[Deathpenalty] death penalty news----TEXAS, ARK., MONT., PENN.
rhalperi at smu.edu
Mon Aug 15 17:36:58 CDT 2011
MAP: Capital murder trial of man accused of killing 3 sons, mother-in-law
Hidalgo County prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the 1st time in more
than 4 years at a trial set to begin Monday.
Roberto Rojas allegedly killed his 3 children and mother-in-law in a rampage
the night of Dec. 6, 2008.
In the days after the slayings, Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies said Rojas
admitted to killing his children and mother-in-law because he was upset his
estranged wife, Amelia, had enrolled in classes at the University of Texas-Pan
Amelia, 27, had been living with their three sons at her parents’ home north of
That night, Rojas told deputies, he entered the house and fired fatal shots
from a .45-caliber pistol at her 3 sons — Osiel and Mauro Rojas, and Silvestre
Garza — who ranged from 3 to 8 years old. He allegedly delivered the same fate
to his mother-in-law, 45-year-old Amelia Rivera Flores.
Rojas allegedly shot his wife and was beating her over the head with a
.22-caliber rifle when her father, Ruben Flores, came home to find the carnage.
Flores managed to wrestle the gun away from Rojas, beating him over the head
until the rifle’s stock broke apart.
Amelia Rojas fell into a coma that night, but later recovered. Deputies
arrested Rojas, 45, who was charged with capital murder.
The case has snaked its way through the 398th state District Court ever since.
‘SOUND LAW ENFORCEMENT’
It’s not often that Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra has pursued
the death penalty since he first took office in 1982.
Since 1976, Hidalgo County has sent 16 murderers to death row. Only 2 have been
executed. Another 11 remain on death row; the 3 others had their sentences
But in certain cases, Guerra said, the death penalty is the only realistic
punishment for a crime. With Rojas, the number of deaths leaves no choice,
despite the added costs of prosecution, he said.
“When it comes to county security, I think the worst thing we can do is try to
save money by not doing sound law enforcement,” Guerra said. “In the long run,
it’s going to cost us more.”
That, and the district attorney said he must consider whether the possible
blowback from the community if a man who killed several people is allowed to
live the rest of his days from a prison cell.
Texas executes more murders each year than any other state. But only four
counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant — account for roughly half of all
the state’s death sentences since 1976.
“I think it’s interesting Texas gets painted with such a broad brush when it’s
only a small number of counties that account for most of who is on death row,”
said Kristen Houlé, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Coalition to
Abolish the Death Penalty.
Indeed, Hidalgo County’s rate stands far below other population centers in the
Harris County, home to Houston, sent 286 people to death row at the end of last
year. Dallas County has sentenced 102 murderers to death; Bexar County has
LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE?
Only since 2005 has Texas law allowed district attorneys to pursue life without
parole in capital murder cases — an alternative to the death penalty that is
the maximum sentence in the 25 other U.S. states that prohibit capital
punishment. “We’ve seen a 70 % drop in new death sentences since 2003,” Houlé
said. “A big part of that is the sentencing option of life without parole.
“It’s a punishment that punishes those who are truly guilty and protects
Jurors chose that alternative in 2009 — the last time local prosecutors sought
the death penalty — when they spared an Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos gang member
the death penalty in the murder of 23-year-old Larissa Cavazos, an aspiring
speech pathologist slain in 2005.
But the jury followed prosecutors’ recommendation in 2007, when they sentenced
Douglas Armstrong, 41, who murdered of Rafael Castelan, 60, outside a Donna bar
Witnesses testified they had seen a “large black man” attacking Castelan before
he threw him to the ground and sliced his throat with a box cutter. Armstrong
then robbed Castelan before fleeing the scene.
“I am not guilty,” Armstrong told Judge Noe Gonzalez after he learned the
sentence. “Even though I respect what the jury said, I will keep my head up and
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Armstrong’s request to overturn his
sentence in 2010, saying jurors based their verdict on overwhelming evidence
collected at the scene and the witnesses’ testimony.
Guerra said he considers a defendant’s prior record, “the damage that was done
in the case” and circumstances when deciding whether to pursue the death
Pursuing the death penalty costs taxpayers more than other murder cases, with
more court hearings and a lengthier jury selection process that can take
months, rather than a few days.
Guerra said his position on capital punishment hasn’t wavered throughout his
“I’ve always believed in the death penalty,” he said. “Some people may say I’m
a bad Catholic, but I say I’m a good Catholic. But that remains to be seen.”
(source: The Monitor)
Rick Perry's Death Penalty Stance May Be A Tough Sell Nationally
In tough-on-crime Texas, supporting the death penalty is practically a
political prerequisite, and Gov. Rick Perry has nailed that qualification,
overseeing the executions of 230 prisoners, more than any other modern governor
of any state.
“He certainly would stand out among other governors,” said Richard Dieter,
executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “But that’s just
sort of a given in Texas.”
As Perry considers a bid for the White House, experts say his willingness to
implement the death penalty and his adamant denial of the possibility Texas may
have executed an innocent man could have mixed campaign consequences.
During his 10-year tenure, Perry has overseen nearly half of the 470 executions
in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974. In that time, public
opinion about the death penalty has evolved as DNA evidence and other modern
forensic science developments have cleared many wrongfully convicted inmates
across the country. More than 130 death row inmates nationwide have been
exonerated since 1973 — including 12 in Texas — according to the Death Penalty
Information Center. A 2010 Gallup News poll found that public approval of the
death penalty had dropped from an all-time high of 80 % in 1994 to 65 percent
A number of states, including Illinois, New Mexico, New York and New Jersey,
have in recent years stopped using the death penalty.
Despite the uncovering of wrongful convictions in Texas and other states,
though, Perry has granted few requests for clemency in death penalty cases.
“Clemencies are rare everywhere, but they’re particularly rare in Texas,”
Perry can only grant clemency to an inmate if the Texas Board of Pardons and
Paroles recommends it. The board reviews hundreds of requests each year from
former prisoners and from inmates who want their sentences reduced or their
criminal records cleared. From 2001 to 2009, the board considered more than
2,000 applications. It recommended clemency in more than 530 cases related to
all kinds of crimes, and Perry granted about 30 % of them.
Perry has commuted the death sentences of 31 inmates. The great majority of
those commutations — 28 — involved cases in which the defendant was a juvenile
at the time of the crime. Perry begrudgingly commuted those sentences in 2005,
after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not execute those who were
younger than 18 at the time of their crime. “While these individuals were
convicted by juries of brutal murders and sentenced to die for their heinous
crimes, I have no choice but to commute these sentences to life in prison,”
Perry said at the time.
In 2 other cases, Perry commuted to life in prison the death sentences of
inmates who were proven mentally retarded, another group of individuals the
nation’s highest court has excluded from the death penalty.
And in the only other case, Perry commuted the death sentence of Kenneth Foster
to life in prison after his attorneys argued he was not the shooter in the May
1996 murder for which he was convicted but only drove the getaway car. Foster
was sentenced under Texas’ “law of parties,” which allows capital punishment
for individuals who may not have been the killer but who were parties to the
crime. Perry said, as he granted the commutation just hours before Foster was
to be executed in August 2007, that he hoped lawmakers would re-examine the law
of parties. Despite efforts to repeal the law in the two legislative sessions
since then, it remains on the books.
2 of Texas' highest-profile death penalty recent cases continue to shadow
Perry. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for an
arson that killed his three daughters, has roiled the criminal justice
community in Texas and nationwide. Since Willingham's execution, public reports
have revealed that Perry’s office was aware that serious scientific questions
had been raised about evidence used to convict Willingham. Perry has dismissed
the reports of scientists who concluded Willingham was not responsible for the
blaze and has called him a guilty “monster.” The Texas Forensic Science
Commission continues to investigate the science used in the Willingham case,
and the Innocence Project continues its fight to prove that Texas killed an
Anthony Graves is the most recent Texan to be freed from death row after
proving his innocence. He spent 14 years on death row and four years in
isolation at the Burleson County Jail before prosecutors dropped the charges
against him. He had initially been convicted based on the testimony of the
actual killer, Robert Carter, despite the lack of any physical evidence tying
Graves to the brutal murders or any clear motive for the crime. Twice, Graves
was nearly executed.
Still, Perry, during a campaign stop days after Graves’ release in October,
said the case showed that the state’s criminal justice system is working. “I
think we have a justice system that is working, and he’s a good example of —
you continue to find errors that were made and clear them up,” Perry said,
according to a report in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “That’s the good news
for us, is that we are a place that continues to allow that to occur. So I
think our system works well; it goes through many layers of observation and
appeal, et cetera.”
This week, the Texas comptroller paid Graves $1.45 million for the time he
spent behind bars after Perry signed a bill that enabled him to be compensated.
But Graves’ lawyers said much work remains to ensure that Texas doesn’t make
the same mistake again.
Perry’s gubernatorial challengers — both his GOP rival U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey
Hutchison and Democratic former Houston Mayor Bill White — last year tried to
make hay of his handling of the death penalty. Neither candidate made much
headway, and the topic was hardly a matter of debate during the campaign.
But how the controversies over wrongful convictions and the death penalty play
out on a national scale could be different, experts said.
In the GOP presidential primary campaigns, Perry’s tough-on-crime credentials
likely only stand to help him among conservative voters. “There’s not a lot of
concern among his target audience with these kinds of questions,” said Jim
Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. In
the primaries, other candidates would have to work hard to make the death
penalty an issue damaging to Perry, he said, and as the governor has shown in
his home state, there’s a slim chance such an attack would meet with success.
But if he becomes the party’s presidential nominee, Perry’s stance on the death
penalty could present a bigger challenge, said Larry Sabato, director of the
Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. In Democratic-leaning
states, Sabato said, Perry’s commitment to capital punishment is likely to hurt
him. But, he added, it’s not as though Perry would carry those states anyway.
The bigger question, Sabato said, is how the issue affects swing states where
many voters are not strictly aligned with either party. For many independent
voters, Perry could be seen as an even more conservative version of President
George W. Bush, an impression only deepened by his ardent support of the death
“To the average American, he’s going to be another Texan, but an even tougher,
harder-edge Texan,” Sabato said. “For swing states, that’s going to be a tough
(source: Business Insider)
Judge strikes down more of Arkansas execution law
Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled from the bench after a hearing today that Arkansas
law giving the Arkansas Correction Department leeway to use any type of drug
for lethal injections was unconstitutional.
Executions have been halted in Arkansas because of the lawsuit over executions
and questions about the quality of the sodium thiopental Arkansas had on hand.
That supply was turned over to federal drug officials. Fox's ruling today
prevents state prison officials using their discretion in finding another
execution drug if they can't properly obtain sodium thiopental. Both the state
and Death Row inmates who brought the suit plan appeals of rulings in the case.
Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for Death Row inmates, explained that the judge
found the law delegated too much authority to the Correction Department. But he
said the inmates believe the ruling still leaves prison officials with too much
discretion on drug choice.
(source: Arkansas Times)
Montana State Prison modifies execution protocol
The Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge announced on Monday that it has modified
its protocol for conducting executions in order to address changes in the
availability of certain drugs and as a part of routine assessment of the
procedures that are conducted whenever an execution date is set.
The modifications include a provision allowing for the use of a substitute drug
as the fast-acting barbiturate that causes unconsciousness and ensures the
inmate will not experience pain during the process of injecting the other drugs
as part of the lethal injection process.
This provision is necessary due to the inability to obtain sodium thiopental,
which was the initial drug that Montana and other states had used in executions
until the manufacturer ceased production recently.
The new protocol permits use of a substitute drug - pentobarbital - which has
survived court challenges and been used successfully in other states.
Other changes include additional safeguards to ensure that the drug is properly
administered and, therefore, that the condemned is completely unconscious.
Mike Mahoney, who signed the document on his last day as the Montana State
Prison warden on August 12, emphasized that the adjustments to the 149-page
document are neither novel nor experimental, as they have proven effective when
used in other states with extensive experience in carrying out executions. He
also noted that the review resulting in the changes was prompted by a district
judge setting an execution date last fall for convicted double-murderer Ronald
Mahoney noted, "Although that date eventually was vacated by the courts, we
responded the way we always do when confronted with an imminent execution. We
go through the procedures established and used in the past to determine if they
can be refined based on what we have learned from previous executions and what
is happening in other states regarding execution-related developments."
It was that routine process that led to the revisions in the protocol, he
added. "With the revised protocol in place, Montana State Prison is prepared to
respond to a court order directing an execution be carried out and to fulfill
its obligation in a safe, humane and professional manner."
The changes include refining definitions of such items as the operations
security chief, news media staging area and setup officer. The changes also
require a "qualified official" appointed by the warden to sign the death
warrant following an execution and clarify the timeline for inventorying items
needed to conduct an execution.
Other changes in the protocol:
* Clarify timing of event starting with receipt of a death warrant through
* Add security measures such as a prohibition on cell phones in the execution
chamber and establishment of security zones
* Create new provisions for storage and handling of drugs used in an execution
* Clarify qualification for the person setting up intravenous lines for
administering lethal injection
* Specify the training required for the executioner and allows the executioner
to be a contract employee
* Reduce the number of media witnesses from four to three, to comply with state
(source: KXLH News)
Western Pa. 'kill-for-thrill' defendant wants execution halted, attorney for
A man sentenced to death for killing a western Pennsylvania police officer in
1980 wants a stay of execution now that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has
rejected a request for a new trial. He also wants a court-appointed attorney to
assist him with yet another federal appeal.
The Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia filed the motion in U.S.
District Court in Pittsburgh for John Lesko, 52, formerly of Homestead.
The state Supreme Court in February rejected a 2006 ruling by a Westmoreland
County judge that Lesko's attorney was deficient during the 1981 trial and a
1995 resentencing hearing.
Lesko and his co-defendant, Michael Travaglia, have pursued separate appeals
since being sent to death row in 1981. Both were convicted of first-degree
murder for killing Apollo police Officer Leonard Miller on Jan. 3, 1980, days
after killing three others in what prosecutors have said was a
Gov. Tom Corbett has yet to sign a death warrant since the February ruling, but
federal defense attorney Samuel Angell argues in a 10-page motion filed late
Friday that "a death warrant is imminent."
The motion said if that happens, Lesko will be removed from his cell at the
State Correctional Institution-Graterford and put in a segregated area under
state death penalty protocols.
Among other things, Lesko would be confined alone around the clock "with
progressively more invasive restrictions placed on his liberty as the execution
date approaches." That would include visits closely supervised by a guard,
restricted telephone access, a requirement that Lesko name next of kin to
dispose of his body and undergo counseling about his execution, and even be
"fitted for a jumpsuit to wear to the execution."
Lesko wants a stay of his death warrant so he "is not needlessly subjected to
these procedures," the motion said.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said when the Supreme Court
rejected Lesko's appeal in February that Lesko could still raise the same
issues in the federal habeas corpus appeal now being sought.
County Judge Richard McCormick Jr. ruled in 2006 that Lesko deserved a new
trial because his defense attorney, Rabe Marsh III, was ineffective for failing
to present mitigating evidence that could have prompted a jury to spare the
death penalty at a 1995 re-sentencing hearing. McCormick said Marsh should have
raised issues including Lesko having an abusive childhood and mental problems
that could have made him ineligible for a death sentence.
A few days after McCormick's ruling, Lesko's attorney at that time, Robert
Dunham, said Lesko was willing to please guilty in return for a life sentence.
Peck appealed, resulting in February's Supreme Court decision. Peck did not
immediately return a call for comment Monday on the new appeal motion, but has
said repeatedly that the case is so heinous that not pursuing the death penalty
would render capital punishment meaningless.
Lesko and Travaglia were sentenced to death for Miller's murder, which ended a
rampage in which they killed three other people beginning shortly after
The men killed Peter Levato, of Pittsburgh, in a wooded area near the
Loyalhanna Dam on Dec. 27, 1979, then killed Marlene Newcomer, of Leisenring,
Fayette County, that New Year's Eve after picking her up hitchhiking.
The third victim was William Nichols, who died Jan. 2, 1980. The Mount Lebanon
church organist was kidnapped and dumped in an icy Indiana County lake after
being tortured, including having an ashtray emptied into his mouth.
Lesko and Travaglia were in Nichols' stolen car when they sped past Miller
several times until the officer chased and pulled them over. Miller was shot as
he approached the car.
(source: Associated Press)
More information about the DeathPenalty