Texas

Texas

Former Death Row Inmate in Texas Freed Because Attorneys Missed Evidence

On October 8 former death row inmate Manuel Velez (pictured with his son before his arrest) was freed from a Texas prison, following a "no contest" plea to a lesser charge on August 25. Velez had been convicted of killing his girlfriend's one-year-old son but consistently maintained his complete innocence. Velez's conviction was overturned in 2013 because his attorney failed to present evidence that the injuries leading to the child's death were sustained while Velez was 1,000 miles away. Medical records indicated the child's head ballooned in size in the months prior to his death in a manner that could only have been caused by head injuries. During that time, the child's mother was the only adult living with him. Velez's trial was also tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution presented a witness who claimed that if Velez were not executed, he would be imprisoned under lax conditions with a risk for escape, making him a "future danger." The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said this testimony was false and contrary to known prison regulations, which the prosecution knew. Velez agreed to the no-contest plea so he could rejoin his family without the delay of a retrial, even though a retrial might have fully exonerated him.

Supreme Court Begins New Term with at Least One Capital Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2014-15 term on October 6. One of the cases the Court will hear during its first month is Jennings v. Stephens, a Texas death penalty case involving ineffectiveness of counsel and whether a separate appeal is necessary for each such claim. Oral arguments will take place on October 15. The Court has been asked to review an appeal from Scott Panetti, another death row inmate from Texas, who may be mentally incompetent. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability. In that case, Hall v. Florida, the Court concluded that "Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world."

Supreme Court Again Asked to Consider Competence to be Executed in Texas Case

Scott Panetti is a death row inmate in Texas, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder and believes he is at the center of a struggle between God and Satan. The state has continued to insist he is competent to be executed. Panetti represented himself at his trial, appearing in court wearing a cowboy outfit and making bizarre, rambling statements. He attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, the pope, and 200 others. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Panetti a rehearing on his claim of incompetence, saying that the state's definition of insanity was too restrictive. The state has maintained that because Panetti acknowledges he is being executed for the murder of his in-laws, he is sane enough to be executed. Pointing to the testimony of psychiatric experts, his lawyers have argued the state's simple cause-and-effect criterion is insufficient to establish sanity, especially considering that Panetti views his crime through a lens of delusion. They have asked the Supreme Court to again consider the case, arguing that the state's definition is still overly restrictive and ignores the complete picture presented by Panetti's history of serious mental illness.  

NEW VOICES: Former FBI Director Says People Were Executed Based Partly on Faulty Agency Testimony

William Sessions, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently pointed to cases of defendants who were executed based in part on faulty hair and fiber analysis in calling for changes in the use of forensic evidence. In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Sessions told the story of Benjamin Boyle, who was executed in Texas in 1997. His conviction was based on testing conducted by an FBI crime lab that an official review later determined to be unreliable and "scientifically unsupportable." Neither state officials nor Boyle's attorneys were notified of the task force's findings before his execution. In two other cases, inmates were also executed despite findings that their cases were tainted by unreliable forensic testimony from the FBI. Sessions said, "I have no idea whether Boyle was innocent, but clearly, he was executed despite great doubts about his conviction. Such uncertainty is unacceptable, especially in a justice system that still allows the death penalty."

Texas to Censor Its Autopsy Report in Botched Oklahoma Execution

After the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, Oklahoma officials sent his body to Texas for an independent autopsy. Now it appears that Texas will withhold important information revealed in the course of the autopsy from the public at Oklahoma's request. The autopsy was performed by the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office. Earlier, Michael Thompson, Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said the Lockett autopsy report would be made public. However, when a news organization requested the results of the autopsy, Oklahoma objected. Dallas County asked Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbot to rule on releasing the information. The attorney general sided with Oklahoma's request to keep certain items secret, including the identities of the drug preparer, doctors who were present at the execution, and other members of the execution team. Oklahoma wanted even more information to be kept secret, citing provisions of the Oklahoma Open Records Act, but Texas said other information generated during the autoposy, should be released.

NEW VOICES: Former Texas Governor, FBI Chief Ask Texas to Commute Death Sentence

Former Texas Governor Mark White and former FBI director William Sessions have petitioned Texas to grant clemency to death row inmate Max Soffar because of the strong chance that a reversal of his conviction will come too late due to his rapidly declining medical condition. Soffar's case has been reversed before, and his latest appeal is pending before a federal court. Soffar's supporters are asking that he be allowed to spend his last days at home before he dies of liver cancer. He has been on death row for over 33 years, consistently maintaining his innocence. "Nothing can save me," said Soffar. "I'm going to die. I've talked to my doctor — maybe five months, maybe four months, maybe three weeks." His lawyers said, "The reality is that the federal court process will likely not be completed before Mr. Soffar dies. The exigency of this situation is the driving force behind what Mr. Soffar admits is an unusual request for clemency at this stage of a capital case."

INNOCENCE: New Evidence Supports Case That Texas Executed an Innocent Man

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004. His conviction was based largely on forensic evidence of arson that both prosecutors and defense attorneys now agree was seriously flawed. Prosecutors have maintained that other evidence pointed towards Willingham's guilt, especially the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Willingham confessed to the crime of murdering his children. Now according to an investigative article by Maurice Possley for the Marshall Project and published in the Washington Post, newly uncovered letters and court records suggest that the informant, Johnny Webb, received special treatment and a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony. The jury was told that Webb had not received any deal in return for his testimony. However, the prosecutor in Willingham's case wrote to Webb in prison and contradicted those claims. He wrote, "We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”  According to Webb, the prosecutor told him, "If you help me, that robbery will disappear . . . even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later." Webb now says Willingham "never told me nothing." The prosecutor also arranged for Webb to receive financial assistance from a wealthy rancher who was interested in helping at-risk young men.

STUDIES: 'Volunteers' for Execution

A new study by Prof. Meredith Martin Rountree of Northwestern University Law School examined the characteristics of Texas death row inmates who waived all or part of their normal appeals, thus hastening their execution. Referring to these inmates as "volunteers," she compared them with similarly-situated inmates who did not waive their appeals. She found that more volunteers experienced depression or had attempted suicide than non-volunteers. She also examined the role of "self-blame" in prisoners' decisions to move towards execution. Inmates who waived appeals were more likely "to have been previously convicted of a crime, to have been convicted of a crime against another person, to have been incarcerated, to have committed their capital offenses alone, and to have committed the capital offense with a gun." Prof. Rountree criticized the legal changes begun in the mid-1990s that have allowed inmates to waive appeals earlier in the process "when prisoners may be most vulnerable to desires to die." She noted "the State’s interest in fair and constitutional death sentences, something only ensured through adversarial testing of the conviction and sentence," and called for further research in this area.

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