by reason of insanity, and if
convicted could be imprisoned for life. Because the 1st jury rejected the
death penalty and decided on a life sentence, prosecutors cannot seek the
death penalty again without presenting new evidence.

Last week, more than 20 individuals and groups - including Postpartum
Support International, North American Society for Psychosocial Obstetrics
and Gynecology, Texas Mental Health Consumers and New Jersey's former
first lady Mary Jo Codey - asked the court to limit expert testimony to
those familiar with postpartum psychosis.

The brief, which would affect some prosecution witnesses, says only those
with significant experience treating the rare disorder should testify
about whether Yates knew her actions were wrong.

The judge isn't required to consider the brief filed by New York
attorneys. Opening statements start June 26, and the trial is expected to
last through the end of July.

Last year the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston overturned her conviction,
saying a prosecution witness' erroneous testimony could have influenced
the jury's decision.

Dr. Park Dietz, a psychiatrist who has been a consultant for the "Law &
Order" television series, told jurors that one episode depicting a woman
who drowned her children in a bathtub - and was acquitted by reason of
insanity - aired before the Yates children were killed.

Yates frequently watched the show, according to other testimony, and a
prosecutor - not Dietz - suggested that she got the idea from the episode.

After the jury found Yates guilty, attorneys in the case learned no such
episode existed.

Although Parnham argued to halt the retrial, saying that testimony
constituted prosecutorial misconduct and would result in double jeopardy
if Yates were tried again, an appeals court upheld the judge's ruling that
there was no misconduct because the error was unintentional.

For a year-and-a-half prosecutors have reviewed boxloads of evidence while
preparing once again for the trial.

"That's what's kept me going," Williford said, pointing to one of the
state's exhibits, a large board containing family pictures of the
youngsters: 6-month-old Mary in a baby carrier; 2-year-old Luke holding
his baby sister; 3-year-old Paul wearing pajamas and a fireman's hat;
5-year-old John leaning against a tree; and 7-year-old Noah grinning from
ear to ear.

"It's very emotionally draining and difficult to go through this again:
reviewing the evidence, looking at the autopsy photos. It's hard as a
human being; it's harder as a mother," Williford said. "It's not any
easier looking through those pictures five years later."

Prosecutors will call Dietz to testify again, along with other witnesses
from the first trial, Williford said. She said the witness list was still
being prepared and declined to say what the state may do differently this

"Basically, our case in chief will be the same," she said.

Parnham said he planned to call 40 to 50 witnesses, including the same
doctors who previously testified about Yates' mental condition. as well as
more about her stays at a psychiatric hospital shortly before the 2001

Andrea's then-husband, Russell Yates, testified for the defense in her 1st
trial. Parnham said he planned to call Rusty Yates again but would
approach him in a "different" way. He declined to elaborate.

Rusty Yates, who did not return calls seeking comment, has said he
continues to stand by Andrea, who he divorced last year.

In March Rusty Yates married Laura Arnold, an attractive, blond fellow
NASA worker who is divorced with two children. Their wedding, at the same
church where the funeral for the Yates youngsters was held, was two days
before the originally scheduled start of Andrea's 2nd trial.

Andrea Yates, who has been in a state psychiatric hospital since her
release on $200,000 bond earlier this year, will be in the county jail
during the trial, a judge ruled Friday.

(source: Associated Press)


Judge's decision another setback for Reed----Death row inmate now will
take his case to appeals court.

Rodney Reed's death penalty case is back before the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals after a Bastrop judge ruled that new evidence introduced
by Reed's lawyers would not have changed the outcome of his 1998 trial.

It was another legal setback for Reed, 38, who was convicted of two counts
of capital murder for the abduction, rape and slaying of Stacey Stites on
April 23, 1996, in Bastrop.

Stites' body was found on the side of a Bastrop County road 18 days before
she was to marry Jimmy Fennell Jr., a Giddings police officer. She had
been raped and sodomized, then strangled with her own belt, investigators

Investigators matched DNA from Stites' body to samples taken from Reed,
who claimed during the trial that he and Stites had carried on a secret

The jury rejected that defense and sentenced Reed to death.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his conviction in December
2000, then rejected his request for a new hearing in 2002. 2 years later,
federal District Judge Lee Yeakel ordered a hearing on the new evidence in
state District Judge Reva Towslee Corbett's court.

In March, Reed's lawyers argued before Corbett that the testimony of 2
witnesses who didn't take the stand in Reed's trial might have exonerated

Martha Barnett testified in the hearing that she saw Stites and Fennell
together almost two hours after Reed was said by prosecutors to have
killed her.

Mary Blackwell testified that Fennell had bragged to a classmate in the
police academy that he would strangle his girlfriend, using a belt to
prevent fingerprints, if he learned she was cheating on him.

Corbett ruled last week that Barnett "failed to provide a satisfactory
explanation" about why she didn't report what she claims she saw until a
year and 8 months after Stites died. Corbett noted in her ruling that
Barnett didn't come forward with her information until shortly after
Fennell arrested her for driving while intoxicated in November 1997.

Corbett said in her ruling that Blackwell's credibility as a witness was
undermined because her testimony about Fennell's bragging could not be
corroborated. The classmate Fennell is said to have bragged to said the
conversation never happened.

Blackwell didn't come forward until 1998, after Reed's trial, Corbett's
ruling said.

Morris Overstreet, a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge who is
one of Reed's lawyers, said he will file an objection to Corbett's ruling
with the Court of Criminal Appeals.

"We will be asking the Court of Criminal Appeals to look at whether or not
the judge gave us a fair hearing," Overstreet said.

If the court sides with Reed's lawyers, it could order another hearing
before Corbett or a new trial.

If it sides with Corbett, Reed's lawyers can appeal the case in U.S.
District Court.

(source: Austin American-Statesman)


[book review]

Sorensen, Pilgrim offer empirical view of capital punishment

Lethal Injection: Capital Punishment in Texas During the Modern Era Jon
Sorensen and Rocky Leann Pilgrim----UT Press, $23.95

Few issues are more divisive than capital punishment, and no other state
rivals Texas' implementation of the method. Just last month, Primera
native Jesus Ledesma Aguilar was executed for the 1995 murders of Leonardo
and Annette Chavez. 2 legal experts weigh in on the matter with the
recently published Lethal Injection: Capital Punishment in Texas during
the Modern Era.

Jon Sorensen, a professor of Justice Studies at Prairie View A&M
University, and Rocky Pilgrim, a practicing attorney and part-time
professor at the University of Houston, both recognize the gray areas
involved in the issue and work hard to sort through statistics looking for
answers to the fundamental questions.

Deterrence is often cited as one of the most compelling reasons for
capital punishment. The severity and finality of execution is believed to
discourage other criminals from committing murder. Evidence would seem to
support this.

During the 1960s and until 1977, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling provoked a de
facto moratorium on executions, and the homicide rate went into a dramatic
increase. When executions were reinstated, this rate did not decline
immediately, but during the 1990s, when Texas reached a height in the
number of executions per year, the murder rate sharply declined.

Sorensen and Pilgrim, though, find cause for skepticism. They point to
large number of urban areas in Texas (Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio)
with populations of more than one million and compare these with the
homicide rates in other states that did not execute convicts at an equal
rate and find no difference. They then believe the drop in murder rates
during the mid- to late 1990s was a national trend, not directly caused by
the high number of executions in Texas.

The authors then look at other issues involved with capital punishment and
present a surprisingly balanced perspective. They find that jurors on
capital murder trials tend to sentence defendants to death out of
retribution rather than in hopes of preventing another murder. They also
look at the proportionality of juveniles on trial for murder, a growing
problem in America, as well as the issue of racial equity throughout the
justice system.

The authors showed that blacks and Hispanics accounted for nearly 60 % of
all condemned inmates on death row. Since most homicides are intraracial,
the number of murders in these minority populations remains alarming.

Sorensen and Pilgrim offer an empirical study of capital punishment and
their intent is to offer the statistics that can ensure lawmakers have the
correct evidence to decide on the issue. Popular polls show Texans favor
the use of capital punishment; the authors do not see this opinion
changing in the near future.

(spirce--Martin Winchester is a book critic for The Monitor. He is an
English teacher at the IDEA Academy in Donna----The Monitor)

More information about the DeathPenalty mailing list