[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Mar 5 20:13:18 CST 2006
Anibal Garcia Rousseau, #942 on Texas's death row for the past 15 years
and 3 months, died this morning at 1:45 of complications of Hepatitis C.
Retardation issue looms big in Bexar
The verdict was predictable: Guilty. What came next was unprecedented at
least in Bexar County.
Faced with a last-minute claim that Ronnie Joe Neal might be mentally
retarded, the judge abruptly halted the capital murder trial, giving
defense attorneys a month to more closely examine the 35-year-old lawn man
who murdered an Alamo Heights teacher.
The question of mental retardation not only is a matter of life or lethal
injection. It also could force local jurors to confront the issue for the
first time since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2002 that the nation
had grown too compassionate to execute criminals with limited reason,
judgment and self-control.
"This is brand-new territory," said Dan Thornberry, an appeals lawyer in
the Bexar County district attorney's office.
And if lawyers, judge and jury try to assess the defendant's mental
capacity, they will have few clear instructions to guide them. Texas has
no law dictating how courts make what essentially is a diagnosis.
Just as uncertain are Neal's chances for success.
Since the Supreme Court ruling in Atkins vs. Virginia, a handful of
murderers in Texas have asked juries to declare them retarded and,
therefore, out of the death penalty's reach. They now reside on death row.
"I'm not aware of any (cases) where a jury has actually found someone to
be mentally retarded during the punishment phase of a trial," said John
Niland, director of the Capital Trial Project for the nonprofit Texas
To convince jurors that he's retarded, Neal would have to erase the
portrait that emerged in the first half of the trial. It depicted an
astute killer who took steps to charm his victim and then cover his
Prosecutors say he introduced his teenage daughter to Diane Tilly, knowing
the Robbins Academy teacher had a passion for helping troubled youths.
Next, he sent Tilly a gentle note, wishing her a happy Thanksgiving and
telling her how much his daughter liked her.
The daughter, 16-year-old Pearl Cruz, said she was following her dad's
instructions when she knocked on Tilly's door with a phony story about car
troubles. She asked to use the phone and then let her father into the
house through a sliding glass door.
Neal was careful to use a condom as he raped the teacher. Later, he poured
peroxide on her and dumped the bed sheets to keep detectives from tracking
Then, when it came time to shoot Tilly, Cruz said her father made a point
of using the .357-caliber gun he found in the house. Unlike his own gun,
it wouldn't spit out the spent casings and allow investigators to trace
the murder weapon.
It wasn't until jurors already were deliberating that Neal's attorney told
the judge and prosecutors about the possibility of mental retardation, a
move prompted by a psychologist's review of Neal's records only the night
In response, the judge gave Neal's attorney a month to investigate his
mental capacity, a delay that galled prosecutors.
Their own review of Neal's records had revealed nothing remarkable. The
trial, they felt, should have continued for the sake of Tilly's family,
who had waited more than a year for closure.
"If we had any evidence that he was mentally retarded we would not be
seeking the death penalty," Assistant District Attorney Catherine Babbitt
- Below average intellectual ability - an IQ of about 70 or below
- Difficulty with daily tasks, from counting change to grooming to making
- Symptoms developed while growing up
Neal's attorney Joel Perez did not return calls for comment.
While the timing was unexpected, no one should have been surprised to hear
retardation invoked. Since the Supreme Court's Atkins decision, the
diagnosis has become inviting ground for defense attorneys.
At least 46 capital cases have been reopened on behalf of inmates who,
already on Texas' death row, say they suffer from mental retardation. So
far, 5 have convinced courts that their lives should be spared. The rest
But, as bold as the justices were in announcing that it's now cruel and
unusual to execute retarded murderers, their ruling was limited. It left
states to decide for themselves how to handle claims of retardation.
As a result, at least eight states have modified their laws, but Texas is
not among them. In Austin, competing proposals have battled to a
standstill in 2 sessions of the Legislature, leaving courts to find their
"I think it would be easier on the folks who have to try these cases if we
had a set procedure," said Thornberry, the assistant district attorney.
The state's highest criminal court has filled part of the vacuum. Two
years ago, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals announced guidelines that
only addressed convicts appealing their death sentences.
Fallout in Texas
Since the U.S. Supreme Court halted execution of retarded inmates:*
- 55 death row inmates have had their cases reopened to examine claims of
- 14 stays of execution have been granted.
- 5 death sentences have been commuted to life in prison; 1 is under
appeal. * Tallies are as of Sept. 28.
They didn't say how judges should assess retardation claims during trials.
State District Judge Sid Harle will have to choose his own path if Neal
pursues this defense.
Some say that the judge's decision could subtly tilt the scales for or
against the murderer.
Judge Harle could hear all the evidence about Neal's intellectual and
social abilities and then settle the dispute. A finding that Neal is
retarded would trigger an automatic life sentence.
Or, as other Texas judges have done, he could simply add the retardation
question to the list of topics that juries already consider at sentencing.
This could make for a lengthy hearing in Neal's case.
Evidence about IQ would be heard alongside allegations that Neal
impregnated his daughter and forced her into prostitution, planned to kill
a jail guard as part of an escape plot, and hid a handmade metal knife in
his cell. In deciding his sentence, jurors also likely would hear about a
long record of convictions for robbery, burglary, forgery and theft.
Most defense lawyers believe unsavory details drown out the
sometimes-technical testimony about retardation.
"The punishment phase of a capital murder trial is drenched with emotion
... because it's a horrible crime and we're actually contemplating putting
someone to death," said Keith Hampton, a lobbyist for the Texas Criminal
Defense Lawyers Association. "12 people on a jury are already saddled with
that heavy burden. ... Is that the right environment to ask (a) clinical
Prosecutors say jurors deserve more credit, that they can separate gory
narratives from crucial questions.
As proof, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley cites the 2004
trial of a Tyler woman who claimed God told her to crush her sons' skulls.
At trial, her lawyers argued she was too insane to be convicted and, in
the end, jurors acquitted her.
"The insanity cases show that even in tough, high-profile cases, they'll
do the right thing," Bradley said.
But who makes the call - judge or jury - and when - before or during
sentencing - is barely half the fight.
As with other claims of mental retardation, the real battleground in
Neal's case could be over how the condition is defined. The Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals has used the definition of retardation in the state's
Health and Safety Code. It looks for three factors: an IQ of about 70 or
below, troubles with functioning and the appearance of symptoms at a young
Even so, those guidelines can be relatively vague, said James R. Patton, a
special education professor at the University of Texas at Austin and
co-author of a textbook on mental retardation.
The age when problems begin and the IQ scores may be relatively easy to
pin down. But how much trouble functioning should someone have to qualify
Should they be unable to tie their shoelaces? Or just struggle to hold a
steady job? For some people, signs of mental retardation may not be neat
Some people seem deceptively normal because they can read at a 6th-grade
level or even drive an 18-wheeler on back roads, Patton said, but their
retardation shows itself in other areas.
Kimberly Alexander worked sporadically as a nurse's aide until she beat
her 2-year-old daughter Diamond to death in 2004. And when she was
arrested, the young mother appeared to have no trouble answering
But on IQ tests, she scored from 69 to 70, low enough to prompt a
diagnosis of borderline retardation. Ultimately, prosecutors chose not to
seek the death penalty.
"Our typical vision of someone being mentally retarded doesn't include
them committing heinous crimes. But they can and do commit heinous
crimes," said Philip Wischkaemper, a death penalty specialist with the
Texas defense lawyers association.
Wischkaemper is working on an appeal that involves a crime with some
striking similarities to Neal's.
Bruce Carneil Webster was convicted in federal court for a kidnapping,
rape and slaying that started in Arlington and crossed into Arkansas.
Webster, like Neal, planned the crime and covered his tracks, using
condoms during the rape and burning his clothes after the murder. Later,
while in jail, he was clever enough to sneak into the part of the lockup
where women were held.
While he was never enrolled in special education, Webster's lawyers have
stressed that he always depended on others. He never lived alone. He never
had a bank account. His mother bought him a car. His girlfriend paid the
Out of 4 IQ scores - which ranged from 48 to 72 - all but one fit solidly
within the range of retardation. At least 3 psychologists testified he was
Even so, the jury was unconvinced.
(source : San Antonio Express-News)
Republicans tussle for appeals court seats
Republicans are aiming for their own on the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals, where a veteran judge is challenging the court's leader and 2
well-funded outsiders are trying to unseat another jurist.
In the race for presiding judge, Tom Price argues that Sharon Keller, the
incumbent, has lost the confidence of the court. Judge Keller responds
that she's been an able leader who reads every petition that hits the
The powers of the presiding judge are mostly administrative and involve
appointing fellow judges to committees and making policy for the state's
Judge Price, a judge on the court who lost the same race to Judge Keller
in 2000, says the presiding judge should be more influential. He would
preach innovative programs to trial judges so they don't send so many
probationers to prison, he said.
"Judge Keller just doesn't have the temperament or personality to handle
what a presiding judge has to do," Judge Price said.
Judge Keller says she has improved the court's efficiency by upgrading
technology and making court records more accessible to the public. She
says she has also been active outside the courtroom, leading the state's
task force on indigent defense, which tries to improve the resources
available to defend the poor. And she helped the state bar develop
curriculum to teach young students about the courts.
"I am active in many ways on top of the regular judicial duties that I
have," Judge Keller said.
Robert Francis and Terry Keel are challenging Judge Charles Holcomb for
the Place 8 position on the 9-member court.
If he wins, Judge Holcomb cannot serve a full 6-year term because in a
little more than two years, he'll turn 75. The state constitution bars
elected judges from serving past that age.
Judge Holcomb said he wants to keep serving because he brings a unique
perspective as the only judge from a rural county. Plus, he brings
experience as not only a judge but also a former district attorney, he
Judge Francis is a criminal district judge in Dallas, where he takes
credit for piloting a drug treatment program that kept many participants
Judge Francis argues that he can serve a full term and is better qualified
than Mr. Keel, who lacks judicial experience.
Mr. Keel, a former sheriff and chairman of the House Criminal
Jurisprudence Committee, said he would bring practical experience to the
Mr. Keel highlighted legislation he wrote that prevents ineffective
lawyers from representing defendants in death-penalty cases.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Local JP performs marriage by proxy' for English woman, Livingston inmate
Like other brides, Rachael Ford took her husband "for better or for worse,
for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
until death do us part."
But Racheal isn't like other brides.
Her husband, Tony Ford, is an inmate on Texas' death row.
His execution was scheduled last December, but a 90-day stay of execution
was granted, and a new date was set for March 14.
Now, another stay has been granted, and a judge has ordered a review of
DNA evidence in the case.
Rachael and Tony are clinging to the hope that the evidence will clear him
of a crime committed 15 years ago in Houston.
Racheal, who lives in England, met Tony through an organization called
"We write letters to guys on death row all over America," she said. "I'm
also a member of an e-mail group, and they sometimes send links to
interesting Web sites."
In 2004, Rachael received a link to Tony Ford's Web site. She said she was
immediately struck by the case.
"I couldn't believe how ridiculous it was, and that no one would
acknowledge the obvious problems," she said. "I wrote to him to see how I
could get involved with his case, help him raise money, etc."
The relationship started off very businesslike, she said.
"He was focused on his case," she said. "It was near the end of his
appeal, and he warned me about getting involved with him at that stage. I
told him not to be silly - of course, I would help."
These "businesslike" letters continued back and forth for weeks, Rachael
said. Then the correspondence became friendlier and more conversational.
In a letter dated Feb. 14, 2005, Tony proposed to Rachael. She said
marrying him was only a way of cementing a commitment that was already
But she wondered, how would she plan a wedding? From England? To a man
sentenced to die in December in Texas?
"I'd heard nightmares about 45-second ceremonies," she said. "I didn't
want that. I wanted something special."
A friend of Tony's family, who lives in Nacogdoches, introduced Rachael to
Justice of the Peace Dorothy Tigner-Thompson.
Rachael said Tigner-Thompson treated her with a dignity and respect that
she truly did not anticipate.
"I had never heard of Nacogdoches, Texas," Rachael said. "But Tony's
mother had this friend in Nacogdoches named Leonard Benten. We stayed with
him, and that's how we ended up getting married in Nacogdoches."
Of course, Tony could not be present for the Oct. 25 wedding. But Rachael
said his mother "stood in his place." Even in Tony's absence, Rachael said
Tigner-Thompson "treated him like a groom."
The judge didn't rush through a 45-second ceremony, Racheal said.
"She made it feel like a regular wedding, and I really appreciated that,"
Rachael said. "It was a big day for me. Just because my husband's on death
row, it doesn't mean it's any less special."
Tigner-Thompson said a marriage where either the bride or groom is absent
is called a "marriage by proxy."
"They have to get a marriage license from the county clerk's office and
fill out a portion on the back of the certificate," the judge said.
"Someone stands in for the person who isn't there - by proxy. Seventy-two
hours after the marriage license is filed, a couple can be married in this
Tigner-Thompson said she's conducted more marriage by proxy ceremonies
than she can count. But this was the 1st from death row.
"There's a declaration I do, called words of wisdom," she said. "It's a
Christian ceremony. I give the words to the bride and groom and go through
a declaration of intent with them. Then, we do an exchange of rings and
She goes through the same process whether both parties are present, or
"My heart really went out to them, especially when she said he was
innocent and they were waiting for DNA evidence," Tigner-Thompson said.
"She was a sweet person, and she flies back and forth from England to
visit him. We've kept in touch, and I wish them the best."
2 days before the wedding in Nacogdoches, Rachael "married" her husband on
a Livingston radio program called "Shout Out."
"The program is geared for the inmates on death row, and a pastor who
(speaks) on the show said he could perform a ceremony," Rachael said. "He
said it wouldn't be legally binding, but it would go out over the air, and
Tony could hear it."
Rachael said Tony didn't know the "wedding" was happening until he heard
it on the air.
"Tony shouted out to another man on death row and asked him to be his best
man," Rachael said. "He got to hear it and be a part of it, along with all
the other guys. We were lucky."
Rachael said she's met her share of skeptics, since she agreed to marry a
man on death row.
"First, I have to explain the concept of death row to people in England,"
she said. "There's not as much support for the death penalty there as
there is here, but even those against it think I'm completely nuts.
Probably even more so than people in America."
But Rachael said her mother has been supportive.
"She's over the moon," Rachael said. "She knew Tony and I were close, but
I didn't update her every step of the way. She's gotten to know him
through his letters to me. She's researched the case, and now she's 100 %
Rachael has only seen her husband through glass, and she's only heard his
voice over the telephone. But she said Tony knows her better than her own
mother, through the hundreds of letters they've exchanged.
She said she married him knowing that she might never hold his hand, until
after he is put to death.
When she still believed he might be put to death in December, she prepared
herself for the execution.
"I prepared myself by knowing the protocol," she said. "I was determined
that nothing would take me by surprise. But I always had a deep belief
that it wouldn't happen. When they moved the date to March, I had another
strong feeling that he would get a stay. We have a good lawyer, and I have
faith in his case and the merits of his case. I'm prepared (for his
execution), but I don't feel that we're going to lose. I really do believe
that justice will be served, however long it takes."
Although they didn't have the type of courtship that most married couples
experience, Rachael said she was drawn to Tony for several reasons.
"His strength was what made an impact on me, first," she said. "I've been
involved with death row for quite some time, and I've never seen someone
so positive. I've never had a bad letter from him. It's his determination
and his refusal to give up. It's his sense of humor. He's very open."
Rachael said a judge has ordered that Tony will not have another execution
date set until the results of the DNA tests are revealed.
"We think the tests will be complete by the beginning of May, but that
could change," she said.
Rachael, who has been in Livingston the past few days, originally
scheduled this trip to America to attend her husband's execution. She said
she has been able to rest a little easier knowing that - at least for now
- his life is safe.
Death row visitation rules will allow her to see him for a total of 6
hours, while she is here.
(source: The Daily Sentinel)
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