[Deathpenalty] death penalty news----TEXAS, COLO., N.J., OHIO
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Thu Apr 19 17:01:09 UTC 2007
Judge: Blair shouldn't get new trial----Defense puts hopes in new DNA
evidence from Plano crime
Despite new DNA evidence, the man convicted of killing 7-year-old Ashley
Estell in 1993 should not receive a new trial, a district judge has told
an appeals court.
Attorneys for death row inmate Michael Blair hope the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals will reject the judge's recommendation and grant him a
"Every piece of biological evidence that was used to link Michael Blair to
this crime at trial has been discredited by DNA, which also shows that
someone else committed this crime," said Philip Wischkaemper, an attorney
for Mr. Blair.
The Collin County district attorney's office had little comment about the
local judge's recommendation to the appeals court.
Prosecutors still maintain Mr. Blair abducted Ashley from a Plano park and
"It's a pending matter," said John Rolater, chief of the district
attorney's appellate division. "It's not appropriate for us to comment.
This is just a preliminary step."
No one knows when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will rule on the
request for a new trial.
"They can take all the time they want," Mr. Wischkaemper said.
Ashley's death generated nationwide publicity and prompted new Texas laws
that require longer prison terms for repeat sex offenders and better
tracking once they are released.
Even if Mr. Blair wins a new trial and is found not guilty of murdering
Ashley, he will never be released from prison. Mr. Blair, 35, is serving 3
consecutive life sentences for sex crimes involving children. His
attorneys hope to get him off death row.
The defense team includes the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal center
in New York that uses DNA evidence to exonerate wrongly convicted people.
This month, it helped free James Curtis Giles, who was convicted of a 1982
rape in Dallas County that prosecutors now say was committed by another
In Mr. Blair's case, the Collin County judge acknowledged new DNA evidence
gathered since his 1994 trial.
"This court believes ... serious questions of fact and law are presented,"
visiting state District Judge Webb Biard wrote April 9. However, the DNA
evidence "does not unquestionably establish applicant's innocence," the
DNA testing completed in October showed that tissue found under Ashley's
fingernails did not come from Mr. Blair. In 2002, DNA tests concluded that
hair samples found on Ashley's body did not belong to Mr. Blair or the
"To this day, the state has not explained how Michael Blair could have
committed this crime when someone else's DNA was found under the victim's
fingernails," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project.
Prosecutors say other evidence proves Mr. Blair abducted and killed
Ashley. Two witnesses testified they saw Mr. Blair at the park the morning
she disappeared, and two people said they saw Mr. Blair at the spot where
Ashley's body was dumped.
In 2001, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to a
Collin County judge to rule on new DNA evidence. State District Judge
Nathan White Jr., who presided over the trial, never made a ruling before
leaving office on Dec. 31.
His successor appointed Judge Biard to review the DNA evidence and make a
recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Only the appeals
court could grant a new trial.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Justices to eye Texas death case
Incoherent as it might be, the babbling of a murderer from Fredericksburg
could soon offer new insight into the recently reconfigured Supreme Court
and its approach toward capital punishment. This week, the justices will
consider whether schizophrenic death row inmate Scott Panetti must be
spared because, as the court said previously, it's cruel and
unconstitutional to execute the insane.
Part of what makes the case a potential guidepost is that the newest
justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito haven't yet said much about
capital punishment and only a thin layer of Supreme Court precedent
directly addresses psychosis and the death penalty.
Ultimately, any ruling on the execution of a mentally ill inmate who
jabbers about satanic persecution will call on the court to conduct a gut
check, said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor.
"At some point, it's just, 'Wow, this goes too far' or 'It doesn't go too
far,'" said Berman, who teaches a death-penalty course. "It strikes me
that those cases tend to be the most revealing."
Panetti's long history of bizarre behavior is only one of several elements
that add intriguing potential to the case, which will be debated during
oral arguments Wednesday.
A portrait of Amanda and Joe Alvarado sits behind their daughter Sonja
Alvarado and granddaughter Amanda, 18, in their apartment in
Fredericksburg. The women are the wife and daughter of Scott Panetti, who
shot Amanda's parents in 1992 as both watched.
The case presents an opening for the justices to further scale back the
death penalty's reach, a potential trend that began before Roberts and
Alito joined the court, with rulings protecting juveniles and inmates with
The case also offers the justices another chance to rebuke the courts that
monitor Texas' use of the death penalty.
Several recent reversals have suggested some justices believe the state
too readily ignores flaws in capital convictions.
This term, the court is reviewing four death cases from Texas. Many
believe Panetti owes his spot among them partly to his outlandish
performance at the trial, where he babbled at times and wore cowboy garb
while acting as his own lawyer.
Panetti had been hospitalized more than a dozen times and diagnosed as
schizophrenic by 1992 when he barged into the home of his parents-in-law
and shot them with a .30-06 caliber rifle, while his estranged wife and
toddler looked on.
The 1st jury couldn't decide if he was competent, but a second panel found
him fit to stand trial.
As his own attorney, the 1st witness Panetti confronted was his former
wife. Panetti told her she looked lovely and asked her to recall how they
Then, he asked her detailed but not-always coherent questions about her
"Now," he said at one point, "I was two paces away from your mom and dad
and shot them. She ended up here, but your with burden, that you didn't
remember where she was at, but she got splattered with blood and your
blood all over the place?"
Sonja Alvarado long ago lost faith in law enforcement and the legal system
and said no longer cares whether her ex-husband receives his death
sentence or lives behind bars.
Her sister Minnie Ybarbo firmly believes her former brother-in-law is too
dangerous to live and that his delusions are bogus.
"Scott is a very good actor," she said.
Perhaps the most striking plea for mercy comes from Panetti's daughter,
who last saw her dad when she was 3 years old and watched him shoot her
Now 18, Amanda Alvarado stopped responding to her dad's letters around the
time she was 11. Even so, she opposes his execution.
"'Cuz he's my dad," she said. "I'd rather my dad be living ... than be
So far state and federal courts have refused to spare Panetti, despite his
assertions that his execution represents a conspiracy between Texas and
the forces of evil to silence his preaching of the Gospel.
The Supreme Court's benchmark 1986 ruling in the case of Florida inmate
Alvin Ford offers limited guidance.
Then, the majority cited hundreds of years of legal opposition to the
execution of insane criminals but never articulated what inmates needed to
prove sufficient madness.
Panetti's lawyers now want the court to embrace a concurring opinion by
Justice Lewis Powell, who insisted that inmates must understand the
connection between their crimes and their punishment for their executions
The inmate's attorneys contend that, if Panetti is sane enough to receive
a lethal injection, then no one is too deranged for the death penalty and
the court's 1986 ruling is meaningless.
"He believes Satan's been trying to execute him since he was a child,"
said Andrea Keilen of the Texas Defender Service, which represents
Texas believes Panetti's exaggerating his lunacy. But even if he's
sincere, the state says requiring inmates to rationally understand their
punishments would be too lenient a standard.
Few death row inmates are entirely rational otherwise they wouldn't be
murderers and many suffer some degree of mental illness, said Ted Cruz,
the state's solicitor general.
"Under Panetti's test, a significant number of those could be rendered
immune from being executed despite their heinous crimes," he said.
Texas, for example, executed schizophrenic inmate James Colburn 4 years
ago. The Supreme Court refused to intervene then when lower courts
rejected Colburn's claim.
Few are predicting how the justices will decide Panetti's case, but the
court recently hinted one way he could lose.
2 weeks ago, the court suddenly requested extra briefing. Never mind
insanity; the court wanted to hear whether the case should be dismissed
because Panetti had exhausted his appeals.
Such a ruling would allow the justices to sidestep deeper and potentially
problematic questions embedded in the case, for instance, about the death
"They may say, 'Y'know what? Let's kick this on procedural grounds and ...
dodge all this,'" Berman said.
But even a decision that opts for an easy exit would be revealing, the
It would suggest the court's current incarnation has limited interest in
monitoring capital punishment.
(source: San Antonio Express-News)
US Supreme Court mulls death penalty for schizophrenic man
The US Supreme Court weighed Wednesday the fate of a schizophrenic Texan
condemned to death, a case it could use to define the limits of its 1986
decision barring execution of the mentally ill.
In September 1992, Scott Panetti fatally shot his in-laws in front of his
estranged wife, who had recently left him and taken their 3-year-old
Panetti, who had a history of hospitalizations for serious schizophrenia,
was considered fit to stand trial for the murders.
At his trial, the judge agreed to Panetti's demand that he represent
himself, despite the protests of even the prosecution.
The defendant appeared in court dressed like a cowboy, and said he was
calling witnesses to testify such as Jesus Christ, the late president John
Kennedy and then-pope John Paul II. He often launched into delirious and
Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death. Since then, his lawyers
have been trying to save him from execution, arguing that the Supreme
Court's 1986 decision that the US Constitution only allows the execution
of someone who is aware of his or her impending death and the reason for
Panetti is aware he killed his wife's parents. He also knows that he is to
be executed. But experts on both sides of the case say he believes he is
facing execution because he preaches the Gospel during his imprisonment
and that the state of Texas is using his crime as a pretext to kill him.
The high court justices, who agreed to accept the case in January, have
discovered in recent weeks some technical issues that may prevent them
from ruling on the case. Their decision is expected before July.
(source: Agence France Presse)
Lawmakers Kill Death-Penalty Prosecutors Plan
State lawmakers killed a plan to slash the number of prosecutors in the
state's death-penalty unit on Wednesday, despite claims the money could be
better used for a cold-case unit to pursue the 1,200 unsolved murders in
Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, said the state could save millions of
dollars yearly that is spent prosecuting and defending death penalty
cases. He said the money could be better spent catching criminals still
walking the streets.
Weissmann said only 2 people on death row in Colorado and it's not worth
having a four-member capital crimes unit. Weissmann tried to cut the
number in half, but the House killed the bill (House Bill 1094).
"What this bill does, it does have an impact, it does make a difference to
those families of the 1,200 unsolved homicides in this state," Weissmann
Opponents said it would limit the state's ability to pursue justice for
murder victims and their relatives.
"We talk about moving toward weakening the death penalty or abolishing
it," said Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. "I see us moving toward
limiting our options to find justice, options for families of murder
victims to see that true justice is done on behalf of their murdered loved
King said society needs options "to deal with the most wicked among us."
Weissmann originally tried to abolish the death penalty but agreed to an
amendment that would reduce the number of prosecutors to two in the
attorney general's office, equal to the number of convicted killers on
Colorado's death row.
The legislation would have used the savings to help finance the forensics
unit, chemistry lab and a cold-case unit in the Colorado Bureau of
Investigation. It would also have allowed local law enforcement agencies
and relatives of victims to request help solving old cases.
Attorney General John Suthers criticized the bill.
He said over the past 3 years, the capital crimes unit has helped local
prosecutors with a number of cases, including a man convicted of killing
his 11-week-old daughter and a prison guard.
(source: Associated Press)
Drama provokes reflection on death penalty
A group of Seton Hall University students had been rehearsing the play
"Dead Man Walking" for several weeks when they encountered the woman at
the heart of the story: Sister Helen Prejean.
The face-to-face meeting with the charismatic Roman Catholic nun and
anti-death penalty activist didn't just fire up the cast members. It
"There's a fire burning inside her," said Kathy Stout, a communications
major from Basking Ridge who's playing the part of Prejean in the drama.
"I think everyone comes away wishing they had something in their lives
that they could be as passionate about."
Stout and other cast members have found their "something" in the play --
an unflinching meditation on crime and punishment, focusing on Prejean and
a Louisiana death row inmate, Matthew Poncelet.
The play, based on Prejean's 1993 bestseller of the same name, and adapted
from the 1995 film directed by Tim Robbins, runs Friday through Sunday at
the South Orange Performing Arts Center.
The performance is the centerpiece of Seton Hall's semester-long focus on
the death penalty. The Roman Catholic university has supplemented the play
with a film series, public lectures featuring Prejean and David Kaczynski,
the brother of the Unabomber killer, and classroom discussions on capital
punishment in philosophy and religion courses.
"It's so far-reaching," said Deirdre Yates, a Seton Hall theater professor
who's directing the production. "College students can be complacent, so
it's great to get them fired up, interested and passionate."
Michelle Gibli, a cast member from Fair Lawn, said she's facing the
challenge of portraying Poncelet's mother, Lucille, a down-on-her-luck
single mother, who, shamed by Matthew's crimes, asks Prejean: "You think I
look like the mother of a killer?"
Gibli said she came away from her meeting with Prejean with a deeper
understanding of Lucille.
"I originally thought of her as being very weak," Gibli said. "But after
speaking with Sister Helen, I learned she was trying so hard to keep it
together for her children, even though she felt like falling apart."
School Theatre Project
Seton Hall is one of several New Jersey schools participating this year in
the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, a program created by Prejean
and Robbins aimed at sparking debate and discussion about the death
penalty in academic communities.
More than 100 colleges and high schools, including Yale and Ohio State,
have performed the play, which was written by Robbins and introduced in
the 2004-05 school year. Fairleigh Dickinson University's College at
Florham Park campus will host the drama later this month. Clifton High
School students, with two community theater groups, will do so in May.
Queen of Peace School in North Arlington performed the play in February.
Schools staging the play must agree not to use it for commercial gain, and
to use at least two academic disciplines in exploring the death penalty.
"The purpose is to open peoples' minds," said Sister Maureen Fenlon,
national coordinator for the project. "Sister Helen and Tim see this as
getting a future generation of leaders to think about our social
Death penalty in N.J.
Prejean had no shortage of thought-provoking remarks when she spoke to
students at the university's theater in the-round this month.
She said, for example, that the states that execute the most inmates share
an odious distinction.
"The 10 Southern states that practiced slavery are the ones that really
execute people," she said. "That's worth reflecting on."
Noting that New Jersey had imposed a moratorium on executions, she said
she hopes the state becomes the 1st to abolish the death penalty since it
was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
"We have moratoriums, but we do not have a state yet," she said. "What if
New Jersey were a bright and shining light for this county and for the
In the play, Prejean becomes spiritual adviser to Poncelet, who
participated in the murder of a young couple parked on a lovers' lane. Her
willingness to minister to a convicted murderer, and her opposition to the
death penalty, infuriate the Catholic chaplain at the prison as well as
the victims' relatives.
But Prejean eventually brings out some humanity in Poncelet, prodding him
to admit his crimes and seek forgiveness from the families before he's
The themes of compassion, forgiveness and suffering at the center of the
play have left their mark on the cast.
"This show has made me think about my own religion," said Stout, a
Protestant. "The core issues of the show, that everyone has dignity,
really resonated, and I think it's what the world needs a little more of."
Death penalty too flawed to remain as an option
This week, the circle in front of the Union was bombarded with images that
made passersby cringe. Pictures of distorted and mangled aborted children,
as well as genocide victims, lined the walkways, giving us all the
opportunity to see images that are conveniently left out of our day-to-day
lives for a very obvious reason.
Posters clearly defending the right to life were proudly hung around the
area designated for the demonstration, reminding the students walking
through of the reasons behind this protest.
However, what if these controversial posters contained slaughtered death
row inmates instead of aborted children? Would the same reaction felt from
seeing murdered children come from seeing these convicted men and women
being put to death for the crimes they committed?
Although both of these ethical issues spark constant and ongoing debates
and riots, abortion always seems to be in the media and civilian spotlight
based on the sole idea that aborted children are innocent and have done
nothing to warrant death.
Most death row inmates are obviously not innocent: they have committed a
crime so heinous that someone has decided their life must be ended.
But does any one person really have the power to decide who gets to live
and who gets to die, especially considering how flawed and biased our
criminal system is?
According to a recent newspaper study published Sunday in The Cincinnati
Enquirer, "The fate of death penalty defendants before a federal appeals
court often depends on the political party of the president who appointed
Judges on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals appointed by Republican
presidents vote to deny the appeals of death row inmates 85 % of the time,
while those appointed by Democrats voted to support at least part of the
appeals 75 % of the time.
The newspaper examined the 85 death penalty cases considered between
January 2000 and April 7, 2007. The court decides death penalty appeals
from Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
If one examines the reality behind this finding, blind justice appears to
become just another facet of our political system.
Based on the results of the study, one could intelligently argue that an
inmate going before the court with a liberal majority has a much greater
chance of avoiding an execution than going before one with a conservative
How can one confidently claim that the death penalty is fair when our
judges are making decisions based on political ideals and platforms?
Not only that, but people are not God. Everyone makes mistakes.
Keeping this in mind, it is important to realize that many death row cases
brought before the courts end in people convicted and even killed for a
crime they never committed.
In the summer of 2006, the Chicago Tribune released groundbreaking
evidence claiming that the state of Texas may have executed an innocent
man in 2004.
The defendant in the case, Cameron Willingham, was executed for the
supposed murder of his three children in a deadly house fire despite his
consistent claims of innocence. However, after serious investigations and
research completed by four Tribune reporters were brought to the surface,
it was found that prosecutors and arson investigators used arson theories
that have since been repudiated by scientific advances in order to have
Sadly enough, there are probably hundreds of cases just like this one
which have slipped through the court system in the quest for a conviction.
However, there is no way to definitively tell how many of the over 1,000
people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent.
Thankfully, some mistakes are caught before it is too late. According to
the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 123 people in 25 states
have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. In
Ohio, 5 people have been freed from death row.
Although I find it unfair to compare the issues of abortion and capital
punishment in most circumstances, both must be considered in order to
really make a statement about the atrocities going on in our country when
defending the right to life.
Everyone has the right to life, regardless of the crimes they may or may
not have committed. I understand that family and friends who have had
their loved ones ripped away by people on death row have experienced a
loss that can not be replaced. However, taking away another human being's
life in order to revenge that death will do nothing: it will not make your
loved one reappear and it will not ease the pain and hurt one feels after
suffering a loss.
Now, more so than ever before, is the time to realize how biased and
misconstrued our capital punishment system is. With the rise of killings
and crime taking place in our country, more and more people are being
placed on death row every single year. And in today's day and age, while
justice is supposed to be blind, it most certainly no longer is.
(source: Kristin Vasas, Bowling Gree News)
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