Texas

Texas

Intellectually Disabled Ex-Death Row Prisoner Released from Texas Prison After Decades Without a Valid Conviction

Jerry Hartfield, an intellectually disabled prisoner whose conviction and death sentence was overturned in 1980, was freed from prison in Texas on June 12, 2017, having spent 35 years in jail without a valid conviction and without being retried. Hartfield, whose IQ is in the 50s or 60s, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1977 on charges that he had murdered a bus station worker. Hartfield confessed to the crime, but has long asserted his innocence and that his confession was coerced. In 1980, he was granted a new trial because a prospective juror had been improperly excluded over reservations about the death penalty. Prosecutors tried for three years to change Hartfield's sentence to life without parole, including seeking a commutation from Governor Mark White, but in 1983 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again directed that Hartfield be retried. Soon after, Governor White issued an order to commute Hartfield's sentence to life in prison. Prosecutors and the governor's staff assumed that ended the litigation in Hartfield's case, while the courts assumed prosecutors were moving forward to comply with the second retrial order. Hartfield's attorney decided not to push for a retrial. For 23 years, Hartfield waited, until in 2006, he tried to find out what was happening in his case. Another prisoner, Kevin Althouse, helped Hartfield write requests to state judges, but they were all summarily rejected. Finally, a federal judge granted Hartfield's request for a lawyer, who ruled that Hartfield was being held without a valid conviction, and that because there was no conviction, the governor's attempted commutation was ineffectual. The case bounced between federal and state courts until a judge ordered a retrial in 2013. By the time the retrial finally took place in 2015, two key witnesses had died, all of the physical evidence had been lost or destroyed, and most of Hartfield's family members who could have offered mitigation testimony had died. Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, Hartfield's lawyers argued that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated. An appeals court agreed, and ordered him released. Hartfield told The Marshall Project, “I am not bitter. I am not angry. [The prosecutors] were only doing their jobs, and I respect them for that."

Duane Buck's Lawyer Discusses How Future Dangerousness Taints Texas Death Penalty System

Thirty years ago, filmmaker Errol Morris, who directed the documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” helped to exonerate Texas death-row prisoner Dale Adams, falsely accused of murdering a police officer. During the course of making the film, Morris met the notorious Texas prosecution psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who routinely testified that capital defendants—including the innocent Mr. Adams—posed a risk of future dangerousness. Morris recently interviewed Christina Swarns (pictured, center), litigation director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, about the case of Duane Buck and the hazards of Texas’s continued use of the concept of future dangerousness in sentencing defendants to death. Swarns argued Buck v. Davis in the U.S. Supreme Court, a case tainted by the testimony of Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychologist who told the jury that Buck was more likely to commit future crimes because he was black. On February 22, 2017, the Supreme Court overturned Buck’s death sentence, saying Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.” Swarns said "[t]he introduction of evidence linking race to dangerousness — like that which was presented in the Duane Buck case — was an inevitable product of future dangerousness in the capital punishment system in Texas.” With a death penalty system already “contaminated and corrupted by racial bias,” she said, Duane Buck’s death sentence “was a predictable outcome of that mess." Swarns called the future dangerousness requirement "insane," saying "The business of predicting future dangerousness without becoming corrupted by the various factors that are so tied to human functioning is impossible. It’s an absurd requirement." She added that Buck's perfect disciplinary record in his more than 20 years in prison is evidence that predictions of future dangerousness are unreliable. On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Jeffery Wood a stay of execution to litigate his claim that the testimony Dr. Grigson presented in his case claiming that Wood was certain to pose a future danger to society if he was not executed was false and scientifically baseless. While the Supreme Court did not address the issue of future dangerousness determinations in its Buck decision, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, sharply condemned the racially biased testimony from Buck's trial. "When a jury hears expert testimony that expressly makes a defendant’s race directly pertinent on the question of life or death, the impact of that evidence cannot be measured simply by how much air time it received at trial or how many pages it occupies in the record. Some toxins can be deadly in small doses," Roberts wrote.

Recent Jury Trials in Dallas Highlight Death Penalty Decline Across Texas

From 2007 to 2013, Dallas sentenced twelve capitally charged defendants to death—more than any other county in Texas—and Dallas ranks second nationally, behind only Harris County (Houston), in the number it has executed since 1972. But the county has not imposed any new death sentences since then, and the recent life sentences in the capital trials of Justin Smith and Erbie Bowser highlight a statewide trend away from the death penalty. Smith was charged with killing three and injuring two others in a drug-house robbery; Bowser, with killing four women and injuring four children in what has been described as "a two-city rampage." After hearing evidence of Bowser's prison adjustment after being medicated for mental illness, his jury split on whether he posed a future threat to society and he was sentenced to life without parole. When Smith's jury told the court it was split on whether he had proven mitigating circumstances, he agreed to accept a plea deal to life. Such outcomes are becoming more common in Texas. About half (7 of 15) of the death penalty trials in the state since 2015 have resulted in life sentences. The fact that prosecutors have taken death penalty cases to trial just 15 times in two-and-a-half years is itself a significant change. A combination of factors, including declining public support for capital punishment, the availability of a life-without-parole sentencing option, the high cost of death penalty trials, and concerns about innocence, have led prosecutors to seek death sentences less often. Former Montague County District Attorney Tim Cole said his views on the issue have shifted: "It is time for the death penalty to go away. My primary concern with it is we don't seem to get it perfectly.... The execution of one innocent person isn't worth it to me." He said he believes the option of life without parole has also contributed to the declining number of death sentences by giving prosecutors and jurors a severe alternative punishment. Paul Johnson, an attorney for Justin Smith, agreed: "[Jurors] know that if they don't give them death, they're going to die in prison anyway. Why put someone to death when you can give them life without parole?" In an editorial, The Dallas Morning News wrote, "[e]vidence continues to mount that this system is too ripe for mistakes." The newspaper lauded the state's progress in reducing death sentences, and pointed to recent legislation as further evidence of capital punishment's decline. A death penalty repeal bill was given public hearings this session, and legislators have passed and sent to the governor reforms aimed at reducing wrongful convictions. Under the new bill, "Police would be required to record interrogations, and prosecutors would have to provide jurors more information about testimony from so-called prison snitches. Stricter protocols also would be in place for eyewitness identification." (Click image to enlarge.)

Texas Appeals Court Rules State Must Disclose Identity of 2014 Execution Drug Supplier

The Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals has rejected claims made by state corrections officials that disclosure of the identity of its supplier of the execution drug pentobarbital would expose the company to a "substantial threat of physical harm." Finding these claims to be “mere speculation,” the appeals court ruled on May 25, 2017, that Texas must disclose the identity of the compounding pharmacy that supplied execution drugs to the state in 2014. The ruling upholds a Travis County District Court order in a suit that was filed on behalf of two death-row prisoners under the state's Public Information Act. The prisoners' attempt to litigate a challenge to the state's lethal injection practices failed to halt their executions, but the district court later determined that the identity of the drug supplier was "public information" subject to disclosure under the state public records law. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had argued that information concerning the identity of the compounding pharmacy that provided execution drugs fell within a safety exemption in the act, which shields release of otherwise public information where disclosure would create a "substantial threat of physical harm." The court found that TDCJ had shown nothing more than the risk of public criticism, which it said was not enough to block the supplier's identity from disclosure. The court recognized that "[t]here are myriad reasons why a private business or professional involved in the [execution] process would not want that fact known publicly—potential adverse marketplace effects, unwanted publicity, critical written or oral communications from members of the public, or protests, to name but a few of the unpleasantries that can accompany one’s association with such a controversial public issue." But under the law, the "sole permissible focus" is the "threat of physical harm from disclosure of the pharmacy’s or pharmacist’s identity—not, in themselves, any threats of harm to privacy or economic interests, threats of media or political 'firestorms,' or even threats of harm to property short of harm to persons." In 2016, a BuzzFeed News review of FBI records found that state claims that execution drug suppliers have been the subject of threats by anti-death penalty activists were largely unsubstantiated and exaggerated. Maurie Levin, one of the defense lawyers who filed the public records lawsuit, praised the court's ruling, saying: "They stuck to the law … and the law affirms that those who are involved in government actions don’t get to be anonymous and might be subject to criticism and protest." And she added, "That’s the nature of the beast. That is how our government works. I think the affirmation of those principles is really important." The decision is limited to the source of the state's execution drugs in 2014, because the state passed a broader secrecy law after the suit was filed. TDCJ has said it will appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. Texas is also suing the federal Food and Drug Administration over its seizure of execution drugs the FDA has said Texas attempted to illegally import from India. The FDA seized the drugs in October 2015, and issued a final order in April 2017 refusing to release the drugs.

Texas Execution Stayed to Permit Challenge Alleging Prosecution Misled Jury on Cause of Death

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on May 12 granted a stay of Tilon Carter's May 16 execution to consider his claim that he was convicted based on "false or misleading testimony by the State Medical Examiner" concerning the cause of the victim's death. Carter (pictured) was convicted and sentenced to death based upon testimony by a local medical examiner that the 89-year-old victim, James Tomlin, had died of suffocation. His lawyers say that new scientific evidence that was unavailable at the time of trial contradicts that testimony and supports Carter's claim that he did not intentionally kill Tomlin. According to a filing by Carter's attorney, Carter was denied due process because Nizam Peerwani, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner, presented misleading testimony implying that Tomlin was intentionally smothered, though his cause of death was listed as "smothering with positional asphyxia," which could have been unintentional. In addition, three other experts who have reviewed the evidence offered opinions contradicting the finding that Tomlin was smothered. Raoul Schonemann, Carter's attorney, wrote in a court filing, “While the experts disagreed on the ultimate cause—whether Mr. Tomlin’s death was caused by positional asphyxiation or a cardiac event—they unanimously agreed that the evidence does not show that Mr. Tomlin’s death was the result of intentional smothering." Carter would not be eligible for a death sentence if he did not intentionally kill the victim. Schonemann also alleged that Carter's trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to seek evidence on whether Tomlin's death was intentional.

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White Texas Judge Reprimanded for Facebook Comment Suggesting "A Tree And A Rope" For Black Murder Suspect

The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct has issued a formal reprimand to a sitting Burnet County judge who posted on Facebook a photo of a black murder suspect accused of killing a police officer with the comment, "Time for a tree and a rope." Judge James Oakley (pictured), who is white, denied that the comment about Otis Tyrone McKane was a race-based reference to lynching. "My comment was intended to reflect my personal feelings that this senseless murder of a police officer should qualify for the death penalty. In my mind, the race/gender of the admitted cop killer was not relevant," he told the commission. That is not how observers of the post saw it: 18 people filed written complaints to the Commission about Oakley's comment. The reprimand said, “Multiple Complainants also questioned Judge Oakley’s suitability for judicial office, and expressed doubts that he could perform his duties impartially." Oakley will be required to attend a 30-hour training for new judges and receive 4 hours of racial sensitivity training with a mentor, but will not be removed from office or excluded from presiding over any class of cases. In its reprimand, the Commission wrote, “During the appearance, Judge Oakley made certain statements that indicated to the Commission that he could benefit from racial sensitivity training with a mentoring judge." The incident was reminiscent of an incident in March in which a white Seminole County, Florida court employee posted a comment on Facebook that black State Attorney Aramis Ayala "should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree," for announcing that she would not seek the death penalty. After an investigation into the circumstances surrounding that posting, the clerk resigned his position.

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Former Prosecutor on Trial on Charges that His Misconduct Led to Wrongful Execution of Cameron Willingham

John Jackson, the former Navarro County, Texas prosecutor and judge, is on trial for ethics violations in the 1992 capital trial of Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured), which many believe led to the execution of an innocent man. Willingham was convicted of arson and murder and sentenced to death in connection with the house fire that killed his three young daughters. Texas executed him in 2004. Willingham's conviction and execution rested on two key pieces of testimony: arson testimony—since discredited as junk science—claiming that burn patterns in the house established that an accelerant had been used in starting the fire, and a statement by prison informant Johnny Webb claiming that Willingham had confessed to him while the two men were both in the county jail awaiting trial. In July 2014, The Innocence Project filed a complaint against Jackson with the Texas State Bar stating that the prosecutor had “violated core principles of the legal profession, and did so with terrible consequences ... the execution of an innocent man.” The Project argued that Jackson should face sanctions for falsifying official records, withholding evidence from the defense, suborning perjury and obstructing justice. Based on those allegations, the Texas State Bar brought ethics charges against Jackson, who faces a rare public trial for that misconduct. In that trial, attorneys for the Texas State Bar allege that Jackson coerced Webb to testify, offered Webb a reduced sentence on an aggravated robbery charge, did not disclose the deal to Willingham's defense, and knowingly elicited false testimony from Webb claiming that he had not been offered any benefit for his testimony. Correspondence between Jackson and Webb shows that Jackson petitioned state officials on Webb's behalf and eventually used a legal process intended for correcting clerical errors to reduce Webb's robbery sentence. Webb has described in interviews and depositions how Jackson convinced him to falsely testify against Willingham. Webb recounted one conversation with Jackson in which “He said, well, let’s go over [what] I think needs to happen. He says I’ve got this guy Willingham who did this. We know he did it. We know he’s guilty. We just can’t prove it." Of Webb's robbery charge, Jackson allegedly told Webb, "even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later." The Intercept reports that, since 2013, roughly 10 prosecutors have been sanctioned in cases brought by the Texas State Bar, and only three prosecutors have opted, as Jackson has, to have their cases heard in public by a jury, rather than in private by a panel of lawyers. [UPDATE: On May 11, 2017, a Navarro County jury voted 11-1 that Jackson had not committed misconduct in the Willingham case.]

Study: Texas' 'Harsh and Inhumane' Death-Row Conditions Amount to 'Torture'

The conditions in which prisoners on Texas' death row are confined are "harsh and inhumane," violate international human rights norms, and amount to "a severe and relentless act of torture," according to a new study by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The study, "Designed to Break You," collected accounts from former death-row prisoners who had been exonerated or who had received lesser sentences after their death sentences had been overturned. Their stories revealed numerous problems with death-row conditions, including, "mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services." Every prisoner on death row spends about 23 hours a day in an 8-by-12 foot cell for the duration of their time on death row. "This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health," the study reports, "exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time." Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic, said, "Any person who is kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days starts to suffer mental and psychological effects that cannot be reversed, and that fits the definition of torture." The report concludes that Texas death-row "conditions fall woefully behind international standards for confinement" and offers 13 recommendations to bring conditions in line with international norms. The recommendations include using solitary confinement only as a punitive measure of last resort and banning it altogether for prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability. The report also recommends that death-row prisoners be permitted contact visits with their lawyers, family, and friends and that they "have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities."

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