[Deathpenalty] death penalty news-----TEXAS, CALIF., FLA., CONN., PENN.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Mon Jan 29 18:57:00 UTC 2007
Convict volunteering to die for killing wife, mother-in-law
The 5-year-old boy wandering the lobby of a Days Inn in suburban Dallas
began attracting attention when a couple hours passed and no one showed up
to claim him.
He'd been watching cartoons and the front desk staff gave him some
breakfast, but he was getting frightened. When police were called, he made
a startling disclosure.
"Basically he was saying: 'Daddy killed mommy and he killed grandma,
too,'" former Denton County Assistant District Attorney Lee Ann Breading
Officers found his mother, Amy Sabeh-Swift, 27 and 8 months pregnant,
stabbed and strangled in the family recreational vehicle in Irving. When
they went to check on her mother, Sandra Stevens Sabeh, they found the
61-year-old woman strangled at her home at a mobile home park in Lake
Within hours, Christopher Jay Swift, who'd rented the room at the Irving
motel after midnight and then left after his son fell asleep, was arrested
in Dallas. The young boy had accompanied his father to the slayings and
Swift, now 31, was set to die Tuesday evening for the killings less than
four years ago. The former laborer and parolee ordered no legal steps be
taken to block his punishment and was volunteering for execution.
Derek Adame, one of Swift's trial lawyers, described the experience as
frustrating because Swift insisted there be no serious defense.
"Obviously, it's an uphill battle, but you'd at least like to be able to
fight for the guy," Adame said. "I thought we did the best we could, but I
have to do what my client tells me."
The lethal injection in Huntsville would make Swift the 3rd inmate
executed this year in Texas, the nation's most active capital punishment
Swift refused to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his execution
"His view is he'd made his peace with it and he's going to heaven to be
with his baby and his dead wife," said Breading, one of the prosecutors at
Swift's capital murder trial. "I'm not sure God really sees it that way,
but that's not for me to judge."
At his trial, defense attorneys presented psychiatric testimony contending
Swift was insane.
"The state put on psychiatric testimony he was not, and jurors found he
was not," recalled Jerry Cobb, another of Swift's trial attorneys. "After
the case was over, then he was through. He didn't want to do anything.
"We thought he had a good shot at the insanity defense. The jury just
didn't buy it."
The day after his arrest, Swift told a Dallas television station in a
jailhouse interview he committed the slayings because his young son "was
giving me the order to do it."
"He confessed," Adame said. "And to make matters worse, he had his little
boy with him when he committed the murders. No question he'd done it. We
were trying to find him not guilty by reason of insanity."
Swift's wife worked as an aide at the Denton State School for the mentally
disabled and the couple had been married 6 years although at one point
Swift had filed for divorce.
Four days after their wedding, he started a four-year prison sentence
after pleading guilty to assaulting a Texas state trooper in 1996 and a
Denton County woman in 1997. He also pleaded guilty to an assault charge
for shoving and choking his wife in March 1996, driving while intoxicated
and fleeing a police officer. In 1992, he pleaded guilty to evading
Prosecutors said Swift, who had a history of alcohol abuse and drug use,
quit his job at a concrete company because they asked him to take a drug
test. When he came home, his decision sparked an argument with his wife
that led to the slayings, prosecutors said.
Another Texas inmate is scheduled to die next week. James Jackson, 47, was
condemned for the 1997 slayings of his 2 stepdaughters at their Houston
home. Jackson's wife, the mother of the girls, also was killed.
ON THE NET----Texas Department of Criminal Justice execution schedule
(source: Associated Press)
Murderer who begged for early execution will get his wish
Christopher Jay Swift strangled his pregnant wife and her disabled mother
in 2003, in the presence of his 5-year-old son, then abandoned his son at
a motel in Farmers Branch.
He refused to allow witnesses in his defense at his 2005 trial. In
February 2006, he had his lawyers dismissed and opted to represent
himself, then waived appeals, which can take years.
According to a story in the DMN, Swift wrote several letters asking for an
execution date as soon as possible, most recently in October 2006, when he
begged to have his execution date moved forward. As a result of those
letters, authorities have decided to fast track Swift's execution. He will
be put to death on Tuesday.
(source: Pegasus News)
Coalition protests death penalty, says insanity standards stringent
The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty held their annual
conference Saturday in order to promote advocacy techniques in preparation
for the upcoming legislative session.
Texas is the No. 1 executing state in the nation and presently has 400
people on death row.
The theme of this year's conference is "advocacy in action", said Bob Van
Steenburg, chapter leader of the Texas coalition.
Rob Owen, the keynote speaker and UT law professor, said the Supreme Court
will not conform to requests for abolishment anytime soon. However, the
coalition's effort is bringing more death penalty cases to the Supreme
Court, Owen said.
In 2002, the Supreme Court outlawed sentencing citizens with mental
retardation to death row. In 2005, the death penalty was banned for
Owen cited the Supreme Court Case, House v. Bell, demonstrating the
court's changing attitude toward capital punishment, Owen said. In this
case, the court ruled that under certain circumstances death penalty cases
can be re-opened if there is new evidence.
The case of Williams v. Taylor, Owens said, is a clear example of where
the assisting counsel failed to produce mitigating evidence for the
accused. According to the coalition, there are many cases today,
especially with the economically disadvantaged, where the accused receive
poor court-appointed attorneys who fail to investigate their case and send
their clientele to death row without fair evidence.
"There are no exceptions to the death penalty for people who have been
seriously abused and neglected as children, people with mental illness,
rehabilitated people or citizens of other countries," according to a
release from the coalition.
Owen said the insanity defense, implemented by the Supreme Court in 1986,
sets too high of a standard for a defendant to be considered legally
At the end of his speech, Owen addressed the executions going on in Iraq.
"This is a reminder of the ugliness of capital punishment, and at the end
of the day, it's a rope around the neck in a dirty basement," Owen said.
Longhorns Speak is sponsoring a debate in the Jester Auditorium on Monday
at 7:30 p.m. between the Young Conservatives of Texas and Campaign to End
the Death Penalty.
(source: The Daily Texan)
Stay extends death-row record
The man who has been on the Texas death row longer than anyone else in
history was saved from scheduled execution last week by the U.S. Supreme
Court with no specific reasons given for the intervention.
Ronald Curtis Chambers, who has been convicted three times for the same
crime and each time given the death sentence, was scheduled to die by
lethal injection on Wednesday.
Last Monday, however, prison officials were advised that Chambers, who has
been on "the row" for almost 31 years, had received a stay. The stay
arrived in a 1-line order written by Justice Antonin Scalia.
In April 1975, Chambers and another man, Clarence Williams, abducted 2
college students outside a nightclub and drove them to the Trinity River
bottoms west of downtown Dallas. After robbing them, the 2 men shot and
beat the victims, leaving them for dead.
Student Mike McMahan died, but his date that night, Deia Sutton, lived and
later testified against the men.
Chambers was convicted in a few months and sentenced to die. Williams
pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and murder and received 2 life
sentences. He remains in prison.
Appeals courts have overturned Chambers' death sentences twice. The Texas
Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his sentence in 1984 shortly after
the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a defendant must be informed that
statements made to a psychiatrist could be used against him. In 1989, the
Supreme Court ruled against racial discrimination in jury selection.
Chambers is black.
Juries in Dallas County subsequently imposed death sentences for Chambers
in 1985 and 1992.
Chambers' attorney, James Volberding, who has represented the accused for
more than a decade, asked the high court to postpone his client's
execution until they ruled on three similar Texas cases that have raised
questions about whether jurors were properly instructed to consider
mitigating factors while pondering the use of the death penalty.
"We are grateful for the stay," Mr. Volberding said. "We did not know if
the court would grant it."
The Supreme Court heard arguments on the mitigating factors cases earlier
The stay of execution did not include any suggestion or rule to guide the
case. The stay eventually could be lifted and the execution rescheduled,
the case could be sent back to lower courts in Texas or, although
unlikely, the high court could hear the case itself.
Newly elected Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said he would
push again for the death penalty if a new trial is granted here.
"It's pretty clear cut. I've seen the pictures. It's pretty bad," he said.
(source: Washington Times)
Setting the stage for death penalty----Law: For a jailhouse slaying trial,
DA hired set designers to rebuild crime scene in court.
But when 5 men witnessed the beating murder of Raul Tinajero in a space no
bigger than most bathrooms, prosecutors in the Los Angeles County district
attorney's office believed the only way to convey the terrifying scene was
to rebuild it.
Instead of presenting jurors with photographs and hand-drawn diagrams,
traditionally used as evidence in trials, Deputy District Attorney Lesley
Klein hired a design company to construct a full-size replica of the crime
scene: a 9-by-9-foot jail cell, complete with 4 bunks, a sink and a
The display was used in the Los Angeles Superior Court trial of Santiago
Pineda, a 25-year-old gang member who killed 2 men - including Tinajero,
who was slain in Men's Central Jail in April 2004.
2 years earlier, Pineda had robbed a man, known as Rafael Sanchez, of his
car and run over him with it. Tinajero, a convicted car thief, witnessed
that murder and had been waiting to testify against Pineda when he, too,
Jurors recommended the death penalty for Pineda last week.
During the trial, several witnesses used the cell to describe their
experience, and one witness actually testified from inside the cell.
For that witness - an inmate who saw the killing but was too terrified to
stop it - Klein asked sheriff's deputies and her own co-counsel to crowd
into the space and act as inmates. The witness then re-enacted what he saw
It was an effective storytelling device, Klein said, and may even have
helped secure the death sentence for Pineda.
"I think it made a difference," she said, "and the judge indicated that he
thought so, too."
The judge, William Pounders, said he could not comment until the case had
been concluded. He is scheduled to sentence Pineda Feb. 15.
Klein said she always thought photographs of the crime scene did little to
properly illustrate the close quarters, and she worried that TV portrayals
of jail cells would skew people's perceptions.
"When I went to the cell and saw where (the killing) occurred," she said,
"the pictures could not do justice for how small it was."
The size, she said, was particularly relevant because two of the men
sharing the victim's cell on the day of the killing initially claimed that
they didn't see the murder.
That, Klein said, defied logic.
At first, Klein considered taking jurors to Men's Central Jail to view the
cell themselves, but security issues and logistics made that an
Then, she said, she got an idea. It came from TV.
"I was watching Dateline or one of those shows, and some prosecutor ...
had the bed where this murder occurred brought into the courtroom," Klein
recalled. "She had her assistant lay on top of the bed, and she had
straddled him ... mocking that she was stabbing the guy."
That was a little farther than Klein was willing to go, but she liked the
concept: If you can't bring jurors to the scene of the crime, bring the
scene of the crime to jurors.
She said she spoke to Pounders, who was receptive to the idea, and then
she started making some calls.
No one in the district attorney's office had ever hired a set crew before,
said District Attorney Steve Cooley's spokeswoman, Sandi Gibbons. So it
was up to Klein to pave the way. Through USC's School of Theater, she
said, she was put in touch with George & Goldberg Design Associates, a
production business specializing in custom scenic design for corporate
events, theatrical tours, live entertainment, and the like.
Klein declined to release the cost of the mock cell, referring those
questions to Gibbons, who said she would need more time to determine how
much the county paid.
Built of wood and drywall, the scenery was 11 feet tall and was made up of
nine primary pieces, Klein said. It took up half the well of Pounders'
courtroom, looming so large that most of the audience could see neither
the judge nor the defendant during the trial.
With the exception of its cleanliness and lack of grafitti, the jail cell
was a near-perfect match.
Tinajero was killed between 10:30 and 11 a.m. on April 20, 2004. While
there was a court order in place to keep him away from the defendant,
Pineda somehow managed to sneak out of his cell, breach two sets of
security doors and wander the hallway for hours until he found his victim.
Klein said Pineda wasted no time before attacking Tinajero in front of 4
He ripped Tinajero off his bunk and choked him into unconsciousness, Klein
said. He then forced Tinajero's head into the toilet, held it there for a
few minutes, dropped him on the floor and stomped on his neck.
Witnesses, she said, described hearing "crunching and cracking."
As Tinajero lay motionless, Pineda tied a ligature around his neck and
shoved him under one set of bunks.
"He was probably dead before (Pineda) put his head in the toilet," Klein
said of the victim.
None of the men in the cell did anything to assist Pineda or to help
Tinajero, she said. They all feared for their own lives and weren't sure
if the killing had been ordered by others who would retaliate against
anyone who interfered.
As jurors returned their final verdict in the case last week, the mock
jail cell was being dismantled, piece by piece, and carried from the
courtroom. It will be crated and stored, officials said, for possible use
in the future.
Rarely has justice in Florida felt this unjust.
The state has agreed to pay Frank Valdes' relatives $737,500. That's to
compensate them for ... what? It's not like Valdes ever was going to be
sharing an ample, steady income with his father, Mario Valdes, or his
Valdes was a murderer, sent to Death Row for the 1987 shooting of Glades
Correctional Institution oficer Fred Griffiths. Valdes killed Mr.
Griffiths during an escape attempt outside a West Palm Beach doctor's
office. His wife, who lives in Palm Beach County and married Valdes while
he was on Death Row, told The Post: I'm not gettting a fortune out of
this. This case is not about money to me. It's about justice."
It's annoying that anybody is getting any money out of this case, and the
fact that someone is doesn't feel like "justice." Unfortunately, it turns
out that forcing the state to pay money to somebody is just about the only
way to squeeze a little justice out of the bleak situation.
In 1999, a group of guards at Florida State Prison beat Valdes to death in
his cell. And he didn't die from one freak blow. The guards broke all his
ribs and fractured his sternum, spine and jaw, along with inflicting other
In short, the guards were even more brutal and inept than Florida's
When guards who represent the legal power of the state abuse that power to
beat to death an inmate - even an inmate on death row - that's a crime.
The state charged nine guards and brought four to trial, but the jury
found them not guilty. Sensing the futility of trying again in a region
where the prisons are a major employer, the state dropped charges against
the other 5 guards.
Valdes' father filed a federal suit against the guards and various prison
officials in 2002. But, in the end, state taxpayers will have to pay up,
if a Jacksonville judge gives final approval to the settlement, which, by
the way, could mean a $432,423 payday for Mr. Valdes' lawyer, Guy Rubin,
and his firm.
Does he deserve the money? Billable hours - more than 1,300 of them - say
he does. And we acknowledge that, in the end, Florida had to be held to
account for, among other things, hiring guards whose impulses proved to be
as bad as the men they were guarding and never should have been allowed to
exercise the state's authority.
It's a tiny, tiny amount of justice to get for the state's $737,500.
(source: Editorial, Palm Beach Post)
Too Much Prosecutorial Power
Just because regional state's attorneys in Connecticut have unfettered
discretion to seek the death penalty doesn't necessarily make the practice
right or fair to everyone convicted of a capital crime.
A challenge to prosecutorial discretion will be made in a first-of-a-kind
motion to be heard in Superior Court on Feb. 23 in the case of Jessie
Campbell III. Mr. Campbell was sentenced to death last year for the
murders of 2 Hartford women in 2000.
His attorneys maintain that the absence of guidelines for demanding the
death penalty means that the chances of being sentenced to death vary
widely from judicial district to judicial district, making the process of
choosing who is marked for capital punishment unconstitutional.
Statistics appear to favor the defense. Of seven men on Connecticut's
death row, 5 were successfully prosecuted by the office of Waterbury
State's Attorney John Connelly. Moreover, between 1973 and 2002, Waterbury
held death penalty trials in 8 of the 11 capital felony cases that it
prosecuted, a rate of 73 %.
Windham, by comparison, held death penalty trials in only one of 10
capital cases during the same period. Hartford, which is prosecuting Mr.
Campbell, held death penalty trials in 17 out of 66 cases, a rate of 26 %.
In other words, the chances of being sentenced to death are much higher in
Waterbury than anywhere else in the state.
The prosecutors, 12 of whom have been ordered by the state Appellate Court
to appear at the hearing to explain their personal standards for seeking
the death penalty, say their unrestricted authority is protected by legal
So was slavery at one time, but that didn't make it right either.
Unlike Connecticut prosecutors, U.S. attorneys must follow an elaborate
set of guidelines before they can ask for the death penalty in a federal
If the Campbell case elicits a comparable set of rules for death row cases
or, better yet, a finding that capital punishment is unconstitutional,
Connecticut will be better for it.
(source: Editorial, Hartford Courant)
Convicted killer back in court
It has been called Bucks County's "trial of the century," a murder case
that began with the horrific slaying of one young man and ended with 2
others locked away on death row.
Much has changed since the 1987 slaying of Levittown artist Anthony
Milano, but as Richard Laird's retrial begins in Bucks County court this
week it might seem as if time has stood still.
A federal appeals court has given Laird, 43, of Bristol Township a second
chance to convince a jury that he's not guilty of what one prosecutor
famously described as slicing Milano up "like a cheap piece of
If he's not successful, prosecutors will again argue that Laird deserves
the death penalty.
But with witnesses asked to recall details two decades old, a co-defendant
on the stand with his own life or death battle going on in the courts and
scientific advances that might shed light on Laird's mental state at the
time of the crime, the trial's going to be very different from the one
Laird had in 1988.
Laird was convicted along with Frank Chester, 39, of murdering Milano, 26,
after the men crossed paths on Dec. 14, 1987, at a Bristol Township bar.
Witnesses said Milano was drinking alone at the Edgely Inn on Route 13
when Chester and Laird came into the tavern. Accounts of what happened
next differ, but the night ended with Milano giving his two new
acquaintances a ride.
Hours later, firefighters responding to a car ablaze on nearby Ashby
Avenue found Milano's body. His throat had been sliced so thoroughly that
a doctor testifying at Chester and Laird's trial declared that he was
unable to count how many times it had been cut.
News accounts at the time say that Chester and Laird turned on each other
after they were arrested, each pinning the murder on the other at trial.
Emotions ran high in that courtroom. Because Milano was gay, then-District
Attorney Alan Rubenstein declared the killing a hate crime, and gay rights
advocates attended the trial each day.
Crime scene photos and medical testimony about Milano's wounds were so
gruesome that Rubenstein urged the victim's mother to leave the courtroom.
Chester and Laird also had many supporters and newspaper photos show many
of their female friends and family members weeping and screaming as they
left the courtroom after the jury sentenced Laird, then 24, and Chester,
then 20, to death.
In an attempt to sway the jury to spare his client's life, Laird's lawyer
at the time, Ronald Elgart, carried Laird's 11-month-old son before the
And in an almost-unheard-of legal maneuver, defense attorneys tried, but
failed, to get Rubenstein thrown off the case.
How Laird's second trial will play out remains to be seen. Due to a gag
order, lawyers on both sides have been instructed not to talk to the media
about the case.
Court records show that Laird's new defense attorneys, John Kerrigan and
Keith Williams, have filed a notice that they will offer a mental
infirmity defense. Kerrigan wouldn't elaborate about the notice, but one
doctor consulted as a defense expert previously testified that Laird was
sexually abused as a child. Experts called at prior appeal hearings also
said that Laird suffers from brain damage from a childhood skull fracture.
Court records show that Chester has been subpoenaed to testify in the
case, but it's unclear if he's changed his story about what happened to
Milano that night.
Defense attorneys are seeking to bar prosecutors from telling jurors about
a Web site maintained by Jim Jenkins, one of Chester's supporters. The
site gives this version of the crime:
"While on the way to a friend's house, Rick, so drunk and strung out on
drugs at the time, lost his temper when Anthony wanted to go home. In a
fit of rage, Rick Laird dragged Anthony to a nearby wooded area and knifed
Anthony in the throat. In a matter of moments, Anthony was dead. Frank
Chester saw the murder as it was happening and ran through the woods to a
friend's house, shaken by what he had just seen."
Chester is also appealing his conviction in the federal courts.
The decision that allowed Laird to be retried was handed down in June 2001
by Judge Jan DuBois of U.S. District Court of Philadelphia. In a 100-page
ruling, the judge said that 21 errors of constitutional law were committed
during Laird's trial and penalty phase. Among the issues raised on appeal
was the fact that Laird was shackled in front of the jury. Defense lawyers
argued that prejudiced the panel.
Prosecutors appealed DuBois' ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court
to no avail.
Court records show that Laird's lawyers last week lost a bid to bar
prosecutors from retrying Laird on first-degree murder. He will face that
charge along with kidnapping, assault and related counts.
If Laird were again found guilty of murder, it is unlikely that Milano's
family would be permitted to address the jury. Court records show that
lawyers on both sides agreed that victim impact would not be presented
during the penalty phase because the crime happened prior to the 1995 law
that allowed for presentation of such testimony.
Since his conviction, Laird has spent most of his time on death row at the
state correctional facility, 352 miles west of Bucks in Greene County.
Court records show that he's participated in pretrial hearings via video
conferences this month.
Jury selection in Laird's retrial will begin Monday morning before county
Judge Rea Boylan.
(source: Bucks County Courier Times)
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