Monday, May 26, 2008

NY Times on Rev. Carroll Pickett and "At the Death House Door"

Last week, Texas Moratorium Network held a sneak preview of the new film "At the Death House Door" about Rev Carroll Pickett, who attended 95 executions in Texas as chaplain. The New York Times has an article today on the film and Pickett, who will be speaking at the Democrats Against the Death Penalty Caucus at the State Convention of the Texas Democratic Party on Friday, June 6 in Austin in room 6A on Level three of the Austin Convention Center.

From the Times:

The documentary, which will be shown Thursday night on the Independent Film Channel, reveals that Mr. Pickett, a 74-year-old Presbyterian minister, was anguished by his job, and that he finally concluded that the death penalty served neither justice nor morality. He says he believes that some of the men he helped lead to death were innocent.

“After each execution I made a tape on everybody that I walked with to the death chamber,” Mr. Pickett says early in the film as the camera trains on his office, full of boxes of cassette tapes. “I knew I had to talk to somebody, and the only thing in my house at that time was a tape recorder.”

Of all those executions, he was most haunted by that of Carlos De Luna, convicted of stabbing to death a gas station clerk in Corpus Christi, Tex., in 1983. Mr. De Luna asked if he could call the minister Daddy on the day in 1989 when, at 27, he was executed despite his protestations of innocence. Two reporters for The Chicago Tribune wrote a series of articles in 2006 that made a case that Mr. De Luna was wrongfully convicted. Mr. Pickett said he believes that Mr. De Luna was innocent, and the minister’s relationship with the condemned man is a focus of the film.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

DNA Clears Man on Tx Death Row

From the Houston Chronicle:

Prosecutors said Friday that new testing of DNA evidence no longer connects a man sent to death row for a 1993 child slaying that led to the creation of tough sex offender laws, and a state district judge recommended a new trial.

Collin County prosecutors stopped short of saying Michael Blair is innocent of killing strangling and molesting 7-year-old Ashley Estell. But they said evidence used in his 1994 conviction no longer holds up, and acknowledged that another man may have committed the crime.

"There is no good faith argument to support the current conviction in light of the facts and the law as they now exist," Collin County District Attorney John Roach said in a statement.

State District Judge Webb Biard recommended Friday that Blair be granted a new trial and have his sentence set aside. The case now proceeds to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Houston Jury Rejects Death for Killer of Police Officer

A Houston jury yesterday rejected the death penalty against a man convicted in the murder of a Houston police officer. Instead, the jury gave the man life without parole. The jury's decision reflects a growing decline nationwide and in Texas in death sentences.

The Houston Chronicle reports:

One juror said Juan Leonardo Quintero's life still has value.

Another said a convicted cop killer, even one in the country illegally, deserves mercy.

Neither sentiment offered much consolation to family members of murdered Houston police officer Rodney Johnson, who were stunned Tuesday when a jury spared Quintero and sent him to prison for life with no chance of parole.

Asked by state District Judge Joan Campbell if he had anything to say before he was sentenced, the 34-year-old Quintero replied, "I'm sorry."

Johnson arrested the landscaper from Mexico during a Sept. 21, 2006, traffic stop. The 12-year police veteran didn't notice Quintero was hiding a gun, which, while handcuffed in the patrol car's back seat, he used to shoot Johnson seven times.

Quintero's lawyers had argued unsuccessfully that he was criminally insane and incapable of knowing his actions were wrong.

"I believe he has value," said juror Letty Burkholder, of Houston. "He's loved by many of his family and friends, and that was number one. I felt like he has potential."

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Reports from Summit on Wrongful Convictions

Here is an excerpt from a report from Gloria Rubac from yesterday's Summit on Wrongful Convictions:

Six of us with the Abolition Movement went to Austin today for the Summit on Wrongful Convictions sponsored by Texas Senator Rodney Ellis.

Today was an amazing day -- meeting 9 exonerees, meeting the Dallas DA that has the courage to do the right thing, speaking with legislators who agree with us that DA's that commit misconduct should go to jail. We met with Jeff Blackburn, attorney and founder of the Innocence Project of Texas who is working with the Dallas DA and has agreed to work with us to get help for Howard Guidry, an innocent man on death row.

Regina Guidry did an interview with German TV, in German, I assume, about Howard.

The few people not enjoying the day were Roe Wilson, Harris County DA who handles post conviction capital murder appeals. Also Rissie Owens, chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Sen John Whitmire made Roe Wilson look like she needed Pepto Bismol, according to Ester King. And Lee Greenwood took both of Rissie Owens hands in hers and spoke to her about her allowing the murder of her son, Joseph Nichols, a man who had killed no one. I hope that keeps Ms. Owens awake tonight and every other night. Looking into the eyes of a mother in pain whose child you have murdered couldn't be easy if you have any sense of humanity. And we don't know if she does or not.

We got a commitment from State Rep. Terri Hodge to attend the 9th Annual March to Stop Executions in Houston on October 25.
From the AP:
Perhaps the most notorious case of bad eyewitness ID came from James Waller, who was identified by a rape victim by his eyes and the sound of his voice. The rapist in that case was described as being 5-foot-8. Waller, who is 6-foot-4, spent 10 years in prison.

Among the more intriguing reforms mentioned was a crime lab oversight group that would have the same sort of authority health inspectors wield at restaurants. Judge Barbara Hervey of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals referred to the idea as a pet project of hers, adding that Texas would be the first state in the nation to enact such a plan.

Along the same lines was the idea of regional crime and DNA labs operated independently of police departments, a topic broached by Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt. That idea was also favored by state Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cheryl Johnson, who acknowledged that crime labs run by police departments can present conflicts.

Reforms in Dallas County also drew praise. Under District Attorney Craig Watkins, Dallas has begun a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing hundreds of requests by inmates for post-conviction DNA testing.

"It can be argued that Texas ... may have one of the worst criminal justice systems in this country," Watkins said. "We have to start where we have the most problems."

Jeff Blackburn, the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, also suggested overhauling how the courts deal with writs filed by inmates. Blackburn pointed out that James Woodard, who was released last week, was labeled an abuser of the system after filing six writs and two requests for DNA testing.

But the event's most powerful moments belonged to those who had been exonerated. Billy Smith talked about how he considered suicide once or twice a year during his 19-year prison stay for a rape he did not commit. Waller spoke of his wife, who was eight months pregnant, dying in a car accident on the way to one of his court hearings.

"I'm 52 years old and I have no kids," Waller said. "Texas took that away from me."

The applause was loudest when Giles tore up his sex offender registration card, something he had to carry for 15 years while he was on parole before getting exonerated. He ripped it up, he said, because he had a new card to carry: a voter registration card.

"You talk about being afraid, being scared, being locked up, going to jail," Giles said. "That's a nightmare that sometimes you never overcome."

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Tonight: Nation's 1st Post De-facto Moratorium Execution

The nation's first execution since Sept 25, 2007 is scheduled for tonight in Georgia. According to the AP, "the Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday denied William Earl Lynd's request for a stay of execution, paving the way for him to become the first inmate in the nation to face execution since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection is constitutional."

The first execution in Texas is scheduled for June 3 when people will gather at the capitol in Austin to protest the resumption of executions.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Four Upcoming Executions in Texas

Derrick Sonnier June 3
TDCJ Info on Charles Sonnier

Charles Hood June 17
TDCJ Info on Charles Hood

Lester Bower July 22
TDCJ Info on Lester Bower

Larry Davis July 31
TDCJ Info on Larry Davis

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Summit on Wrongful Convictions May 8 at Tx Capitol

(Austin, TX; April 29, 2008) – State Senator Rodney Ellis today announced that a day-long Summit on Wrongful Convictions will be held May 8 at the State Capitol in Austin to determine the causes of wrongful convictions in Texas and identify reforms that can prevent them.

Today's release of James Lee Woodard in Dallas — based on DNA tests showing that he did not commit a murder 27 years ago for which he was wrongfully convicted — comes just one week after Thomas McGowan was freed based on DNA results showing he did not commit the Dallas County rape and burglary for which he spent 23 years in prison. Woodard is represented by the Innocence Project of Texas; McGowan is represented by the Innocence Project. Eighteen people have now been freed based on post-conviction DNA testing in Dallas, and more than 30 people in Texas have been fully exonerated based on DNA results.

As a result of the unprecedented number of exonerations in Texas, key leaders from across the state will gather in Austin on May 8 for a landmark Summit on Wrongful Convictions. Judges, lawmakers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, exonerees, professors and many others will come together for the Summit. The Summit will mark the first time any state's criminal justice leaders have initiated a high-level meeting themselves to address wrongful convictions. Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis is spearheading the Summit, and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck will attend. The Summit will be open to the public.

"We've reached a tipping point on wrongful convictions in Texas. Nobody can seriously doubt that there's a problem, and next week leaders from across our criminal justice system will come together to start solving it," Senator Ellis said today. "We will bring a wide range of leaders, experts and exonerees together for a full day to develop concrete, common-sense remedies to make our system of justice more fair and accurate. We won't solve these serious problems in one day, but we will make historic strides toward restoring confidence in our criminal justice system."

The Summit on Wrongful Convictions will be held on the Senate Floor at the State Capitol from noon to 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 8. Additional details will be circulated early next week

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Dallas DNA Exoneration on "60 Minutes" Sunday, May 4

Tune in to CBS's "60 Minutes" on Sunday, May 4 to learn more about the Innocence Project of Texas's involvement in securing the release of James Lee Woodard, who served more than 27 years in prison for a Dallas County murder that he has always maintained he did not commit. Woodard's release came about as a result of more than 1000 man hours spent by IPOT and the Dallas County District Attorney's office investigating his claim of actual innocence. His story will be told in a compelling segment about the efforts of Dallas County's Conviction Integrity Unit and its collaboration with the Innocence Project of Texas to review more than 400 cases where post-conviction DNA testing was denied by previous Dallas D.A. Administrations.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

And then the deluge...

From the New York Times, May 3, 2008:

Experts say the resumption of executions is likely to throw a strong new spotlight on the divisive national — and international — issue of capital punishment.

“When people confront a new wave of executions, they’ll be questioning not only how people are executed but whether people should be executed,” said James R. Acker, a historian of the death penalty and a criminal justice professor at the State University at Albany.

Texas leads the list with five people now set to die here in the Walls Unit, the state’s death house, between June 3 and Aug. 20. Virginia is next with four. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also set execution dates.

Some welcome the end of the moratorium.
More inmates whose appeals have expired are certain to be added to execution rosters soon, including, in all likelihood, Jack Harry Smith, who, at 70, is the oldest of the 360 men and 9 women on Texas’ death row (though hardly a row any more, but an entire compound). Mr. Smith has been under a death sentence for 30 years for a robbery killing at a grocery in the Houston area.

“If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go,” said Mr. Smith, who maintains his innocence and was delivered by guards for a prison interview in a wheelchair.
Yet public support for capital punishment may be dwindling. Death sentences have been on the decline, and a poll last year by death penalty opponents found Americans losing confidence in the death penalty.

“There will be more executions than people have the stomach for, at least in many parts of the country,” said Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, a leading anti-death-penalty litigation clinic.

Last year, Texas accounted for 26 of the 42 executions nationwide. That includes the last two people executed before the Supreme Court signaled a moratorium on executions while considering whether the chemical formula used for lethal injection in Kentucky inflicted pain amounting to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. The justices ruled 7 to 2 on April 16 that it did not, while allowing for possible future challenges.

But the scheduling of executions comes as prosecutors and juries have been turning away from the death penalty, often in favor of life sentences without parole, now an option in every death-penalty state but New Mexico.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, death sentences nationwide rose from 137 in 1977, peaked at 326 in 1995 and fell steadily to 110 last year.

“We’re seeing a huge drop-off,” said Mr. Bright, attributing the decline to the time and trouble of imposing death sentences, and a recent wave of exonerations after DNA tests proved wrongful conviction.

Close to 35 people have been cleared in Texas alone, including, just days ago, James L. Woodard, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a 1980 murder he did not commit.

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