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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Update on Death Penalty Bills Filed in Texas Legislature

Nineteen bills have been filed so far in the Texas Legislature in 2009 that relate directly with capital punishment.

If you want to see a list of bills filed dealing with capital punishment, click here.

The newest ones on the list include HB 913 to create a commission to study capital punishment in Texas and to enact a moratorium on executions, filed by Rep Harold Dutton; another bill (HB 938) by Dutton would require electronic recordings of confessions in capital cases obtained as a result of custodial interrogations.

Texas Legislature
Bills By Subject
General Subject Index: Crimes--Capital Punishment
81st Legislature Regular Session
Report Date: 1/31/2009

Number of Bills: 19
HB 111 Author: Pena

Last Action: 11/10/2008 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the joint or separate prosecution of a capital felony charged against two or more defendants.

HB 297 Author: Dutton

Last Action: 11/19/2008 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the abolition of the death penalty.

HB 298 Author: Dutton

Last Action: 11/19/2008 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the admissibility of certain evidence in capital cases in which the state seeks the death penalty.

HB 304 Author: Dutton

Last Action: 11/19/2008 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the extent of a defendant's criminal responsibility for the conduct of a co-conspirator in certain felony cases.

HB 682 Author: Farrar

Last Action: 01/20/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to abolishing the death penalty.

HB 788 Author: Thompson

Last Action: 01/26/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the creation of a commission to investigate and prevent wrongful convictions.

HB 825 Author: Hochberg

Last Action: 01/27/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to prohibiting deferred adjudication community supervision for a defendant convicted of murder.

HB 877 Author: Naishtat

Last Action: 01/29/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the creation of a commission to study capital punishment in Texas.

HB 913 Author: Dutton

Last Action: 01/30/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the creation of a commission to study capital punishment in Texas and to a moratorium on executions.

HB 916 Author: Dutton

Last Action: 01/30/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to standards for judicial review of certain writs of habeas corpus in capital cases.

HB 921 Author: Dutton

Last Action: 01/30/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to jury selection in capital cases.

HB 938 Author: Dutton

Last Action: 01/30/2009 H Filed

Caption: Relating to the admissibility of certain confessions in capital cases.

HJR 24 Author: Naishtat

Last Action: 11/10/2008 H Filed

Caption: Proposing a constitutional amendment relating to a moratorium on the execution of persons convicted of capital offenses.

SB 115 Author: Ellis

Last Action: 11/10/2008 S Filed

Caption: Relating to the creation of a commission to investigate and prevent wrongful convictions.

SB 165 Author: Ellis

Last Action: 11/10/2008 S Filed

Caption: Relating to an annual report and analysis by the Office of Court Administration regarding cases involving the trial of a capital offense.

SB 167 Author: Ellis

Last Action: 11/10/2008 S Filed

Caption: Relating to the applicability of the death penalty to a capital offense committed by a person with mental retardation.

SB 169 Author: Ellis

Last Action: 11/10/2008 S Filed

Caption: Relating to the authority of the governor to grant one or more reprieves in a capital case.

SB 426 Author: Shapleigh

Last Action: 01/07/2009 S Filed

Caption: Relating to the electronic filing of documents for capital cases in the court of criminal appeals.

SJR 7 Author: Ellis

Last Action: 11/10/2008 S Filed

Caption: Proposing a constitutional amendment authorizing the governor to grant one or more reprieves in a capital case.

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Mother of Man Executed by Texas Testifies for Abolition in New Mexico

A New Mexico newspaper is reporting that the mother of a person executed in Texas testified in favor of abolishing the death penalty to a New Mexico legislative committee that then voted in favor of an abolition bill for the ninth straight session.

With shaking hands and a quivering voice, a Las Vegas, N.M., woman whose son was executed by the state of Texas asked the New Mexico House of Representatives on Thursday to end capital punishment in this state.

Though committee members' minds probably were made up before Muina Arthur made her emotional plea, the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted 5-2 to give a do-pass recommendation to House Bill 285, which would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without possibility of parole.

``I am the survivor of a murder victim,'' Arthur told the panel. ``When Texas murdered him, it altered my life. ... My family, my friends, my community all have been damaged. It was because of his execution.''

Karl Eugene Chamberlain, one of Arthur's nine children, was put to death by lethal injection in Texas on June 11, 2008. His mother said Thursday her son was guilty. According to online Texas Department of Criminal Justice records, Chamberlain was convicted of raping and killing Felecia Prechtl, a 30-year-old neighbor in Dallas, in 1991. He was just a few days shy of his 38th birthday when he was put to death.

Chamberlain spent much of his childhood in Northern New Mexico, Arthur said.

She said it was extremely difficult coming to grips with the fact her son had committed such a horrible crime.

Her son's crimes and his execution took a terrible toll on her own life, Arthur said. Her marriage fell apart and, she said, ``I was a patient in the state hospital (in Las Vegas) several times during the continuing ordeal.''

Several others spoke against the death penalty. These included Andrea Vigil, whose husband Carlos Vigil, a Santa Fe criminal lawyer, was murdered on his way to the county courthouse in 1999, and Allen Sanchez, director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, who quoted Mother Teresa.

The committee's vote -- a straight-party vote with Democrats voting yes and Republicans voting no -- was no surprise. The committee has given the bill the go-ahead whenever it has been introduced in at least the last nine sessions.

In recent years, the entire House has passed the bill only to have it die in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, bill sponsor Rep. Gail Chasey, Albuquerque, said after the vote that she's confident the bill will make it through Senate Judiciary this year.

Even if it passes the Legislature, a big question remains whether Gov. Bill Richardson would sign it. He has said in the past he supports capital punishment. Advocates hope that since he no longer is running for president, Richardson will have a change of heart.

Arthur said she recently ran into the governor at a local Indian restaurant and asked him to sign Chasey's bill. She said Richardson was very courteous but only promised to ``look at the bill'' if the Legislature passes it.

One area in which abolition advocates have lost allies is among House Republicans. Four of six Republicans who voted for Chasey's death-penalty repeal bill in 2007 are no longer in the Legislature. Of those six, only Larry Larranaga and Janice Arnold-Jones, both of Albuquerque, still remain.

New Mexico has executed just one person since 1960, child killer and rapist Terry Clark, who was given lethal injection in 2001.

There currently are only two convicted murders on death row in New Mexico: Robert Fry of Farmington and Timothy Allen of Bloomfield. Their sentences wouldn't be affected even if HB 285 is signed into law.

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Dr. Glenn Larkin: "anything less than a pardon of innocence for Larry Swearingen is a moral obscenity"

The following is a short addendum sent to Hooman by Dr. Glenn Larkin, one of the pathologists quoted in the Larry Swearingen article posted a few days ago on Hooman's Texas Death Penalty blog, where it is crossposted.

A short addendum to this article:--- Larry Swearingen

Even the circumstantial evidence is raunchy, as well as some of the physical evidence.

1) The pubic hair found in the vaginal area:]

This strongly suggests that intra-vaginal intercourse took place with the man who dropped the hair. It also means that this event --- consensual or not --- occurred AFT$R Trotter had her last shower or bath, presumably that morning.

Or if Trotter was alive for days after 8 December, it merely states that she was killed AFTER her last intercourse.

Trotter had a vaginal or cervical biopsy performed shortly before her death, and an area of red discoloration was misdiagnosed by Dr Carter as traumatic injury, implying rape. The alleged trauma was iatrogenic --- or surgically caused.

2) The "blood" found under one of Trotter's fingernails: This blood was tested for DNA and was not --- repeat not--- matched to Swearingen's DNA. The state p[roposed two equally preposterous theories;

2.1) One of the detectives at the scene cut himself shaving that morning, and the drop fell of his face, and flew UNDER Trotter's finger nail. For one thing, blood from
} a shaving "nick" would have dried, unless the detective had hemophilia or some
other coagulopathy. For another, how did that blood get UNDER the finger nail? There is an old medical aphorism that states, "When you hear hoof beats, think of
horses and not zebras (Common things are common; rare things are rare.).

2.2) The second theory, equally ludicrous, is that the blood cames from air dispersion through the morgue's air conditioner system. Curious, I am not aware of this unique source ever happening before, and I wounder if any other cadavers had been contaminated this way, especially the same day (January 3, 1999). How many autopsies ere performed at the same time as Trotters. Note that Trotter's autopsy was performed as the second of 1999, starting at 2:15 pm, with a gaggle of witnesses; that presupposes that either one or no autopsies were performed that day, and if one was performed, it could have been either before this autopsy, at the the same time, or after this one, which makes the air route of contamination most unlikely. The defense never questioned this probability because it did not come up at trial.

3) The pantyhose fragments:

3.1 As previously stated, a segment of pantyhose was found around Trotter's neck, damp, discolored, and knotted. It also was no doubt moved by the rodents that feasted on Trotter's larynx. This noose was removed in the proper manner, and photographed, but not measured properly (diameter has no meaning here).

3.2 A second fragment, containing the pelvic portion, and the attached leg portion was found in a dumpster at the traier park where Swearingen lived, and shared by the other tenants. Note that Swearingen's trailer was searched several times and the
pantyhose fragment was not found . If the dumpster was emptied between 8 December and 11 December, it would not contain the pantyhose fragment . If
the pantyhose was found in the dumpster after the last pickup, Swearingen could
not have placed it in the dumpster. This evidence therefo0re has a murky
provenance

3.2 It is not stated how the two fragments were "matched". If done my eye-ball, this is certainly subject to challenge --- being manipulated by rodents distorted the cut edge, and the moisture affected the elasticity, to cite a few problems, even if the class characteristic "matched". The class characteristics are not sufficient evidence for court.

4. "The last person to see her alive":

4. 1 Again, this is specious; while Swearingen did meet Trotter on campus, they were
and were dating off and on for weeks or months. Trotter relied on Swearingen to protect her from a probable former playmate, or playmate to be who was harassing and threatening her, as stated by several of her co-workers.

4.2 Since they were dating, it is no surprise that some of her head hairs were found in
Swearingen's truck. It cannot be determined WHEN those hairs got there. Likewise, there is evidence to support that Trotter did not visit Swearingen's trailer the day of her disappearance. He was entering and leaving alone, and Trotter was not with him, unless he sprinkled her with whiffle dust.

5. The last preposterous theory the state proposed is that Swearingen killed Trotter on December 8th, and stuck her body in a cooler. Then a friend dropped her in the forest while he was in the county jail.

5.1 There is no evidence to support this wild assumption on several accounts..

Freezing will stop decomposition completely, but when the body is thawed, deposition proceeds at an accelerated rate. This is because the ice crystals rupture the cell membranes, allowing all the cell juice to mix when thawed.

A cooled but not frozen body behaves like chopped meat; put a pound of raw hamburger in your refrigerator, and forget it for two weeks; your nose will then remind you. This scenario was used in a detective novel "Silent Witness" Robert Parker, but does not work in the real world.

There is still other evidence of a non-medico-legal nature better left to others; I believe that General Gregg Abbott Esq is putting his foot deeper into his mouth every time he speaks; he conveniently forgets that Swearingen only has to proffer PLAUSIBLE evidence of actual innocence to get a hearing; if what Swearingen has demonstrated in not plausible, nothing ever is. Mr Rytting has stated, "Swearingen is guilty by imagination."

I maintain that anything less than a pardon of innocence for Swearingen is a moral obscenity.

G M Larkin MD
Charlotte NC

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rick Perry's 189th Execution

With today's execution of Ricardo Ortiz, 189 people have been executed in Texas since Rick Perry was sworn in as Governor in late December 2000. Perry has been governor for more executions than any other governor in modern times. (Perhaps any U.S. governor ever, but we will have to check the record before 1977).

In fact, the only state that comes close to Texas in total number of executions is Virginia with 102 since 1982, but no single Virginia governor comes remotely close to Perry's record or George W. Bush's record when he presided over 152 executions while he was governor.

According to the AP:

the state of Texas has executed a high-ranking prison gang member who was convicted of fatally injecting a fellow prisoner with an overdose of heroin.

Forty-six-year-old Ricardo Ortiz was pronounced dead Thursday at 6:18 p.m.

Ortiz was the second killer executed in Texas in as many nights, and the fifth this year in the nation's most active death penalty state.
Yesterday, Texas executed Virgil Martinez, 41.

A third scheduled execution was stayed earlier this week by a federal court, after lawyers for Larry Swearingen presented new evidence that case doubt on his guilt.

428 people have now been executed in Texas since 1982 when executions resumed after an 18-year moratorium.

Executions During Tenure of Texas Governor Rick Perry

2001 - 17

2002 - 33

2003 - 24

2004 - 23

2005 - 19

2006 - 24

2007 - 26

2008 - 18

2009 - 5 (As of Jan 29, 2009)

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mental Illness an Issue in Today's Execution

The AP is reporting on the case of Virgil Martinez, scheduled for execution in Texas today:

David Dow, a University of Houston law professor, said Monday he hoped to get the lethal injection delayed so lawyers can be certain Martinez is competent to be executed.

"He seems to us to have some potentially significant mental illness issues," said Dow, who works with the Texas Defender Service, a legal group that represents death row inmates.

Don Vernay, a New Mexico lawyer who had been representing Martinez in federal court appeals, argued unsuccessfully that temporal lobe epilepsy suffered by Martinez caused the shooting frenzy.

...

At trial, Martinez was defended by Jeri Yenne, who later was elected district attorney in Brazoria County.

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment," she said when asked about the status of the case. "It's been real important for me to maintain my boundaries as district attorney.

"I did everything we could from an advocacy perspective," she said of her defense. "We also want to make sure the system properly reviews it. I don't think I should talk about the particulars."

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

U.S. Court stops execution that Texas courts wouldn't

The Austin American-Statesman says that the Texas judicial system failed to protect against the possibility of executing an innocent person. "The lack of interest in fairness and justice by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in capital cases continues to baffle, frustrate and infuriate", says the Statesman.

The Statesman is right, but there may be change coming. The Court of Criminal Appeals could be under new leadership this year if someone in the Texas House files articles of impeachment against Presiding Judge Sharon Keller because of her unethical behavior on Sept 25, 2007 when she violated the unwritten rules of the court and refused to accept an appeal from a man set for execution that day and did not notify the duty judge of the request to submit an appeal.

EDITORIAL
U.S. Court stops execution that Texas courts wouldn't
Experts believe condemned man Swearingen could not have committed the murder.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Once again, a federal court has had to intervene to prevent Texas from executing a death row inmate whose conviction is in doubt. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday issued a reprieve to Larry Swearingen, whose execution by lethal injection was scheduled for today.

And once again, Texas courts and officials did nothing to prevent a possible miscarriage of ultimate justice. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had denied Swearingen's petition to hear new information from pathologists who reviewed the case. Nor did Gov. Rick Perry issue a reprieve. And Texas Attorney General Abbott opposed Swearingen's appeal to the 5th Circuit, which ruled that Swearingen's petition could be heard by a federal district court.

Expert scientific analysis strongly indicates Swearingen might not have committed the 1998 murder of college student Melissa Trotter, 19. Based on a report by four pathologists, Swearingen's attorney appealed to the state criminal appeals court, the governor's office, the federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court asking for a stay of execution to review the information.

One of those pathologists with a new interpretation of the case is former Harris County Chief Medical Examiner Joye Carter, who performed the autopsy on the victim. Carter says her original estimate of the time of death was wrong, as do several other professionals.

This case is about timing. Trotter was last seen leaving the Montgomery County Community College campus in Conroe with Swearingen on Dec. 8, 1998. Her body was found in Sam Houston National Forest near Conroe on Jan. 2, 1999. She had been strangled, and a portion of her panty hose was found around her neck.

Swearingen was a good bet for the crime. He was twice accused of rape and had been seen with Trotter the day she disappeared. There was other circumstantial evidence implicating Swearingen, too. But if he had killed Trotter and left her in the national forest on Dec. 8 or soon after, the body would have been badly decomposed. Instead it was quite well preserved.

Pathologists, including Carter, say the body could not have been in the forest more than 14 days and likely was there as few as four days before it was discovered. If true, that means Swearingen could not have killed Trotter and left her body in the woods because he had been in jail since Dec. 11 on outstanding traffic warrants.

The science behind the claim that Trotter's body had not been in the forest for more than two weeks is strong. It is based on proven rates of organ decomposition, on insect infestation and other well-tested factors that pathologists use to determine times of death.

This expert analysis presented a strong argument to delay Swearingen's execution until the information can be evaluated. Had the jury heard these scientific facts during Swearingen's trial, it might have rendered a verdict of not guilty.

Despite that, neither the state appeals court, the attorney general nor the governor did anything to prevent the execution of a possibly innocent man. The lack of interest in fairness and justice by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in capital cases continues to baffle, frustrate and infuriate.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Larry Swearingen Gets Stay of Execution

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that Larry Swearingen's execution has been stayed.

AUSTIN – A federal appeals court has granted a last-minute reprieve to a Texas man facing execution in the murder of a Houston-area college student, his attorney said.

Larry Swearingen was set to be executed Tuesday for a murder that several pathologists -- including the case’s original medical examiner – now say he could not have committed.

He was convicted of the 1998 rape, abduction and murder of Melissa Trotter, a 19-year-old who was strangled and left in the woods.

Several criminal pathologists say the prosecutors’ original theory -- that Trotter had been dead for 25 days before she was found – is impossible because of how preserved her body was.

If they're right, that means Swearingen couldn't have killed her. He was in jail for traffic violations for the three weeks before the discovery of her body.

“I’m extremely relieved,” said Swearingen’s attorney James Rytting. “It would be a travesty to execute someone under these circumstances – where someone was sitting in jail when someone else killed a woman and threw her body in the woods.”

Prosecutors say regardless of how long Trotter's body was in the woods, the circumstantial and physical evidence against Swearingen is sufficient. They were able to match the panty hose tied around Trotter’s neck to a piece found in a dumpster next to Swearingen’s Montgomery County trailer. They found fibers traced to Trotter in Swearingen’s truck and home.

Swearingen, who met Trotter two days before the 19-year-old disappeared, was the last person seen with her outside the Montgomery College library.

“It’s disappointing to hear that they’ve stayed this case again. Every time [the defense] claims they’ve got evidence he’s innocent, every time we’re able to show they’re wrong,” said Marc Brumberger, who oversees appellate cases for the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.

“We’ll just have to hash it out in court once again.”

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Photographer finds forgiveness on death row

WFAA 

Friday, January 23, 2009

DALLAS — John Holbrook, a former crime scene photographer, takes portraits of the men and women on death row in Texas. Holbrook's project began as a way to address his own trauma over seeing horrific crime scene images at work.

The message of Holbrook's work is ultimately about forgiveness and how it can empower victims to move past traumatic events.

In the featured story, News 8 photojournalist, Doug Burgess, along with reporter David Schechter, take you inside Texas' Death Row for a rare glimpse at the people behind the headlines.

Holbrook will lecture and exhibit his work at Southern Methodist University on Thursday, January 29th at 7 p.m. at the McCord Auditorium located at 306 Dallas Hall.

Artist’s Statement

 I have been an Investigator licensed with the state of Texas (private Investigator) for 16 years.  I have worked capital murder cases as a court appointed investigator in North Texas.  

One of those cases involved the double homicide of North, Texas teenagers Carrie Crews and Jesus Garza. Carrie Crews was raped, tortured and murdered.  The two perpetrators were James Lee Clark and James Brown.  I was part of the defense for these two defendants. 

While working that case, I spent hours examining the crime scene evidence including the photographs. The images were very graphic.  Some years later, I started to experience 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder'.  Whenever he saw anything remotely similar to the injuries done to Carrie Crews (crime scene photographs), I experienced extreme anxiety. 

 

I saw a psychologist regarding the PTSD.  The Doctor determined that my current photography at that time (pictures of social outcasts shown in a spiritual light) was a subconscious attempt to correct the 'Bad Pictures' I saw while working the capital murder case .

 

Ultimately, I learned that that only way I could overcome his PTSD was to learn how to Love and Forgive those who had caused it; James Lee Clark.

This is ultimately what I am attempting to communicate with these photographs; ‘The only way we can truly stop suffering is to love and forgive those who have caused that suffering’.  

Essentially, my work is more intended to communicate to  all of  the victim’s (loved ones) more than to communicate facts about  the condemned.  I want to teach the victims this liberating truth that I have learned.

As most death penalty abolitionists know, a tool often used by the Texas prosecutor to get the death penalty is the argument that the victim’s (loved ones) endorse the death of the accused.  It is said that the victims, “Need closure”.   With my pictures, I argue that this act severely handicaps the victim’s ability to love and forgive the accused in the future.  To add an element of responsibility or more accurately, the element of guilt with the accused execution, unjustly involves the victims.   It is a grave injustice done to the victims to execute the accused because it virtually denies the victims the ability to love and forgive them in the future, hence; ultimately denying the victims the right to stop suffering.

I am constantly being asked, “You have photographs of both the guilty and most likely innocent on death row, why do you have both, and what is it you are you trying to say”?     I have and always will make great efforts to communicate the following to the viewer and answer this question as follows; “I have deliberately chosen to photograph both the very obviously guilty of their crimes and those who are very obviously innocent of their crimes.  This difference is irrelevant to the point I am making, so I will not communicate these differences to you.  If you feel compelled to discover these differences yourself, it’s easily done”.

I maintain that, it takes a work of art to ultimately address the collective consciousness  that is America.  It was the American book entitled, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ that spoke to this collective consciousness and turned the tide against slavery in America.    I hope that my images will modestly follow in these footsteps and finally address that entity that will finally help turn the tide against the death penalty.

For more information about these pictures, please visit my web site:

http://www.holbrookphoto.com/

 


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Take Action to Save an Innocent Person from Execution - Larry Swearingen

Please take action!

Call Governor Perry at (512) 463-1782 or use his webform to email Governor Perry.

Citizen's Opinion Hotline [for Texas callers] : (800) 252-9600
 
The pdf version of Amnesty International's action alert is here:
 
And the online action is here.
 
Pass on this information! Check for updates at: www.larry-swearingen.com


Dear Friends & fellow Abolitionists,
 
We'd like to ask for your help to save an innocent man's life. Larry Swearingen is scheduled to be executed on January 27, 2009 by the State of Texas despite the fact that he didn't kill anyone.
 
Larry is in URGENT need for IMMEDIATE PUBLIC ATTENTION on his case since the courts ignored the brought up evidence which shows clearly that he was jailed on unrelated charges while the victim in this case got killed and her body dumped in the woods.
 
Please take a minute to sign his petition. You can help by spreading the Petition link on the internet. You can send letters, e-mails, faxes or make phone calls to the local, national and international media, TV and radio stations. Raise your voice and express your displeasure and anger about the injustice taking place in this case. The media has to point a finger at this outrageous crime that the State of Texas plans to commit against a wrongly convicted man before it's too late!!
 
Please write to the Board of Pardons and Paroles,
urging them to not execute Larry Swearingen!

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles 
General Counsel's Office
8610 Shoal Creek Boulevard
Austin, Texas 78757

Phone (512) 406-5852 
Fax (512) 467-0945

 
We oppose the death penalty unconditionally in all cases since it is an affront to human dignity. However, the execution of an innocent man is the ultimative catastrophe in a civilized country and society since it can happen to any of us.
 
The cases of Troy Davis in Georgia, Jeff Wood and Kenneth Foster in Texas shown so far what is possible when people stand up, and we're watching the development of these cases intently from Europe. Today we're turning to you with our plea to please stand up and raise your voice for Larry Swearingen to stop the insanity of state sanctioned murder.
 
Thank you very much,
Erwann Doulin, Gianluca Ferrara & Wiebke Swearingen
on behalf of the Larry Swearingen Support Group
 

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Texas Monthly: Texas About to Execute an Innocent Person in Larry Swearingen

January 2009
Texas Monthly

The Science of Murder

Someone killed Melissa Trotter and dumped her body in the Sam Houston National Forest. But according to six forensic experts, that someone was not Larry Swearingen.

by Michael Hall

Innocent men in prison often have two things in common. They stubbornly refuse to plead guilty, even if it means a reduced sentence or freedom. And they never quit trying to prove their innocence, whether it’s by writing letters to lawyers and journalists, filing writs on their own, or just camping out in the prison library studying law books or anything else that could help their cases. The wrongly convicted never give in, and they never give up.

Larry Swearingen, an eight-year resident of Texas’s death row, is almost certainly a member of this unhappy group. From the beginning, when he was arrested in December 1998 for murdering Melissa Trotter in rural Montgomery County, just north of Houston, he has insisted he didn’t do it. He never asked for any kind of a plea deal, once saying, “I’m not going to plead guilty to something I didn’t do.” He took the stand at his trial and testified that he didn’t kill Trotter. Ever since, he has worked diligently from his cell at the Polunsky Unit to prove his innocence—filing writs to the court system, writing letters to journalists, even poring over climatological charts to prove his case.

But there are other reasons besides pride and perseverance to believe that Swearingen didn’t kill Trotter. Six different physicians and scientists—forensic pathologists and entomologists—say there’s almost no way Swearingen could have done it. One of those doctors was instrumental in convicting Swearingen back in 2000 but has now changed her mind after seeing all of the evidence. Dr. Glenn Larkin, a retired forensic pathologist in Charlotte, North Carolina, says, “As a forensic scientist since 1973, I always kept an objective stance when called to testify; however, there comes a point when as a human, and as a Christian, there is a mandate to speak in the interest of justice. This is a moral issue now; no rational and intellectually honest person can look at the evidence and conclude Larry Swearingen is guilty of this horrible crime.”

And it is a moral issue with real urgency. Swearingen just got an execution date of January 27. His lawyers are frantically trying to get a stay of execution as well as DNA testing. If they don’t succeed, it is entirely possible, even likely, that the State of Texas will execute an innocent man in two and a half weeks.

A Shaky Case

Back in 2000, the prosecutors of Montgomery County used mostly circumstantial evidence, some of it remarkably weak, to convict Swearingen. Trotter was a nineteen-year-old student at Montgomery College in Conroe when she disappeared on December 8, 1998. An extensive search was organized, and her body wasn’t discovered until January 2 in the Sam Houston National Forest by a couple of hunters—in an area that had been already searched three times. She had been strangled with one leg of a set of panty hose. Around her neck and face there was some decomposition from maggots as well as evidence of rodent scavenging. She was clothed but her shirt had been bunched up around her neck, and though her torso was bare, it showed no evidence of having been scavenged by the wild pigs, crows, raccoons, or vultures that live in the forest. Her corpse was not bloated, and police reported no foul smell. In fact, the hunters had initially thought she was a mannequin. The body appeared to have been in its final resting place for only a short period of time.

Swearingen, an ex-con who was working as an electrician, had met Trotter on December 6 and asked her out on a date. She stood him up the next day, but on December 8 they rendezvoused on campus. That same day she disappeared, making Swearingen one of the last people to see her alive. Three days later, he was arrested for outstanding traffic warrants and put in jail, where he remained after becoming a suspect in Trotter’s disappearance. When her body was found, Swearingen had already been in jail for three weeks.

Though no one saw Trotter leave the campus with Swearingen, the state was able to stitch together a tenuous narrative that had Swearingen kidnapping her in his truck, taking her to his trailer, raping her, killing her, and dumping her in the forest. (In order to get the death penalty, prosecutors had to prove murder in tandem with another felony, such as kidnapping or rape.) The motive? Prosecutors brought forward testimony from construction worker pals of Swearingen’s who said he had been furious at being stood up. As for proof about the kidnapping, there were witnesses who saw the two together on campus earlier that day, and there were fibers found on her jacket that “appeared to be” from Swearingen’s jacket and other fibers found on her and her clothes that were “similar to” carpet fibers from his trailer and truck seat.

Swearingen made two cell phone calls that afternoon, and because the calls were routed through a tower near the crime scene, the prosecution said that proved he had dumped the body there. As for proof of rape, Harris County chief medical examiner Joye Carter, who did the autopsy, found no evidence of violent penetration of Trotter, but she did say there was some discoloration of the vaginal wall. Though this could have come from normal intercourse, the prosecution used this as evidence that Swearingen had raped Trotter. When the Court of Criminal Appeals later took up Swearingen’s appeal, it admitted, even as it affirmed his guilt, “The forensic evidence is inconclusive.”

The most damning piece of evidence against Swearingen was another leg of panty hose found in the trash outside his trailer four days after Trotter’s body was located. Even this was not as clear-cut as it should have been. When the fabric was found, the trailer had already been fruitlessly searched twice by half a dozen deputies who turned up nothing. It was matched to the piece around Trotter’s neck by a DPS criminologist. Swearingen’s appellate attorney James Rytting wrote in an appeal that the pantyhose matching “was not based on scientific or forensic principles. The pantyhose material . . . can be easily stretched or distorted, so ‘matching’ may easily be the artifact of the examiner’s manipulations, whether intentional or unconscious.”

The case wasn’t entirely circumstantial. The state also called medical examiner Carter, who testified that she thought Trotter had most likely been killed on or about the day she disappeared. She based her opinion on the body’s external condition—the decomposition and maggot activity around the head and neck. She wasn’t asked—and didn’t tell—about the condition of the body’s internal organs, which were remarkably intact for a person who had supposedly been dead for so long.

The defense had two important things on its side that should have given the jury pause. Most critically, blood was found underneath one of Trotter’s fingernails and DNA analysis proved it was not Swearingen’s. Also, a pubic hair found in a vaginal swab was found not to be his. But the defense pathologist didn’t question why Trotter’s body was in such good shape, nor did the expert question the prosecution’s theory that she had died on or around December 8. The jury found Swearingen guilty and gave him the death penalty in June 2000.

The Science of Death

It wasn’t until Swearingen was given his first execution date, January 24, 2007, that he began to get medical science on his side. First came the bug guys, or forensic entomologists, who use insect larvae found in corpses to figure out time of death. On January 22, appellate attorney Rytting filed a habeas corpus appeal anchored by the testimony of an entomologist who said that, based on temperature reports that said the average temperature that month was 50 degrees with highs in the mid-70’s, the earliest those maggots could have begun colonizing her body was December 18—a week after Swearingen was put in jail. (Swearingen himself, while studying the temperature data, had found a crucial error in the numbers that showed it had actually been warmer than the climatologists had initially reported.)

The CCA stayed the execution and called for a hearing to look into the matter in the trial court. At the hearing, another entomologist, James Arends, testified; he noted that there was no evidence of maggot colonization in the anal and vaginal regions, as would be expected in a body left in the wild for so long. He also pointed out that the body hadn’t been picked on by the thousands of wild pigs, crows, and vultures that live and feed in the forest. (Or, as he wrote in an affidavit, “It is very common to find near to complete skeletonization, and bones scattered over a wide area by scavengers, in cases where remains of missing persons are not recovered for significant periods of time after being left in locations such as the location in this instant case.”) Arends’s conclusion? Trotter’s body had been there no longer than a week.

Pathologist Luis Sanchez, the current Harris County medical examiner, also testified at the hearing, saying that a body in the forest 25 days would show more decomposition, color change, bloating, and skin slippage. He also explained that the autopsy showed Trotter’s internal organs had been in good enough condition to be pulled out and sectioned; however, organs begin to break down upon death. The pancreas, for example, usually liquefies completely within 24 to 48 hours. Sanchez’s conclusion: The body hadn’t been in the forest for more than 14 days.

Unbelievably, the CCA denied that appeal without even commenting on the forensic science. Rytting filed another habeas appeal last year that included affidavits from Larkin and Lloyd White, the Deputy Tarrant County Medical Examiner. Larkin said, “December 23 is the soonest that Trotter’s body could have been left in the woods, which is to say, twelve days after Mr. Swearingen was incarcerated.”

White thought the conditions of the organs made it more likely Trotter died close to January 2, 1999. He viewed photos of her heart; they revealed that “the muscle is still red and relatively fresh looking . . . the appearance of the heart is what one would expect to find upon an autopsy of a recently deceased individual.” White also wrote, “Unfortunately, the conviction in this case rests upon misleading forensic pathological testimony.”

He was referring to the words of Joye Carter. She had moved on from Harris County, but Rytting tracked her down in Marion City, Indiana, where she was the chief forensic pathologist. He got her to reread the Trotter autopsy report and other materials—such as the temperature reports. Carter realized she had made a mistake, and now she submitted her own affidavit, in which she admitted it. By her calculations, the body had been in the forest for only 14 days, not 25. Carter based her new opinion on the condition of Trotter’s bare torso as well as her internal organs. Plus, she noted how Trotter had weighed 109 pounds at a doctor’s examination on November 23; when found, she weighed 105. As Larkin wrote in his affidavit, “even if a corpse is not scavenged, a body will lose up to 90 percent of its weight in less than 25 days.”

Once again, the upshot of all of this is simple: Trotter was murdered while Swearingen was in prison. Rytting added other claims in the 2008 appeal—that detectives knew Trotter was getting threatening phone calls from another man and that there was evidence that Trotter and Swearingen had actually been dating. The CCA again asked the trial court to hold a hearing to look into these allegations—but only the latter ones, not the ones dealing with pathology or entomology. Again, the highest court in the state said nothing about the science or the doctors and their claims that Trotter was killed long after Swearingen had been locked up. “How can that not merit a new trial?” asks Rytting. “In order to merit a new trial, we have to show that, given the new evidence, no rational juror would have convicted Swearingen. There is solid forensic evidence to show this and there is nothing to counteract it on the other side except for Carter’s testimony, which she has since recanted. The truth is, if they tried Swearingen today he would walk. You put the testimony of those physicians and scientists in front of a jury, they’re going to acquit.”

Reckoning

The CCA denied those final two claims in December, and Swearingen was given his new execution date: January 27. At this point, he doesn’t have a lot of options. Rytting will petition the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to try and get them to allow another federal appeal, though the federal standard for bringing in new evidence is tough. On January 7, Rytting, with help from the New York–based Innocence Project, filed a request for a stay of execution—as well as more DNA testing. The attorneys want to use modern-day short tandem repeat (STR) testing, unavailable in 2000, to compare the DNA profile taken from the blood found under Trotter’s fingernail and put it into the federal CODIS database of DNA profiles of 6.3 million convicted offenders. They also want to use the new technology of “touch DNA”—it can detect DNA left behind in skin cells (it recently exonerated the parents of JonBenet Ramsey)—on the panty hose around Trotter’s neck and on her clothes, under the theory that the killer left cellular evidence behind as he dragged Trotter’s body through the forest.

It would be nice if, at this late date, the CCA showed some respect for science and granted the testing. It would also be nice if the high court took a step back and showed some respect for all the medical science it has ignored in Swearingen’s case. His conviction was based, as Dr. White said, on “misleading forensic pathological evidence”—as well as flimsy circumstantial evidence. Of course, cases are tried on circumstantial evidence all the time (often, that’s all law enforcement can find), but when circumstantial evidence is as tenuous as this was, and when it butts up against scientific evidence—when one says one thing and the other says another—you would like to think that the highest court in the state would at least give the science a look.

The bottom line: Someone killed Melissa Trotter and dumped her body in the Sam Houston National Forest. But that someone was not Larry Swearingen.

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Houston Chronicle Urges Perry to Stay Execution of Larry Swearingen

The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board says there is enough "Room to Doubt" to justify a stay of execution from Governor Perry for Larry Swearingen, who is scheduled for execution in Texas on Jan 27.

Larry Ray Swearingen has lived on Texas death row for eight years, convicted of the rape-murder of a Montgomery County coed in 1998. He is scheduled for execution by lethal injection in Huntsville next Tuesday, despite the fact that a growing body of evidence indicates he could not have strangled 19-year-old Melissa Trotter and dumped her body in Sam Houston National Forest.

With the inmate facing an irreversible sentence — capital punishment — it is imperative that Texas Gov. Rick Perry stay the execution to prevent the death of a possibly innocent man.

While plenty of circumstantial evidence indicated Swearingen, a convicted rapist, was a logical suspect, forensic facts not presented at his trial point elsewhere. Trotter’s body was discovered 10 years ago on Jan. 2, nearly a month after her disappearance from the Montgomery College campus in Conroe.

However, Swearingen was jailed on traffic warrants three days after the woman went missing. Although prosecutors theorized that Trotter was killed and her body dumped in the forest the day of her disappearance, the corpse was amazingly well preserved when discovered. Six physicians and forensic scientists who reviewed the evidence concluded that the victim died well after Swearingen’s arrest.

Former Harris County Chief Medical Examiner Joye Carter, who testified against Swearingen in his trial, reexamined the physical evidence and has concluded that Trotter’s death occurred at least a week after Swearingen was taken into custody.

One expert, using a technique familiar to viewers of the CSI TV series, confirmed that finding by dating the development of insect larvae in the victim’s body.
Other exculpatory evidence included blood samples found under Trotter’s fingernails and a pubic hair recovered from a vaginal swab that came from someone other than Swearingen.

The strongest evidence linking the inmate to the murder was the fact he was seen with Trotter on campus the day she disappeared, and a torn stocking matching a piece used to strangle her was found at the man’s trailer. Oddly, the hose turned up after the trailer was twice searched by Montgomery County deputies. Lawmen did not disclose during the trial that Trotter had received phone threats from another man.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals correctly stayed Swearingen’s execution last year on the basis of the new evidence. It inexplicably later denied his appeal for a new trial without addressing the seeming impossibility of his involvement in the woman’s killing.

The inmate’s attorney, James Rytting, is currently working on a new appeal with the assistance of the New York-based Innocence Project. They are seeking DNA testing of the pantyhose and blood samples. Rytting told the Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg that despite the contradictions, prosecutors continue to spin far-fetched theories, such as the possibility that Swearingen had refrigerated Trotter’s body and then had an unknown accomplice dispose of it while he was jailed.

Dr. Glenn Larkin, a retired forensic pathologist who reviewed the case, told Texas Monthly that “no rational and intellectually honest person can look at the evidence and conclude Larry Swearingen is guilty of this horrible crime.”

He may not be a saint, but Swearingen does not deserve to die for someone else’s crime.

Governor Perry should halt the execution to allow more testing that may exonerate the convict and point toward an at-large killer.

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Four pathologists back Larry Swearingen's innocence claim

Swearingen, slated to die Tuesday in college student's 1998 murder, was in jail at time, 4 now say.
By Chuck Lindell
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Link to Article

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Four forensic pathologists agree that Larry Swearingen, set to be executed Tuesday, could not have committed the 1998 murder that sent him to death row.

The four include the medical examiner whose testimony helped secure Swearingen's guilty verdict. That medical examiner now says college student Melissa Trotter's curiously preserved body could not have lain in the East Texas woods for more than 14 days — and probably was there for a much shorter time.

The results mean Swearingen was in jail when the 19-year-old's body was left behind, the pathologists say.

"It's just scientifically impossible for him to have killed the girl and thrown her into the woods," said James Rytting, Swearingen's appellate lawyer. "It's guilt by imagination."

Prosecutors disagree, saying compelling evidence ties Swearingen to the crime, including a match between the panty hose leg found around Trotter's neck and the stocking remnant found in a trash dump next to Swearingen's mobile home. Also, hair and fibers show Trotter had been in Swearingen's truck and mobile home in Willis, about 40 miles north of Houston.

But in court briefs seeking to keep Swearingen's execution on track, prosecutors do not attack the conclusions by the four pathologists beyond labeling them "opinion evidence based on experts' second-hand review of others' work and photographs."

One of those pathologists, however, did Trotter's autopsy.

In her original report, Dr. Joye Carter determined that Trotter's strangled body had lain in the Sam Houston National Forest outside Conroe for 25 days — coinciding exactly with the date of Trotter's disappearance from Montgomery County Community College, Dec. 8, 1998. Witnesses said Trotter left the campus library that day with Swearingen, whom she met two days earlier.

The timing was important because Swearingen had been in jail since Dec. 11 on outstanding traffic warrants.

But faced with conclusions from other pathologists that her 25-day time of death defied scientific analysis and common sense, Carter recanted her findings in a 2007 affidavit. "Ms. Trotter's body was left in the woods within two weeks of the date of discovery" on Jan. 2, 1999, she wrote.

Reassessment of Trotter's autopsy began late in Swearingen's appeals process when a defense pathologist noticed that Carter found an intact spleen and pancreas.

Both organs liquefy quickly after death, prompting a more thorough review:

• Five recently discovered slides of heart, lung and nerve tissue from Trotter's autopsy revealed intact nuclei and red blood cells, said Dr. Lloyd White, Tarrant County deputy medical examiner.

Red blood cells break down within hours, and nuclei in heart cells break down within days, White said.

Also, levels of bacteria indicated the body had not been frozen or preserved, he said.

White's conclusion: Trotter had been dead for two or three days before her discovery.

• Trotter's mucosa — fragile tissue in the stomach and intestines that quickly disintegrates after death — was intact, noted Dr. Glenn Larkin, a North Carolina pathologist.

The condition of the mucosa indicates with "medical certainty" that Trotter had been in the forest for less than 10 days and more likely three or four days, Larkin concluded.

• Trotter weighed 109 pounds at a doctor's visit shortly before she disappeared, but her body weighed 105 pounds, a 4 percent decline. Larkin concluded that a body will lose up to 90 percent of its weight in less than 25 days under temperatures endured by Trotter's body: average highs of 62 and lows of around 40.

• Unlike a body left outside for 25 days, Trotter's showed no sign of bloating or perforated intestines. Her clothes were unsoiled and slipped easily from her body during the autopsy. There was limited scavenging by animals in a forest inhabited by feral pigs, vultures and raccoons.

"The following forensic conclusion is therefore not reasonably debatable amongst competent forensic pathologists: Without question, Mr. Swearingen was not the person who left Ms. Trotter's body in the Sam Houston National Forest," Larkin said in an affidavit.

Thus far, only the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has seen the opinions from the four forensic pathologists.

The state's highest criminal court, however, did not rule or comment on the information. Instead, the court dismissed Swearingen's petition for violating state laws that limit death row inmates to one petition for a writ of habeas corpus unless lawyers uncover information that was not available when the first appeal was filed.

The appeals court has yet to rule on a stay of execution motion that repeats the forensic conclusions.

The opinions from the forensic pathologists also were included in a plea to Gov. Rick Perry to issue a 30-day execution reprieve.

Swearingen also has two federal petitions pending based on the forensic information. He is asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for permission to bring the findings to a U.S. District Court for review, and he is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has opposed both requests, saying Swearingen has not met federal requirements to pursue an innocence claim and is, in fact, not innocent.

Swearingen has presented no new DNA or indisputable evidence undermining his conviction, only expert opinion that could be challenged under cross-examination if presented at trial, Abbott said in briefs.

In addition, Abbott said, the prosecution's case against Swearingen was convincing: He was the last person seen with Trotter, whose autopsied stomach contained potatoes, which she ate for lunch the day she disappeared. The panty hose link Swearingen to the crime, and Swearingen wrote a letter from jail — in Spanish to divert police attention to another man — that presented a plausible narrative for the killing.

Swearingen's lawyer, joined by the Innocence Project in New York, says he believes he has met the legal definition for an innocence claim: that it is unlikely a reasonable juror would convict him in light of the new evidence.

"Someone else had that girl's body, dead or alive, and threw her in the forest. And that someone wasn't Larry," Rytting said.

Swearingen would be the fourth Texan executed this year.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Kristian Oliver Asks Supreme Court to Rule on Reading of Bible During Deliberations

Attorneys for one of the death row artists who was in our 2006 art show "Justice for All?" Artists Reflect on the Death Penalty", Khristian Oliver, on Jan 5, 2009 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lower court opinion (PDF) rejecting their claim that jurors' use of the Bible in deliberations violated Oliver's constitutional rights.

From an IHT story:

"This is headed toward a showdown on a very fundamental question on the use of the Bible," Winston Cochran, Oliver's lawyer, said.

At issue is a verse in Chapter 35 of Numbers which, in the New American Standard Bible, reads: "But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death." Other versions of the Bible have similar passages, some of them referring to an "iron rod" as the weapon.

Defense lawyers interviewing jurors after Oliver's capital murder trial discovered jurors had Bibles with them during deliberations.

At a state district court hearing two months after the trial, four jurors testified about the presence of Bibles in the jury room and gave varying accounts, ranging from one Bible to several being present. One juror testified he and fellow jurors carried the books with them because they would go to Bible study in the evenings following the day's court proceedings,

Another juror testified any reading from the books came after they had reached a decision. A third said the reading of Scripture was intended to make people feel better about their decision.

"What do you expect them to say?" Cochran said. "Some judge is scowling at them. Are they going to come in there and say they've just ruined your five-week death penalty trial?

"It's error, absolutely error. To me, if there's any doubt about it, you ought to either just commute the guy to life or do a new punishment hearing. The sensible thing would be to commute it to life."

Oliver is at a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison where inmates undergo treatment for psychiatric conditions and could not be interviewed.


Below is the artwork that Oliver had in the show.

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Updated Map of All Executions in U.S. Since 1977

Below is a map of all executions in the U.S. since 1977. It is updated as of March 25, 2011. If you can not see the map below, click here. The map depicts 1,240 executions, but the total is 1,243 including three carried out by the federal government that are not represented in the map.

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Jose Briseno's Execution Was Stayed So Penpal Could Visit

We were wondering why Jose Briseno's executon was stayed and moved from this month to April 7. The Death Penalty Information Center says that they learned in a communication from Briseno's lawyer that the reason was to give time for his penpal in England to visit him before his execution.

Texas death row inmate Jose Briseno was issued a stay of execution by a Texas judge so his pen-pal from England could fly to the state to meet him before he was executed by lethal injection. Briseno's attorney, Richard Burr, said the stay "had to do with Jose's extraordinary ability to reach out to people all over the US and the world--as a pen-friend--to offer support and kindness."

(Source: communication from R. Burr, attorney for Jose Briseno, Jan. 16, 2009).

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Iran hanged 22 people in 2 Days

TEHRAN — Iran hanged 22 convicted criminals in mass executions on Tuesday and Wednesday in Tehran and a few other cities, official news media reported.

Iran has the highest number of executions in the world after China. Crimes like murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and adultery are punished by execution.

The state-run television news reported Thursday that 10 men were hanged in Tehran’s Evin prison on Wednesday. The semi-official Fars news agency reported that an 11th man, scheduled to be executed in February, witnessed the hanging of the 10.

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Former Illinois Governor Nominated Again for Nobel Peace Prize

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - A University of Illinois professor believes George Ryan deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his stand against the death penalty, even if the former Illinois governor is in prison.

Francis A. Boyle, a professor of International Law and Human Rights, has nominated Ryan for the 2009 prize. It's the sixth time Boyle has nominated Ryan.

Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000. He was convicted on corruption charges in 2007 and is serving six and a half years in federal prison.

Boyle believes the death penalty will be abolished in the United States. He credits Ryan for creating the first state moratorium on capital punishment.

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Yogurt Shop March and Rally - Saturday, January 24



Contact (512) 417-2241 
cedpaustin@gmail.com 
Myspace.com/cedpaustin and look for CEDPAustin on Facebook!

***************************************** 
MARCH AND RALLY FOR YOGURT SHOP DEFENDANTS!

Another round of DNA testing and...
THE DNA EXONERATES ROB SPRINGSTEEN AND MICHAEL SCOTT!

It’s Time for Travis County to Drop the charges in the Yogurt Shop Case!

Saturday, January 24

3 pm – Meet at D.A.'s office, 11th and Lavaca
 March to City Hall
 3:45  - Rally at City Hall, 1st and Lavaca.

Speakers Include:

Jeannine Scott – Wife of defendant Michael Scott
Diane Castaneda – Member of Grand Jury during original indictment
Delia Perez Meyer – Sister of death row prisoner Louis Castro Perez
Steven Been and KADP – Family members of death row prisoner Jeff Wood
Jason Kyriakides – Member of Campaign to End the Death Penalty

Things are heating up in the Yogurt Shop case!  As many of you may know, long time CEDP member Jeannine Scott is fighting for her husband Michael Scott, who was wrongfully imprisoned for murder in this case.   In 1991 four young women were killed in an Austin yogurt shop.  After an eight year investigation marked by several false confessions, and insufficient evidence, four young men were arrested for the murders.  Despite no physical evidence, Robert Springsteen was sentenced to death and Michael Scott was sentenced to life in prison.  The basis of the convictions were “confessions” from Mike and Robert, which have been shown to have been coerced  Although both men refused to testify against each other, each of their so-called confessions were used in the other’s trial as evidence.  It is on the basis of this misuse of the “confessions” that both men had their convictions thrown out in 2007 and Michael and Robert were granted new trials.

A few of the problems in this case include the fact that recent DNA testinghas again failed to match to any of the original four men indicted for these murders,  and that during Michael Scott's interrogation a gun was held to his head in a so-called role-playing exercise
 
Another hearing is not scheduled until March 4, where the judge will consider releasing Michael and Robert on bond.  Meanwhile, the prosecution and defense will contain to await even further DNA testing.

Here is a good article outlining the recent developments:
http://www.keyetv.com/content/news/topnews/story/New-DNA-results-do-not-match-Yogurt-Shop-murder/MPT20ak8HUKM2mTmR9R3wQ.cspx

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Texas Über Alles: Five Executions in Texas in Next Eight Days

Last month in Texas a man named Andre Thomas, who has a long history of mental illness, tore his eye out and ate it. He had previously ripped his other eye out while he was waiting to stand trial in 2004. A judge ruled him fit to stand trial after the first incident. Now he is completely blind.

In 2007 Kenneth Foster's death sentence was commuted to life by the Governor of Texas only hours before his scheduled execution. He had been sentenced to death under the Law of Parties even though he had not killed anyone. His accomplice codefendant, who did kill someone, has already been executed. Foster's life was saved after some brilliant legal work coupled with a sustained, grassroots campaign that included members of his own family and anti-death penalty activists in Texas that kept his case in the news for years. Recently, a bill was filed in the Texas Legislature that would prohibit the death penalty under the Law of Parties.

Over the next eight days, starting today, Jan 21, Texas is scheduled to execute five people. the first person on the schedule is Frank Moore. One person has already been executed this month in Texas. So, a total of six executions may take place in Texas this month.

In 2008, Texas conducted almost 50 percent of all executions in the nation.We are still waiting for a ruling from the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct on the complaint signed by more than 1900 people against Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. We filed the complaint, which accused her of misconduct and urged the Commission to remove her from office, because she had said "we close at 5" and refused to accept an appeal from a person about to be executed. He was executed later that night without a final ruling on his appeal from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

It is just a matter of time before we discover that Texas has executed an innocent person. The evidence may come later this year when the the Texas Forensic Science Commission issues its report on the case of Todd Willingham. He was executed in 2004, but some nationally recognized fire experts said in a 2006 report that the fire that killed his children was likely not an intentionally set arson but just a tragic accidental fire.All these stories are just a few examples of the many horrible problems with the Texas death penalty system.

One impediment to slowing down executions in Texas is that there has always been very little funding for anti-death penalty work in Texas and even less funding to help families of people on death row. But now, there is a project underway that could bring a little extra funding for Texas anti-death penalty work.But we need your help to get that funding.

A new social collaboration website called Amazee is holding a membership contest and giving away $5,000. The contest ends Thursday, Jan 22, at 3 PM Eastern Time. We created an anti-death penalty project on Amazee and we are in a close race for one of the top three places.

www.amazee.com/abolish-death-penalty

Please go to the project and help us bring some anti-death penalty funds to Texas.

Join the "Abolish the Death Penalty Project" on Amazee.com and help Texas anti-death penalty activists win the Amazee Bucket membership contest. We could win up to $5,000 to use against the death penalty in Texas. The project with the most members by Jan 22 wins $5,000; second place is $3,000 and third place is $2,000.

If we win, we plan to use one-half of any prize money we win to help needy families of people on death row travel to visit their loved ones on death row. We will use the other half of the prize money to advocate against the death penalty, including during the legislative session.First go to the project page, then you have to click on "join project" on the right hand side, then click on "register". Then they will send you an email. Then log back in and join the project.

Keep in mind though, that to qualify as one of the members who count towards the contest, you have to upload a picture or avatar of yourself. It does not have to be a picture of you, it can be a picture of anything.

We were all moved by the many family members who spoke at the 9th Annual March to Stop Executions in Houston on Oct 25, so we were thinking of how we could help them. We all know that the death penalty is reserved for the poor. There are no rich people on death row. We will use one half of any money we win through this contest to help family members visit their loved ones on death row. Many families have a hard time making ends meet and the extra cost of traveling long distances to visit their loved ones on death row is a great financial burden. Some of the people on death row have young children who rarely get to visit them.

The other half would be used for activities during the upcoming Texas legislative session from Jan to May 2009, such as an anti-death penalty rally at the capitol.We will be supporting bills to end the death penalty under the Law of Parties, to create an Innocence Commission, to establish a moratorium on executions and create a death penalty study commission.

Please help us by joining the project on Amazee.

www.amazee.com/abolish-death-penalty

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