[Deathpenalty] death penalty news-----TEXAS
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Fri Nov 2 16:59:23 CDT 2007
More than 150 inmates want evidence reviewed
More than 150 inmates whose convictions may be based on faulty Houston
crime lab evidence have asked that their cases be reviewed, a judge said
Since Oct. 22, Judge Mary Bacon, a retired state district judge overseeing
the review of 180 convictions with flawed blood-typing evidence, has
conducted hearings with all inmates currently incarcerated in those cases.
Of 160 inmates contacted at various Texas prisons via video conferences,
all but 4 agreed to have their cases reviewed.
The hearings are the 1st step in a plan that Harris County's 22 criminal
state district judges developed last month to review cases with
problematic blood-typing evidence from the Houston Police Department's
A team will review the 156 cases to determine how essential HPD's analyses
were to securing the convictions, according to attorney Bob Wicoff. Wicoff
will be joined by two other lawyers, who should be named next week, and
volunteers including other lawyers, students and academics.
"I am trying to marshal all the help I can get for this undertaking," said
Wicoff, who represented Josiah Sutton, the first man exonerated in the HPD
crime lab scandal.
The team will contact defendants they have not yet reached.
Lawyers are expected to report to Bacon in early December on who has been
assigned to what case and what progress has been made.
"With past reviews of the DNA cases, it just laid around and lawyers let
some cases linger," Wicoff said. "(Bacon) wants to avoid that and
regularly measure our progress."
The review of these 180 serology cases is the latest in a string of
reviews of work from the HPD crime lab, which has been under scrutiny
since 2002 when news reports and an audit exposed errors in the crime
lab's DNA analyses.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Inmates seek lab reviews----Blood analysis work in question
All but 4 of 160 inmates who were questioned over the last 2 weeks have
agreed to have their cases reopened because of shoddy blood analysis work
by the Houston Police Department crime lab, attorneys said Thursday.
Since Oct. 22, the inmates have been gathered each day at prisons around
the state so a Houston courts panel could tell them via videoconference
that their convictions could have been influenced by the flawed lab work.
They were told that if they wanted their cases reviewed, a lawyer would be
appointed for them.
While some of the inmates simply said "yes" before shuffling back to their
cells, for others it was more emotional.
"Some of them wanted to start talking about their case right away," said
Bob Wicoff, a Houston defense lawyer assigned to lead the review. "One of
them told me, 'I've been waiting for this day. I love you.' And you know
what, he may be guilty, but if he was innocent, that may be the way you'd
expect somebody to react. We shall see."
Last month, Harris County judges announced plans to review 180 cases
identified as having "major issues" in body-fluid analysis in a final
report this year from a special investigator hired by the city of Houston
to investigate the lab.
Of the 180 cases, 160 inmates were still in prison. Of the remaining 20
cases, 1/2 are inmates who have been executed while the other 1/2 are
inmates who've been freed from prison.
Wicoff said he will try to contact the freed inmates and see if they want
to be included in the probe.
But the cases of executed inmates will not be a priority, he said.
Some of these cases, Wicoff said, would not need review, such as Karla
Faye Tucker, who in 1998 became the 1st woman executed in Texas since the
Civil War. Lab work did not affect her conviction, he said.
Wicoff said he will begin pulling court records and other documents during
the 1st review of these cases. Wicoff is hoping to enlist law students to
help with the process.
Each case will then be reviewed 2 more times before a final decision is
made on whether the lab work affected the outcome.
"Some cases will be obvious very early on as not having been affected by
the bad lab work," Wicoff said. "In other cases, it may more likely [have
impacted] the result."
Prosecutor Marie Munier said the Harris County District Attorney's Office
would help defense attorneys examine the cases.
"If they think they have a case where there should be testing, we will
look at our files and whatever information we have to see if we agree to
testing," she said.
Any disagreements on testing will be resolved by president Judge Mary
Bacon, who is retired from the active bench.
The cases being reviewed, some which date back to the 1980s, include
several death row inmates and others convicted of violent crimes such as
robbery and rape.
The Houston crime lab's work has been under scrutiny since 2002, when the
DNA section was shut down. Inaccuracies were later found in 4 other lab
divisions that test firearms, body fluids and controlled substances. The
DNA section has since been reopened.
3 inmates have been released from prison because of mistakes by the lab: 2
men wrongfully convicted of rape and a man convicted of kidnapping and
rape whom prosecutors decided not to retry.
The review of these cases could cost up to $500,000, said Jack Thompson,
Harris County district courts administrator. County officials have asked
the city of Houston to pay for all or part of the review.
(source: Associated Press)
Protest execution, not Keller
The protest detailed in "Protest hits home for Texas judge who refused to
hear late appeal," Oct. 31, against Judge Keller was misdirected.
Certainly anti-death penalty advocates are welcome to protest whomever
they please, and they have a legitimate frustration against a judge who
declined to show leniency. But however harsh a decision, closing the
courthouse on time was within Keller's discretion and court rules. In a
different situation, should a trial judge manipulate the law and bar
evidence because it might lead to a death sentence?
The protestors' true objection is with the state's practice of executing
citizens found guilty of crimes deemed capital offenses. The recent stay
of lethal injections is similar. As euphemisms attached to unsavory
concepts with time become tainted themselves, so are execution methods
eventually conflated with the real issue of the death penalty. Exploring
the legitimacy of capital punishment is best served by debate focused on
the heart of the problem, not peripheral concerns.
Conrad Hester----UT law student
(source: Daily Texan)
Welcome pause With Supreme Court review pending, Harris County prosecutor
is right to suspend executions
In the nation's capital of capital punishment, death will take a holiday.
In an overdue decision, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Roe
Wilson confirmed that her office will suspend requests for execution dates
for death penalty convicts until the U.S. Supreme Court hears a Kentucky
case challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection. Wilson asked a
judge to suspend a February date for the execution of convicted murderer
and rapist Derrick Sonnier.
At present 122 prisoners from Harris County are on death row. Texas
executes more prisoners than any other state, and since lethal injection
began here in 1982, about a quarter of those executed came from Harris
In late September the Supreme Court announced it would review the legality
of lethal injection, the predominant method of execution in the United
States. Later that same day, Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas
Court of Criminal Appeals, refused to accept a last-minute plea for a stay
from former Harris County resident and murderer Michael Richard. He was
executed hours later.
Since then, Supreme Court justices have granted stays to halt executions
around the country, the last coming Wednesday in the case of a Mississippi
prisoner, Earl Berry, convicted of murdering a woman two decades ago. The
high court has sent a clear signal that it will stop all planned lethal
injections until it rules on the issue next year.
Now that the Lone Star State's punishment machine is temporarily halted,
citizens should consider questions that go beyond whether lethal injection
is excruciatingly painful to its recipients and violates the
constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment:
Why is the death penalty imposed so much more frequently in this state
and Harris County in particular than in the rest of the country? Are
Texans really proud that our state is one of the leading practitioners of
government-sponsored executions on the planet?
Worldwide, 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in practice, and
93 have proscribed it by law. Amnesty International notes that only 6
countries accounted for nearly 90 % of the executions last year: China,
Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States. Is this the company we
wish to keep when it comes to judicial standards?
Given the high volume of death sentences sought by Harris County
prosecutors, instances of tainted evidence and the demonstrated lack of
highly competent attorneys representing some defendants, is the risk of
executing an innocent person unacceptably high? Chronicle reporting on the
execution of a San Antonio man who was convicted of a killing as a teen
strongly indicates another man committed the crime.
In next year's Harris County judicial and district attorney contests,
these are issues the candidates should discuss in detail and which voters
should thoroughly consider.
(source: Editorial, Houston Chronicle, Nov. 1)
Needle put on hold----Lethal injection under Supreme Court review
Quietly, with very little fanfare, a virtual moratorium on executions in
the United States is taking hold. The reason is that the U.S. Supreme
Court has agreed to hear a Tennessee case (Baze v. Rees) that challenges
the lethal-injection method used in all but one of the 37 states that
impose the death penalty. The contention is that the 3-drug "cocktail"
used to execute prisoners imposes undue pain and suffering on the
condemned and, therefore, violates the constitutional ban on "cruel and
There's an irony at the center of the controversy. Through a judicial
procedure the state decides that a crime has been so heinous that ending
the criminal's life is the only just punishment. But advocates contend
that if it hurts too much to kill somebody, then that is unacceptable.
However surreal the argument might seem, however, the effect on executions
in the United States has been dramatic. On Tuesday, over the dissents of
two justices (Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito) the high court postponed
the execution of Mississippi death row inmate Earl Wesley Berry, who
abducted and murdered a woman as she left Sunday choir practice at a
church in Houston, Miss. in 1987. The postponement was significant in that
the Supreme Court had earlier declined to hear Berry's appeal because he
had been tardy in filing it. This was the 3rd execution postponed since
the high court decided Sept. 25 to hear the Baze v. Rees case.
If what amounts to an informal moratorium on use of the death penalty
holds until the end of the year, there will have been 42 prisoners
executed in 2007, the lowest number since 1994, when 31 people were put to
death. There were no executions this October, the 1st month since December
2004 when no prisoners in the U.S. were executed.
Controversy over lethal injection is but one aspect of increased concern
about the use of the death penalty. Although no court has found that a
prisoner who was later determined to be innocent has actually been
executed, in recent years dozens of prisoners on death row have been
exonerated through the use of DNA evidence.
It should be noted that the challenge to the method of lethal injection is
not a challenge to the use of the death penalty itself, which the Supreme
Court has ruled is constitutional. If the lethal injection method is
banned, however, it is likely to be difficult to find a more humane way to
kill prisoners, although some states have experimented with different
combinations of drugs.
There's nothing wrong with seeking a more humane way to execute properly
convicted criminals. California has developed a new protocol, which a
Marin County judge recently invalidated not because of objection to the
new method itself, but because officials didn't follow administrative
procedures that would allow public comment. However, if it is time to
reconsider the use of the death penalty, it would be better to have a full
and public debate on the death penalty itself rather than effectively
banning it because of objections to the methodology.
(source: Editorial, Orange County Register)
Defense attorneys discuss new evidence in West Memphis child killings
If death row inmate Damien Echols were tried today in the 1993 killing of
3 West Memphis boys, he would be acquitted, attorneys for Echols told
"We are here today to discuss the evidence that establishes that no
reasonable juror would convict Damien Echols, essentially knowing what we
know today," lead attorney Dennis Riordan said at a news conference at the
University of Arkansas at Little Rock law school.
On Monday, Echols' lawyers filed a motion in federal court to overturn
Echols' conviction based on new evidence that includes DNA test results
showing that no genetic material from Echols - or two other men convicted
in the killings - was found on the victims' bodies.
A spokeswoman for 2nd District Prosecutor Brent Davis, the lead prosecutor
in the case, said Thursday that Davis would not comment on the case or the
defense attorneys' remarks.
Echols, now 32, was 18 when police arrested him and two other teens in the
deaths of 3 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and James
Michael Moore. The boys' bodies were found in a ditch, naked and bound
Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in the boys'
deaths. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences and Echols received
the death penalty.
Supporters of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, now known as the "West
Memphis Three," claim police and prosecutors used the defendants' fondness
for heavy metal music to label them as Satanists and obtain a conviction
in the absence of physical evidence.
"It was a rush to judgment, the worst kind of rush to judgment," Riordan
Discussing newly obtained DNA test results, Tom Fedor, a forensic expert
retained by the defense, said, "None of the DNA evidence connects any of
the defendants to the scene of the crime."
However, DNA tests could not rule out the stepfather of one of the victims
as the source of a hair found in the knots binding the victims, he said.
Also, DNA tests could not rule out a friend of the stepfather as the
source of a hair found on a tree stump at the scene of the crime, Fedor
said. The friend was with the boy's stepfather on the day of the killings,
Genetic material found on the genitals of one of the victims has not been
linked to anyone, Fedor said.
Asked if they believed they had gathered enough evidence to support new
charges in the case, Echols' attorneys said that was not their obligation.
"If we can demonstrate the innocence of Damien Echols, it's not our legal
burden to solve this crime," Riordan said.
Prosecutors said the defendants slashed and mutilated the victims with a
serrated knife. Werner Spitz and Richard Souviron, additional forensics
expert retained by the defense, said Thursday the marks on the victims'
bodies were consistent with marks made by an animal after the boys died.
Echols' trial lawyer never hired a forensics expert to counter the state's
claims about the marks on the bodies, Riordan said.
Riordan said the defense team is optimistic about the chances of Echols'
conviction being reversed. He noted that in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court
ruled in House v. Bell, a Tennessee murder case, that death row inmate
Paul House was entitled to a new trial in light of new DNA evidence.
"This showing is considerably stronger, we believe, than House v. Bell,"
(source: Arkansas News Bureau)
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