Texas

Texas

Texas Set to Execute Robert Pruett for Prison Murder Despite Corruption and Lack of Physical Evidence

Though no physical evidence links him to the crime, Texas is set to execute Robert Pruett (pictured) on October 12 for the 1999 stabbing death of a state correctional officer who was at the center of a prison corruption investigation. Results of a DNA test of the murder weapon in 2015 found DNA that matched neither Pruett nor the victim, Officer Daniel Nagle. According to Pruett’s pending clemency petition, Officer Nagle was working to identify corrupt correctional officers who had been helping prison gangs launder drug money, and his name was discovered on a secret note from an inmate saying that a prison gang wanted him dead. The unidentified DNA, Pruett’s lawyers suggest, may belong “to the person [who] killed Nagle” and that Pruett was framed for the murder. Earlier on the day he was killed, Officer Nagle had given Pruett a disciplinary write-up for eating a sandwich in an unauthorized area. A bloody shank and a torn-up copy of the disciplinary report were found next to the officer’s body. The prosecution's case turned on dubious testimony from prison informants and the testimony of a forensic analyst that linked the tape wrapped around the handle of the shank used to kill Nagle to the prison craft shop in which Pruett’s cellmate worked. The forensic testimony has since been debunked and, according to the clemency petition, a state investigator’s notes disclosed that a key prison witness—Harold Mitchell—had been promised a transfer to a prison close to his family’s home in Virginia if he testified against Pruett and threatened with being charged with Nagle’s murder if he did not. This is the sixth time Pruett has faced an execution warrant. In April 2015, he received a stay of execution to permit DNA testing and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay in August 2016 so the state courts could have more time to review Pruett's new claims relating to the DNA evidence. However, in April 2017, the Texas appeals court ruled that the DNA test results would not have changed the outcome of his trial. The U.S Supreme Court declined to review Pruett’s case on October 2, permitting the execution to proceed. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has presided over 25 executions since taking office in January 2015, has yet to commute any death sentence.

Duane Buck, Whose Death Sentence Was Tainted by Racial Bias, Is Resentenced to Life

Duane Buck (pictured), the Texas death-row prisoner whose controversial racially tainted death sentence was reversed by the U.S Supreme Court in February, has been resentenced to life in prison. In a plea deal entered in a Harris County (Houston) courtroom on October 3, Buck, who is 54, pled guilty to two new counts of attempted murder that each carried terms of 60 years in prison to be served concurrently with two life sentences imposed on his capital murder charges. In a news release, District Attorney Kim Ogg said, "[a]fter reviewing the evidence and the law, I have concluded that, twenty-two years after his conviction, a Harris County jury would likely not return another death penalty conviction in a case that has forever been tainted by the indelible specter of race. Accordingly, in consideration for Buck pleading guilty to two additional counts of attempted murder we have chosen not to pursue the death penalty." After 20 years on death row and numerous appeals in which he was denied relief by the state and federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February that Buck's capital sentencing hearing had been unconstitutionally poisoned by the testimony of a psychologist—presented by his own lawyer—that Buck was more likely to commit future acts of violence because he is black. Saying that the "law punishes people for what they do, not who they are," Chief Justice John Roberts said that the "particularly noxious" stereotyping of Buck as dangerous because he is a black man was toxic testimony that was "deadly" even "in small doses." "No competent defense attorney," Roberts wrote, "would introduce such evidence about his own client.” Because Texas did not provide life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty at the time of Buck's trial in 1995, Ogg insisted on the two additional charges for attempted murder to foreclose the possibility of release when Buck became eligible for parole from the life sentences in 2035. She said the plea deal "can close a chapter in the history of our courts, in that they will never again hear that race is relevant to criminal justice or to the determination of whether a man will live or die. Race is not and never has been evidence."

Texas Appeals Court Orders Hearing on False Forensic Testimony, Extends Stay of Execution

After staying Tilon Carter's execution in May to consider allegations that his conviction and death sentence were the product of false or misleading forensic testimony, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has now ruled that Carter (pictured) is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on two of his claims. In a September 27 order, the appeals court directed the Tarrant County (Fort Worth) trial court to conduct a hearing on whether Texas "presented false or misleading testimony by the State Medical Examiner," in violation of Carter's right to due process and whether "new scientific evidence, which was unavailable at the time of his trial, contradicts scientific evidence the State relied on at this trial." The order leaves the prior stay of execution in place. Carter was convicted and sentenced to death in November 2006 based upon testimony by Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani that he had smothered 89-year-old James Tomlin during the course of a robbery. In fact, the autopsy listed Tomlin's cause of death as "smothering with positional asphyxia," which could have been unintentional. Carter's lawyers argued that scientific evidence that was unavailable at the time of trial contradicts Peerwani's testimony, and he presented statements from three forensic pathologists who concluded that the autopsy findings contradict the state's theory that Tomlin was intentionally smothered. Carter's attorney, Raoul Schonemann, 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 subject to the death penalty if he did not intentionally kill Tomlin. Carter's lawyers also alleged that his trial counsel had provided ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and present available evidence that Carter had not intentionally killed Tomlin. However, the Court of Criminal Appeals did not grant an evidentiary hearing on that claim.

Prosecutors Accept Life Plea by Severely Mentally Ill Man in Killing of Texas Sheriff's Deputy

Texas prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of the death penalty against a severely mentally ill capital defendant charged with what they characterized as the "ambush murder" of a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Special prosecutor Brett Ligon (pictured, left)—the Montgomery County District Attorney who was handling the prosecution because Houston prosecutors had a conflict that prevented them from participating in the case—announced on September 13 that he had agreed to a plea deal in which Shannon Miles (pictured, right) would be sentenced to life without possibility of parole in the killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth. Miles’s lawyers say that he has schizophrenia and episodic psychosis when he is not on psychiatric medication, that he has no memory of the murder, and that they intended to pursue an insanity defense in the case. In 2012, the trial court had declared Miles incompetent to be tried. In March of 2017, after treatment at a state mental hospital that had been delayed by a shortage of available beds, the court found Miles competent to stand trial. In explaining the plea deal, Ligon said "[t]he state's experts all came to the same conclusion, the likelihood of executing a mentally incompetent man was almost zero."  The victim’s widow, Kathleen Goforth, said she supported to deal because her two children “have been spared” the ordeal of extended death-penalty proceedings. She said, “They will not have the backdrop of their lives, for the next 10 to 25 years, being court dates, trials and appeals…. They won't have that inflicted upon them and that is merciful. It's compassionate and it's the right thing to do." Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Donald Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said justice had been served by the plea deal. The plea had been entered against the backdrop of an emerging sex scandal. The sole grounds on which prosecutors could seek the death penalty in the case was if Officer Goforth had been killed in the performance of his duties. However, evidence had come to light that Goforth was at the gas station to meet his mistress, who was a witness to the murder and would be called upon to testify in the case. Two sheriff’s officers—one who was assigned to investigate the case—had been fired for having sexual relations with the woman, and a third had been fired for sending her an email soliciting sex. The Goforth murder once again focused attention on the role of mental illness in premeditated murders of police officers. In July 2016, in unrelated incidents, mentally ill Gulf War veterans who exhibited symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, Texas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In July 2015, a Washington jury sentenced a mentally ill and delusional capital defendant, Christopher Monfort, to life without parole for the ambush murder of a Seattle police officer.

Texas Execution Stayed to Permit Proper Consideration of Intellectual Disability Claim

A Texas appeals court has stayed the August 30 execution of Steven Long (pictured) to provide him an opportunity to litigate a claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. On August 21, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued the stay and remanded Long's case to a Dallas County trial court, directing the court to reconsider his claim of intellectual disability in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's March 2017 ruling in Moore v. Texas. The Texas courts had previously rejected Long's intellectual disability claim, but had applied an overly harsh definition of intellectual disability that was declared unconstitutional in Moore. Long was convicted and sentenced to death in Dallas for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 2005. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 that it was unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to a person with Intellectual Disability—then known as mental retardation—and had previously ruled in a Texas case in 1989 that juries must consider a defendant's mental retardation as a potential basis to spare his or her life, Long's trial lawyer did not have him evaluated for mental retardation. In May 2008, his post-conviction lawyers raised the issue in his state habeas corpus proceedings, and the state courts rejected his claim, analyzing the issue under the "Briseño factors," a non-scientific series of questions developed by the state court in the case of Jose Garcia Briseño. Mr. Long then raised—and lost—the issue in the Texas federal district court, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refusing to consider his appeal. However, on March 28, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas's use of the Briseño factors, and less than one month later Long filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to apply its ruling in Moore to his case. While that appeal was pending and briefing was ongoing, Texas scheduled an execution date for Long during a period in which the Court was in summer recess. Long filed an application for a stay of execution in the Supreme Court. He then filed a new habeas petition in state court on August 3, 2017, reasserting the intellectual disability claim the state courts had initially denied and sought a stay of execution in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The state court wrote, "In light of this new law and the facts of applicant’s application, we have determined that applicant’s execution should be stayed pending further order of this Court." Briefing has been completed on his petition seeking U.S. Supreme Court review, and a decision is expected in early October on whether the Court will review his case. 

Mark White, Former Governor of Texas and Death-Penalty Critic, Dies at 77

Mark White (official portrait, pictured), a former governor and attorney general of Texas who became an outspoken critic of the death penalty, died on August 5 at the age of 77. Mr. White served as governor from 1983 to 1987, during which time he oversaw 19 executions. In an unsuccessful comeback bid in 1990, a campaign ad touted his strong support for the death penalty, featuring photos of the men executed during his tenure as governor and declaring, "Only a governor can make executions happen. I did and I will." Over time, however, his views changed and he became an advocate for the wrongfully condemned. In May 2014, White published a reflective op-ed in Politico, in which he declared that the administration of the death penalty is egregiously flawed. Citing the botched April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, White wrote that the death penalty lends itself to mistakes and abuse. Lockett died of a heart attack approximately 40 minutes after the state began administering an untested lethal-injection protocol. “As I’ve watched how the death penalty has been administered over the years," White wrote, "both in Texas and around the country, it has become increasingly clear to me that we just don’t do a good job at any phase of the process, from ensuring that capital trials are fair to the actual handling of executions themselves." White wrote that the death-penalty system is plagued by arbitrariness. "We now have incontrovertible evidence that America’s criminal justice system does a poor job of determining who deserves the death penalty,” he said, noting that 12 Texans had been among the many people released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. Since the publication of White's op-ed, that number has risen to 13. As a "recovering politician," White volunteered to work with reform groups and innocence organizations in an attempt to redress his concerns about the unfairness of the criminal justice system. In 2012, he lent his voice to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's efforts to obtain a fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck—who had been sentenced to death after a defense mental health expert, and then the prosecutor, told the jury that he posed an increase risk of violence to society because he is black—narrating the video, A Broken Promise in Texas: Race, the Death Penalty, and the Duane Buck Case. He also served as the long-time co-chair of The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee, on which he worked with other former prosecutors, governors, and corrections officials to advance bi-partisan efforts at death-penalty reform.

Texas Prisoner Seeks Stay of Execution; Was Represented by Disbarred Lawyer and Lawyer Who Relied on Wikipedia

Lawyers for Texas death-row prisoner TaiChin Preyor (pictured), whose prior federal habeas lawyer relied on research from Wikipedia and the guidance of a disbarred lawyer, have filed motions in state and federal courts seeking to stay his scheduled July 27 execution. His pleadings allege that he was represented by a succession of inept counsel, including a penalty-phase lawyer who failed to interview key witness or seek critical mental health testing; a post-conviction lawyer who met him for the first and only time on the day of his state habeas evidentiary hearing; and federal habeas counsel consisting of a disbarred lawyer and a real estate lawyer who defaulted a significant constitutional claim of prior counsel's ineffectiveness. Preyor was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005. The prosecutor told his sentencing jury that Preyor came from a “wonderful family” full of “outstanding people.” The new pleadings, however, set forth facts recently discovered when new counsel was provided funding to invewtigate his case: that Preyor endured a "harrowing" childhood "marred by severe physical and sexual abuse," and that he "turned to alcohol and drugs at a young age to cope with this unrelenting abuse." Preyor repeatedly witnessed his mother being beaten by numerous boyfriends and was threatened with a knife by one of them when the boy attempted to intervene. While still in elementary school, he was repeatedly sodomized and digitally penetrated by a close family member. While a teenager, he broke his ankles jumping off a 4th floor balcony to escape his mother, who was chasing him with a knife. The recent court filings seeking to re-open his federal habeas proceedings say this information was never presented to the federal court because his federal habeas counsel — a probate and estate planning lawyer with no death penalty experience — was "woefully unqualified" and "relied on Wikipedia, of all things, to learn the complex ins and outs of Texas capital-punishment." That lawyer, Brandy Estelle, so clearly lacked the necessary qualifications that the Fifth Circuit refused to appoint her and a judicial clerk reviewing death-penalty cases contacted the Texas bar to seek replacement counsel. Further, the motions allege, Estelle was actually a front who did no more than sign the documents filed in court; Phillip Jefferson, a disbarred lawyer who had misrepresented himself as a lawyer to Preyor's family actually drafted the pleadings. According to Preyor's current counsel, Jefferson and Estelle collected money from the family for their services, while Estelle also submitted invoices for payment to the federal courts. The motions ask the state and federal courts to stay Preyor's execution while this "fraud upon the court," the ineffectiveness of prior counsel, and the newly discovered evidence can be reviewed and assessed by the courts. Preyor has also asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his sentence, or alternatively, grant him a reprieve so that the legal issues in his case can be reviewed. Five Texas prisoners have received stays of execution so far in 2017, from either the state or federal courts. Texas has carried out four executions in 2017.

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New Generation of Prosecutors May Signal Shift in Death Penalty Policies

A new generation of prosecutors, elected across the country on a platform of criminal justice reform, are taking a different approach to criminal justice policies than their predecessors, including a reduction in the use of capital punishment. A Christian Science Monitor profile of these prosecutors—focusing on Mark Gonzalez (pictured), the Nueces County, Texas, district attorney—says "[f]rom Texas to Florida to Illinois, many of these young prosecutors are eschewing the death penalty, talking rehabilitation as much as punishment, and often refusing to charge people for minor offenses." Their reform measures not only create greater opportunities for rehabilitation of offenders, but also reduce costs for the county and state governments. Stanford Law Professor David Alan Sklansky said, “It does seem to be a new and significant phenomenon. It’s rare to see so many races where the district attorney is challenged, where they lose, and where they lost to candidates calling not for harsher approaches, but for more balanced and thoughtful, more restrained, more progressive approaches to punishment.” In 2016, several new prosecutors who ran on reform platforms in major death-penalty counties defeated entrenched incumbents: Kim Ogg in Harris County, Texas; Andrew Warren in Hillsborough County, Florida; and Charles Henderson in Jefferson County, Alabama all pledged to reduce the use of capital punishment. Caddo Parish, Louisiana's District Attorney James Stewart, elected in 2015, has backed away from that parish's aggressive use of the death penalty while Denver District Attorney Beth McCann and Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala, both elected in 2016, have said they would not pursue the death penalty. In May 2017, Larry Krasner, a death-penalty opponent, won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia District Attorney, making him the favorite to win the general election in November. Kim Ogg described the reasons for her support of criminal-justice reform, saying, “In the last decade the American people have literally lost faith in the fairness of our justice system. If they think we’re rigging the system, or trying to force outcomes, then they’re not going to participate, and to me that is a huge threat to our democracy.” Gonzalez says he has not decided how he will approach the death penalty, and in the meantime is still filing death penalty cases. But, he says, “We’re trying to change things. ... The culture is changing.”

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