Texas

Texas

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.

NEW VOICES: Retired Judges Support Death Row Inmate's Appeal

In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, eight retired judges recently asked the Court to review the case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed in January 2015. While the judges, who served on federal and state courts in many jurisdictions around the country, did not take a stance on Reed's innocence claims, they urged the Court to hear his appeal so that new evidence in the case could be examined under the light of cross-examination in a full hearing, rather than just through the review of legal papers. "That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate," the judges said. "When courts have only affidavits without witness testimony, they lack the means of testing the accuracy, reliability, competence, scientific acumen, proper training and judgment of the [person testifying]." Reed is claiming that his trial lawyers did not adequately investigate forensic evidence that experts now say might be unreliable. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Reed's appeal because they found the new testimony unpersuasive as presented in appellate briefs. The eight judges who petitioned the Supreme Court said the evidence should have been heard by a district judge in an evidentiary hearing, rather than by the appeals court. "Trial courts are the appropriate venue for developing a factual record and resolving questions of fact," they said. See list of judges below.

Texas Bar Taking Action Against Prosecutor in Innocence Case

The State Bar of Texas has found "just cause" to pursue disciplinary action against prosecutor Charles J. Sebesta, whose conduct in the trial of Anthony Graves (pictured) resulted in a wrongful conviction and death sentence. Sebesta, the District Attorney of Burleson County, did not inform Graves' attorneys that the main witness against Graves had confessed to the crime. Graves spent over 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, before being exonerated in 2010. Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service and counsel to Graves, said, "A prosecutor’s duty is not simply to secure convictions, but to see that justice is done. Conviction of an innocent man like Mr. Graves through prosecutorial misconduct is abhorrent and undermines public trust and confidence in the Texas justice system. The way to restore that trust and confidence is to hold prosecutors like Charles Sebesta accountable when they violate their legal and ethical obligations."

Texas Inmate Held for Over 30 Years With No Conviction May Be Retried

A retrial date of Sept. 22 has been set for Jerry Hartfield, who has been held without a valid conviction in Texas for over 30 years. Hartfield was convicted of murder in 1977 and sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned in 1980 due to an improperly selected jury, and the appeals court ordered a new trial, but that was never held. Gov. Mark White attempted to commute his sentence in 1983, but without a conviction, the commutation was invalid. In 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that "The status of the judgment of conviction is that Petitioner is under no conviction or sentence." A federal court called Texas's defense of Hartfield's unlawful incarceration "disturbingly unprofessional." The new trial judge scheduled a July 2 hearing to consider a request from prosecutors to conduct psychological testing on Hartfield, who is described in court documents as "an illiterate fifth-grade dropout with an IQ of 51." The Matagorda County District Attorney has offered Hartfield a deal to plead guilty, accept a life prison term and avoid a potential death sentence if he waives all rights to future appeals. Hartfield's lawyers assert that his right to a speedy trial has been violated.

A Turn-Around in Texas's Use of Death Penalty

A recent op-ed by Jordan Steiker, endowed professor of law and Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas, highlighted the declining use of the death penalty in that state. AlthoughTexas leads the nation in executions, death sentences and executions per year have dropped sharply since the 1990s. Prof. Steiker wrote, "In 1999, Texas juries returned an astounding 48 death sentences. Since 2008, however, Texas has annually sent fewer than 10 defendants to death row.  Executions in Texas have declined as well, from a high of 40 in 2000 to fewer than 20 since 2010." While describing the "perfect storm" of conditions that led to Texas's high use of capital punishment in the past, the op-ed also noted changes that have led to less death-penalty use, such as the creation of a statewide defender's office to represent death-sentenced inmates in state post-conviction and the broader disclosure of evidence to the accused. Prosecutors have increasingly accepted plea agreements to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, saving taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on expensive capital trials and appeals.

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