Texas

Texas

U.N. Human Rights Officials Say Planned Texas Execution Violates International Treaties

United Nations human rights officials have urged the government of the United States to halt the imminent execution of a Mexican national who was tried and sentenced to death in Texas in violation of U.S. treaty obligations. Texas is scheduled to execute Roberto Moreno Ramos (pictured) on November 14, in an action an international human rights court has said would violate the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Agnes Callamard, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and Seong-Phil Hong, the Chair-Rapporteur of the Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, cautioned that “[a]ny death sentence carried out in contravention of a Government’s international obligations amounts to an arbitrary execution.” The human rights experts called for Ramos's death sentence “to be annulled and for [him] to be re-tried in compliance with due process and international fair trial standards.”

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the United States had breached its treaty obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by allowing states to impose death sentences on fifty-two foreign nationals—including Ramos—without permitting them to notify their governments and obtain consular assistance in preparation for trial. Under the Vienna Convention, individuals arrested outside their home country must be notified of their right to request legal assistance from their consulate. Ramos, a Mexican citizen, was not notified of this right and, his current lawyers allege, received “abysmal” legal representation as a result. Although Ramos requested a lawyer, no one was appointed to defend him until three months after his arrest. During the punishment phase of his trial, his appointed counsel did not cross-examine prosecution witnesses, presented no mitigating evidence, and did not even ask the jury to reject a death sentence. Ramos’s appellate lawyers argue that a competent attorney could have presented mitigating evidence of Ramos’s abusive childhood, brain dysfunction, bipolar disorder, and low IQ and that, if he had received the legal assistance that the Mexican government offers in capital cases, the outcome of his case would have been different. In their statement, the U.N. experts said that international human rights standards prohibit applying the death penalty to individuals like Ramos with serious mental health and intellectual impairments. Executing him, they said, would violate those international human rights norms.

In 2005, President George W. Bush declared that “the United States will discharge its international obligations under the decision of the International Court of Justice” and issued an executive order directing the state courts to review the cases. They did not. In Medellin v. Texas, a case brought by another of the prisoners whose Vienna Convention rights Texas had violated, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the President lacks constitutional authority to direct states courts to comply with a ruling from the International Court of Justice. It also ruled that the treaty was not binding on U.S. states absent legislation from Congress requiring state compliance. Medellin was subsequently executed. In November 2017, Texas also executed Mexican national Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas in violation of U.S. treaty obligations. If Ramos is executed, he will be the 21st person executed in the U.S. in 2018, and the 11th in Texas.

Following Washington Death Penalty Abolition, Op-eds Encourage Other States to Follow Suit

Following the Washington Supreme Court's October 11, 2018 decision declaring the state's death penalty unconstitutional, news outlets have questioned what comes next. Op-ed writers in North Carolina, Texas, and California have responded, urging their states to reconsider their capital punishment laws. The Washington court cited racial bias, "arbitrary decision-making, random imposition of the death penalty, unreliability, geographic rarity, and excessive delays" as reasons why it struck down the death penalty. In a guest column in the Sacramento Bee, University of California Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote, "California’s death penalty suffers the same flaws and likewise should be struck down." Similarly, Kristin Collins, Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, wrote in a commentary for the North Carolina blog, The Progressive Pulse, "[i]f those are reasons to outlaw the death penalty, then it is surely time for the North Carolina death penalty to go." Writing in the Austin American-Statesman, University of Texas sociology professor William R. Kelly observed: "In light of the ever-present potential for error and bias, the absence of a deterrent effect and the extraordinary cost to prosecute, appeal and execute someone, we are left with the basic question: Is the death penalty worth it? It’s a question more states ought to ask."

Collins and Chemerinsky pointed to systemic problems in their respective states that they say provide reasons to repeal the death penalty or declare their capital punishment statutes unconstitutional. Collins said a September 2018 study by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation revealed that "most of the people on N.C. death row are only there because they had the bad luck to be tried under outdated laws, before there were basic legal protections to ensure fairness at their trials." "Had they been tried under modern laws," she wrote, "most wouldn’t be on death row today." Chemerinsky highlighted the lengthy delays in California's death-penalty system and the large body of evidence showing that the state's death penalty is discriminatorily applied. Quoting federal Judge Cormac Carney's summary of the state of California's death row, he wrote: "Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death." These types of problems "and the fact that the death penalty is extraordinarily expensive and does not do much to deter violent crime," Professor Kelly wrote, "may help propel other states to abolish it."

Texas Court Stays Execution of Mentally Ill Prisoner with Schizophrenia

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on October 19, 2018 stayed the execution of Kwame Rockwell (pictured), a severely mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from schizophrenia, who had been scheduled to die on October 24. The court found that Rockwell had raised “substantial doubt that he is not competent to be executed” and reversed a ruling by the Tarrant County District Court that had rejected Rockwell’s competency claim without an evidentiary hearing and without providing funds for him to obtain a competency evaluation. The appeals court ordered the trial court to appoint “at least two mental-health experts” to evaluate Rockwell’s competency. On October 16, Rockwell’s lawyers had appealed the Tarrant County order arguing that the trial court had abused its discretion in rejecting his competency claim The appeal argued that Rockwell “does not understand he is to be executed,” “has no understanding that he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death,” and “does not comprehend that he has been incarcerated on death row since 2012 or even that he is presently incarcerated in a Texas prison.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of prisoners who have become “insane”—which the Court defined as being “unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.” In 2007, in the Texas case of Panetti v. Quarterman, the Court explained that a prisoner whose delusions prevent him from having a “rational understanding” of these circumstances is incompetent to be executed. A neuropsychologist who examined Rockwell in July reported that Rockwell said he saw snakes and demons that were inside of him, appeared to be hearing voices, and, in response to a question about his name, said “my name is God.” The doctor’s affidavit said Rockwell “does not understand or appreciate where he is, the nature of his charges, why he is in prison, or the nature of his punishment.” Rockwell’s lawyers also presented the court with evidence of his significant family history of psychotic illness, including twelve family members across three generations of his family with mental illness diagnoses, and Rockwell’s own mental illness in childhood and as an adult. Citing prison records, the appeal states: “Rockwell has consistently experienced intense hallucinations and auditory delusions, despite spending the majority of his sentence on four or more antipsychotic medications concurrently. He is haunted by snakes and demons. No medications have been able to eliminate his hallucinations or delusions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has never categorically excluded people with serious mental illness from being sentenced to death or executed. A 2014 poll found that Americans by a two-to-one margin oppose executing people with mental illness. Several states have recently considered, but not adopted, legislation to bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. Rockwell’s trial lawyer did not present to the jury mitigating evidence of Rockwell’s schizophrenia or his family’s history of psychotic mental illness. Nonetheless, the Texas state and federal courts denied Rockwell’s claim that he had been provided ineffective representation at sentencing. In an opinion piece for Pacific Standard written before the Texas Court of Appeals granted the stay, David M. Perry compared the courts’ treatment of Rockwell’s case with the recent stay of execution granted to fellow Texas prisoner Juan Segundo. Segundo was granted a stay so the Tarrant County court could reconsider his claim of intellectual disability after the Supreme Court had ruled that the standard Texas had previously applied unconstitutionally risked that some people with intellectual disability would still be executed. “America still doesn't have clear protections for people with severe mental illness,” Perry explains. “These two cases in Texas remind us of the unfortunate diagnostic limitations that protect only some people with disabilities from the death penalty.”

Texas Courts Rule for Two Death-Row Prisoners on Intellectual Disability, Junk-Science Claims

Two Texas prisoners took steps away from death row as state courts ruled in their favor on issues involving false or faulty scientific evidence and argument. On October 5, 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) granted a stay of execution to Juan Segundo (pictured, left), directing a Tarrant County trial court to reconsider a claim of intellectual disability that the courts had previously rejected based on an unconstitutional, unscientific standard for measuring his functioning. Four days later, an El Paso trial judge found that prosecutors had “presented false and misleading evidence and argument” concerning the cause of death of a 19-month-old whom Rigoberto Robert Avila (pictured, right) had been convicted of killing, and recommended that the CCA grant Avila a new trial.

Texas had been set to execute Segundo on October 10. Segundo’s lawyers had long argued that he is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. However, the Texas courts had dismissed that claim, relying on a series of nonclinical factors—some based on the fictional character Lennie Smalls from Of Mice and Men—to say that Segundo was not intellectually disabled under Texas law. In 2017, in the case of Moore v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that intellectual disability determinations must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” The Court struck down Texas’s approach, calling it an “outlier” that created “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” In Segundo’s case, the CCA wrote, “[i]n light of the Moore decision and the facts presented in applicant’s application, we have determined that applicant’s execution should be stayed pending further order of this Court.”

The CCA stayed Avila’s January 2014 execution based on a new law giving prisoners access to the courts to litigate new evidence that their convictions had been based on false or misleading forensic evidence. His was one of the first cases sent back to a lower court for reconsideration under the 2013 junk-science law. In his 2001 trial, prosecutors argued that Avila had killed his girlfriend’s infant son. “There’s no other way the kid could have died,” they told the jury. New evidence showed, however, that the infant could have died from injuries caused by his four-year-old brother. Judge Annabell Perez wrote that this new evidence “probably would have led jurors to harbor reasonable doubt about [Avila’s] guilt” if it had been available at trial. In a prepared statement, Avila’s lawyers wrote: “The new scientific evidence creates a compelling case for Mr. Avila’s innocence, and a judge has now found that the verdict against him rests on false and misleading testimony. After spending 17 years on death rowand facing four serious execution datesfor a crime he did not commit, Mr. Avila is anxious to present the reliable scientific evidence to a jury.”

Law Review: Junk Mental Health Science and the Texas Death Penalty

Junk science is “enabling and perpetuating grave miscarriages of justice” in Texas death-penalty cases. So concludes Professor James Acker in his article, Snake Oil With A Bite: The Lethal Veneer of Science and Texas’s Death Penalty, published in the latest issue of the Albany Law Review. Acker’s article highlights the heightened risks of injustice from pseudo-science and junk science in capital cases in Texas, one of the few states that conditions death eligibility upon a finding of the defendant’s future dangerousness. Acker writes that, “at virtually every ... stage of the state’s capital punishment process,” Texas prosecutors “have alternately enlisted expert witnesses and scientists who have helped move accused and convicted offenders progressively closer to the execution chamber, and ignored or discounted scientific norms and developments inconsistent with securing and carrying out capital sentences. All too often, the determinations made in support of death sentences are of dubious reliability—including opinions and conclusions based on what many would agree to qualify as junk science—thus greatly enhancing the risk of miscarriages of justice ....”

Acker’s article discusses Texas’s long history of abusing expert testimony in support of execution, starting with the case of Estelle v. Smith, in which Dr. James Grigson — later nicknamed “Dr. Death” — evaluated Ernest Smith for his competency to stand trial, did not notify counsel of the evaluation, failed to advise Smith of his right to remain silent, and then testified in the penalty phase “that Smith was a severe sociopath, that his condition could not be treated, and that he ‘is going to go ahead and commit other similar or same criminal acts if given the opportunity to do so.’” The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Smith’s death sentence in 1981 for violations of his right to counsel and his constitutional privilege against compelled self-incrimination. Two years later, in Barefoot v. Estelle, the Court permitted the use of psychiatric predictions of future dangerousness, despite warnings by the American Psychiatric Association that such testimony was speculative and highly unreliable. Grigson went on to testify in 167 capital cases, repeatedly responding to hypothetical questions posed by prosecutors (even after he was expelled from state and national professional associations because of this practice) that defendants whose institutional records he had never reviewed and whom he had never evaluated were certain to commit future acts of violence. Texas has also misused expert mental health testimony in capital cases to falsely argue that capital defendants posed an increased threat to society because of their race or ethnicity, Acker writes. He describes the testimony of Dr. Walter Quijano, a clinical psychologist who testified in seven cases that defendants were more likely to pose a danger to society because they were black or Latino. The Texas Attorney General’s office ultimately conceded error in all but one of those cases. Duane Buck’s case, however, reached the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Robert condemned Quijano’s testimony as “powerful racial stereotyping.”

The Texas courts also systemically disregarded scientific standards or otherwise abused expert mental health testimony in determinations of intellectual disability and competency to be executed, Acker says. In the case of Moore v. Texas, the Supreme Court declared Texas’s approach to intellectual disability to be unconstitutional and ordered a reconsideration of Bobby Moore’s intellectual disability claim. With the prosecution, the defense, and multiple mental health groups all agreeing that Moore is intellectually disabled, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nevertheless upheld his death sentence. Finally, Acker writes, the state’s approach to competency has been an outlier, deeming Scott Panetti — who had been “hospitalized more than a dozen times [for mental illness and] been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, auditory hallucinations, and delusions of persecution and grandeur” — competent to stand trial, to represent himself, and to be executed. Texas “has alternatively coopted, disregarded, and subverted science and prevailing disciplinary norms of the mental health professions,” Acker concludes. “The death penalty in Texas, imbued with powerful symbolism and political significance, has succeeded not only in condemning offenders, but also the principled teachings of science. ... Science and politics are a deadly mixture, in the nature of snake oil with a bite.”

Federal Judge Expresses Frustration at Procedural Constraints in Possible Innocence Case

In a case highlighting congressional limitations on the federal judiciary's ability to redress miscarriages of justice, a Texas federal judge has denied relief to a death-row prisoner who the court believes was denied a fair trial and may well be innocent. U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison (pictured) wrote on September 26, 2018, that he “would almost certainly have granted” a new trial to Robert Will, but the “constraints” imposed by 1990’s-era amendments to federal habeas corpus law left the court “powerless to address” what he called “the troubling possibility of [Will’s] actual innocence.” Ellison’s ruling urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to address Will’s claims, saying that his decision was a “technical ruling” that should not “obscure the extraordinarily significant issues that the Court of Appeals – unlike this Court – can properly consider.” In a trial in a Houston courtroom packed with uniformed police officers, Will was convicted and sentenced to death for the December 1999 murder of Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Barrett Hill. Investigators found no gunshot residue on Will and a footprint at the crime scene didn’t match his; Will claims that he was handcuffed when Deputy Hill was shot. Five witnesses later came forward with information that Will’s co-defendant had confessed to the crime, and additional evidence came to light during the habeas corpus proceedings that raised questions about a prosecution witness. However, Will’s state post-conviction lawyer, whose conduct Ellison said “appears to have been severely compromised by serious health conditions,” failed to investigate and raise those issues. Will’s case is also one of numerous Harris County death-penalty cases in which state judges adopted word for word the fact-findings proposed by the prosecution. Ellison said that, but for the limits on habeas review, he “would almost certainly have granted relief” on Will’s claim that “the presence of numerous uniformed law enforcement officers at his trial created an unconstitutionally coercive environment for the jury.” Ellison added: “The Court is particularly sensitive to the absence of any direct evidence of Will’s guilt, and the number of witnesses who aver that another man confessed to the underlying murder. ... The Court very much wishes it could take up all of these issues without the constraints of habeas review. With fewer constraints, the Court of Appeals can perhaps give these issues the time and attention that they merit. Nevertheless, this Court lacks jurisdiction to explore the troubling concerns that plague Will’s capital conviction.” Patrick McCann, former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said that Will’s case demonstrates that “[e]verything in the state procedure is inadequate and has been inadequate for the last three decades.” He called the requirement that federal judges defer to state court decisions “an absolute joke.” Ellison’s comments echo those of retired Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski who wrote in 2015 that Congress’s amendments to the habeas corpus law “abruptly dismantled” federal judicial review as a “safety-valve” against injustice and “pretty much shut out the federal courts from granting habeas relief in most cases, even when they believe that an egregious miscarriage of justice has occurred.” Instead, he wrote, federal courts “now regularly have to stand by in impotent silence, even though it may appear to us that an innocent person has been convicted.”

Texas Schedules Back-to-Back Executions of Prisoners Who Claim Innocence

Texas has scheduled executions on consecutive nights of two prisoners who have long asserted their innocence. Troy Clark (pictured, left), who is scheduled to be executed on September 26, 2018, was convicted and sentenced to death based on the changing statements of a former girlfriend who could have faced the death penalty under the Texas law of parties but was tried as an accomplice and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Daniel Acker (pictured, right), scheduled to be executed September 27, was convicted and sentenced to death based upon since recanted forensic testimony that he had strangled his girlfriend. Clark was convicted of the 1998 kidnapping and murder of Christina Muse in Tyler Texas, and prosecutors have also accused him two other methamphetamine-related murders. He has no legal challenges pending and his clemency petition was turned down by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on September 24. Clark alleges that he was set up by his girlfriend, who initially told police that another murder victim was responsible for Muse’s death and then later gave police a statement saying she had killed Muse out of jealousy and that Clark was not involved. Clark also argued in an unsuccessful habeas corpus petition that his court-appointed counsel at trial and in the post-conviction process failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence—including mental health evidence related to fetal alcohol syndrome—that he says could have persuaded the jury to spare his life. Acker, who also maintains his innocence, was convicted of strangling his girlfriend, Marquetta George, and dumping her body. He does not deny involvement in her death, but alleges that she jumped out of his moving car during an argument and died accidentally, likely having been struck and killed by a passing car. Acker's attorneys have filed appeals saying that his trial was tainted by the court's exclusion of evidence, and the inclusion of “false,” “misleading,” and erroneous forensic testimony. The prosecution changed its explanation for George’s death after a state medical examiner admitted in a 2011 evidentiary hearing that she had not been strangled. Instead, the prosecution argued for the first time that Acker pushed George from the truck. “He didn’t have the physical ability to strangle her while he was driving,” Acker’s attorney said, and had no motive to kill George. The Texas pardons board has also denied Acker’s application for clemency. On September 21, he filed a petition for review and a motion to stay his execution in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that due process is violated when “a State has repudiated a false theory of criminal liability on which it based a death sentence, but intends to carry out that sentence based on a new theory of liability” that was never presented to the jury. Texas has already executed eight people in 2018.

Associated Press Reporter Michael Graczyk, Who Witnessed More Than 400 Executions, Retires

Michael Graczyk (pictured), who witnessed more than 400 executions as an Associated Press reporter in Texas, has retired after nearly 46 years with the news service. On March 14, 1984, Texas executed James Autry—the second person put to death in Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state's capital punishment statute in 1976. According to a non-exhaustive list of execution witnesses maintained by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, it was the first of at least 429 executions Graczyk witnessed in the nation's most prolific death-penalty state. Graczyk is believed to have witnessed more executions in the U.S. than any other person: no other reporter or corrections official in Texas has seen as many executions, and no other state has executed even one-third as many prisoners. In his 34 years observing executions, Graczyk was committed to telling the full story behind the case, interviewing death-row prisoners if they were willing, and speaking to victims’ families, lawyers, and prison officials. He said the volume of executions in Texas was surprising: “I talked to inmates on death row at the time, and some of them had foreseen that once the ball got rolling the state would be very aggressive. But I don’t think anybody could have foreseen the numbers.” His conversations with prisoners also revealed some of their thinking, including one insight that raises questions about the death penalty’s effect as a deterrent: “Despite Texas’ notoriety as this center of capital punishment, so many inmates I talked to told me they didn’t know or weren’t aware of the death penalty in Texas,” Graczyk said. Noreen Gillespie, the Associated Press’s deputy managing editor for U.S. news, described the critical role that Graczyk played in witnessing executions, saying, “Mike’s description of what happens in an execution is how the world and most of the country knows how that happens.” Graczyk’s retirement on July 31, 2018 does not mark the end of the line for his execution coverage. He will continue to cover Texas executions for the AP as a freelance reporter.

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