U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Denied Investigative Funding

In a decision that clarifies the showing indigent prisoners must make to obtain investigative services, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Texas death-row prisoner who was denied funding to challenge the death sentence imposed in his case. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court unanimously ruled that the Texas federal courts had applied an overly restrictive legal standard in denying Carlos Ayestas (pictured) funding to investigate and develop his claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his trial. Federal law requires habeas-corpus courts in death-penalty cases to provide funding that is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, has instead required indigent applicants to demonstrate a "substantial need" for funding. The Court returned the case to the federal appeals court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding using the proper standard. Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national, was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. His trial counsel conducted virtually no life-history investigation and presented a case for life to the jury that lasted just two minutes and included only a single letter from an English teacher in prison. Both his trial and state post-conviction lawyers overlooked available evidence of mental illness and brain damage—including head trauma and substance abuse—and failed to develop a record of the mitigating evidence that his federal habeas lawyers argued should have been presented in his case. The lawyers appointed to represent Ayestas in federal court sought funding to investigate his background, upbringing, and mental health history, without which, they argued, he would be unable to discover mitigating evidence indispensable to presenting a meaningful case to spare his life. The Texas federal district court, applying the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test, denied him funding and dismissed his habeas corpus petition, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed and ordered the federal appellate court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding. In determining whether a funding request is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case, Justice Alito wrote, federal courts courts should assess "whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important." This standard "requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way." In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote "to explain why, on the record before this Court, there should be little doubt" that Ayestas had already made a showing sufficient to obtain funding. Trial counsel's obligation to thoroughly investigate possible mental illness, she wrote, "exists in part precisely because it is all too common for individuals to go years battling an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. ... [T]he troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services, to ensure that trial errors that go to a 'bedrock principle in our justice system' do not go unaddressed." 

Email Shows Texas DA Had Phone Records Showing Alfred Brown Was Innocent, But Prosecuted Him Anyway

According to newly disclosed records, the Harris County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Texas death-row exoneree Alfred DeWayne Brown was aware of phone records that corroborated Brown's assertion of innocence long before the case went to trial, but withheld the records from the defense and intimidated a witness who original testimony was supported by the records into falsely testifying against Brown. Brown was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005 for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a 2003 robbery. No physical evidence linked him to the murders and he consistently maintained that he had been at his girlfriend's apartment when the murders occurred. Brown won a new trial in 2014 after police investigator Breck McDaniel discovered copies of the phone records in his garage. At the time, prosecutors said that the records had been inadvertently misplaced. However, an email that was released by the Harris County district attorney's office on March 2 in response to a civil suit filed by Brown shows that McDaniel alerted former Harris County prosecutor Dan Rizzo to the existence of the records on April 22, 2003, the day after his girlfriend, Erica Dockery, had told the grand jury that Brown had called her from her apartment. McDaniel told Rizzo in the email that he had obtained Dockery’s phone records “hoping that it would clearly refute Erica’s claim that she received a call at work” from Brown. Instead, McDaniel said, “the call detail records from the apartment shows that the home phone dialed Erica's place of employment” twice on the morning of the killing and that Dockery had called Brown back from work. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning Houston Chronicle investigation revealed in July 2014 that, after her testimony, a police officer who served as the grand jury foreman in the case threatened Dockery with perjury for supporting Brown's alibi. Then—after Rizzo had received the email confirming the truthfulness of Dockery’s testimony—prosecutors jailed Dockery for seven weeks until she changed her testimony to implicate Brown. After Brown was exonerated, he applied for approximately $1.9 million in cash and annuity payments under Texas’ exoneration compensation law. Prosecutors claimed that the court proceedings leading to Brown’s release did not constitute a determination that he was “actually innocent,” and his application was rejected in April 2016. Cate Edwards, Brown’s lawyer in the civil case, called the email revelations “horrifying.” Brian Stolarz, who represented Brown in the appeals leading to his exoneration, called the disclosures “[v]indication.” He said he was “sickened and disheartened” that “[o]nly now, after a civil lawsuit, does the whole truth finally come out.’ But he said he was “encouraged that Dewayne is vindicated and his long journey to justice is near the end.” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who took office in November 2016 on a platform of criminal justice reform, issued a statement saying that “The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct require that ‘the appropriate disciplinary authority’ shall be informed when a lawyer becomes aware that another lawyer has committed a violation of applicable rules of professional conduct that raises a substantial question as to the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in all other respects.” The statement said “the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will notify the State Bar of Texas of the newly discovered evidence so that it may investigate the prosecutor’s professional conduct while handling the Brown case.”

Three Controversial Executions Turn Into A Commutation, An Execution, and an Execution Failure

Three states—Alabama, Florida, and Texas—prepared to carry out controversial executions on Thursday, February 22, all scheduled for 7 PM Eastern time, but by the end of the night, two had been halted. Less than an hour before his scheduled execution, and after having said a final good-bye to his anguished father, Texas death-row prisoner Thomas "Bart" Whitaker (pictured, left) learned that Governor Greg Abbott had commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Minutes later, Florida executed Eric Branch (pictured, center), despite undisputed evidence that he had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. And nearing midnight Central time, two-and-one-half hours after a divided U.S. Supreme Court had given Alabama the go-ahead to execute terminally ill Doyle Hamm (pictured, right) corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn called off the execution saying prison personnel did not have "sufficient time" to find a suitable vein in which to place the intravenous execution line before the death warrant expired. For Texas, it was the first time in more than a decade and only the third time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, that any governor had granted clemency to a condemned prisoner. The Texas commutation came after a unanimous recommendation by the parole board, support from the only living victim, Whitaker's father, and various state lawmakers. In explaining his grant of clemency—the first time Gov. Abbott had commuted any death sentence—the Governor cited the fact that Whitaker's codefendant, the triggerperson, did not get the death penalty, the victim "passionately opposed the execution," and Whitaker had waived any possibility of parole and would spend the remainder of his life in prison. The final-hour commutation was relayed to Whitaker in the holding cell next to the death chamber, as he was preparing to be executed. Florida executed Eric Branch despite the fact that a judge sentenced him death after two of his jurors had voted for life and the jury had been told not to record the findings that would make Branch eligible for the death penalty. Both of those practices have now been found unconstitutional. In Hurst v. Florida, decided in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated that a capital defendant's right to a jury trial includes the right to have a jury find all facts necessary for the state to impose the death penalty, and later that year, the Florida Supreme Court declared that the Sixth Amendment and the Florida constitution require jury sentencing verdicts to be unanimous. Alabama had been warned that, because of his terminal cancer and prior history of drug use, Doyle Hamm's veins were not accessible and therefore an attempt to execute him via intravenous injection would be cruel and unusual. After the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay at 6:00pm CT, followed by a full denial of a stay with dissents from Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor around 9:00pm CT, Alabama started preparing to carry out Hamm's execution. After more than two-and-a-half hours, the state called it off. At a news conference immediately thereafter, Commissioner Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol, and said "I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Dunn was unable to describe what the state had been doing during the time that Hamm was being prepared for the lethal injection and dismissed questions about failed attempts to set the IV lines saying he was not qualified to answer medical questions. He said he could not tell reporters how long the medical personnel had attempted to establish IV access because "I am not back there with the staff." Alabama keeps its protocol secret, making it impossible to verify the state's assertions. Hamm's attorney Bernard Harcourt, who—like all witnesses—was not permitted to view the IV insertion portion of the execution, speculated that prison personnel could not find a vein and called the process "[s]imply unconscionable." On the morning of February 23, Harcourt filed an emergency motion saying that Hamm had "endured over two-and-a-half hours of attempted venous access" and seeking a hearing to "establish exactly what happened" during that time frame. The federal district court scheduled a hearing on the issue for Monday, February 26.

Is Racially Biased Testimony Wrongly Subjecting Intellectually Disabled Defendants to the Death Penalty?

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia categorically bars states from executing any person who has Intellectual Disability. (Daryl Atkins is pictured.) However, as reported in recent stories in Pacific Standard Magazine and the newspaper, The Atlanta Black Star, some states have attempted to circumvent the Atkins ruling by using social stereotypes and race as grounds to argue that defendants of color are not intellectually disabled. Prosecutors in at least eight states have presented opinions from expert witnesses that "ethnic adjustments" should be applied to IQ tests and tests of adaptive functioning that would deny an intellectual disability diagnosis to Black or Latino defendants who, if they were White, would be considered intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. "Ethnic adjustments" typically take one of two forms. One adjustment purports to compensate for perceived racial bias in IQ testing by boosting the defendant's IQ scores. A second form of adjustment is determining, based upon the expert witness's subjective views about a defendant's social conditions and culture, that impairments in day-to-day functioning that would be considered adaptive deficits for White defendants are not as rare for a person with the defendant's racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background, and so are not evidence of intellectual disability. Robert M. Sanger, a trial lawyer and professor of law and forensic science at Santa Barbara College of Law in California who wrote the 2015 law review article IQ, Intelligence Tests, 'Ethnic Adjustments' and Atkins called the use of these adjustments "outrageous." “What these so-called experts do," Sanger says, "is say that, because people of color are not as likely to score as well on IQ tests, you should, therefore, increase their IQ scores from 5 to 15 points to make up for some unknown or undescribed problem in the test.” Sanger has documented the use of ethnic adjustments by prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound,” Sanger wrote. IQ scores, he says, are affected by a variety of  environmental factors "such as childhood abuse, poverty, stress, and trauma[, that] can cause decreases in actual IQ scores." Because people who experience these environmental factors "disproportionately populate death row, ethnic adjustments make it more likely that individuals who are actually intellectually disabled will be put to death." Moreover, the courts have repeatedly rejected the adjusting of test scores on the basis of race in cases that would benefit racial minorities, Sanger said, most prominently in cases in which African-American applicants for police or firefighting jobs had alleged that cities were using racially discriminatory tests. Sanger says "it’s sort of outrageous that you can adjust scores upward so you can be killed, but not so you can get a job.” In 2011, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists reprimanded psychologist Dr. George Denkowski for his misuse of ethnic adjustments in death-penalty cases. As part of an agreement dismissing disciplinary charges against him, Denkowski—who testified against sixteen Texas death-row prisoners, several of whom have been executed—was fined $5,500 and agreed that he would never again conduct intellectual disability evaluations in criminal cases. On January 4, 2018, Philadelphia prosecutors, who had used Denkowski's ethnic adjustments as part their argument that Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Jose DeJesus was not intellectually disabled, agreed that DeJesus should be resentenced to life. Ethnic adjustments are only some of the non-scientific barriers states have erected to avoid compliance with Atkins. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida had unconstitutionally emplyed an IQ cut-off score to reject claims of intellectual disability. In 2017, in Moore v. Texas, the court rejected the state's use of a set of unscientific lay stereotypes to claim that a defendant did not have the adaptive deficits necessary to be considered intellectually disabled. The Court called Texas's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." Moore reiterated that a court’s determination of intellectual disability in a death-penalty case must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework."

NEW VOICES: Law Enforcement Officials in Washington, Texas Call for End of Their States’ Death Penalties

Drawing on their experience in the criminal justice system, elected law enforcement officials in Washington and Texas have urged repeal of their states' death-penalty laws. In Washington, King County (Seattle) prosecutor Dan Satterberg (pictured, left), a Republican, testified January 22 before the Senate Law and Justice Committee in favor of a bipartisan legislative proposal to repeal Washington's capital-punishment statute. Telling the Texas Tribune “[w]e’re killing the wrong people,” former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez (pictured, right), currently a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for governor of Texas, announced her opposition to Texas's death penalty. Satterberg's testimony came on the heels of an op-ed he wrote in The Seattle Times in support of SB6052, a bill that would prospectively abolish capital punishment. Satterberg, who has worked in the King County prosecutor's office for 27 years and witnessed Washington's last execution in 2010, wrote: "It is my duty to report that the death penalty law in our state is broken and cannot be fixed. It no longer serves the interests of public safety, criminal justice, or the needs of victims." Sitting alongside Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Satterberg told the committee, “If you look at it carefully and take away the politics and the emotion, by any measure this doesn't work. Our criminal justice system would be stronger without the death penalty.” The abolition bill was introduced by Republican state Sen. Maureen Walsh, with bipartisan co-sponsorship, at Ferguson's request. In a news release, Ferguson said: “The death penalty is expensive, unfair, disproportionate — and it doesn’t work. More than a third of all U.S. states have abolished the death penalty. Washington should join them.” The bill passed the committee by a 4-3 vote on January 25. In a Texas candidate's forum in Austin, Valdez—who served as sheriff from 2005 to 2017 before resigning to run for governor—referenced on-going concerns about wrongful capital convictions and wrongful executions. “Some of those [sentenced to death in Texas] have been exonerated," Valdez said. "We cannot continue being in a situation where we risk killing a person who is not guilty.” Since 1973, 13 people have been exonerated from death row in Texas, and questions have been raised about the guilt of several executed prisoners, including Carlos DeLuna, Cameron Willingham, and Robert Pruett. Valdez joined another leading Democratic contender for governor, businessman Andrew White, in opposing the death penalty. Incumbent Governor Greg Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, is a strong supporter of capital punishment.

Father Who Survived Shooting Asks Texas Not to Execute His Son

Kent Whitaker, who survived a shooting in which his wife, Tricia and younger son, Kevin were murdered, has asked the state of Texas to spare the life of his only remaining son, Thomas “Bart” Whitaker (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to death for their murders. Kent Whitaker told the Austin American-Statesman, “I have seen too much killing already. I don’t want to see him executed right there in front of my eyes," he said. The petition for clemency filed on January 10 by Bart Whitaker's lawyers asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend commuting his death sentence to life without parole, saying the execution—scheduled for February 22—will “permanently compound” Kent Whitaker's suffering and grief. The petition asks the Board: “Is killing Thomas Whitaker more important than sparing Kent Whitaker?” Texas prosecutors have argued that Bart Whitaker arranged with an acquaintance in 2003 to murder his family as part of a plot to collect a $1 million inheritance. Bart's father, however, believes "[i]t was never about the money. ... The prosecution always way overexaggerated my wealth because that played into their arguments,” he said. Instead, he believes his son had been suffering from unrecognized mental-health issues at the time of the murders. The clemency petition is supported by more than 60 letters from family members, friends, teachers and counselors, religious leaders, and fellow death-row prisoners. Fort Bend county District Attorney John Healy mocked the letters as coming from "a noble group of supporters." In an emotional op-ed published on January 18 in the Houston Chronicle, Kent Whitaker defended his son's supporters, saying it "is a noble group: people who knew Bart and have seen him grow and change." The clemency petition, Kent Whitaker wrote, "tries to correct the district attorney's over reach in pursuing the death penalty and how it will once again hurt all of the victims. For 18 months pre-trial, every victim—my wife's entire family, me and all of my family—actually begged the district attorney to accept two life sentences and spare us the horror of a trial and an eventual execution. But we were ignored.” Kent Whitaker writes that the clemency petition "is asking the board to acknowledge that Texas is a victim's rights state, even when the victim asks for mercy.” He says that he knows his late wife and son would not want Bart, who he says has matured and bettered himself while in prison, to be executed. Kent told the American-Statesman that he did not want to see the execution, "[b]ut I can’t imagine letting him be in the room by himself without anyone there with him. ... As he goes to sleep, I want him to be able to look at me and see that I love him.” he said. The man who carried out the killings received a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder. The getaway driver, who also could have faced the death penalty under Texas law, was permitted to plead to a 15-year prison term in exchange for testifying against Whitaker.

Death-Row Exoneree's Foundation Fights Wrongful Convictions, Provides Post-Release Health Care

When Anthony Graves (pictured) was exonerated from death row in Texas in 2010, he decided that he would use his personal experience as a catalyst for redressing the "injustice of the justice system." After receiving $1.45 million as compensation for the 18 years he was wrongly incarcerated, including twelve years on death row, the nation's 138th death-row exoneree created the Anthony Graves Foundation. Over the past two years, Graves has personally contributed more than $150,000 of his compensation funds as part of the fledgling nonprofit's expenditures towards freeing other innocent prisoners and providing health-care services to recently released prisoners who lack the means to pay for medical treatment. Graves was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death as a result of what the Texas State Bar described as "egregious" prosecutorial misconduct. Now disbarred for his actions, prosecutor Charles Sebesta presented false testimony from a witness implicating Graves in the murder while at the same time withholding from the defense a confession that the prosecution's witness had actually committed the murder. As in most death-row exonerations, there was no DNA evidence in Graves's case. Upon his release, Graves helped in the exoneration of Alfred Dewayne Brown, another no-DNA case, in which prosecutors suppressed a phone record that showed Brown could not have been at the scene of the crime when the murder occurred. The Graves Foundation then started The Humane Investigation Project, focusing on labor intensive non-DNA cases that Innocence Projects rarely take. “A lot of guys fall through the cracks because of the criteria of these projects,” Graves said. “I’d be dead today, because I had no DNA in my case.” Among other cases, Graves is currently working to exonerate still-incarcerated former Texas death-row prisoner Nanon Williams. When Graves was freed, doctors told him his arteries were clogged, the result of poor diet and health care. Because of his compensation settlement, however, he had money to see a doctor—a rarity for most people recently released from prison. Recognizing the severity of the health crisis faced by released prisoners, the Graves Foundation opened a small health clinic in March 2016 to provide low-cost and free care to those recently freed and to their families. Paul Cates, spokesman for the New York-based Innocence Project, said many exonerees feel like Graves, compelled to fight for change in a criminal justice system that wrecked their lives. “It doesn’t destroy their souls, and almost all of them somehow find a way to get beyond what happened,” Cates said. The prospect of helping those whose shoes he's been in continues to motivate Graves. “I always stay positive,” he said. “That’s how I came home.” It is a worldview summed up in the title of Graves's new book, Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul, scheduled for release on January 16, 2018.

Texas District Attorney Asks State to Spare Life of Man She Prosecuted Under Controversial “Law of Parties”

The Texas prosecutor who sought and obtained the death penalty almost 20 years ago against Jeffery Wood (pictured), a man who never killed anyone, has now asked that his sentence be reduced to life in prison. In a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, sent in August and obtained December 7 by the Texas TribuneKerr County District Attorney Lucy Wilke asked the board to recommend that Governor Greg Abbott grant Wood clemency and commute his sentence to life in prison. In 1998, Wilke—then an assistant district attorney—prosecuted Wood for the 1996 murder of Kriss Keeran, a Kerrville convenience store clerk who was shot to death by Wood's roommate, Daniel Reneau, while Reneau was robbing the store. Reneau was executed. Wood, who has denied that he had any knowledge that Reneau was going to commit a robbery or had taken a gun into the store, was sitting outside in the truck when the shooting occurred. He was prosecuted for murder and sentenced to death under Texas’s felony-murder statute, commonly known as the law of parties, which holds an accomplice liable for the actions of every other participant in the crime, even if the accomplice did not know and did not intend that a murder would occur. Wood's case drew national attention when the state scheduled his execution for August 2016. At that time, a broad range of groups, including evangelical leaders, state representatives, and editorial boards, called for Wood to be spared. More than 50 House members of both parties signed on to a letter written by conservative Rep. Jeff Leach asking Gov. Abbott and the pardons board to reduce Wood's sentence. Six days before his scheduled execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Wood's execution on unrelated grounds, sending his case back to the Kerr County trial court to review Wood’s claim his death sentence was the product of false predictions of future dangerousness by a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who had been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians for his unprofessional practices. "Had I known about Dr. Grigson’s issues with said organizations, I would not have used him as the State’s expert witness in this case on the issue of future dangerousness,” Wilke wrote in the letter. Although Wilke actively pursued the death penalty against Wood, she told the pardons board that “the penalty now appears to be excessive.” “While I am aware that requests for clemency in Death Penalty Capital Murder cases are normally considered when there is an execution date pending,” Wilke wrote, “I respectfully ask that you consider this request for commutation of sentence and act on it now, in the absence of such an execution date, in the interest of justice and judicial economy." Along with the fact that he wasn't the shooter, Wilke cited Wood's below-average IQ of 80, his history of nonviolence, and Dr. Grigson’s testimony as grounds for clemency. The letter was co-signed by Kerrville Police Chief David Knight, who was an officer at the time of the murder, and District Court Judge Keith Williams, who is presiding over Wood's challenge to the constitutionality of the prosecution's use of "false testimony and false scientific evidence" from Dr. Grigson.