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Monday, January 28, 2008

Womack: No 5pm Closing Rule at CCA

The Statesman has an article on the race for Place 4 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The incumbent, Paul Womack, is being challenged in the Republican primary by Robert Francis.

The article contains a quote from Womack on the Sharon Keller fiasco, which was when Keller claimed the court closed at 5pm and refused to accept an appeal by a man set for execution at 6pm on Sept 25.

"The court should've received that petition as long as he was alive and able to bring it," Womack said. "Nobody's ever told me about 5 o'clock deadlines."

Keller's 5pm closing rule apparently only existed in her own mind.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Travis DA Candidate Rick Reed Opposes Death Penalty

The big news this past week in the campaign for Travis County District Attorney is that there is now one candidate in the race who publicly opposes the death penalty.

Rick Reed has said:

"I have decided to publicly support a moratorium on the death penalty in Travis County. If I am elected District Attorney of Travis County I will not authorize the office to seek the death penalty during my tenure."

Rick Reed's opposition to the death penalty makes him stand out as the most progressive candidate in a race with three other candidates who all support the death penalty. A stance against the death penalty in a race for District Attorney in Travis County is a perfect fit of issue, office and location.

The next district attorney can unilateraly end the use of the death penalty within Travis County by not seeking the death penalty and instead using life without parole as an alternative.

If Reed remains the only candidate in the race who will not seek the death penalty, then it is likely that one of the pro-death penalty candidates will miss the runoff because of their support for the death penalty.

A campaign is a two-way learning process. It is a way for the community to get to know the candidates and it is a way for the candidates to learn about the community. Most of the people who will vote in the Democratic primary in Travis County on March 4th either believe that the death penalty system in Texas is broken and should not be used until steps are taken to address the problems, or they oppose the death penalty on principle in all cases and believe it should be abolished. Either way, there is likely to be a large amount of support in Austin for candidates who take principled stands against the death penalty in a race where the winner has the power to unilaterally end the use of the death penalty within Travis County.

It is not too late for the other candidates to take postitions on the death penalty that reflect the values and priorities of the progressive community from which they are seeking votes. All the candidates for Travis County District Attorney should follow Rick Reed's example and say that they will not seek the death penalty.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Travis County DA Candidates Forum - Feb 4th at 6 PM

Texas Moratorium Network & ACLU-TX Central TX Chapter
invite all interested members of the community to a

PUBLIC FORUM with the
CANDIDATES for TRAVIS COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY


Monday, February 4th, 6pm at
Gene's Po Boys
1209 E. 11th St. (at the Rosewood "Y")
(parking behind building)

There are four candidates* running - all in the Democratic primary (no Republicans are running, so the winner of the Democratic primary on March 4 will be the next DA) - to replace Ronnie Earle, generally a well-received prosecutor, even a hero to some, especially for the Public Integrity Unit's indictment of Tom Delay.

But there are some areas in which Earle and his office were lacking, including continuing to seek the death penalty instead of exclusively using life without parole as an alternative and believing police officers are categorically above the law by commonly withholding evidence from grand juries that would likely lead to their prosecution such as with APD's Julie Schroeder (shooting death, Daniel Rocha) and Michael Olsen, who, despite videotaped evidence of wrongdoing in 2003 (excessive force, Jeffrey Thornton), was cleared and put back on the force just to again be cleared again after the shooting death of Kevin Brown last summer. (Both Schroeder and Olsen were fired nonetheless).

Come find out what the candidates believe the DA's priorities should be in matters regarding criminal justice and public safety. This 90-minute forum will attempt to get the candidates on record on a range of important issues, including the death penalty, police misconduct, political corruption, juvenile justice, drug laws and other issues. During one segment of the forum, attendees will be given the opportunity to pose their own questions to the candidates. People may also send suggestions for questions to the contacts below.

*CANDIDATE WEBSITES:
http://www.garycobb4da.com
http://rosemarylehmberg.com
http://www.montfordforda.com
http://www.electrickreed.com

For event info contact: Scott Cobb scottcobb99@gmail.com 512-689-1544 or
Debbie Russell debmocracy@yahoo.com, 512-573-6194.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Karl Chamberlain still has Texas execution date Feb. 21, 2008

Dave Maass, who used to work for the San Antonio Current and now is at the Santa Fe Reporter, has an article on Karl Chamberlain in this week's edition of the SFR. Chamberlain is the only person in Texas who currently has a scheduled execution date. All the other scheduled executions in Texas have been stayed pending a decision in the Baze case.

Across the country, death-row inmates have filed for, and uniformly received, stays of execution as the US Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the three-chemical lethal injection method employed in 37 states. Yet, no lawyer has so far filed for a stay for Chamberlain.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office tells SFR via e-mail that it will withdraw the execution date if the Supreme Court doesn’t rule before Feb. 21. However, the prosecutor’s promise contravenes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has indicated publicly that the state will not halt executions while the Supreme Court deliberates.

Meanwhile, criminal defense attorneys David Schulman and John Jasuta are fighting to reopen Chamberlain’s case. Schulman tells SFR they expect the Supreme Court to return a ruling on lethal injection as early as March, but more likely June. A stay would give Chamberlain at least another six months more to appeal.

To vacate the execution date, the Dallas prosecutor needs to make a single phone call, one that Schulman says would take only slightly longer than it would to administer the lethal injection.
Maass also conducted a video interview with Mu'ina Arthur, the mother of Karl Chamberlain.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Travis District Attorney Candidates and the Public Integrity Unit

Everyone should head over to The Texas Observer and read their long article on the Travis County DA race: “Replacing Ronnie Earle: The Race to Become the Most Important Prosecutor in Texas”The article focuses on the Public Integrity Unit. Rick Reed comes out in the article looking like a real fighter within the DA’s office for the indictment against Tom Delay. In fact, according to the article, if it were not for Reed, there may not have even been an indictment against Delay.

In an interview, Reed publicly revealed bitter dissention that seized Earle’s office before the DeLay indictment. He says his colleagues, including Lehmberg, wilted at the prospect of seeking an indictment against one of the nation’s most powerful politicians. “Everyone felt the pressure. Different people reacted differently to it,” Reed said. “I was the only person pushing to present the case to the grand jury.”By fall 2005, the grand jury had already indicted two of DeLay’s associates from the controversial 2002 campaign-John Colyandro and Jim Ellis. Everyone in the DA’s office seemed to agree on the Ellis and Colyandro cases, Reed said, adding that much of the same convincing evidence also implicated DeLay.

“Yet when it came to Mr. DeLay, the suggestion was that he’s a very powerful man, therefore we ought to be more careful in making this decision, and we ought to be reluctant to do it because of the fact he’s so powerful,” Reed said. “The issue that motivated the argument was political: he’s a powerful man, and the sky’s going to fall if we present this to the grand jury. … I’ll tell you quite candidly, that offended me. It offended me then, and it offends me now. In the American judicial system, I think every person ought to be treated equally. Whether or not a person holds a political office just shouldn’t be a consideration.”

Reed said Lehmberg opposed seeking an indictment, as did several of the other prosecutors. He said he believes Lehmberg wouldn’t have indicted DeLay had she been DA at the time. Reed said he convinced Earle through a series of conversations and memos, besting the three other veteran prosecutors.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sharon Keller is Texas' Judge Dread

The Dallas Observer has a long front page article this week entitled "Sharon Keller is Texas' Judge Dread". It contains a quote from the daughter of Marguerite Dixon, the woman Michael Richard was convicted of murdering 20 years ago: "It sounded to me like she was just being arbitrary," says Celeste Dixon. "She had a chance to at least hear the arguments, and she chose to take her powers as a judge and make a decision without any thought."

More:

Keller's decision to close her court at 5 p.m.—a move that has since been blasted by even her Republican colleagues—violated the court's unwritten policies for handling executions. It also broke sharply from tradition. In Texas, it's not unusual for judges and clerks to take last-minute pleadings at their homes. On execution day, the courts don't have a strict closing time.

Keller's actions also defied the Supreme Court decision from that day, which has resulted in an unofficial nationwide moratorium on capital punishment. Maybe she didn't make an intentional end run around the highest court in the land, but that was the effect. To be more blunt, the effect was to kill a man months before his execution would have proceeded, assuming the Supreme Court would have allowed it at all. To date, Richard is the last U.S. inmate put to death.

A collection of activists have since decried Keller's actions. Protesters have gathered outside her North Austin mansion carrying clocks set to 5:00. A band called Possumhead, fronted by an Austin lawyer, recorded a grungy song with the blunt refrain "Sharon is a killer, a really lethal killer." Meanwhile, a like-minded blog named Sharonkiller.com, already in operation after some of the judge's past mishaps, includes a series of fake personal entries: "Maybe I should sell and move back to Dallas and help out at Dad's hamburger stand before my house becomes a stop on one of those Duck bus tours of Austin," the fake judge writes. "Tomorrow is Halloween and I'm going as myself, boo."

While the real Keller has made other baffling decisions and public statements over the years, her latest actions have stirred an epic backlash that extends far beyond the protests of anti-death-penalty activists. She's been mocked in Newsweek, scolded by The Dallas Morning News and asked to step down by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly. Powerful, prominent attorneys, including a former head of the State Bar of Texas, have filed official complaints against her and lambasted the judge to anyone with a notebook or microphone.

"It's hard to imagine anything she could have done that could have been worse than this," says Michol O'Connor, a retired appellate judge in Houston. "I think she should be removed. I wouldn't trust any decision she could make after this. This is such a fundamental issue—the right to get a piece of paper in court—how can we trust her on more complicated issues?"
Texas Moratorium Network has filed a complaint against Keller co-signed by more than 1800 people. We have received two letters from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct acknowledging that they received our complaint and some additional materials we sent them, including a copy of the newly written down rules of execution day procedures of the Court of Criminal Appeals that we obtained through a public information request.

One well-qualified Democrat is running for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals this year. Keller is not on the ballot, but Susan Strawn is running for Place 3 on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Capitol Annex has a mini profile of Susan Strawn:
From 1997-1999, Strawn served as a Special Assistant United States Attorney in Denver, Colorado, where she handled complex economic crimes, including mail and wire fraud and money laundering.

During her litigation career, Strawn received nine awards from the Department of Justice, including two Special Commendation Awards, four Special Achievement Awards and three award promotions.

In 2002, Ms. Strawn was selected to be the U.S. Department of Justice Resident Legal Advisor in post-conflict Kosovo. In that capacity, she was the lead on-the-ground coordinator and implementer of the U.S. government’s judicial and prosecutorial training and reform efforts. She also worked as the Justice liaison to U.S. military intelligence and to a special NATO and international police task force to target ethnic extremism, terrorism, organized crime, corruption, and money laundering. She received the United Nations Peacekeeping medal for her work with the United Nations Civilian Police.
We will see if Keller's unethical conduct provides campaign fodder for Strawn's attempt to become the only Democrat on the CCA.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bill Aleshire Urges Travis DA candidates to "refrain from use of the death penalty"

Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney and former Travis County Judge, has written a post on the Burnt Orange Report that says voters should withhold their endorsements from Travis County District Attorney Candidates who refuse to say they will not use the death penalty.

This is a unique opportunity because the selection of the next District Attorney is practically confined to the Democratic Primary since there is no Republican candidate. Although the death penalty maintains broad support statewide, Democratic voters in Travis County can elect a D.A. who would professionally and competently enforce the law without using the death penalty.

The death penalty is not mandatory. The D.A. decides whether to seek the death penalty or not. Death penalty opponents have been practically beaten into submissive silence by the notion that stopping this inhumane practice is not politically feasible. Instead of debating an end to the death penalty, it has shifted to debating--can you believe it?--whether the death penalty should be administered "humanely." That's the same Orwellian nonsense as making bombs "smart."

Don't give up. The Democratic Primary voters could make a difference in how the next D.A. handles this issue. The criminal justice system, even in this allegedly progressive community, is not perfect, and innocent people can be convicted, particularly if their ultimate fate on appeal is dependent on the likes of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who would close their doors rather than give a death-row inmate 15 minutes extra to file an appeal.
In 2003, at the urging of Texas Moratorium Newtwork, the Travis County Commissioners Court passed a resolution endorsing a moratorium on the death penalty, which made Travis County the first county government in Texas to urge a stop to executions. The next DA has a chance to put that earlier endorsement by the Commissioners into effect by putting into place a policy that at least during the first term in office of the next Travis County DA, there will be no new death sentences sought.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Video of Mother of Murder Victim Urging Travis County DA Candidates to Support a Moratorium on the Death Penalty



Jeanette Popp spoke on the plaza of the Blackwell/Thurman Criminal Justice Center in Austin on Saturday, January 12. Popp urged the candidates for Travis County District Attorney to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in Travis County by not seeking the death penalty in any capital trials and instead using life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty.

Jeanette Popp's daughter Nancy DePriest was murdered in Austin in 1988.

March 4, 2008, the day of the primary in Travis County, would have been Nancy's 40th birthday, if she had not been murdered.

Jeanette became intimately familiar with the many flaws of the Texas criminal justice system after two innocent men, Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger, were wrongfully convicted of her daughter's murder and spent 12 years in prison. They were exonerated and released in 2001. The City of Austin settled separate lawsuits with Danziger and Ochoa for $9 million and $5.3 million respectively in 2003. Danziger also settled with Travis County for $950,000. The actual killer, Achim Marino, was convicted in October 2002.

"The death penalty system in Texas is broken. The next DA in Travis County should reflect how the Travis County community's views on the death penalty have evolved in recent years and pledge that for now the death penalty is off the table within Travis County", said Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network. "If we want to slow down the number of executions in Texas and reduce the risk of executing an innocent person, we need to elect a district attorney who will pledge to impose a moratorium on seeking new death sentences and a moratorium on setting execution dates for cases with existing death sentences. Certainly a DA candidate in Travis County who makes such a pledge will find a rich reward of votes in the Democratic primary", said Cobb.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Travis DA Race: 2 Mothers of Travis County Murder Victims to Speak at Press Conference Jan 12

Media Advisory

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 11, 2008

CONTACT: Scott Cobb, President, Texas Moratorium Network

512-689-1544 scottcobb99@gmail.com

Two Mothers of Travis County Murder Victims to Speak at Press Conference Saturday January 12

Jeanette Popp and Martha Cotera Will Urge All Four Travis County District Attorney Candidates to Support a Moratorium on the Death Penalty


A press conference with Jeanette Popp and Martha Cotera will be held on the plaza at the Blackwell/Thurman Criminal Justice Center at 509 West 11th Street in Austin on Saturday, January 12, at 12:15 pm. Popp and Cotera will urge the candidates for Travis County District Attorney to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in Travis County by not seeking the death penalty in any capital trials and instead using life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty.

Martha Cotera's 25-year-old son Juan Javier was murdered in a carjacking and drowning in Austin in 1997. Martha opposed the death penalty for her son's killers.

Jeanette Popp's daughter Nancy DePriest was murdered in Austin in 1988. Jeanette became intimately familiar with the many flaws of the Texas criminal justice system after two innocent men, Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger, were wrongfully convicted of her daughter's murder and spent 12 years in prison. They were exonerated and released in 2001. The City of Austin settled separate lawsuits with Danziger and Ochoa for $9 million and $5.3 million respectively in 2003. Danziger also settled with Travis County for $950,000. The actual killer, Achim Marino, was convicted in October 2002.

"The death penalty system in Texas is broken. The next DA in Travis County should reflect how the Travis County community's views on the death penalty have evolved in recent years and pledge that for now the death penalty is off the table within Travis County", said Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network. "If we want to slow down the number of executions in Texas and reduce the risk of executing an innocent person, we need to elect a district attorney who will pledge to impose a moratorium on seeking new death sentences and a moratorium on setting execution dates for cases with existing death sentences. Certainly a DA candidate in Travis County who makes such a pledge will find a rich reward of votes in the Democratic primary", said Cobb.

What: Press conference with Jeanette Popp and Martha Cotera
Where: Plaza at Blackwell/Thurman Criminal Justice Center
Address: 509 West 11th Street, Austin.
Date: Saturday, January 12, 2008
Time: 12:15 pm

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Travis DA race websites and some presidential comparisons

We have posted already on the first two candidates who filed for Travis County District Attorney, Rick Reed and Gary Cobb (read that first post here). Now the field is complete after two other candidates joined the race, Rosemary Lehmberg and Mindy Montford.

A couple of us from TMN were at the meeting Thursday of the Capital City Young Democrats and we heard two of the DA candidates speak on the campaign trail for the first time. Rick Reed and Rosemary Lehmberg were both in attendance and each spoke for 3 minutes, along with candidates for various other races. This is going to be an exciting race, for one reason all the candidates are likely to be good at public speaking since all of them are lawyers with lots of trial experience. The winner is likely to be the one that Travis County voters perceive as most closely reflecting their progressive values and priorities. This is likely to be a year when voters demand "change", so we will see which of the candidates runs the most "change" oriented campaign.

For fun, some presidential race comparisons

Since the race is only just started and we don't have much to go on yet, let's play the game of making some broad comparisons to the presidential race.

Lehmberg is a woman and because she was Earle's top assistant, she is the most closely identified with Earle, so she might be perceived as the most "establishment" candidate, sort of how Hillary Clinton is perceived in the presidential race. Of course, some of the wind went out of the Clinton "most experienced" based campaign in Iowa, where "change" was what the voters seemed to want. Can Lehmberg craft a campaign based on "most experienced" and also "change".

A friend of ours said they ran into Gary Cobb at the annual dinner of the Texas Civil Rights Project recently and they had a conversation that indicated Cobb might be a "change" candidate, but so far, we haven't heard any public comments from Cobb that would confirm he is the "change" candidate. Of course, there hasn't been much reporting on the race at all yet in the media to really judge anybody at this point. That conversation at the TCRP dinner we heard about was promising though. More later.

So, if it works out that Lehmberg is the Clinton-like establishment candidate, and Cobb gets compared to Obama, and not just because he is also African-American but if he picks up on the "change" theme that is central to the Obama campaign, what about the other two?

Rick Reed might have to be the John Edwards of the DA race if he is going to compete. Meaning, he should run the kind of populist-themed campaign that Edwards has been running. Both Edwards and Obama are identified with "change", but in Edwards many people have perceived a slightly more progressive stance on some issues compared to Obama. That is what has kept Edwards in the race. So, Reed could take a cue from Edwards and would probably do well if he runs as progressively as the Edwards campaign has done. Hint, hint to Reed: if you want to appeal to progressives in the Democratic primary, be the first candidate to endorse a moratorium on death penalty prosecutions.

That leaves Montford, who so far seems to be the most conservative person in the race. Maybe she is the Lieberman of the race. Ha Ha. Lieberman is the formerly Democratic Senator who lost a Democratic primary because of his support for the Iraq war, but won re-election to the Senate as an independent and now has endorsed McCain for president. The Statesman said Montford "worked in the Harris County district attorney's office before becoming a felony prosecutor here in 1999." The Harris County DA's office is one of the most pro-death penalty, scandal plagued DA offices in the nation, so she has got some explaining to do about what she learned there. We hope she took some sort of delousing bath after leaving the Harris County DA's office.

Race for the First Website

Gary Cobb has won the race for the first DA candidate to have a complete website up. His website does not allow you to bookmark specific pages, though, which is kind of annoying. His intro page is also annoying, so you will probably end up hitting "skip" on the intro if you go to his site more than once. He has an impressive list of supporters, (we would link to the list, but his site doesn't let us link to specific pages). One of his supporters is a well-known Austin progressive, Jim Harrington of the before-mentioned TCRP.

Reed comes in second in getting something up on the web. It's not much yet, but "check back in a few days for more information." He does have a donation link up, which can be directly linked to.

Montford has a one page site up that says "COMING SOON! Please watch this space for upcoming announcements".

Lehmberg doesn't have anything up so far, although there is a domain name that was created on Dec 27 and now points to a wordpress theme at http://rosemarylehmberg.com/. Don't know if that is where her official site will be, but so far it is the only sign of any website for her.

We didn't take out the video camera at the CCYD meeting, because we thought we would let the candidates get their feet wet on the campaign trail before we put them on YouTube, but they can be warned, next time we see them speak, we are probably going to have a clip to post afterwards.

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