[Deathpenalty] death penalty news-----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Tue Jan 23 05:02:00 UTC 2007
TEXAS----impending execution stayed
Death row dean wins reprieve from Thursday execution
Texas' longest-serving condemned prisoner, set to die this week after more
than 31 years on death row, won a reprieve Monday from the U.S. Supreme
Ronald Chambers, 52, was scheduled for lethal injection Thursday, but his
punishment was delayed indefinitely by an order from Supreme Court Justice
"We are grateful for the stay," James Volberding, Chambers' lawyer, said.
"We did not know whether the Supreme Court would grant one."
Chambers' attorneys had asked the high court to postpone his execution
until they rule on another Texas capital case that raises questions about
whether jurors were properly instructed to consider mitigating factors
when deciding a death sentence. Arguments in those 3 related cases were
held last week in Washington.
"Chambers has the same issues," Volberding said.
Chambers was condemned for the abduction and fatal shooting of Mike
McMahan, 22, a Texas Tech student from Washington state, during a1975
carjacking in Dallas.
Scalia, in his brief 1-paragraph order, said only that the reprieve would
remain in effect until the court decides whether to accept Chambers'
request for a review. The court's current session runs through June.
"The most likely reason the Supreme Court stayed the execution is to first
decide the 3 pending cases argued Jan. 17 dealing with whether those 3 men
received proper sentencing instructions,' Volberding said.
Chambers, from Dallas, arrived on death row Jan. 8, 1976, three days
before his 21st birthday.
"By now, I thought it would be one way or another," he said in a recent
interview. "I was looking for it to be executed or to get a life
He's had 3 trials and has been sentenced to death 3 times.
His 1st conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
because a state-appointed psychiatrist who questioned him failed to warn
Chambers his responses would be used against him.
He was retried in 1985 and convicted again. The Supreme Court threw out
that conviction 4 years later, ruling that prosecutors improperly excluded
3 black people from his jury. Chambers is black.
He was tried for a 3rd time in 1992, convicted and sentenced again to die.
It's that conviction justices are being asked to review.
"We just can't handle this much more," Bennie McMahan, of Kennewick,
Wash., whose son was killed in the carjacking, said when told Monday of
Chambers and a friend, Clarence Ray Williams, confronted McMahan on April
11, 1975, as he and his date, Deia Sutton, a University of Texas at
Arlington student, were leaving a Dallas club.
At gunpoint, the couple was driven in their car to a levee on the Trinity
River south of downtown Dallas where their captors pushed them down an
embankment. Chambers fired 5 shots at them, then pounded McMahan in the
back of the head 10 to 20 times with a shotgun as Williams choked Sutton
and tried to drown her in the muddy water. Chambers also struck Sutton 3
times with the shotgun before both attackers left.
Sutton, however, survived and within days both Chambers and Williams were
under arrest. Williams, from Dallas, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery
and murder, accepted 2 life sentences and remains in prison. Sutton has
testified at each of Chambers' trials.
(source: Associated Press)
Right, wrong and DNA
Picture a 50-year-old convict standing in front of a judge in Dallas
County, once again pleading his innocence in a crime committed more than
23 years ago.
On the one hand, there was something mighty right about what played out
Wednesday morning in Judge John Creuzot's courtroom. On the other hand,
there was something very wrong.
James Waller was convicted of raping a 12-year-old boy in 1983 and
sentenced to 30 years in prison. He served 10 years in the penitentiary
before being paroled in 1993 and has been trying ever since to prove he
was not guilty of the crime.
During a hearing in Creuzot's court Wednesday, Waller was with attorney
Barry Scheck and other lawyers representing the New York-based Innocence
Project, and they presented conclusive DNA evidence that Waller did not
commit the crime.
What was right about what happened that day was that the judge apologized
for the injustice and vowed to expedite the procedures to clear Waller's
name. What was so troubling is that Waller is the 12th person in five
years in Dallas County to be cleared through DNA testing.
That is an alarming figure by any measure, and something of which Dallas
County and the entire state of Texas ought to be ashamed.
More than 185 people in 32 states, according to Innocence Project data,
have been exonerated through DNA testing. Dallas County alone has more
such cases than most of those states.
For the 3rd time, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, will introduce
legislation this month to create an Innocence Commission in Texas that
will be designed to investigate wrong convictions. Several states,
including Californian, Pennsylvania, Illinois and North Carolina, already
have such commissions.
In the past 2 legislative sessions, Ellis' bill never made it out of
committee. This year, the bill -- or perhaps one even more comprehensive
-- should not only make it to the Senate floor but should be passed by
both chambers and signed into law.
While they're at it, legislators should fund the state's share of the
University of North Texas System Center for Human Identification in Fort
Worth for work that the Legislature has ordered sent to it.
Given that the majority of criminal cases don't involve DNA evidence,
imagine how many other wrongly convicted people might be sitting in Texas
prisons with no hope of ever being exonerated.
These cases from Dallas County alone are a blight on the criminal justice
system. Surely our lawmakers can find a way to address this problem to
correct and help prevent other miscarriages of justice.
Case reviews a hard sell in Texas
The review of questionable criminal convictions has hardly been a
legislative priority in tough-on-crime Texas, and supporters say they
don't expect that to change this session.
"We probably have just as much of a chance as a snowball making it through
hell," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, one of two lawmakers who
have tried to establish an "innocence commission" to review cases in
Texas. Several other states have started the commissions after a pattern
of mistaken convictions.
"Most people aren't interested in the innocence of people, just the guilt.
It's going to take a major embarrassment before Texas resolves these
issues," she said.
Ms. Thompson and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed mirror bills in
the House and Senate during the 2005 Legislature. Those bills never made
it to the floor. They say they'll try again this session.
Opponents of creating an innocence commission say it's not about hubris or
about upholding a Texas tradition of locking people up and throwing away
The question, they say, is whether it's appropriate for cases to be
re-investigated outside the justice system, where victims' voices were
heard and guilt was determined. They also prefer that the state not have
to pay for re-investigating cases.
"In the case of innocence commissions, there are 2 hurdles," said Shannon
Edmonds, a former prosecutor and director of governmental relations with
the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. "One, convincing
people that it's going to make a difference and not just be used to
abolish the death penalty. And two, who's going to pay for it?"
Advocates for the commissions say the opposition is far simpler: Lawmakers
fear being accused of going soft on crime come re-election time. Regarding
cost, they say you can't put a price tag on freedom for someone trapped in
a cycle of wrongful convictions.
"I'm for the death penalty; I just want to make sure we execute the right
ones," said Mr. Ellis, a repeat filer of innocence commission bills. "It's
always tough in Texas. Dallas is one of the worst spots but it's only one
of the worst spots that we know of."
Mr. Ellis said over the last few years, North Carolina, Wisconsin,
California and Pennsylvania have joined the ranks of states that created
bodies to investigate and prevent wrongful convictions.
In Texas, a state where reports of wrongful convictions have become
increasingly common especially with improvements in DNA testing Gov.
Rick Perry chose instead to create a Criminal Justice Advisory Council.
The board was designed to make recommendations on the wrongful-conviction
The Legislature also approved spending a combined $800,000 to create four
innocence clinics at Texas law schools. The clinics are to be funded
primarily by private grants and contributions.
"Lord knows every other day we read about some pretty monumental mistakes
having been made with sentencing and convictions," said Sen. John
Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "I
think it's probably a right issue to examine if it can be done
(source: Dallas Morning News)
After 31 years, dean of death row set to die Thursday----'We can't
understand why this has been put off this long,' victim's mother says.
Condemned Texas prisoner Ronald Chambers describes himself as "loaded with
patience." Now in his fourth decade behind bars, Chambers' patience hasn't
wavered, but time finally may be running out for Texas' longest-serving
death row prisoner.
It's been more than 11,300 days since Chambers arrived on death row on
Jan. 8, 1976. Since then, 381 of his fellow prisoners have been executed.
He's set to join them this week.
"I knew it was coming," Chambers, 52, said of the letter he recently
received notifying him of his Thursday execution date. "No rich folks
here. I'm not mad at that. But again, if I had the money, I wouldn't be
Chambers' longevity gets him the designation "Old School" by younger
inmates. The encounters with other inmates are infrequent because they are
kept isolated and get only one hour of recreation time daily outside their
cell alone in a small concrete enclosure.
Chambers' daughter recently brought her infant son to see his grandfather
for the first time. It was a rare meeting with a relative, he said.
"There ain't nobody that owes me nothing," he said. "Always nice to see
people, but then again at the same time, I've been gone a long time."
Chambers arrived on death row 3 days before his 21st birthday.
"By now, I thought it would be one way or another," he said. "I was
looking for it to be executed or to get a life sentence."
Chambers, who grew up in the Dallas public housing projects, worked as a
house painter and was a new father when he joined Clarence Ray Williams in
the robbery, abduction and killing of one college student and the beating
Gerald Ford had been president less than a year, and George W. Bush was in
business school at Harvard on April 11, 1975, when Chambers and Williams
carjacked Mike McMahan, 22, a mechanical engineering student at Texas Tech
University, and Deia Sutton, a University of Texas at Arlington student.
McMahan and Sutton had been with friends at a Dallas club. On their way
out, they were confronted at gunpoint by Chambers and Williams, who forced
their way into their car. Williams drove to a levee on the Trinity River
south of downtown Dallas, where the captors pushed the couple down an
Chambers ordered them to stop near the bottom, then fired five shots at
them. As Chambers and Williams walked back up the hill, McMahan called to
Sutton to see if she was OK.
"Deia doesn't respond," Dan Hagood, the lead prosecutor at Chambers' 1992
trial, said. "She wants him to be quiet. Mike says something louder.
"That's when the killers heard him."
The gunmen returned.
Chambers pummeled McMahan in the back of the head 10 to 20 times with a
shotgun as Williams choked Sutton and tried to drown her in the muddy
water. Chambers also pounded her 3 times with the shotgun. Then they left.
Sutton told police she counted 15 times to 60 before moving, saw McMahan
dead nearby, then managed to walk a half-mile to a hotel to summon police.
McMahan's burned-out car was found in Calvert, nearly 150 miles south,
after Williams had tried to sell it in Houston.
Chambers, according to testimony at his first trial, wiped blood from
money stolen from the victims and divided it, then played a game of
dominoes before going to sleep.
Within days, both Chambers and Williams were under arrest.
A Dallas County jury convicted Chambers, but the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals overturned his conviction eight years later, ruling that a
state-appointed psychiatrist who questioned him failed to warn Chambers
that his responses would be used against him.
He was retried in 1985 and convicted again.
The U.S. Supreme Court threw out that conviction 4 years later, ruling
that prosecutors improperly excluded 3 black people from his jury.
Chambers is black.
He was tried for a 3rd time in 1992, convicted and sentenced again to die.
Williams, also from Dallas, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and
murder, accepted two life sentences and remains in prison.
If Chambers' patience remains firm, it's long been exhausted for McMahan's
parents, now in their 80s.
"It has been horrible," said Bennie McMahan, of Kennewick, Wash. "No
matter what they do, it's not going to bring our son back."
McMahan and her husband, Mabry, attended Chambers' trials. Now, given
their age, they don't plan to trek to Texas to witness Chambers' death.
"We can't understand why this has been put off this long," she said.
Now, Chambers' attorneys are asking the Supreme Court to postpone his
execution until justices rule on another Texas capital case, set for
arguments early next year, that raises questions about whether jurors were
properly instructed to consider mitigating factors when deciding death
sentences for some convicted killers.
Another minor issue in the appeal is that Chambers "has been on death row
too long to be executed." James Volberding, Chambers' lawyer, said.
"Frankly, there's not a whole lot else we can argue," Volberding said.
(source: Associated Press)
Condemned man denies rape, killing----Parents of slain teen say they have
no doubts as execution nears
Dec. 11, 1998 : Larry Swearingen arrested on unrelated outstanding
Jan. 26, 1999 : Indicted on kidnapping-related capital murder charge
Nov. 2, 1999 : Reindicted on rape-related capital murder charge
June 28, 2000 : Found guilty of capital murder
July 11, 2000: Sentenced to die
[source: Texas Attorney General's Office]
Condemned killer Larry Swearingen acknowledges having a rocky history with
women but scoffs at accusations of being violent against them.
He says there are two sides to every story when reminded of testimony by 2
ex-girlfriends during his capital murder trial. Both women told jurors
that Swearingen assaulted and raped them, bolstering the prosecution's
case in the punishment phase that he kidnapped, raped and strangled
19-year-old Melissa Trotter on Dec. 8, 1998.
''There are circumstances in my life that I'm not proud of what I did, and
I'm not proud of that," Swearingen said of his relationships with
ex-girlfriends at a recent interview at the Polunsky Unit of the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice.
But the 35-year-old inmate, who is set to die by injection Wednesday in
Huntsville, still insists more than 8 years later that he did not sexually
assault and kill Trotter, a Montgomery College student from Willis.
He contends there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime and
that police never pursued other suspects, because, as an ex-convict with a
history of theft and assault charges, he was ''the easiest target."
Montgomery County sheriff's Lt. Dan Norris, who supervised the case, said
investigators found the right person responsible for Trotter's death.
''The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office feels confident with its
investigation, and it was well-done and well-documented," Norris said.
Charles Trotter, 56, said he thinks about his daughter every day and has
no doubts about Swearingen's guilt.
''If there's a hell on earth, it's a prison," he said. "I think in some
ways he is getting an easy way out."
He and his wife, Sandra, 52, plan to witness the execution. ''We have to
be there to be Melissa's voice," her mother said.
Trotter, who lived with her parents, was last seen Dec. 8, 1998, at the
Montgomery College campus, where several witnesses told investigators they
saw her with Swearingen.
A massive search was organized, but police and volunteers failed to find
Trotter. A hunter discovered her body nearly a month later in the Sam
Houston National Forest in north Montgomery County.
Her body was fully clothed, and a pantyhose leg was around her neck.
Autopsy results suggested she had been struck on the face with enough
force for her to bite her tongue and that there was evidence consistent
Police arrested Swearingen, an electrician, on Dec. 11, 1998, on unrelated
outstanding warrants. He was in jail on a kidnapping charge, accused of
threatening a woman with a gun in September 1998, when he was indicted on
the capital murder charge Jan. 26, 1999. A case becomes capital murder
when another crime is committed during the course of the slaying.
In the June 2000 murder trial, prosecutors said Swearingen abducted
Trotter from the college campus and took her to his mobile home in Willis,
where he sexually assaulted and strangled her before dumping her body in
Swearingen met Trotter at a Lake Conroe marina two days before she
disappeared and became angry when Trotter failed to meet him for lunch the
next day, according to testimony.
Swearingen said he saw Trotter on campus Dec. 8 but that she left with
another man whom he said police never tried to find. He also said he had
an alibi and claims police didn't bother to verify it.
Things killer knew
According to court testimony, fibers and hair linking him to the crime
were found in his truck, his jacket and at the crime scene. They also
found the matching pantyhose leg in a trash bin at his home.
In addition, cell phone records showed that he made a call using a
cellular station in the general area where the body was found, prosecutors
Witnesses also testified that Swearingen asked his girlfriend to lie for
him and that, while in jail awaiting trial, he used a Spanish-English
dictionary to compose a badly written letter that identified Trotter's
killer as someone named ''R.D." to throw police off his trail. The letter
contained information only the killer could have known, authorities said.
Swearingen has filed several appeals and motions, including one for DNA
testing, only to be denied. His attorney, James Rytting, of Houston, filed
Swearingen's last appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in November.
During the prison interview, Swearingen, his dark hair thinning on the
top, kept a picture of his 16-year-old son nearby as he talked over the
phone from behind a glass partition. He said he's not afraid to die.
''There's things in life you can't control. Do I want to go? Hell no," he
said, leaning toward the glass. "I'm not in control of that. God has a
plan for all of us."
He said he hopes Trotter's parents find peace after his death and that he
does not want their forgiveness. ''There's nothing to forgive me about, "
he said. His only regret, he said, is that he wasn't a better father to
his 3 children.
The Trotters, who still live in Willis, said they never will have peace.
They deal with the loss of Melissa by keeping busy and staying close to
friends and family, including their son, his wife and their 3-year-old
grandson, they said.
On her last morning, Melissa Trotter overslept and was late for school.
Her older brother, an Army medic, was home from Germany, and she planned
to be with her family that night.
"She never made it home," her mother said.
Jury selection begins in Fort Bend murder trial----Prosecutors allege man
sought to kill parents, brother to inherit $1 million estate
About 375 potential jurors crowded into the Fort Bend County jury assembly
room this morning where a panel is being chosen in the capital murder
trial of Thomas "Bart" Whitaker.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case.
Whitaker, 27, is accused of engineering a Dec. 10, 2003, plot to attack
his family at their Sugar Land home and subsequently inherit the family
estate by killing his parents and brother. Whitaker's brother, Kevin, 19,
died at the scene, while his mother, Patricia, 51, was taken to a hospital
Whitaker's father, Kent Whitaker, who was wounded in the attack, is
opposed to prosecutors seeking the death penalty in the case.
Jury selection is expected to take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks before
testimony begins in the courtroom of state District Judge Clifford Vacek.
Last month, Steven Champagne, 24, agreed to testify in the trials of the
alleged triggerman, Chris A. Brashear, and Whitaker. Champagne, who police
say was the getaway driver the night Patricia and Kevin Whitaker were
killed, agreed to plead guilty to murder and accept a 15-year sentence.
Brashear and Whitaker will have separate trials.
Police say Brashear, 24, was waiting in the Whitaker's home with a pistol
when the family walked in.
Bart Whitaker was wounded by the gunman to make it appear that the family
was surprised a burglar when they returned to their house from a dinner
outing, police said.
Bart Whitaker was arrested in Mexico in September 2005 and handed over to
American officials in Laredo.
Police said he had hatched 2 previous plots, 1 in 2000 and the other in
2001, to kill his family. Neither plan was carried out.
Investigators said Bart Whitaker's motive for carrying out the attack was
to inherit more than $1 million with the deaths of his parents and
(source for both: Houston Chronicle)
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