Thursday, November 30, 2006

Murder victim's mother takes unlikely stance

Grace Maalouf, of Baylor University's The Lariat, wrote a story this week focusing on Jeanette Popp, whose daughter was murdered in 1988 in Austin. Jeanette pressured the Travis County DA not to seek the death penalty against her daughter's killer.

Popp's daughter was murdered in Austin in 1988, but during the trial of her daughter's killer, Popp was strongly against the death penalty.

Two men were wrongfully convicted for her daughter's murder and spent 12 years in prison, she said.

"Had they been given the death penalty, they surely would have been executed," Popp said. "And what does that make us? That makes us murderers, just like the people we're killing."

So when her daughter's murderer was convicted in 2001, she begged him to take a plea bargain.

"He told me he would rather die than spend the rest of his life in a Texas prison," Popp said.

So she said she went public with her appeals.

"I asked people to call the district attorney's office and demand that they take the death penalty off the table, and they did," Popp said.

She said the offender got two consecutive life sentences, which was what she wanted.

"I wanted him punished, but without punishing his loved ones," Popp said.

Popp said the support of family and friends kept her from turning her grief into anger. But she also said her religious beliefs were the biggest factor in healing after the murder.

"My faith in God helped get me through this," Popp said.

Popp, who is Catholic, said her religious beliefs also contribute to her views on the death penalty. But not everyone shares those views.


Popp said her religious objection is to human unnaturally taking any life.

"We have no right to take human life," Popp said. "No one gave us that right. That's God's right."

"I don't care if it's the man that murdered my daughter, a drunk driver, abortion, whatever. We have no business doling out the final punishment."

Not everyone agrees with her stance on the death penalty, though, including some family members, Popp said. But Popp hasn't let that stop her from turning her pain into a passion.

"I've been an activist for six years now, and I'm very proud of what I do," Popp said.

She said she and others who share her vision have worked hard to influence the state and local governments.

Popp also pointed out the change in sentencing options for jurors.

In June of 2005, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill giving juries the option of sentencing capital offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Before, if it was a person who had committed a murder, the only choice (the jury) had was life in prison - which gives them the possibility of parole - or execute them," Popp said.

She said she thinks the new option represents important progress.

"I believe you will see less and less execution as jurors are given that choice," Popp said.

Popp said the possibility of innocent people being executed is one of the biggest objections she has to the death penalty.

"The death penalty is such a final thing," Popp said. "And with over 100 people exonerated from death rows because they were there for crimes they didn't commit, we're making mistakes. And if we're making mistakes, we don't need to be in the business of killing people."

Popp believes life in prison without the possibility of parole is the best answer sentencing options because any potential mistakes won't be final. With the death penalty, she said, all the punishment creates is more victims.

"Everybody we execute has a mother, a father, a husband, children, people who love them," Popp said. "And you're victimizing those people, because you're murdering their child like that man murdered my child."

"I would not put another mother through that pain for anything."

From 2001 to 2004, Popp served as chairwoman of the Texas Moratorium Network.

"Our goal is to create a moratorium on executions in Texas along with a study commission that would look into the problems of the administration of the death penalty," said Scott Cobb, president of the organization.

"We work with different organizations that are interested in criminal justice reform, as well as churches and faith-based groups," Cobb said.

He said the group currently has about 10,000 members trying to influence the Texas legislature and local governments to pass moratorium resolutions temporarily suspending use of the death penalty.

The organization also supports an office of statewide defenders of capital punishment cases to handle cases of people from when they're arrested throughout the appeals process, Cobb said.

"A lot of people executed received the death penalty where they really should have been punished with a lesser punishment like life without parole," Cobb said. "And in some cases they were completely innocent and there would have been a different outcome had they had better representation."

Popp said she now views what she does as an effort to honor her daughter.

"Neither one of us believed in death penalty," Popp said. "I hope what I do honors her memory."

"Because I would much rather honor her in that way than to murder in her name."

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Results of Public Information Act request regarding letters to Perry left at Governor's Mansion by families of innocent men

We received a response today to the Public Information Act request that we submitted to Governor Perry asking what happened to the two letters that were left for him by the families of Carlos De Luna and Cameron Todd Willingham at the governor's mansion on the day of the 7th Annual March to Stop Executions. The response from Governor Perry's office said the two letters were received and sent to the constituent services office. We also requested that they send us any responses that Perry had sent to the families, but they said that no response had been sent. At least, we know that they received the letters and didn't just throw them in the trash. They are now part of the historical record at the Texas Governor's office.

Here is a previous post about the delivery:

Choking back tears and accompanied by 300 supporters standing outside the gates of the Texas Governor's Mansion, the sister of Carlos De Luna delivered a letter to Gov Perry on October 28, 2006 asking him to stop executions and investigate the case of her brother to determine if he was wrongfully executed. Mary Arredondo slipped the letter, along with a copy of an article from the Chicago Tribune that concluded that her brother was innocent, through the bars of the front gate of the mansion and left it lying on the walkway leading to the front door of the mansion. A DPS trooper on duty refused to take the letter, so Mary left it on the walkway. The action was part of the 7th Annual March to Stop Executions.

The 300 supporters standing beside Mary Arredondo carried signs saying, “THE DEATH PENALTY SYSTEM IS BROKEN" on the top of the signs and different slogans at the bottom listing various problems with the Texas death penalty system that can lead to innocent people being executed, including "NO STATEWIDE PUBLIC DEFENDER SERVICE", "PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT", "NO INDEPENDENT COMMISSION TO REVIEW THE SYSTEM" and other problems.

After delivering the letter, Mary joined the crowd in a march to Austin City Hall for a rally against the death penalty.

The Honorable Rick Perry
Governor of Texas
Austin, Texas

October 28, 2006

Dear Governor Perry,

My name is Mary Arredondo. Carlos De Luna was my brother. He was an innocent person executed by Texas on December 7, 1989. I have come to the Texas Governor’s Mansion today to personally deliver this letter to you. It is too late to save my brother’s life, but it is not too late to take steps to prevent other innocent people from being executed. I am writing to ask that you provide the leadership to make sure that Texas never executes another innocent person.

My brother claimed his innocence from the time of his arrest until his execution. He named another man as the real killer. The Chicago Tribune has recently published the results of their investigation that concluded that my brother was the victim of a case of mistaken identity and the most likely killer was a man named Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez's relatives and friends have recounted how he repeatedly bragged that my brother went to Death Row for a murder Hernandez committed. I am enclosing a copy of the Tribune article for you to read.

Please look into my brother’s case and ask the District Attorney in Corpus Christi to reopen the investigation into the crime for which my brother was wrongfully executed.

I also ask you to support a moratorium on executions and to create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas in order to prevent other innocent people from being executed and to propose reforms to ensure the fair and accurate administration of the death penalty in Texas. In addition, I ask you to support an Innocence Commission that would be charged with investigating claims of innocence from people before they are executed and cases of people that have been wrongfully executed, as well as cases of innocent people who have been exonerated in order to determine what went wrong in the system that resulted in an innocent person being convicted.

There are other reforms that will help prevent innocent people from being convicted and executed, such as establishing a statewide Office of Public Defenders for Capital Cases and increasing the amount of money paid to attorneys representing indigent defendants and the amount of money available to them to conduct investigations. Of course, the best way to prevent innocent people from being executed is to end the use of the death penalty and instead sentence people convicted of capital crimes to life without the possibility of parole.

Thank you for reading my letter. I hope that you will do whatever is necessary to prevent other innocent people from suffering the fate of my brother.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Arredondo

The Honorable Rick Perry
Governor of Texas
Austin, Texas

October 28, 2006

Dear Governor Perry,

We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.

Todd was not the only innocent person who has been executed in Texas. There have been reports in the media that Ruben Cantu and Carlos De Luna were also innocent people who were executed in Texas. It is too late to save Todd’s life or the lives of Ruben Cantu or Carlos De Luna, but it is not too late to save other innocent people from being executed. We are here today to urge you to be the leader that Texas needs in order to make sure that Texas never executes another innocent person. There is a crisis in Texas regarding the death penalty and we ask you to address the crisis. Because the public can no longer be certain that Texas is not executing innocent people, we urge you to stop all executions.

Strapped to a gurney in Texas' death chamber, just moments from his execution for setting a fire that killed his three daughters, our son/uncle, Todd Willingham, declared his innocence one last time, saying "I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do." Todd is now dead and can no longer speak for himself, so we have come to Austin to speak for him.

Before Todd’s execution, you were given a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction, but you did not stop the execution. The author of the report, Gerald Hurst, has said, "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire."

Another report issued in 2006 by a panel of national arson experts brought together by the Innocence Project concluded that the fire that killed Todd’s three daughters was an accident. The report says that Todd’s case is very similar to the case of Ernest Willis, who was convicted of arson murder and sentenced to death in 1987. Willis served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated in 2004 – the same year Todd was executed. The report says that neither of the fires which Todd and Ernest Willis were convicted of setting were arson. The report notes that the evidence and forensic analysis in the Willingham and Willis cases "were the same," and that "each and every one" of the forensic interpretations that state experts made in both men's trials have been proven scientifically invalid. In other words, Todd was executed based on “junk science”.

Please look into our son/uncle’s case and ask the District Attorney in Corsicana to reopen the investigation into the crime for which my brother was wrongfully executed. You should also establish an Innocence Commission in the next session of the Texas Legislature that could investigate my brother’s case, as well as other cases of possible wrongful executions, such as Ruben Cantu and Carlos De Luna.

Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. Texas also needs a statewide Office of Public Defenders for Capital Cases. Such an office will go a long way towards preventing innocent people from being executed. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.

We look forward to hearing from you and we pledge to work with you to ensure that executions of innocent people are stopped.

Yours sincerely,

Eugenia Willingham
Stepmother of Cameron Todd Willingham who raised him from the age of 13 months

Trina Willingham Quinton
Niece of Cameron Todd Willingham

Joshua Easley
Nephew of Cameron Todd Willingham

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Monday, November 27, 2006

2007 March to Stop Executions to be in Houston

We had a conference call tonight with the groups that work on the annual March to Stop Executions and decided unanimously to hold next year's "8th Annual March to Stop Executions" in Houston instead of Austin where it has been the last seven years. More people have been executed from Houston than any other city in the U.S. If Harris County, which contains Houston, were a state, it would rank third behind Texas and Virginia in number of executions.

The date for next year's march in Houston is October 27, 2007, which is the last weekend in October.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Andy Kahan attacks freedom of speech on MySpace

Dave Maass of the San Antonio Current writes in this week's edition about Andy Kahan's assault on people exercising their freedom of speech on MySpace.

Is No Myspace Sacred?

Houston's victims-rights official appoints himself morality sheriff, deputizes FOX News to run death-row activists out of e-town.

It ain't easy being against the death penalty. The Governor-writing, the cross-country journeys, the heartbreak and frustration, and threatening phone calls - all just to keep a human being alive. Now anti-death-penalty activists are facing the threat of their own deletion from the system.

By system, I mean, the social-networking site that has added a whole new layer of communication and interconnection to modern society. Two months ago, Andy Kahan, the Houston Mayor's director of Crime-Victim Services, logged on to Myspace to hunt for villains. He struck gold: Myspace hosted profiles and blogs supposedly for serial killers Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez and David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, mass murderers Charles Manson and his female disciples Squeaky Fromme and Susan Atkins.

... click here to read the entire article

Myspace's official response to Kahan and FOX's demands was "Unless you violate the terms of service or break the law, we don't step in the middle of free expression. There's a lot on our site we don't approve of in terms of taste or ideas, but it's not our role to be censors."

Kahan's not going to give up. It took two years to beat eBay, he said. He told FOX he'd consider lobbying for legislation.

That may not be necessary. FOX's parent company, News Corp., bought for $580 million in July 2005, and this week the company's chairman, Rupert Murdoch, gave in to pressure to cancel a two-part interview with O.J. Simpson to promote his kinda-confessional, If I Did It. Of course, in O.J.'s case, it wasn't news so much as it was promotion and profit, since he would've been interviewed by his publisher at ReganBooks, an imprint of FOX's sister publishing house, HarperCollins. Murdoch also cancelled the book's publication.

For me, as a journalist, there's another issue at stake. In the last year I have used Myspace as a first point of contact in about one-third of my articles, especially those involving the friends and family of death-row inmates. If Kahan's successful, it will not only sever a vital communication link, it will set an unacceptable precedent. My concern is there will be nothing to stop Kahan from harassing internet providers until they ban anti-death-penalty websites, and it will encourage other self-appointed morality police to petition Myspace to censor anything else controversial.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Two reforms Texas needs

The Austin American-Statesman had a couple of good ideas this month. They published an editorial saying Texas should abolish the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and another editorial saying Texas should create a statewide office of public defenders for capital murder cases, saying "there should be bipartisan concern over Texas' broken system. Proper writs eliminate doubt regarding a defendant's guilt and can free those who are innocent. That is not happening in many instances for Texas death row inmates."

They argued that the CCA should be abolished and its caseload transferred to the Texas Supreme Court, because the CCA "has failed in its obligation to ensure that the condemned received competent legal help." Other reasons to get rid of the CCA:

Generally, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court is widely respected. But the Court of Criminal Appeals — also composed of nine elected GOP judges — has embarrassed the state with a series of bad rulings, many of them regarding the death penalty. Recently, the conservative leaning U.S. Supreme Court signaled its frustration with Texas' criminal appeals court when it agreed to hear three Texas death penalty cases in its next term.

By now, many Texans know about some of the rulings that made national news, including the infamous sleeping lawyer case. In that case, the criminal appeals court judges saw nothing wrong with a defense lawyer who slept through key portions of his client's capital murder trial.

The same court said OK to prosecutors who hid evidence from defense lawyers in several capital murder cases involving indigent defendants.

And it gave thumbs up to racial gerrymandering of a jury by Dallas prosecutors years ago in another capital murder case.

This week, we learned about more disturbing practices that probably are costing people their lives. For years, the court has permitted lawyers to submit sloppy, erroneous and inferior work in death penalty appeals. In a system in which almost anything passes as a writ of habeas corpus to appeal a death sentence, it is very possible that innocent people have been — and will be — put to death.

Rumor has it that a legislator is planning to file a bill that if passed would create a statewide office of public offenders, but so far we have not yet heard of anyone planning any legislation to abolish the Court of Criminal Appeals, but filing of new bills has only just begun.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

"A Day in My Life On Death Row" by George Rivas

Marybeth Rivas, whom we met in-person for the first time at the recent 7th Annual March to Stop Executions, sent us this article written by George Rivas about his life on death row.

Sleep is a luxury here and is not often found in more than a couple of hour blocks at a time. I am used to this though. When I first entered the"system" through General Population, or GP as it's termed, I learned quickly to condition myself to less sleep and guarded sleep. The doors were open most of the time, like you see in the movies, therefore, at any time you could be killed in your happens.

It's safer, in that respect, here on death row. The doors are always closed, believe me, and they are solid steel. There are slots in them for meals to be passd through, our handcuffs to be put on and taken off, and for guards to look in and check on us whenever they want to. They are also a blessing at times because it allows us to yell through them to other inmates in the area. Solitude can be overwhelming, especially when living in a place the size of a closet.. It can get to some, sometimes enough to push them over the edge. But it's those same steel doors that make sleep, here on death row, next to impossible. They, and all doors seperating sections, are on an electrical track. The slamming open and closed of these steel doors literally cause the walls to shake and the noise it creates can only be compared to as what you would hear in a dungeon.

I awake everyday about 2:30 am. Actually, I'm awoken by the slamming of the steel doors that the guards walk through on their rounds. I'm used to it. Can't fall back to sleep, and besides, chow will be served in about half an hour, so no use trying.

I am thinking of my wife and our great visit last night. She looked beautiful (as always), and I smile as I think of her in those jeans. More, I pray and thank the Lord for her...

Soon chow rolls around. It's a big cart that can feed a large number of us before it returns to the kitchen to refill. Chances are, food will not be warm coming off of it. Most of us have "hot pots" that we reheat our food in. Today it's stale pancakes again, so I only get the milk. I'll save it for later in the day though, to put in my coffee. Maybe I can fall back to sleep, I think and lay back down. No, it's useless now. I'd fallen asleep around 11:30 pm, so I really need the zzz's. Oh, well...

I doze off around 6 am, but showers are run about that time on Sundays, since there is no recreation being run today. When they come to your door, you go then or you do not go. I wring out my towel--which I'd left soaking in detergent for the night-- and get ready for my shower. Like I said, you get one chance and only one chance to go. The guards open the small slot in my door and I turn around, then bend down to have the'cuffs put on. The door is opened and I am taken to the shower. The process is repeated to take the 'cuffs off (slot in the steel shower door too) and I take a 10 minute shower. We do not choose our shower temperature, it's been scolding hot and it's been freezing cold before, but today it feels good. Going through the handcuffing routine again, I am brought back to my cell.

I listen to the radio, which I'm thankful to have. It keeps me connected to the world outside through news, music, and I love to listen to daily sermons. Alot of people think we have t.v.'s in here and computers, that just isn't so. There are many here who cannot afford a radio and like I said before, solitude can be overwhelming. After I listen for a bit, I then begin my morning prayers, but I'm tired, so I don't read any Scriptures this morning. My wife is spending the night in town, so we'll see each other again tomorrow (Monday) before she drives the 4-plus hours drive back to her family's home. It's pretty tough on her, but she never complains. My heart goes out to her, more than I can ever express in words...
I wonder if she can feel the love-thoughts I'm sending her way this morning? I'm looking at her picture as I begin to nod off.

Lunch shows up about an hour later, and I'm pretty groggy as I get my tray-- bean burritos with beans, rice, and corn. I pray over it and begin to eat. The corn tastes sour? A neighbor upstairs begins to holler at the guards that the food is spoiled. Great. I'm just about done eating (not the corn though), and I just shake my head. Several other people yell out the same thing, so a sargent eventually shows up to see what the problem is. Typically, he just smells the food then says he'll go talk to the kitchen boss, and get back to us. No holding my breath! I'm brushing my teeth when he returns to say that the boss said there was nothing wrong with the food. Bull. As groggy as I was when I ate, even I could tell that there was something wrong. But, none of them care. If it means more work, i.e.; having to refeed the whole pod (84 inmates), they'll just ignore us and whatever our problems are. I expected it, especially with this particular sargent, so after cleaning up, I just lay down.

This time I do fall asleep, though the constant slamming of the steel doors keeps waking me, even though I 've got ear plugs pressed deeply into my ears. But I am used to this too. There's almost always someone yelling from one cell to another too. We are all living under the same shadow of death here. I never know if it will be the last time talking to a person because he may get a date before I'm moved near him again. I, and a handful of us, are moved every week to another cell. Often by the time I'm moved back in a certain area again, some will have been moved to the pod for people with dates for execution, but sometimes their already--Gone. On an execution day, we all share this heavyness that's within us and in the air. We get to know a different side of each other that people out there do not get to see. We all have hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, the desire to live and the desire to die. Yes, you read that correctly. We all yearn to live, but sometimes the daily living conditions wears us out until there's no fight left

I'm awoken again at last chow ( you call it "supper" or "dinner"), but I'm not feeling too well, so I refuse my tray. Just feeling bloated and my head feels hot. I pray that I'm not ill, and lay down for a bit more. I get up after a while and heat up some water for a cup of coffee. Then sit down to write a letter to my wife. I smile just thinking about her, and give thanks to the Lord again for her.

She'll be here in the morning, so I've got to get some real rest, I don't want her to see the circles under my eyes and end up worring for nothing. I don't really want to tell her of the food poisoning, but she'll find out anyways. I can't keep secrets from her, as insignificant as they may be. She's my soul-mate, so I won't lie to her. I finish writing to her in the middle of the night, brush my teeth, then lay it down for the night. It's after 1 am, so I'm going to try and get a couple of hours in before chow shows up at 3 am (more or less). I'll probably doze off praying when they show up with breakfast. I hope it's not pancakes again, cuz I'm kinda hungry now.

I guess it's been a good day... no fires were started (they cause smoke) and no one near me was gassed. Both the smoke and the gas can fill your cell even though it's not your fire or your not the one being gassed. How? Those little slots in the steel doors that I said was sometimes a blessing, well this would be an instance when they aren't. When the gas or smoke fills your cell you have two repreives. One, soak a towel with water and wring it out, then put it over your face, or two, if it's real bad, place the wet towel over your head with your head down in the toilet (yep, you always want to keep your toilet clean; it doubles as your clothes washer too). When there are no gassings or smoke filling the pods, there's a smell that difficult to explain. When I was captured and brought back into the "system" he first thing that 'hit' me was the smell. It's a smell that I think could be described as a mixture of a hospital (cleaning supplies), basement (damp and musty), and some other smell that I can't place. It's just always there. One more thing that I hear that people think we have while in here is A/C. Nope.

And let me tell ya, it can reach 120* in the cell, on a hot day in summer, especially if your cell's window, which are long, narrow slats of thick, unopenable glass, faces the sun. I use my fan. I use it alot.

I think I'll be able to fall asleep now. And I smile as I drift off, because I know that my wife is nearby and I'll see her sweet face in the morning. With that in mind, I drift off...

...I wake up at 2:30 am. The slamming of the steel doors has brought me out of a pleasent dream of my wife. We were kissing... sighs.
Oh, yeah. Pancakes again. Oh, well.

---George Rivas

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

"State vs. Reed" - full version of award-winning documentary now online

"State vs. Reed" is a 60 minute documentary that explores an explosive capital murder trial in Texas that has resulted in a questionable death penalty conviction of Bastrop, Texas' Rodney Reed. Thank you to the filmmakers, Frank Bustoz and Ryan Polomski, for making this important film available online. Thanks to the Texas Students Against the Death Penalty blog and Hooman Hedayati for the heads up. The Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty has been working with the Reed family for years to prove Rodney's innocence.

Reed, a then-28 year-old black male with a minor criminal record, was convicted in 1998 of the murder of Stacey Stites, a 19 year-old finacee' of a local police officer named Jimmy Fennell. Read more about the film in this Austin Chronicle article. Though Fennell was the primary suspect for over a year who failed two polygraph examinations, Reed was eventually arrested after DNA found on the victim was connected to him. Reed claims that he and the victim, who was Caucasian, shared a consensual sexual affair for over 6 months and that an encounter the night before would account for the finding of his DNA as well as a possible motive for the real killer. "State vs. Reed" dives into this complex and potentially benchmark case that still rattles the citizens of this small Central Texas town. By talking to those who knew best -- friends of the victim and family of the defendent, investigators, lawyers, journalists and Reed himself, on Texas' notorious Death Row -- the award winning documentary reveals a case fraught with open questions and unusual coincidences. Ultimately, the documentary reveals the mistake-prone system that sentences men and woman to death in the state of Texas at a rate incomparable around the world.

Filmmakers Frank Bustoz and Ryan Polomski are first-time feature filmmakers, though have worked in the medium in central Texas for years. Previously, they have worked on the internationally screened short documentary, "Hecho a Mano: Tres Historias de Guatemala". "State vs. Reed" premiered at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival where it won the Lone Star States Audience Award. It has since been screened multiple times in the central Texas area, including the Kerrville Community Center in Bastrop, the Bastrop Public Access Channel (for seven straight nights), the George Washing Carver Museum and Cultural Center in east Austin, and as part of the Amnesty Interntional Film Festival on the University of Texas campus.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Changes to Texas House after Election

One of the big changes in the upcoming Texas legislative session impacting death penalty reform legislation will be that State Rep Terry Keel will no longer be chair of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, as he has been since 2003. Keel blocked many criminal justice reform bills from getting out of his committee the last two sessions. In the election last week, the seat previously held by Keel was won by a Democrat, Valinda Bolton. Keel had not sought re-election to the House in order to run for a place on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He lost in the Republican primary. No one knows yet who will be the new chair of the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, but whoever chairs the committee will probably be more open-minded to reform than Keel.

Democrats picked up five seats in the Texas House in last week's election, plus in December 2006 they had won another seat in a special election. In 2003, the party split in the Texas House was 88 Republicans and 62 Democrats. In January 2007, there will likely be 81 Republicans and 69 Democrats (there is still one seat vacant after last week's election because of the death of one candidate, but that seat is likely to remain Republican).

The election results have brought up the possibility that the House will elect a new speaker to replace Tom Craddick, who has irritated many people with his autocratic style. At this point, Craddick looks likely to retain his post, but there will likely be an attempt to replace him. Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat, has asked the Texas Ethics Commission to determine whether some lobbyists are violating a law that prevents people who want to be speaker from using bribery to win the post. She says some lobbyists are pressuring lawmakers to support Craddick for another term and threatening retribution if they don't.

In 2001, there was a vote on a moratorium on executions on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. The bill was HB 1328 by Rep Harold Dutton. 52 House members voted in favor of a moratorium back then, including one Republican. 91 voted "No" on the moratorium bill. 1 person was recorded as "present not voting" and there were six absent members. A couple of the Democrats who voted "No", probably did so on procedural grounds and were in fact in favor of a moratorium.

In the newly elected Legislature that will take office in January 2007, there will be 69 members (32 D's 37 R's) who were not members in 2001 and so have never voted on a moratorium.

There will be 50 members who were also members in 2001 and voted "No". There are 2 members who were members in 2001, but were absent in 2001 when the vote took place.

There will be 29 members (28 D's and 1 R) of the Texas Legislature who were also members in 2001 and who voted "yes" for the moratorium back then.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

379th person executed today in Texas since 1982

Texas executed a man on Wednesday by lethal injection for the 1992 murder of a man whom he shot dead during a car hijacking outside a Houston shopping center.

Willie Shannon, 33, was convicted of the slaying of Benjamin Garza who was waiting for his wife and children in his car when he was attacked.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Shannon, who was then 19 years old, entered the passenger side of the car and shot Garza in the head after a brief struggle.

He was later apprehended after being spotted driving the stolen vehicle. Police said he had raped a maid at a nearby hotel just 10 minutes before the slaying and carjacking.

In his last statement while strapped to the gurney, Shannon said he had not meant to kill Garza.

"I took a father, it wasn't my fault, it was an accident ... God knows the truth," he said.

Shannon had no last meal request.

Shannon was the 24th person executed in Texas this year and the 379th put to death in the state since it resumed capital punishment in 1982.

Texas, which has executed more people both this year and in the 20 years since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a national death penalty ban, has one more execution scheduled this year.

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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Defense Attorney Wins Dallas DA Election

Democrats have turned the tide in Dallas County, rejecting a high-profile GOP candidate for district attorney, kicking incumbent county judge Margaret Keliher to the curb and choosing dozens of Democrats for judicial posts.

CRAIG WATKINS won the DA race in Dallas County.

Age: 38

Professional background: Worked as a municipal prosecutor and public defender before starting a private law practice. Also owns a real estate title company and previously owned a bail bond company.

Party: Democrat

Political experience: Ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in 2002.

Hometown: Graduate of Carter High School in Dallas. Now lives in DeSoto.

On the campaign trial, Mr. Watkins, a defense attorney who has never prosecuted a felony case, wears his relative lack of prosecutorial experience as a badge of honor. He promises to shake up the office with progressive criminal justice ideas.

“The difference between the two of us is, not only am I running against the guy standing next to me, but I’m running against the system that has failed us,” he said in a fall campaign appearance.

Mr. Watkins’ “Smart on Crime” message includes a promise to give low-level offenders second chances to avoid prison through diversion programs. He also would lobby for better education funding and rehabilitation for convicts.

“Our role is more than just prosecuting criminals,” he said. “Our role should also be prevention and addressing why people commit crime. I will not just sit back and wait for someone to commit a crime.”

Mr. Shook’s “Community Oriented Proactive Prosecution Plan” would have prosecutors working closely with police and community members to focus on root causes of crime in neighborhoods.

Mr. Shook said his prosecutors also would help police target hardcore criminals who are responsible for a disproportionately high percentage of crime. He said he also would be an advocate for more funding for special courts and diversion programs for drug offenders and the mentally ill.

“It’s more of a philosophy,” Mr. Shook said. “More than waiting for crime to happen, we go after crime.”

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Chris Bell for Governor

Many people have asked what we think of the current gubernatorial candidates. The election is this Tuesday. There are five candidates on the ballot for governor, so the winner may only need about 38 percent of the vote to win the election. We hope Chris Bell wins the election.

On Friday, August 11, we met with the Democratic nominee for governor, Chris Bell, in his campaign headquarters in Austin. We discussed the problems in the death penalty system for an entire hour. Some of the topics we covered were the cases of Ruben Cantu, Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos De Luna. There have been reports in the media that all three of them were probably innocent of the crimes for which they were executed by Texas.

Chris expressed strong concern that innocent people could be at risk of execution in Texas. He said he would like to see an Innocence Commission created in the next session of the Texas Legislature.

We then asked him if he supported a moratorium on executions and if were the governor, if he would sign a moratorium bill if it came to his desk. He said, "Yes, I would".

We think Chris Bell should be the next governor of Texas. He supports capital punishment, as do the vast majority of Texas voters. He also understands that there are problems in the Texas system of capital punishment. We expect that if he wins the election on Tuesday and becomes Governor, he will keep his word and sign a moratorium bill, if one is passed by the Texas Legislature.

Some of you may wonder why not support Kinky Friedman. Like Bell, Kinky supports capital punishment, but also supports a moratorium. Part of the answer is that Kinky has no chance of winning. He is running fourth in the polls, ahead of only the Libertarian candidate. The best chance to enact a moratorium during the next four years is to elect Chris Bell governor. Kinky also has some strange positions on other issues that make it difficult for many people to support him. For instance, Kinky has said he would support declaring martial law in border cities to control immigration. That's a little over the top.

Chris Bell is also the best candidate for voters concerned about the education system in Texas. If you have ever looked over the backgrounds of people executed in Texas, one thing that jumps out at you is that so many of them dropped out of school - often as early as the 8th or 9th grade. Chris Bell's education proposals would probably reduce the drop out rate. Reducing the number of drop outs would reduce the number of people who end up in the prison system for violent crimes.

While you are at the polls, don't forget to vote for J.R. Molina in his race against Sharon Keller for presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Under Keller, the CCA has become a "national laughingstock", according to one of the other judges on the CCA.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Audio and Pictures from 7th Annual March to Stop Executions

Here is a link to an audio report from Houston Indy Media on the march.
It contains comments from Eugenia Willingham and Mary Arredondo.

They also have some pictures up.

Execution of the innocent is the focus of 7th Annual Texas March to End the Death Penalty

by Renee Feltz Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006 at 2:16 PM
Hundreds of Texans took to the streets of the state capital this weekend to call attention to three death row prisoners who were executed, and later found to be innocent. Renee Feltz reports:

audio: MP3 at 3.6 MB

Mothers like Sandra Reed delivered powerful speeches in support of their children. Reed, the mother of Rodney Reed, spoke about her son and his case, the injustices of the system, and her determination to get him out of death row.

Rally at gates of Governor's Mansion

After DPS troopers refused to take her letter for Rick Perry, Mary Arredondo, sister of Carlos De Luna, dropped it through the gate of the governor's mansion.

Above photos from the 7th Annual March to Stop Executions
by Gislaine

Eugenia Willingham, mother of Todd Willingham and Joshua Easley, nephew of Todd Willingham

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