[Deathpenalty] death penalty news----TEXAS, N.C., CONN., OHIO, ILL.
rhalperi at smu.edu
Sat Feb 4 11:42:15 CST 2012
Lynching, Racial History and Death Penalty Disqualification
(source: University of Texas)
Jury in inmate death trial calls for improvements at Travis County jail
A federal jury in Austin ruled today that neither the actions of Travis County
officials nor of a former jail psychiatrist caused the death of a mentally ill
woman found dead in her cell in 2008. But in an extraordinary move, the jury
issued a statement calling on the county to improve the operations of its
Following the jury’s decision in the lawsuit brought by the family of
21-year-old Rachel Jackson, who died while in “psych lockdown” in the Del Valle
jail, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks agreed that the panel could read a
statement into the record.
“While we cannot find that Travis County proximately caused the death of Rachel
Jackson,” the foreman said while standing in the jury box, “we do see
significant opportunity for improvement in the processes, documentation and
communication within the Travis County Correctional center.”
Outside the courthouse, jurors declined to elaborate on the statement to a
Jackson’s estate and her mother, Regina Jackson, and father, Rudolf Williamson,
claimed that the negligence of former jail psychiatrist Dr. John S. Ford and
Travis County led to her death.
Their lawyer Sean Lyons said during closing arguments that Ford was negligent
in part by prescribing Jackson the antipsychotic drug Mellaril, or
thioridazine, without first checking her potassium level and the electrical
activity of her heart, as suggested by warnings packaged with the drugs.
The warnings state that the drug could cause an arrhythmia — when someone’s
heart beats out of rhythm — which could lead to sudden death.
Lyons also argued that a Travis County pharmacist should have passed along
warnings when dispensing the drugs that the danger of sudden death would be
exacerbated by other medication Jackson had been taking.
Testimony revealed other problems within the jail, including that when Jackson
complained of a racing heart three days into her incarceration, a jail guard
failed to call for medical help and that when a jail nurse responded to
Jackson’s complaint of chest pains one day later, he failed to document the
results of a check of her vital signs.
Neither of those complaints made it to Ford for him to consider in
administering the medication.
Outside court, Assistant Travis County Attorney Elaine Casas said that the
county has computerized its system so when a doctor enters prescriptions, he or
she automatically learns about any warnings or dangerous drug combinations
associated with the order. She said she would meet with the sheriff’s office to
discuss further issues raised during the trial and referred further questions
to Chief Deputy Jim Sylvester, who could not be immediately reached.
Jackson was arrested on July 15, 2008, on a previous drug possession warrant
after an Austin police officer found her having what Lyons has described a
psychotic breakdown on a street near LBJ High School in East Austin. She died 6
days later — 3 days after being prescribed Mellaril.
Dr. David Dolinak, chief medical examiner for Travis County, ruled that Jackson
died from a fatal arrhythmia brought on by the combination of drugs she had
An expert testifying for Ford, Dallas County Chief Medical Examiner Jeffrey
Barnard, testified that it is impossible to determine how Jackson died.
Ford’s lawyer, Paul Starr, told the jury that Ford was aware of the warnings on
Mellaril but believed the drug was safe because he had been prescribing it for
about 40 years.
Starr argued that Jackson’s death could have been caused by her use of illicit
drugs, a seizure or a number of other factors.
During a deposition prior to trial, Ford stated that he continued to prescribe
Mellaril without ordering tests of his patients’ hearts and potassium levels.
During the trial, he testified that being sued has made him more careful.
Asked to clarify that statement in an interview after court adjourned, Starr
said that Ford said that “while he still does not believe it is medically
necessary, he will probably do so (order the tests) in the future.”
Starr said Ford currently works as a contract psychiatrist at the Waco Center
for Youth, a psychiatric residential treatment facility for teenagers run by
the Texas Department of State Health Services.
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
Mentally ill inmates belong in hospitals, not jails
To no one's surprise a state district judge in Austin last week ruled that
mentally incompetent state inmates are being kept in jail too long before
moving them to psychiatric hospitals.
In San Antonio, criminal defendants in need of a bed in a state psychiatric
facility are routinely spending months in the Bexar County jail waiting for
Late last week, there were 17 inmates at the Bexar County jail awaiting
transfer to a state hospital bed. Some of them have been in the county jail for
almost 300 days.
In what many hail as a major court victory for the mentally ill in Texas, state
District Judge Orlinda Naranjo has ordered the Department of State Health
Services to transfer defendants who have been ruled incompetent to stand trial
due to mental illness to a state psychiatric hospital within 21 days of
receiving a judge's order, the Austin American Statesman reported.
That is indeed great news for advocates and the families of defendants with
mental health problems who have fought long and hard against the
criminalization of the mentally ill. Mental health patients need treatment and
should not be held in local lockups. On average, mentally incompetent prisoners
are spending up to 6 months in jail before being transferred to a state
The state attorney general's office has not yet decided if it will appeal the
Complying with the judge's order will be a major undertaking. Over the last two
years, there has been a waiting list of about 400 inmates for the 800 available
state hospital beds.
The lack of sufficient state hospital beds for pretrial criminal defendants
with mental health issues has been a long-standing problem across the state.
There has been much legislation passed to address the needs of the mentally
ill. Sadly, the new statutes are often nothing more than unfunded mandates
passed on to local governments, which often lack the resources to fully comply.
Naranjo's ruling in a 2007 lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Texas, a
federally funded group that advocates for people with disabilities, brings much
needed attention to a longer festering problem. This problem should have been
addressed years ago.
It is unfortunate that it often requires court action to get the state to do
what is just and fair.
(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, Jan. 31)
Court hears of Cumberland prosecutor's tendency to exclude black jurors
A researcher testified Tuesday that a Cumberland County prosecutor in Marcus
Reymond Robinson's 1994 murder trial was three times more likely to dismiss
blacks during jury selection for capital cases than other races.
The testimony comes on the second day of the state's first hearing under the
Racial Justice Act, which gives death row inmates a chance to argue that racism
played a role in their prosecution.
The prosecutor in Robinson's trial was John Dickson, who is now a Cumberland
County District Court judge. Last year, Dickson was subpoenaed to testify at
Robinson, who is black, was convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991. His
lawyers hope to use statistics to persuade Senior Resident Superior Court Judge
Greg Weeks to convert Robinson's death sentence to life in prison without
parole, as specified in the Racial Justice Act of 2009.
Researcher Barbara O'Brien of Michigan State University said she looked at
three trials that Dickson took part in that resulted in death sentences. In
those three trials, Dickson was 3.3 times more likely to strike a potential
black juror than other jurors, O'Brien said.
On Monday, she testified that Dickson peremptorily struck half of the eligible
black jurors during Robinson's trial, but only 14.3 % of the nonblack jurors.
Lawyers are allowed to remove a certain number of potential jurors at their
discretion, but race is not supposed to be a factor.
O'Brien found other patterns in Dickson's selection of jurors. He was 19.5
times more likely to peremptorily dismiss jurors who expressed reservations
about the death penalty, and he was 8.3 times more likely to dismiss jurors who
had jobs that involved helping people.
Conversely, Dickson was less likely to dismiss jurors who had professional
careers, O'Brien said.
Robinson's lawyers are trying to show that black jurors were illegally excluded
based on race from serving on North Carolina death cases, and in Robinson's
case in particular. Racism in jury selection is a factor that can lead to that
conclusion, under the terms of the Racial Justice Act. Prosecutor Jonathan
Perry, who is from Union County, began cross examining O'Brien on Tuesday
morning, questioning her on her methodology.
Robinson and another man were convicted of killing 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, a
Douglas Byrd High School student, after the teen gave them a ride from a gas
station. The other man is serving a life sentence.
O'Brien said she hired lawyers to read trial transcripts and other court
documents to ascertain information about potential jurors, such as their race,
age and gender.
She had previously testified that when the court record was ambiguous or lacked
these details, the researchers used voter registration records and a commercial
database that tracks people's names, addresses and demographic details to get
The team evaluated information about each potential juror for factors that
might affect whether he or she would be seated, such as attitudes toward law
enforcement, acquaintance with lawyers or witnesses in the case, past
experiences as a victim of crime and whether the juror had been accused of a
Perry showed O'Brien an example where her team had made an error in how they
classified a juror's information, and she acknowledged the mistake.
"We did the best we could to be as accurate as possible," she said.
2 lawyers independently evaluated each juror, she said, and she followed up
where there were discrepancies in their results or where they had questions on
how to classify a juror's background, demeanor and other factors.
(source: The Fayetteville Observer)
see (long article):
(source: New Yorker)
Windsor Dems Call for Death Penalty Repeal ---- The death penalty "does not
work and cannot be fixed," said DTC Chair Leo Canty.
Last night at its monthly meeting, the Windsor Democratic Town Committee voted
29-0 with three abstaining to approve a resolution calling on Connecticut’s
General Assembly to repeal the state’s death penalty during the 2012
“The time has come to finally do away with a death penalty that does not work
and cannot be fixed,” Windsor DTC Chairman Leo Canty said. “Our state’s death
penalty only drags murder victim family members through decades of court
proceedings with virtually no prospect of a resolution, while wasting taxpayer
money that could be much better spent on victims’ services and crime
The Windsor DTC vote follows a similar action taken recently by members of the
Woodbridge Democratic Town Committee. At its October 25th meeting the
Woodbridge DTC voted 15-1 with 4 abstaining in favor of a resolution calling
for an end to capital punishment in Connecticut.
“Active democrats in our area who invest precious time and money to elect
candidates are calling on our legislators to not delay action on this any
longer,” Canty said. “We are looking for and expecting leadership on this issue
during the upcoming legislative session.”
In 2009 the Connecticut General Assembly approved a bill repealing the state’s
death penalty. Then Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed the legislation. Connecticut’s
present Governor, Dannel Malloy, is a staunch opponent of capital punishment
and has vowed to sign a repeal bill into law.
The Windsor DTC joins a growing chorus of death penalty opponents across the
nation calling for an end to a system that risks executing innocent people and
provides no deterrent to crime. Earlier this year the State of Illinois
repealed its death penalty, following closely after similar actions by the
states of New Jersey, New Mexico and New York.
(source: Windsor Patch)
Lawyer to Ohio justice: Skip death penalty cases
A prosecutor in Cincinnati is calling on an Ohio Supreme Court justice who
recently criticized the state’s death penalty law to sit out decisions in cases
involving capital punishment.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reports Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters on Friday
sent a letter to judges and prosecutors across the state questioning Justice
Paul Pfeifer’s ability to “be fair to both sides.”
Pfeifer, a Republican, helped write Ohio’s death penalty law as a state
legislator in 1981, but has recently said it isn’t working. In December, he
told a House committee the law should be scrapped.
Pfeifer said judges are permitted to suggest changes in state law. He said he
knows “the difference between advocating for a change in the law and applying
the law as it exists.”
(source: Associated Press)
Prosecutor Alvarez creates team to probe wrongful conviction claims
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has established a new 6-person unit
that will solely investigate wrongful convictions claims, which critics in the
past have said weren’t sufficiently probed.
The office has always taken such cases seriously and has reversed murder
convictions when it found people were erroneously put behind bars, State’s
Attorney Anita Alvarez said Thursday.
But now Alvarez says she has a dedicated staff that will review the
questionable convictions and pay particular attention to cases in which
physical evidence was not fully examined and cases involving single
The creation of the unit marks a “shift in philosophy,” in which the office
intends to “increase our focus and our openness about these cases,” Alvarez
said at a City Club of Chicago luncheon.
“In my view, my job is not just about racking up convictions, it’s about always
seeking justice, even if that measure of justice means that we must acknowledge
mistakes of the past,” she said
The Conviction Integrity Unit, which has been operating for the last month,
consists of three prosecutors, two investigators and one victim-witness
specialist, Alvarez said.
Alvarez noted that many of current 35 cases the unit is now reviewing took
place when DNA testing was primitive and interrogations weren’t videotaped.
Today, investigators have the tools to do thorough examinations of the claims
set force by innocence projects and defense attorneys, she said, adding that
the unit will train younger prosecutors on what to look for when there may be a
question on whether the right suspect was detained.
“30 years ago maybe we were quicker to approve a charge than we are today,”
Alvarez told reporters afterward.
During her 20-minute speech, Alvarez expressed dismay at being compared to the
“Gestapo” during the legal showdown with David Protess, the former head of
Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project. Prosecutors, like
journalists, were seeking the truth, when they sought and eventually won the
right to examine roughly 500 emails student journalists exchanged with Protess
in their investigation into whether the wrong man was put behind bars for a
1978 Harvey murder, she said. But Protess spun it as an “us vs. them” situation
in the press, Alvarez said.
In an email Thursday, Protess said since Alvarez’s name is on the “subpoena for
my students’ notes and grades, she instigated the ‘us vs. them’ dynamic.”
He did, however, applaud the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
“I fully support the idea of a wrongful convictions unit and will bring our
cases to its attention in the future,” Protess said.
“We should have a common interest in pursuing justice, as we have had in the
(source: Chicago Sun-Times)
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