Texas

Texas

Texas Court Stays Execution of Man Convicted by Now Debunked "Shaken Baby" Testimony

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution to Robert Roberson (pictured), who had been scheduled to be executed on June 21 for the 2003 death of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Nikki Curtis. The court's June 16 stay order halts Roberson's execution under a recent Texas law permitting court challenges based on new scientific evidence of innocence. Prosecution experts had testified at Roberson's trial that his daughter died of Shaken Baby Syndrome, asserting that the child exhibited symptoms that she must have been shaken or beaten. Roberson said she had fallen out of bed during the night, but that she seemed fine and went back to sleep. Hours later, when he checked on her again, she was blue and could barely breathe. Prosecutors charged him with murder and with sexually assaulting his daughter - although there was no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted. The sexual assault charges were later dropped, but only after the prosecution had discussed them in open court in front of the jury. The court granted Roberson review of four issues: that (1) new scientific evidence establishes that he would not have been convicted; (2) the State's use of "false, misleading, and scientifically invalid testimony” about Shaken Baby Syndrome violated due process; (3) Roberson is "actually innocent of capital murder"; and (4) "the State’s introduction of false forensic science testimony that current science has exposed as false" made his trial fundamentally unfair. "Instead of taking Robert’s explanation about a fall seriously or exploring all possible causes of the injury sustained by a chronically ill child who had been at the doctor’s office with 104.5-degree temperature only two days before," Roberson's lawyer, Gretchen Sween wrote, "a tragedy was hastily deemed a crime and a father, doing the best he could to care for his daughter despite severe cognitive impairments, was branded a murderer." Roberson presented affidavits from four medical experts challenging the accuracy and scientific validity of the State's shaken baby testimony. Forensic pathologist Dr. Harry Bonnell, in an opinion shared by all four defense experts, wrote: "it is impossible to shake a toddler to death without causing serious neck injuries—and Nikki had none." They suggest several alternate theories for Curtis' death, including meningitis caused by an ear infection, a fall like the one Roberson described to investigators, or a congenital condition. Roberson's appeal argues that, "[w]hen the trial record is viewed through the lens of current science and evidence-based medicine, it is clear that he is innocent of capital murder." The court returned the case to the trial court in Anderson County to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Roberson's claims. 

Texas Judge Dismisses Charges Against Former Death Row Inmate

A judge dismissed murder charges against former Texas death row prisoner Kerry Max Cook on June 6, after prosecutors conceded that his due process rights had been violated by the presentation of false testimony from an alternative suspect. The decision moves Cook one step closer to exoneration, nearly 40 years after he was originally convicted and sentenced to death for the 1977 murder of Linda Jo Edwards. Smith County prosecutors tried Cook three times, twice winning convictions and death sentences. After Smith's second trial ended in a hung jury, prosecutors withheld evidence and misrepresented a deal they had made with a jailhouse informant who falsely testified in the third trial that Cook had confessed to him. An appeals court overturned that conviction and death sentence for what it called “pervasive” and “egregious” prosecutorial misconduct. To avoid a fourth capital trial in 1999, Cook pled no contest to reduced charges and was released from prison. He continued to maintain his innocence. Prosecutors finally agreed to drop the charges against Cook after an alternate suspect in the case, James Mayfield—who had been granted complete immunity from prosecution—admitted that he had lied during Cook's trials. Mayfield, who had an extramarital affair with Edwards, had testified at the trials that he had not had sex with Edwards for weeks before her murder. However, several DNA tests identified semen in Edwards' underwear as Mayfield's, not Cook's. In a deposition in April, Mayfield testified that, in fact, he had sex with Edwards the day before she was killed. That admission also shed new light on the trial testimony of Edwards' roommate, who initially identified Mayfield as the man she saw in the apartment the night of the murder, but later changed her story to implicate Cook. Mark McPeak, who represented Cook during an earlier stage of his case, described his prior trials as "the quintessential railroading." Texas Defender Services executive director Kathryn Kase said: "It is long past time for the state of Texas to admit that it got the wrong man and that it prosecuted the wrong man repeatedly and sought the death penalty against the wrong man repeatedly." Cook continues to pursue a declaration of "actual innocence" that would make him eligible for more than $3 million in compensation from the state of Texas for the two decades he was wrongfully incarcerated on death row. The trial court is expected to rule on that claim later this month and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will then review the dismissal of charges.

Supreme Court To Hear Texas Death Penalty Cases Dealing with Racial Bias, Intellectual Disability

On June 6, the U.S. Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari in two Texas death penalty cases, and will review the constitutionality of those death sentences during its next term. The two cases are Buck v. Stephens, in which Duane Buck was sentenced to death after a psychologist testified at his penalty trial that the fact that Buck is African-American increases the likelihood that he presents a future danger to society; and Moore v. Texas, a challenge to Texas' unscientific test for determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. Texas, through its then-Attorney General John Cornyn, had conceded that seven death row prisoners, including Buck, had been unfairly sentenced to death after juries in their cases had been exposed to expert mental health testimony improperly linking race and future dangerousness. The other defendants whose trials were tainted by such testimony were granted new sentencing hearings, but Buck's case did not reach the courts until Cornyn had become a U.S. Senator, and the new Attorney General (now Governor), Greg Abbott, opposed granting Buck a new sentencing hearing. The Court granted review on one of two issues presented in Bobby James Moore's petition for certiorari, whether a state may reject current medical standards in determining intellectual disability. It initially appeared to have granted review of a second issue as well, whether Moore's "extraordinarily long" confinement on death row violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, in an updated order, the Court clarified that it was limiting its review to only the intellectual dsability question. Moore was sentenced to death more than 35 years ago, and has been diagnosed as intellectually disabled by medical professionals. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his intellectual disability claim in 2015 because he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors,” a set of unscientific criteria based on the fictional character of Lennie Smalls from the novel "Of Mice and Men." 

Texas Court Stays Execution of Man Convicted with Hypnotically Refreshed Testimony

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution to Charles Flores (pictured) to permit him to litigate a claim that prosecutors unconstitutionally convicted and sentenced him to death by using unreliable hypnotically refreshed testimony. Texas had scheduled Flores' execution for June 2. Flores, who is Latino, was convicted in 1999 of murdering a 64-year-old white woman in suburban Dallas, and was sentenced to death. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence linking Flores to the murder, and the sole witness who claimed to have seen him at the scene was hypnotized by police before identifying him. She initially told police she had seen two men in a car outside of the victim's home, identifying the driver, Richard Childs, in a police lineup and describing the passenger as a white man with shoulder-length dark hair. However, when she appeared in court 13 months later after having seen photographs of Flores in news reports about the murder, she told prosecutors that she now recognized Flores as the second man. According to an affidavit Flores submitted from psychology professor Steven Lynn, research has linked "hypnotic refreshment" with the creation of false memories. “Clearly, the techniques that were used to refresh [the witness's] memory would be eschewed today by anyone at all familiar with the extant research on hypnosis and memory,” Lynn wrote. The Flores conviction and death sentence are also tainted with issues of race. Police charged both Childs and Flores with the murder. Childs, who is white, confessed to shooting the victim, pled guilty, and was sentenced to a term of 35 years with parole eligibility after 17 years. He was released on parole in April 2016. Flores, though admitting his involvement in the drug trade, professed his innocence of the murder and was tried and convicted. After his court-appointed lawyers failed to present any witnesses on his behalf in the penalty trial, the jury sentenced him to death. "So the white guy who was the trigger guy is out on parole, and the Hispanic guy, who was not the trigger man, is about to be put to death,” Greg Gardner, Flores' current lawyer, told The Texas Tribune in an interview before the stay was issued. “It really is just a mystery.” 178 of the 246 people on Texas's death row as of May 2016 are black or Latino. 

On 100th Anniversary of Notorious Waco Lynching, Research Shows Link Between Lynching and Capital Punishment

100 years ago, Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black farmhand accused of murdering his white female employer was lynched on the steps of the Waco, Texas courthouse (pictured), moments after Washington's trial ended and only seven days after the murder had occurred. The gruesome lynching took place in front of law enforcement personnel and 15,000 spectators, none of whom intervened to end the violence. Washington, whom reports indicate may have been intellectually disabled, initially denied involvement in the murder, but then purportedly confessed to police. A mob of 500 vigilantes searched the county prison in an unsuccessful attempt to find Washington, whom the sheriff had moved to other counties for his safety. An estimated 2,500 people—many carrying guns and threatening to lynch Washington—packed the courtroom during the short trial. As the jury read the guilty verdict and before the judge could record its death sentence, a man reportedly yelled, “Get the n****r,” and the crowd descended on Washington, carrying him out of the courthouse with a chain around his neck, while others attacked him with bricks and knives. The incident became a turning point in anti-lynching efforts and contributed to the prominence of the NAACP. Ignored for decades, Washington's lynching recently gained local attention and prompted a condemnation by the Waco City Council and McLennan County commissioners in 2006. Studies have shown that counties that historically have had high numbers of lynchings continue to have higher levels of homicide, police violence against racial minorities, disproportionate sentencing of black defendants, and more frequent use of capital punishment. A 2005 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of death sentences, and especially the number of death sentences for black defendants, was higher in states with histories of lynching. “What the lynching proved about our community was that African-American men and women were not viewed as humans or equal citizens,” Peaches Henry, president of the Waco NAACP said. “While they no longer hang people upon trees, we do see situations where African-American lives are not valued.” McLennan County, where Washington was lynched, ranks among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death sentences in the United States. 

Texas Court Hears Argument in State's Appeal of Drug Secrecy Ruling

Texas' Third Court of Appeals heard oral argument on May 11 on the state's appeal of a trial court ruling requiring it to reveal the identity of its lethal injection drug supplier in a pair of April 2014 executions. The suit, initially brought on behalf of the two executed prisoners, now implicates Texas' Public Information Act. The prisoners' attorneys argued that identifying the supplier of pentobarbital, the drug used by Texas in executions, was necessary to verify that the chemicals had been prepared correctly and would not cause an unconstitutionally painful execution. Then-Attorney General (now Texas Governor) Greg Abbott said that releasing the drug supplier's identity would present a threat of physical harm, because a previous drug supplier had received hate mail and threats after being identified. In December 2014, District Judge Darlene Byrne rejected Abbott's argument and ordered Texas to disclose the identity of the compounding pharmacy that had prepared the drug. The state appealed that decision. In Wednesday's hearing, defense lawyers characterized the alleged threats as "vague" and nonspecific and said they were no basis to bar public disclosure of the information. Prosecutors, without identifying the source of any threat, argued that the safety of the pharmacy was at risk because, "There's an identifiable group of people who think lethal injection is wrong—morally, politically and socially—and they are determined to oppose it." Chief Justice Jeff Rose raised concerns about the implications of allowing a broad exemption to the Public Information Act, asking, "Where do we draw the line … without blowing a hole in the (Public Information Act) big enough to drive a truck through anytime the government says, 'Well, gee, this can cause harm?'" Justice Bob Pemberton said, "It seems a potentially boundless exemption." The scope of the decision is likely to be limited, because the Texas legislature passed a law shielding execution drug suppliers, which took effect in September 2015.

Death Penalty Support Continues Its Steady Decline in Nation's Leading Execution County

Just 27% of Houston-area residents prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder, according to a new report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Harris County, the largest county in the Houston metropolitan area, "earned its reputation as the 'death penalty capital of America,'” the report says, "having executed more people since 1976 ... than any other county in the nation." At its peak, Harris County sentenced 44 people to death during a three-year period (1994-1996). However, declining public support for capital punishment has contributed to a drop in the number of death sentences the county imposes. Over the last three years, five people were sentenced to death in Harris County, with no new death sentences imposed in 2015. Texas is experiencing a similar statewide trend: while the state imposed a high of 48 death sentences in 1999, it imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. The percentage of Houston residents who consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder has "dropped steadily," the report says, including a decline of 12 percentage points since 2008. It attributes the erosion of support for the death penalty to "recent revelations of discriminatory sentencing, innocent persons being freed from Death Row just before their scheduled executions, and botched lethal injections," along with the comparatively greater costs of seeking the death penalty, rather than life imprisonment, which the report says "have risen dramatically." (Click image to enlarge.)

Supreme Court Asked to Review Texas' Use of Factors Based on a Fictional Character to Reject Death Row Prisoner's Intellectual Disability Claim

Bobby James Moore (pictured) faces execution in Texas after the state's Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his claim of intellectual disability in September 2015, saying he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), an unscientific seven-pronged test which a judge based on the character Lennie Smalls from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." In doing so, the appeals court reversed a lower court's ruling that tracked the scientific diagnostic criteria set forth by medical professionals, which found that Moore had intellectual disability. On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will conference to decide whether to hear Moore's case. Moore's lawyers argue, supported by briefing from national and international mental health advocates, that he has intellectual disability and that the non-scientific standard employed by Texas in denying his intellectual disability claim violated the Court's 2014 ruling in Hall v. Florida. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the 8th Amendment prohibits the use of the death penalty against persons with mental retardation, now known as intellectual disability. But Atkins left it to the states to adopt procedures for determining whether defendants were intellectually disabled. Hall struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability because it "disregards established medical practice." Texas is the only state that uses the Briseño factors, which include whether the crime required forethought or planning, whether the person is capable of lying effectively, and whether the defendant is more of a leader or a follower. The state court disregarded Moore's clear history of intellectual disability, documented since childhood, and IQ scores ranging from the low 50s to the low 70s, in favor of Texas' idiosyncratic method.

Pages