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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Update on Status of TFSC Investigation into Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis Cases

We received the below email response to an inquiry to the Texas Forensic Science Commission on the status of the investigation into the cases of Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis. Willingham was executed in 2004 in Texas, but many fire experts have concluded that the arson fire that he was convicted of was actually an accidentlay fire, which would mean Texas executed an innocent person. Ernest Willis was exonerated and released from Texas death row in 2004 after authorities cleared him of setting an arson fire in another case.

The deadline for Dr. Beyler to complete his investigation is June 1st. At that time, the Commission may provide a brief update. However, the Commission intends to develop their own report based on Dr. Beyler’s recommendations/conclusions. The timeline for the Commission to release such report has not been decided.


Leigh M. Tomlin
Texas Forensic Science Commission


Below is an excerpt from a February 7, 2009 article by Sue Russell on the issue:
In America, while suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty, frequently fires are not presumed accidental until proved to be arson. All fires necessitate an extra investigative step — an independent, science-based determination of arson to first ascertain that a crime even took place.

Civil cases often bifurcate issues of liability and damages, making the jury's first task to determine if a fire was intentionally set. Criminal arson cases seem to cry out for the same approach, given that a determination of arson alone can never definitively tie a person to a crime scene or unequivocally reveal a perpetrator's identity.

Yet any serious proposal for a similar system would be met, Lentini surmised, with "universal screaming and gnashing of teeth," and allegations that criminals were being allowed to slip through the net.

Gnashing teeth notwithstanding, the need for reform is critical. Lentini cites figures of 75,000 suspicious fires every year — "That's 75,000 chances to get it wrong," as he told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

According to a 2002 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, in just half the states in the U.S., more than 5,000 people are in prison for arson crimes. Arson is the only crime for which someone can receive the death penalty based on the testimony of an expert witness whose education ended with high school. And although no one spoken to for this article would hazard a specific estimate of how many innocents are imprisoned on arson convictions, answers ranged from "dozens to hundreds" to "tons."

If ever a case embodied the disastrous consequences of the obsolete beliefs about fires, it is Cameron Todd Willingham's. The Texan was convicted in 1991 of the arson murders of his three children, all under age 3. In 2004, Willingham's appellate lawyer — Walter Reaves — commissioned a review by chemist Gerald Hurst, a key player in the fire investigation wars. Hurst's powerful report debunked all 20 so-called "arson indicators" used to convict Willingham. He was executed anyway.

While it's too late for Willingham, the New York Innocence Project was galvanized to create an Arson Review Committee corralling five top experts, including Lentini and veteran investigator Douglas Carpenter, to compare Willingham's case to that of Ernest Willis, a fellow Texan convicted on similar evidence of setting a fire that killed two sleeping women in a house he was staying in. After 17 years in prison and only months after Willingham's execution, Willis was exonerated and released.

The Arson Review Committee's 2006 report echoed Hurst in discrediting all the "arson indicators" found by deputy state fire marshal Manuel Vasquez at the Willingham fire. Patterns Vasquez attributed to ignitable liquid or accelerant, it concluded, could not be used to distinguish arson from an accidental fire.

The report is now under review by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, whose chair, Sam Bassett, told Miller-McCune.com that it has voted to hire an expert to lead them in their investigation. The commission is charged by statute with conducting investigations. If they concur with all the other experts, they could make recommendations for further review or even for system reform.

"I believe it would be within our purview to comment upon any broader issues such as the possibility of misconduct or professional negligence in other cases," Bassett wrote in an e-mail. "However, that is dependent first upon our finding that misconduct or professional negligence occurred in the Willis/Willingham case. Until we receive feedback from our expert, the Commission will remain neutral on this issue and there will be no further comment until such time as we issue our report."
The possibility of misconduct and professional negligence?

"Boy, there's a political football for you," Hurst said skeptically, imagining the ramifications of an official admission that an innocent man was executed.

Carpenter is more optimistic. "I'd certainly hope something tangible comes from the process," he said. "I think they're taking it seriously."

Yet Reaves, the attorney, worries that the commission's very review could do more harm than good: "I just have a hard time envisioning a state sponsored commission coming down and saying, 'Oops, we killed a guy that we shouldn't have killed." He predicted that it will conclude — wrongly — that Willingham was an isolated incident, or a problem that has been remedied and won't happen again.

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New Complaints filed against Judge Keller with Ethics Commission and Travis County Attorney

The AP is reporting that there are new complaints filed against Sharon Keller. If the Travis County Attorney charges her with a crime, then she will be automatically suspended from office. She will also be automatically suspended if the Texas House impeaches her.

A liberal watchdog group filed ethics and criminal complaints Tuesday against Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller after reports that she did not disclose nearly $2 million in real estate holdings.

Texans for Public Justice filed the complaints in Austin against Keller, a Republican, with the Texas Ethics Commission and Travis County attorney's office.

Keller is already facing misconduct charges from the state Judicial Conduct Commission for failing to keep her office open late the night Michael Wayne Richard was executed. His lawyers have said that prevented them from filing an appeal. Keller has said that attorneys for Richard, who raped and murdered a woman in 1986, had other options to appeal.

The latest complaints come after The Dallas Morning News reported that Keller's routine annual financial disclosures did not include the property.

Keller's attorney, Chip Babcock, did not immediately return a telephone message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Although seperate from the misconduct charge, Keller's financial disclosure are relevant in that case. She has argued that the misconduct charges violate her constitutional right to counsel because the state refuses to allow Babcock to represent her at taxpayer expense and paying for her defense herself would be financially ruinous.

Babcock has said he's willing to represent Keller for almost nothing, but that the ethics commission has not clarified whether that was an ethics violation.

A sworn statement Keller filed with the Texas Ethics Commission last year did not disclose her ownership interest in seven residential and commercial properties in Dallas and Tarrant counties. The newspaper said those properties are valued at roughly $1.9 million.

Among Keller's unlisted properties are two Dallas homes valued together at just over $1 million. Keller is listed as sole owner under Sharon Batjer, her married name. She divorced in 1982. Another omission is commercial land next to Keller's Drive-In, a landmark Dallas hamburger restaurant operated since 1965 by the judge's father, Jack.

Keller's ethics commission filing listed income of more than $275,000, including her annual salary of $152,500. County tax records valued properties she did claim, including her Austin home, at roughly $1 million.

Failing to file comply with personal financial disclosure laws can bring fines up to $10,000. County Attorney David Escamilla could also seek Class B misdemeanor charges that carry up to six months in jail and $2,000 in fines.

Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDoncal said Keller is hiding her assets while asking taxpayers to pay her legal bills.

"Unlike many of the defendants who have appeared before her, Keller can afford to hire a top-notch attorney," McDonald said.

Keller has been on the court since 1994.

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Burnam Seeking a Hearing on Impeachment of Sharon Keller: Call Chair Todd Hunter to Urge Him to Hold a Hearing

Please call the Chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and urge him to hold a hearing on Lon Burnam's resolution (HR 480) to create a committee to determine if Sharon Keller should be impeached. 512-463-0672. Email Hunter on his website form.

Rep Todd Hunter
Capitol Address
Room E2.808, Capitol Extension
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 463-0672

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is reporting that Burnam spoke with Hunter on Monday about holding a hearing. Now, Hunter should hear from us. Impeach Sharon Keller

From the Star-Telegram:

News that Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller has been seeking state legal aid while failing to disclose nearly $2 million in real estate holdings creates an even greater need for the Legislature to hold impeachment hearings, state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said Monday.

Keller has said that it would be "financially ruinous" to pay lawyers to fight misconduct charges that could get her removed from the bench.

A sworn statement Keller filed with the Texas Ethics Commission last year did not abide by legal requirements that she disclose her ownership interest in seven residential and commercial properties in Dallas and Tarrant counties, The Dallas Morning News reported Monday.

The newspaper said those properties are valued at roughly $1.9 million.

Burnam filed a resolution in February to begin impeachment proceedings based on Keller’s refusal to keep her office open after hours to allow a last-minute appeal from a Death Row inmate who was executed several hours later.

"The nature of those charges means, if anything, we may have to amend the resolution," Burnam said.

Burnam’s resolution has been referred to the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee. Burnam said he spoke Monday with the committee chairman, Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, about the need to hold a hearing on his resolution immediately. A call to Hunter was not returned Monday.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct is also planning trial-like proceedings against Keller. Burnam said there is not widespread confidence in the commission’s ability to address the charges against Keller quickly or fairly.

"I think those legal proceedings were a charade to stretch her out through her re-election," Burnam said. "I think they’re going to slap her on the wrist, and she needs to leave office."

Among Keller’s unlisted properties are two Dallas homes valued together at just over $1 million. Keller is listed as sole owner under Sharon Batjer, her married name. She divorced in 1982. Another omission is commercial land next to Keller’s Drive-In, a landmark Dallas hamburger restaurant operated since 1965 by the judge’s father, Jack.

Keller’s ethics commission filing listed income of more than $275,000, including her annual salary of $152,500. County tax records valued properties she did claim, including her Austin home, at roughly $1 million. Keller’s attorney, Chip Babcock, did not return a call Monday.

Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, the Austin-based group that monitors officeholder finances, decried Keller’s omissions as an "extremely outrageous" betrayal of the public trust.

Keller, a Republican who has been on the court since 1994, filed a 12-page response last week to the charges. She faulted the executed inmate’s attorneys for not finding other means for after-hours appeals. She said they could have tried to contact the other eight judges on the bench or the court’s general counsel.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Sharon Keller Has Been Hiding Real Estate Wealth While Asking State to Pay Her Legal Expenses

This may be the final straw that forces Sharon Keller, the discredited presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, to resign, but we hope not. We are looking forward to her public trial to expose the inner workings of the CCA.

According to an AP report in the Austin American-Statesman:

The highest criminal court judge in Texas failed to disclose nearly $2 million in real estate holdings and claimed it would be "financially ruinous" to pay lawyers to fight misconduct charges that could get her removed from the bench.

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is seeking dismissal of charges by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that she violated her duties in a death penalty case.

The commission says Keller cast "public discredit on the judiciary" for not keeping court offices open after 5 p.m. on the night in 2007 that Michael Wayne Richard was executed. The commission said the closing prevented Richard's lawyers from filing a late appeal that might have saved him from lethal injection a few hours later. Richard raped and murdered a Houston-area woman in 1986.

A sworn statement Keller filed with the Texas Ethics Commission last year did not abide by legal requirements that she disclose her ownership interest in seven residential and commercial properties in Dallas and Tarrant counties, The Dallas Morning News reported Monday. The newspaper said the value of those properties was estimated at $1.9 million.

Among Keller's unlisted properties are two Dallas homes valued together at a little more than $1 million. Keller is listed as sole owner under Sharon Batjer, her married name. She divorced in 1982. Another omission is commercial land next to Keller's Drive-In, a landmark Dallas hamburger restaurant operated since 1965 by the judge's father, Jack.

Keller's filing to the ethics commission listed income of more than $275,000, including her $152,500 salary. County tax records estimated the value of properties she did claim, including her Austin home, at $1 million.

Keller has denied wrongdoing in the Richard case.

When contacted by The Associated Press about the real estate holdings, Keller's office referred comment to her attorney, Chip Babcock, who didn't immediately return a call.

The judge has argued that the misconduct charges violate her constitutional right to counsel because the state refuses to allow Babcock to represent her at taxpayer expense. Babcock said he's willing to represent Keller for almost nothing, but he told the newspaper that the state ethics commission would not clarify whether that was an ethics violation.

Babcock said he had been unaware of the real estate holdings until he was contacted by the Morning News, but said her assets shouldn't affect their position that Keller is entitled to financial relief for her legal help.

Watchdog groups disagreed. Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group that monitors officeholder finances, denounced Keller's omissions as an "extremely outrageous" betrayal of the public trust.

"Is this an insane amount of carelessness year after year, in which case should this person be our highest criminal judge?" he said. "Is it willful hiding of assets, in which case that person probably isn't fit to be our top criminal judge? I don't know."

Keller, a Republican who has been on the court since 1994, filed a 12-page response last week to the charges in the misconduct case. She faulted Richard's attorneys for not finding other means for after-hours appeals. She said they could have tried to contact the other eight judges on the bench or the court's general counsel.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Kids Against the Death Penalty Named 2009 Youth Abolitionists of the Year

Kids Against the Death Penalty has won the 2009 Youth Abolitionists of the Year award given by Students Against the Death Penalty and Texas Students Against the Death Penalty. The award was announced and presented to KADP at the Texas Capitol on March 24 by Hooman Hedayati, president of Students Against the Death Penalty and Jason Kyriakides, board member of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty.

The award recognizes the hundreds of hours of activism performed by Kids Against the Death Penalty in the last year educating the public about the injustice of the death penalty. The hard work and passionate commitment of members of Kids Against the Death Penalty has greatly benefited the national movement to abolish the death penalty. Several members of KADP are relatives of Jeff Wood, who is on Texas death row convicted under the Law of Parties even though he did not kill anyone.

Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network, one of the many people who nominated Kids Against the Death Penalty for the award said, "Martin Luther King, Jr wrote in a letter from a Birmingham Jail that 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere'. That sense of injustice was what compelled Dr King to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his own home town. I have personally witnessed how Kids Against the Death Penalty have brought their message of justice beyond their own home town to cities throughout Texas. They have marched for miles along Texas streets holding anti-death penalty signs, through neighborhoods in Houston and down Congress Avenue in Austin to the State Capitol. They have stood vigil many times at the Texas Capitol when Texas has executed someone. They have visited the home of Texas Governor Rick Perry and pressed for justice. They lobbied members of the Texas Legislature on Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty March 24, 2009. Carissa Bywater of KADP testified to the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence Subcommittee on Capital Punishment on March 19. (The video of Carissa's testimony is viewable here from the Texas House website, click forward to minute 57 and 50 seconds.) It is also now on YouTube. KADP has courageously spoken out on an issue in which relatively few other people in Texas, whether adults or children, have found the time or the courage to speak out about. By doing so, they are following in the footsteps of other children in America’s past who have stood up for human rights".

"Children and teenagers played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. Barbara Johns was 16 in 1951 when she started a campaign for equal treatment at her school in Virginia. Her case became part of the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution of the United States. In 1963, more than a thousand children skipped their classes and marched in downtown Birmingham for equal schools. Many of them were arrested. Because of those kids’ actions during the civil rights movement, we live in a country today where candidates for president are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their platforms", said Cobb.

"KADP has already inspired kids in other states to join the anti-death penalty movement. Because of KADP's hard work against the death penalty, both Texas and the U.S. have moved closer to the day when we live in a society where the state does not kill in order to teach the lesson that killing is wrong", said Hooman Hedayati. KADP members received commemorative medals and $100 to be used in their anti-death penalty work.

Also Gislaine Williams of Rice for Peace (Rice University) and Ashley Kincaid (University of Indiana) each received a Certificate of Achievement by Students Against the Death Penalty.

2009 Youth Abolitionists of the Year

Gavin
Been – Founder and President of KADP
Nick Been – 1st Vice President
Nathan Been -2nd Vice President
Carissa Bywater – Secretary and Committee Chair
Paige Wood – Board Member
Cory Bywater - Board Member
Deanna Nickell - Board Member
Tanner Tucker – Board member

Members of KADP holding their awards for 2009 Youth Abolitionists of the Year.

Front row, Left to right:
Carissa Bywater 14, Gavin Been 12
Back Row, Left to right: Deanna Nickell 13, Nathan Been 14, Nick Been 13, Cory Bywater 11, and Tanner Tucker 12

Not Pictured: Paige Wood 15

Below, members of KADP after receiving their award at the Texas capitol.

From Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty - March 24, 2009

Carissa Bywater of KADP Testfying at a Committee Hearing at the Texas Capitol on the Law of Parties.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dallas Morning News Again Endorses Moratorium on Executions; Hearing on Moratorium Bill Thursday, April 2

The Dallas Morning News Editorial Board has again endorsed a moratorium on executions only days before the Subcommittee on Capital Punishment is scheduled to hear testimony on Rep Dutton's HB 913, which would enact a two-year moratorium and create a study commission. The hearing is Thursday, April 2, at 8 AM in room E2.016 in the Capitol in Austin.

From Friday's Dallas Morning News Editorial Page:

Texas, the nation's leading execution state, also leads the nation in number of DNA exonerations. That ought to chill to the bone, so much so that lawmakers get behind legislation for a hiatus in Huntsville's death chamber until the entire capital punishment system can be dissected.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Success! Moratorium Bill Scheduled for Hearing Next Thursday, April 2, in Subcommittee on Capital Punishmentbc

Rep Harold Dutton's moratorium bill (HB 913) is on the agenda for next Thursday, April 2, in the Subcommittee on Capital Punishment. During the Lobby Day this week, HB 913 was one of the bills we asked legislators to support and we specifically asked the chair of the subcommittee to schedule a hearing on this bill, so count this as a successful outcome of Lobby Day!

If at all possible, people should try to drop by to the hearing and sign a form in favor of this bill, which would actually stop executions for two years and create a death penalty study commission. It only takes a few minutes to fill out the form in favor and then leave, but you have to turn in the form in person.

Call Scott Cobb at 512-552-4743 if you have questions.

Also contact the capital punishment subcommittee members and tell them you support HB 913.

Please forward this message.

Members of the Subcommittee on Capital Punishment

Robert Miklos, Chair of Subcommittee on Capital Punishment
District 101 (Dallas County-part)
Email: http://tinyurl.com/caazxo
Phone: 512-463-0464; FAX: 512-463-9295

Wayne Christian (Vice Chair), District 09 (Shelby, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Sabine, Jasper Counties)
Email: http://tinyurl.com/d55lo6
Phone: 512-463-0556; FAX: 512-463-5896

Joseph Moody, District 78 (El Paso County-part)
Email: http://tinyurl.com/dc5bgh
Phone: 512-463-0728; FAX: 512-463-0397

Pete Gallego
Email: http://tinyurl.com/bymedd
Phone: 512-463-0566; FAX: 512-263-9408

Terri Hodge
Email: http://tinyurl.com/d4rd8d
Phone: (512) 463-0586 Fax: (512) 463-8147


HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

NOTICE OF PUBLIC HEARING


COMMITTEE:

Criminal Jurisprudence



SUBCOMMITTEE:
Capital Punishment



TIME & DATE:

8:00 AM, Thursday, April 02, 2009



PLACE:

E2.016



CHAIR:

Rep. Robert Miklos













HB 913
Dutton | et al.


Relating to the creation of a commission to study capital punishment in Texas and to a moratorium on executions.
HB 916
Dutton


Relating to standards for judicial review of certain writs of habeas corpus in capital cases.
HB 938
Dutton


Relating to the admissibility of certain confessions in capital cases.

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If Sharon Keller Wants the State To Pay for Her Lawyer, Let's Give Her a Sleeping Lawyer

Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle has a column on the absurdity of Sharon Keller asking the state of Texas to pay for her highly regarded lawyer of her own choosing, despite the fact that she is not indigent and makes over $150,000 per year in salary, which she is still earning after having been charged with incompetence by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, says the State of Texas is violating her constitutional rights.

We are not paying for an attorney to defend her against charges by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. The Commission’s charges involve a controversy in which she allegedly rebuffed attempts by lawyers for a condemned man to file a last-minute appeal based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier on the day of his execution.

Keller faces the equivalent of a trial that could result in her removal from the bench.

In a response filed Tuesday, Keller says the charges “are unconstitutional because (Keller) has been denied the right to counsel by the Texas and United States Constitution.”

The response, prepared by her attorney Charles L. Babcock, cites neither the provisions in the constitutions nor in case law supporting such an interpretation, but this taxpayer would be willing to provide an attorney for her.

After all, we provide attorneys for accused criminals.

True, we don’t hire lawyers for accused criminals who make $152,500 a year, as Judge Keller does.

And we provide lawyers only for indigents in danger of losing their freedom or their lives, not simply their jobs like Judge Keller.

And we don’t allow indigent defendants to choose their own free lawyers, particularly the highly regarded likes of Mr. Babcock.

A ruinous legal bill
Keller wants the taxpayers to pick up the “usual and customary fees” of Babcock’s firm, despite the fact that, according to the filing prepared by Babcock, hiring him is to “risk a financially ruinous legal bill to defend against these charges which are without merit.”

The judge should know better, especially in these tough times, than to ask us taxpayers to agree to a lawyer whose usual and customary fees can lead to a ruinous legal bill. However, I personally would be willing to chip in for the kind of lawyers whom Keller has found acceptable for people whose lives were at stake. Lawyers like:

• Robert McGlohon, who was appointed by Keller’s court to represent a death row inmate shortly after the Texas Legislature in 1995 passed a law requiring for the first time that indigent condemned men and women be provided tax-paid attorneys for the automatic habeas corpus appeal.

McGlohon had been a lawyer less than three years, had never even assisted on a death penalty case, and was suffering serious health problems. The appeal he filed was so inadequate that it didn’t raise any issues that are required in habeas filings. McGlohon, apparently aware of his failings, didn’t even file a bill on the case.

When later lawyers filed a competent habeas appeal, Keller joined in the majority in ruling it improper because a defendant got only one shot at the target.

In a dissent, then-Judge Morris Overstreet called the decision “a farce and travesty,” and a federal judge called it “a cynical and reprehensible attempt to expedite petitioner’s execution at the expense of all semblance of fairness and integrity.”

• David K. Chapman, who was also appointed by Keller’s court and also was inexperienced in death penalty cases. The State Bar had suspended him twice before the appointment and once shortly after, but probated the suspensions. He was bipolar and admitted it affected his performance. Among other things, Chapman forfeited his client’s right to take the case into federal court by missing a deadline.

Three fellow judges found the attorney to have been incompetent, but Keller, in the majority, wrote that he must be competent only at the time he was appointed, and the fact the bar gave him probation showed it “still found counsel to be competent to practice law.”

• Any lawyer with serious narcolepsy. Keller has joined in opinions ruling that a sleeping defense lawyer is not necessarily ineffective, including an opinion that suggested it may be a strategy to win sympathy from the jury.

It didn’t work for those late defendants, but maybe it would for Keller.
Mark Bennett also has some comments on Keller on his blog:
Even if Judge Keller were entitled to appointed counsel, she would not be entitled to reasonable counsel of her choice. The State is not required to ‘purchase for an indigent defendant all the assistance that his wealthier counterparts might buy.’” Keller knows this, of course, because she joined in the opinion (Griffith v. State — WPD).

Judge Keller says she’s being forced to choose either to “defend herself pro se or risk a financially ruinous legal bill to defend against these charges which are without merit.” Why Babcock’s bill for defending meritless charges should be ruinous to the millionaire scion of a wealthy Dallas family is a mystery, but if this is a legitimate concern (and it must be, since the Honorable Sharon Keller herself swore to its truth) then Judge Keller might do what the working poor often have to do in criminal cases, and hire the lawyer she can afford rather than the lawyer she wants. The right to effective counsel is not the right to the best possible counsel.

If that idea is too unpalatable to her — if the Greenhill School girl can’t conceive of having anything but the absolute best — she can always fall back on daddy’s money. And if she finds herself too proud to ask daddy Jack for help, there’s one other option. There would be no ethical issue with Chip Babcock helping her for free, if only she were no longer a judge . . . .

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Nw Hampshire Passes Crime Victims Equality Act


The following is a message from Renny Cushing, a member of the New Hamsphire House of Representatives. Renny has been to Texas many times to work with us against the death penalty in his capacity as executive director of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.

Today the NH House became the first legislative body in the country pass a crime victims equality act to prohibit discrimination against family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. By a 213-114 margin HB 370, "An act relative to the treatment of victims of crime", was passed by a 213-114 margin. That bill, based upon model legislation recommended in the Dignity Denied Report, amends New Hampshire's Crime Victims Bill of Rights by adding this new right to crime victims:

"The right to all federal and state constitutional rights guaranteed to all victims of crime on an equal basis, and notwithstanding the provisions of any laws on capital punishment, the right not to be discriminated against or have their rights as a victim denied, diminished, expanded, or enhanced on the basis of the victim’s support for, opposition to, or neutrality on the death penalty."

The bill is a tribute to Lorilei Guilliry, Gus and Audrey Lamm, Rusty Yates, Felicia Floyd and Chris Kellet, SuZann Bozler, Ron Carlson, Johnny Carter, Jeannette Popp and others who were denied rights they were entitled to as crime victims because of their opposition to the death penalty.

Rep. Robert "Renny" Cushing
NH House of Representatives
State House
Concord, NH
926 273 7617

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

"If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

The effort to end the death penalty for people convicted under the Law of Parties got a big boost yesterday by all the people who came to Austin for Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty to speak to their elected representatives. We will post more about Lobby Day later.

Right now, we want to again ask people to watch the video of last Thursday's hearing in the Subcommittee on Capital Punishment of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. If every legislator would listen to this testimony, the Law of Parties bill would surely pass. It is fundamentally unjust to sentence people to death who has not killed anyone; even most people who support the death penalty do not want it used for people who do not kill. The testimony in this video brings that point home in the voices of family members of people who have been sentenced to death even though they never killed anyone.

You can watch the video of the hearing by clicking on this link, which will stream a video file to your computer. It is powerful stuff. You will remember it for a long time. As Shakespeare wrote, "if you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

The father of Kenneth Foster starts speaking at around minute 23. Later, Kenneth's grandfather also testfies. The girlfriend of Randy Halprin gives her moving testimony at around the one hour point.

The sister of Jeff Wood, Terri Been, starts her powerful testimony at around minute 32. Terri does a wonderful job explaining to the committee the injustice of the Law of Parties. Terri spends part of her testimony reading a statement by Jeff Wood's young daughter and telling how hard it has been for her niece to have a father on death row even though he never killed anyone. Terri tells the committee how her niece attempted suicide when they learned the date of her father's schedule execution. The execution was stayed within hours of being carried out, but Jeff remains on death row.

More information on the Law of Parties is found on various websites, including

http://www.randyhalprin.net

http://www.freekenneth.com

http://www.savejeffwood.com

http://www.texaslawofparties.com

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Text of Sharon "Killer" Keller's Response to Charges of Misconduct and Incompetence

Judge Keller Answer
Judge Keller Answer Scott Cobb Judge "Killer" Keller responds to misconduct and incompetence charges filed against her by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The documents filed as Exhibits with Judge Keller's answer can now be viewed on line at: http://www.scjc.state.tx.us/caseinfo.asp

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Today is Lobby Day Against the Texas Death Penalty

Tuesday March 24, 2009
Texas State Capitol
11th and Congress
Austin, Texas

Register for Lobby Day!

People from across Texas are coming to Austin on Tuesday, March 24, for a Death Penalty Reform Lobby Day to speak with legislators about the injustice of the Texas death penalty system. Issues to be discussed include the risk of executing an innocent person (HB788), the need for a moratorium on executions (HB 913, HJR 24), abolition of the death penalty (HB 297, HB 682), the Law of Parties (HB 304, HB 2267), and impeaching Sharon Keller (HR 480).

Please register to let us know you are interested in coming to Lobby Day on March 24. Registration is not mandatory, but it will help us make plans if we know how many people to expect. You can also just show up at any of the day's events.

The Lobby Day will include a press conference at 1 PM and a rally on the South Steps of the Capitol at 5:30. Many family members of people currently and formerly on death row plan to participate in Lobby Day events.

Advocating an end to death sentences under the Law of Parties is the primary focus of the Lobby Day. In 2007, the death sentence of Kenneth Foster was commuted to life by Governor Perry. Foster had been sentenced to death under the Law of Parties even though he never killed anyone. Family members of Kenneth Foster, Jeff Wood and others convicted under the Law of Parties will meet with members of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence and other legislators to urge them to approve HB 2267 and HB 304, both of which would end the death penalty under the Law of Parties.

A group of citizen lobbyists will also meet with members of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence to urge them to approve HR 480, which would create a House select committee to determine if Sharon Keller should be impeached. Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has until March 24 to send her response to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct regarding charges that she violated her judicial duties by declining to accept an after-hours appeal from a death row inmate in 2007.

Jeanette Popp, whose daughter was murdered in Austin in 1988, will participate in Lobby Day. Two innocent men were convicted of the murder of Ms. Popp’s daughter. Ms Popp’s new book, entitled “Mortal Justice”, was published on March 1, 2009. Her book tells the story of her daughter’s murder, the wrongful convictions of two innocent men, their exonerations, and the eventual trial and conviction of the real killer. Ms Popp visited the real killer in jail prior to his trial and told him that she did not want him to receive a death sentence. He was sentenced to life.

The death penalty was abolished by New Mexico just last week.

Lobby Day Schedule

10 AM – Noon: Lobbying Training Workshop Location:
University of Texas at Austin Sanchez Building (College of Education) in the Cissy McDaniel Parker Dean's Conference Room. This is a short 7-8 minute walk from the capitol. Google map of route from capitol to training location.

1 PM: Press Conference in the House Speaker's Committee Room 2W.6 in the Capitol

2 – 5 PM: Group lobbying visits to legislative offices

5:30 PM: Rally on the South Steps of the Capitol

Sponsored by: Sponsored by Texas Moratorium Network, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Campaign to End the Death Penalty - Austin Chapter, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, Texas CURE, the Student Prison Caucus, the Eye & Tooth Project: Forum Theatre on the Death Penalty, Kids Against the Death Penalty, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER) and the Friends Meeting of Austin.

Flyer for Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty March 24 Austin Texas


Please call the following members of the subcommittee on Capital Punishment and say that you want the committee to approve HB 2267, the Law of Parties bill.

Members of the Subcommittee on Capital Punishment

Robert Miklos, Chair of Subcommittee on Capital Punishment
District 101 (Dallas County-part)
Email for for Miklos
Phone: 512-463-0464; FAX: 512-463-9295

Wayne Christian, District 09 (Shelby, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Sabine, Jasper Counties)
Email for for Christian
Phone: 512-463-0556; FAX: 512-463-5896

Joseph Moody, District 78 (El Paso County-part)
Email for for Moody
Phone: 512-463-0728; FAX: 512-463-0397

Pete Gallego
Email for for Gallego
Phone: 512-463-0566; FAX: 512-263-9408

Terri Hodge (Sponsor of Law of Parties bill, so no need to contact her)

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Dallas Morning News Says Pass Bills to Stop Death Penalty Under Law of Parties

The Dallas Morning News has an editorial today on the Law of Parties and the death penalty. Tomorrow, we will be down at the capitol for the Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty talking to legislators about the Law of Parties.

From the DMN editorial:

Conventional wisdom suggests that the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst criminals – those who commit the most heinous murders.

But in Texas, we sometimes execute accomplices, people who never pulled the trigger and who might have been only peripherally involved in a crime. The law of parties permits the court to hold someone criminally responsible for the acts of another.

Incredibly, an accomplice can be put to death for the triggerman's crime. That accomplice might not even get his own trial, as Texas allows joint trials in capital cases.

But proposed legislation would change that.

Several lawmakers are pushing for needed reforms that would guarantee a defendant's right to his own trial in a death penalty case. Other bills would rule out sentencing an accomplice to death using the law of parties.

This common-sense legislation, which got a hearing Thursday in a House subcommittee, would ensure that defendants in capital cases have their own day in court and are not punished for another's actions. Even death penalty proponents should welcome these safeguards.

Gov. Rick Perry, who has shown little hesitancy about the death penalty, expressed concerns about simultaneous trials in 2007 when he blocked Kenneth Foster's execution and reduced his sentence to life in prison. The governor urged the Legislature to look at the issue.

Foster, who drove the getaway car during a robbery spree that turned deadly, faced a legal double whammy. He was tried with the shooter and was sentenced to die under the law of parties. Even though Foster was sitting yards away in his grandfather's rental car when his partner in crime fired the gun, the jury determined that Foster intended to kill or "should have anticipated" a murder.

Adopting this legislation would send the message that Texas no longer plans to impose the ultimate punishment for crimes that someone else committed. These bills, as well as one filed by Rep. Harold Dutton, would take aim at let's-make-a-deal gamesmanship that pits defendants in capital cases against one another.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sharon Keller has till Tuesday, March 24 to Respond to Charges of Misconduct

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has until March 24 to answer charges that she violated her judicial duties by declining to accept an after-hours appeal from a death row inmate in 2007. Michael Richard was executed after Keller broke the rules of the Court of Criminal Appeals by not forwarding the request by Richard's lawyers to the duty judge. She falsely claimed that the CCA closed at 5 PM.

Keller requested, and received, an extension to a 15-day response deadline after the State Commission on Judicial Conduct filed the charges in February.

The next step in the process — appointing a sitting judge to serve as special master for Keller’s trial — will take place after her response is filed.

Also on Tuesday, March 24, citizens from across Texas will gather at the capitol for a Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty. They plan to meet with more than 90 legislative offices, including all the members of the committee to which Lon Burnam's resolution to create a select committee to investigate possible impeachment articles against Keller has been referred.

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Jeff Wood Loses Appeal at 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

There are two bills pending in the Texas Legislature that would prevent prosectors from seeking the death penalty for people who do not kill but are convicted under the Law of Parties. Now, in a Law of Parties case, the Associated Press is reporting that Jeff Wood has lost an appeal in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:

March 21, 2009

A Texas death row inmate who came within hours of execution last summer has lost an appeal in a federal appeals court where his lawyers argued he's too mentally ill to be put to death for taking part in a fatal robbery more than a decade ago in the Texas Hill Country.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal from Jeffery Wood, 35, condemned for the January 1996 slaying Kriss Keeran at a convenience store in Kerrville.

Wood was convicted of capital murder under the Texas law of parties, which makes the participant in a capital murder equally culpable of the crime. Evidence showed Wood waited in a car outside the convenience store while his roommate, Daniel Reneau, fatally shot 31-year-old Keeran once in the face with a .22-caliber pistol.

Both men then robbed the store, taking more than $11,000 in cash and checks.

Reneau was executed in 2002.

Wood was scheduled to die last August but a federal judge delayed the lethal injection so Wood could be tested to determine whether he's mentally competent to understand why he should be executed. He does not have an execution date now.

In the appeal to the New Orleans-based appeals court, Wood's lawyers contended they needed a second expert, a neuropsychologist, to examine Wood after he already had been examined by a forensic psychologist.

"Mr. Wood lacks a rational understanding of his death sentence and of the reasons for his imminent execution," attorney Scott Sullivan said in his motion filed earlier this week.

They also wanted the court to approve hiring of an additional investigator and keep the expenses and results confidential.

Prosecutors argued Wood already had an expert "of his own choosing," hasn't shown why he needs a second and also has shown "only generic reasons for confidentiality."

A federal district judge ruled earlier that relevant information about Wood's mental condition shouldn't be concealed.

"At this stage of the proceedings, there is no need for 'trial by ambush' or 'gamesmanship,'" the Texas Attorney General's Office argued in its opposition to Wood's appeal.

The appeals court, in its ruling Friday, agreed, saying Wood's lawyers gave no reasons for a need for confidentiality. They also pointed out the lower court judge didn't bar them from asking again for the second psychological expert, but that the public interest wouldn't be served by stopping everything in the courts regarding Wood's case.

Last summer, Sullivan said in a motion he met with Wood and that the prisoner told him he believed his trial judge was corrupt but would accept a $100,000 bribe and then deport him to Norway where he could live with his wife. Sullivan said Wood also believed the government will pay him $50,000 a year once he's released and that he's willing to give that money to the judge.

The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of prisoners determined to be mentally disabled, but that protection has not extended to those with mental illness.

Wood was found by a jury to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. After a brief stint at a state hospital, a second jury found him competent.

At his capital murder trial, he tried to fire his lawyers before the penalty phase. The trial judge denied the request but Wood's lawyers followed their client's wishes, called no witnesses and declined to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.

Evidence showed Wood and Reneau planned the robbery for a couple of weeks and unsuccessfully tried recruiting the victim, Keeran, whom they knew, and another employee to stage a phony robbery at the Texaco gas station.

Wood's lawyers said his mental illness allowed him to be easily manipulated by Reneau.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Texas Court Says Death Row Inmate who Ate Eye "is clearly 'crazy,' but he is also 'sane' under Texas law,"

From the Austin American-Statesman:

A condemned Texas inmate with a history of mental problems who removed his only eye and ate it in a bizarre outburst several months ago on death row lost an appeal Wednesday at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Andre Thomas, 26, raised 44 claims in his petition to the state's highest criminal court, challenging his conviction and death sentence for the slaying of his estranged wife's 13-month-old daughter five years ago in Grayson County in North Texas. His wife and their 4-year-old son were killed in the same attack. Thomas plucked out his right eye five days after his arrest.

Thomas "is clearly 'crazy,' but he is also 'sane' under Texas law," Judge Cathy Cochran wrote in a statement accompanying the court's order upholding Thomas' conviction and punishment.

Among the claims in the appeal, Thomas' attorneys argued that instructions to his trial jury were incorrect regarding the law on voluntary intoxication and that the instruction should not have been given because it suggested his drug and alcohol use and not insanity was responsible for his actions.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mew Mexico Governor Signs Bill to Repeal Death Penalty

New Mexico today abolished the death penalty, so now there are only 35 states in the U.S. that have the death penalty. The death penalty has increasingly become a regional policy that is carried out mostly in the South where 80 percent of executions take place. Even in areas of Western Texas near New Mexico, the death penalty is used much less than in Eastern Texas where there is more cultural influence from the South.

From the New York Times:

Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation Wednesday to repeal New Mexico’s death penalty, calling it the “most difficult decision in my political life.”

The legislation replaces lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe,” Mr. Richardson said at a news conference in the Capitol.

The governor, a Democrat, faced a deadline of midnight for making a decision on the bill that lawmakers sent him last week.

New Mexico is only the second state to ban executions since the United States Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. New Jersey was the first, in 2007. In all, 15 states now bar capital punishment.

New Mexico has executed only one person since 1960, Terry Clark, a child killer, in 2001.

Two men are currently on death row, Robert Fry of Farmington and Timothy Allen of Bloomfield. Their sentences are not affected by the new law.

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Committee Hearing on Law of Parties, Thursday, March 19, at the Texas Capitol

The Capital Punishment Subcommittee of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will hold a hearing Thursday at 8 AM on Terri Hodge's HB 2267, which would end the option of sentencing someone to death under the Law of Parties. Currently, the Law of Parties can be used to sentence people to death even though they did not actually kill or intend anyone to be killed, as long as they "should have anticipated" a murder.

Kenneth Foster, Jr was sentenced to death under the Law of Parties even though he did not kill anyone. Foster's death sentence was commuted to life in prison on August 30, 2007 by Governor Perry. Hodge was one of the legislators who signed a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles urging clemency for Kenneth Foster in 2007.


Several Texas newspaper editorial boards opposed the execution of Kenneth Foster because of the unfairness of the Law of Parties. The Fort Worth Star Telegram wrote on August 19,2007, "The long-term solution is for the Texas Legislature to revisit the state's "law of parties" statutes. The Dallas Morning News said in an editorial, "Mr. Foster is a criminal. But he should not be put to death for a murder committed by someone else."


What: Committee Hearing on HB 2267 to End Death Penalty Sentences Under the Law of Parties and require separate trials

Where: The Texas Capitol in Room, E2.016. Take the elevator down to level E2.

When: 8 AM on Thursday, February 19


No one should be put to death for a murder committed by someone else. The death penalty should certainly not be used for people who do not actually kill anyone. While a majority of people in Texas may still support the death penalty, I am quite sure that even most people who support the death penalty only want it used for the worst of the worst murderers and not for people who do not actually kill anyone. Hodge's bill would eliminate the death penalty sentencing option for people convicted under the Law of Parties, but it would still allow people who play lesser roles in a case to be convicted and sentenced to prison under the Law of Parties.


Hodge's HB 2267 also includes a provision that codefendants be tried separately. The bill analysis says "according to the Office of Court Administration, under current law, a court has discretion to jointly try two or more defendants who are charged with the same offense or with any offense growing out of the same transaction in capital felony cases." The bill would amend court procedures to necessitate two or more capital trials rather than one trial. Foster had been tried together with the actual killer, who was executed for the murder. When Perry commuted Foster's sentence he did not address the Law of Parties issue that allowed Foster to be sentenced to death even though he did not kill anyone. Instead Perry said, "I am concerned about Texas law that allowed capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously and it is an issue I think the Legislature should examine."


If you favor ending the death penalty under the Law of Parties, please go over to the capitol and sign in in support of HB 2267. All you have to do is fill out a postcard sized form in the room where the hearing is taking place and mark that you are in favor, then you can leave. Or you can stay and listen to the testimony.


The meeting starts at 8 AM, but it is likely to recess around 9:30 and then reconvene after the full House adjourns. There are other bills scheduled to be heard at this meeting too. We don't know what exact time testimony on the Law of Parties bill will be heard, but you can sign the form as being in support at any time while the meeting is taking place and then leave.


Call Scott Cobb at 512-552-4743, if you have questions or if on Thursday morning you want to know if the committee is in adjournment.


Parking is available in the Capitol Visitors Parking Garage located between Trinity and San Jacinto Streets at 12th and 13th streets. Parking is free for the first two hours and $.75 for each half- hour thereafter (maximum daily charge: $6.00). Metered spaces are available throughout the area.


If you can not make it to the committee hearing, we need you to call or email the following members of the subcommittee on Capital Punishment and say that you want the committee to approve HB 2267, the Law of Parties bill.


Members of the Subcommittee on Capital Punishment


Robert Miklos, Chair of Subcommittee on Capital Punishment

District 101 (Dallas County)

Send him an Email

Phone: 512-463-0464; FAX: 512-463-9295


Wayne Christian (Vice Chair), District 09 (Shelby,
Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Sabine, Jasper
Counties)
Send him an Email

Phone: 512-463-0556; FAX: 512-463-5896


Joseph Moody, District 78 (El Paso County-part)
Send him an Email

Phone: 512-463-0728; FAX: 512-463-0397


Pete Gallego

Send him an Email

Phone: 512-463-0566; FAX: 512-263-9408


Terri Hodge (Sponsor of Law of Parties bill, so no
need to contact her)

Below is a media report from a San Antonio TV station on a press conference we had on Feb 24 on the Law of Parties issue.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson seeks public input on death penalty repeal

The New Mexico Independent reports that

Immediately after the vote in the Senate on the death penalty repeal, Gov. Bill Richardson issued a statement on the bill. The bill passed 24-18.

“This is an extremely difficult issue that deserved the serious and thoughtful debate it received in the Legislature,” said Richardson. “I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision.”

The Governor’s Office is asking for public input on the issue. People can call 505-476-2225 or e-mail the governor through his Web site.

Richardson has three days, excluding Sunday, to make a decision on the bill.

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Bill to End Death Penalty Under Texas' Law of Parties to be Heard in Legislative Committee Thursday, March 19

Terri Hodge's Law of Parties bill that would end the death penalty under the Law of Parties will be heard in the Capital Punishment Subcommittee at the Texas Legislature next Thursday, March 19. Also they will hear one of the moratorium related bills that would give the governor the power to call a moratorium.

We need as many people as possible to show up for the subcommittee meeting and sign in in favor of HB 2267, the Law of Parties bill. While you are there, you can also sign in to support the other bills on that day's agenda, including the one to give the governor the power to call a moratorium and the one to create a commission to study the death penalty in Texas.


Criminal Jurisprudence


Capital Punishment


8:00 AM, Thursday, March 19, 2009


E2.016


Rep. Robert Miklos


Bills on Next Thursday's Agenda

HB 111



Pena


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


HB 298



Dutton | et al.


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


HB 493



Zerwas


Relating to the eligibility for judge-ordered community supervision or for mandatory supervision of a defendant convicted of criminal solicitation of capital murder.


HB 877



Naishtat | et al.


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


HB 2058



Gallego


Relating to the standards for attorneys representing indigent defendants in capital cases.


HB 2267



Hodge


Relating to the joint or separate prosecution of a capital felony charged against two or more defendants and the extent of a defendant's criminal responsibility for the conduct of a coconspirator in capital felony cases.


HJR 24



Naishtat | et al.


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

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New Mexico Legislature repeals death penalty, only Governor's signature needed now

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Legislature voted Friday to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The state Senate voted 24-18 for the repeal bill, sending it to Gov. Bill Richardson for his signature.

Richardson has opposed repeal in the past but now says he would consider signing it.

"I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision," the second-term Democratic governor said in a statement issued after the vote.

He would have three days — excluding Sunday — to make a decision once the bill reaches his desk.

The House approved the legislation a month ago.

"The tide is turning across the country, and we are part of that tide," said Ruth Hoffman, director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry and a longtime lobbyist against the death penalty.

The vote capped a decade of repeal efforts in New Mexico, one of 36 states with capital punishment.

"For a state to look ahead and say the death penalty is not serving the people's needs is a very courageous thing to do," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

The vote also was hailed by Amnesty International USA, with executive director Larry Cox calling New Mexico "a trailblazer and a beacon of hope for everyone who believes in human rights and justice."

There are two men on New Mexico's death row. Their sentences would not be affected by repeal.

The state has executed one man in the past 49 years, convicted child killer Terry Clark in 2001.

New Jersey banned executions in 2007, the first state to do so since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

New Mexico was one of several states considering banning executions this year.

Repeal legislation has passed the state Senate in Montana and awaits a House hearing. The state Senate in Kansas is expected to debate a repeal bill on Monday.

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WATCH LIVE NOW: NM Senate debates death penalty repeal

The Santa Fe Reporter is live blogging and live streaming video from the debate on the floor of the New Mexico Senate on repeal of the death penalty

They've got everything set up there, where you can participate in the discussion and listen to the live feed.

http://www.sfreeper.com/2009/03/12/live-blog-senate-debates-death-penalty/

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Today Texas Carried Out 435th Execution Since 1982

Today Texas executed Luis Salazar. He was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m. Salazar was the 13th person executed in Texas so far this year.

Salazar was the 196th person executed since Rick Perry assumed the office of governor of Texas in December 2000. Overall, 435 people have been executed in Texas since 1982. There were zero executions in Texas between 1964 and 1982. Virginia, with 103 executions, comes in a distant second to Texas in number of executions.

From the Houston Chronicle:

Luis Salazar thanked friends and relatives for their friendship and fellowship and expressed love to his mother, brothers, sister and his children.

“I’m going to miss them and take them with me in my heart,” he said from the death chamber gurney. “Thanks to everyone praying for me.”

Salazar never acknowledged the family of Martha Sanchez or her murder. Sanchez’s oldest child, Erick, was among the witnesses. Her mother and sisters clutched tissues in their hands as they clasped each other’s hands.

“My heart is going ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump,” Salazar said and then laughed. He asked for forgiveness and recited the Lord’s Prayer. When the drugs began taking effect, he asked for forgiveness for the “sins that I can remember.” He was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m. CDT, nine minutes after the lethal drugs began to flow.

Salazar, 38, was the second condemned murderer put to death in Texas in as many nights and the 12th this year in the nation’s busiest capital punishment state.

Salazar testified at his trial that after a night of marijuana, cocaine and drinking he thought he was in his own house just before dawn Oct. 11, 1997, and that Martha Sanchez, 28, and her three children were intruders.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Texas Executed 434th Person Today

Today Texas executed James Edward Martinez. He was pronounced dead at 6:17 p.m. Martinez was the 11th person executed in Texas so far this year. On Wednesday night, Luis Salazar, is scheduled for execution in Texas.

Martinez was the 195th person executed since Rick Perry assumed the office of governor of Texas in December 2000. Overall, 434 people have been executed in Texas since 1982. There were zero executions in Texas between 1964 and 1982. Virginia, with 103 executions, comes in a distant second to Texas in number of executions.

From the Fort Worth Star telegram:

In 2008, the state executed only two convicted killers from Tarrant County. But if the execution of James Edward Martinez is carried out tonight as planned, he would be the fourth inmate from Tarrant County to receive lethal injection this year. A fifth is scheduled in June.

Martinez, 34, of Fort Worth, was convicted for the ambush-style slaying of his ex-girlfriend, Sandra Walton, and her friend Michael Humphreys on Sept. 21, 2000. For Humphreys' father, Brad Humphreys, today will be the second time he's witnessed the execution of someone who killed a close family member.

In 2001, he watched Jeffery Tucker die for the 1988 shooting death of his father, Wilton Humphreys.

"It's not rewarding or a joy to go watch a man die," Brad Humphreys said Monday at his Arlington home. "When one [slaying] happens, you think the worst can't happen again. But when your own child is killed ... your child is not supposed to die before you."

Humphreys said that Martinez and other killers should understand it's a fate they brought on themselves.

"If you kill someone in Texas, you're pretty much committing suicide," he said. "If you commit these crimes, you know what the ultimate price is."

Death penalty opponent Scott Cobb of Austin acknowledges that most Texans support the sentence. But he said it is costly and unnecessary for defendants facing life sentences with no chance of parole.

"You've had people on death row who didn't even kill anyone," said Cobb, who heads the Texas Moratorium Network. "States that have the death penalty spend much more money on prosecution. You have to do certain things during the trial including more investigations, expert witnesses. The costs are front-loaded."

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

New Book Published by Jeanette Popp, Mother of Murder Victim

We received a copy yesterday of Jeanette Popp's long-anticipated new book in the mail. Mortal Justice: A True Story of Murder and Vindication. It was published March 1. Jeanette has worked long and hard for many years against the death penalty. She served several years as chairperson of Texas Moratorium Network. Her book tells the story of her daughter's murder, the wrongful conviction of two innocent men Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger, their eventual exoneration, the subsequent conviction of the real killer, and Jeanette's long activism against the death penalty, including a jailhouse meeting with the real killer and her successful efforts to prevent him from being sentenced to death.

The book can be bought on Amazon.

In her new book, Jeanette includes an account of a jailhouse meeting with the man who actually killed her daughter before his trial because she wanted to convince him to take a plea bargain and accept life in prison istead of going to trial and risking the death penalty. In the jailhouse meeting, she told him, "Mr Marino, you know I don't want you executed?"

"Ive heard that," he answered stoically.

"It's the truth. I don't want you to die."

He shook his head and told her, "Mrs Popp, I'd rather be executed than spend the rest of my life in prison."

A recent Dallas Morning News article said

Ms. Popp asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, because she says she did not want her daughter's memory stained with someone's blood. "I'm not a bleeding heart liberal," she says. "But I do have a heart."

Since the exoneration, she has been an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. That doesn't mean she wants Mr. Marino to ever walk free.
We talked to Jeanette yesterday and she plans to come to Lobby Day Against the Death Penalty on March 24 at the Texas Capitol in Austin. In 2001, Jeanette's testimony to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee was instrumental in persuading that committee to vote in favor of a moratorium on executions. This year, the same committee will again consider a proposal by State Rep Harold Dutton to enact a moratorium on executions and create a commission to study the death penalty system in Texas.

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Second Incident at Sharon Keller's CCA Reported to State Commission on Judicial Conduct

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that another troubling incident occured at the Texas Court of Crminial Appeals and that Judge Cheryl Johnson reported this second incident to the State Commmission on Judicial Conduct, which interviewed the CCA's general counsel. This case involved an appeal for Larry Swearingen, whose appeal includes strong claims of innocence.

Just weeks before the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was charged with "willful and persistent conduct" that discredited the judiciary, she was involved in a second incident in which lawyers for a condemned man were initially blocked from filing a last-minute appeal.

Judge Sharon Keller, a former Dallas prosecutor, was called shortly after the court's general counsel and a clerk refused to formally accept legal filings requesting a halt to the execution of Larry Swearingen, a well-placed source told The Dallas Morning News. Keller's attorney confirmed she was alerted but said it was after the incident was resolved.

The January incident was reminiscent of the September 2007 case in which Michael Richard was executed after the court, allegedly on Keller's orders, refused to stay open past business hours to accept his attorneys' appeals.

Amid the nationwide controversy that erupted over Richard's execution, the state's highest criminal appeals court formalized its rules of procedure for executions. The written procedures said the duty judge should be notified of any filings and work closely with the general counsel "to reasonably accommodate" defense lawyers, especially if they notified the clerk's office that they were at risk of missing the deadline.

The Swearingen incident showed that problems remained.

Swearingen's lawyers arrived at the clerk's office at 5:01 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 23, after calling to say that copying problems were causing unexpected delays. Once inside, they were told their filings would not be entered into the court record until the office reopened Monday morning. That delay could have shortened the court's timeframe for evaluating the appeal and subjected defense counsel to sanctions for failing to meet a 48-hour deadline for filing petitions in execution cases.

Their pleadings were accepted only after another judge on the court, Cheryl Johnson, intervened and ordered the chief clerk to return to the courthouse, several people involved in the matter said.

Although there is some dispute over what role Keller may have played in the latest case, she has long been a lightning rod for opponents of the death penalty, who contend she routinely favors the state's position in capital cases. After the Richard execution, even some of her fellow judges were publicly outraged.

One of them, Johnson, had been the duty judge for Richard but had not been notified of the filing problems in that case. She intervened in the Swearingen case after his lawyers called her for help.

She later reported the incident to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, the source said, on condition of anonymity. The commission interviewed the court's general counsel about Swearingen, the source added.

Judge Mike Keasler said he, too, heard the commission had interviewed the general counsel, although he was not sure why.

The executive director of the judicial conduct commission, Seana Willing, said she could not confirm or deny knowledge of the Swearingen incident. She said she also could not discuss whether a complaint had been filed or anyone had been questioned.

Johnson declined to discuss the matter.

"Given all that's pending right now, I really don't want to comment," she told The News. "Richard was not pending, and Swearingen is still pending. I'm going to leave it at that."

Unlike Richard, Swearingen was not executed. A federal appeals court stayed his execution the day before he was to die to give his lawyers more time to pursue their case.

Concerns about how Swearingen played out, including why the judge assigned to the case was not notified, have prompted court members again to try to clarify their procedures, Keasler said.

"We need to get things as clear and as understandable so that everybody knows about it as much as possible," he said.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Bills to Abolish Death Penalty to be Heard by Subcommittee March 12 in Texas Legislature

The two bills that would abolish the death penalty will be heard next week in the Subcommittee on Capital Punishment of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. The longest sponsor of abolition in the House is State Rep Harold Dutton. He first filed his abolition bill in 2003 when his bill was given a hearing by the full committee. A second person also filed an abolition bill starting in 2007, Rep Jessica Farrar.

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

NOTICE OF PUBLIC HEARING


COMMITTEE:
Criminal Jurisprudence


SUBCOMMITTEE:
Capital Punishment


TIME & DATE:
8:00 AM, Thursday, March 12, 2009


PLACE:
E2.016


CHAIR:
Rep. Robert Miklos






HB 297

Dutton | et al.

Relating to the abolition of the death penalty.



HB 682

Farrar | et al.

Relating to abolishing the death penalty.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

New Book: A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green

From the Dallas Morning News' Crime blog:

The death penalty in Texas is about to get another bright light focused on it with next week's debut of A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green.



Green was executed in 2004, for the 1992 robbery and slaying of Andrew Lastrapes in Houston. Best-selling author Thomas Cahill, (How the Irish Saved Civilization), met Green the year before his execution and publicity materials say he encountered "a level of goodness, peace, and enlightenment that few human beings ever attain."

Cahill arranged for Green to be visited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu before his death.

But more impressive than Cahill's perspective or even Tutu's, is that of the victim's family: before his execution, Lastrapes' widow and son asked that Green be spared.

Cahill's book promotion tour takes him to the Rothko Chapel in Houston at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, but not to Dallas.
His publicist says, "he'll be in Dallas next year for the paperback! We will go MUCH wider throughout Texas next year, including Dallas and Austin. You can catch up with all of the events and media on the Thomas Cahill Facebook page.

Buy A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green
through Amazon by following this linkand a small portion of the sales will benefit us to use against the death penalty.

Cahill is also the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe(1996)

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