Texas

Texas

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 139th 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.

No Executions in the “Capital of Capital Punishment” for First Time in 30 Years

Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed 126 prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Texas's capital punishment statute in 1976, more than any other county in the United States and, apart from the rest of Texas, more than any state. But in 2017, no one will be sentenced to death in Harris County and, for the first time since 1985, no one sentenced to death in the county will be executed. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court also overturned two controversial Harris County death-penalty cases, resulting in agreements with county prosecutors that Duane Buck and Bobby Moore should be resentenced to life. District Attorney Kim Ogg (pictured), elected in 2016 as a reform prosecutor, said she views these developments "as a positive thing." "I don't think that being the death penalty capital of America is a selling point for Harris County," she said. Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told the Houston Chronicle that, because of its prolific execution rates, "Harris County has always symbolized America's death penalty." This year's statistics, he said, are "both symbolic and emblematic of the change in capital punishment in the United States. For the first time in a generation, the nation's largest executioner has executed no one." Texas death-row exoneree Anthony Graves credited the Ogg administration "for being out front on criminal justice reform.... Because this is what it is, this is what it looks like," he said. Texas's seven executions in 2017 are still more than were carried out in any other state, but a majority of the death warrants issued during the year did not result in executions. Death-penalty proponent Dudley Sharp attributed the execution decline to the increase in time between sentencing and execution. In Texas, however, much of that increase is a result of changes in state law arising from legislative concerns about wrongful convictions: the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted seven stays of execution in 2017 permit prisoners to litigate claims that their convictions or death sentences were the product of defective forensic testimony, false evidence, or the suppression of exculpatory evidence by prosecutors or violated this year's Supreme Court decision in Moore v. Texas. The seven executions statewide stood in stark contrast to the 40 executions the state carried out in 2000. Declining murder rates, the availability of life without parole as a sentencing alternative, and reduced public support for the death penalty have all contributed to the reduction of new death sentences in Harris County. A 2016 report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that the number of Houston-area residents preferring the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder had fallen to just 27%.

History of Lynchings of Mexican Americans Provides Context for Recent Challenges to U.S. Death Penalty

From 1846 to 1870, more than 100 men and women were hanged on the branches of the notorious "Hanging Tree" in Goliad, Texas. Many were Mexicans or Mexican Americans and many were killed by lynching. In a November 25 op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, historian Alfredo Torres, Jr. writes that these public killings are a reminder that "the noose, [which] has been identified as emblematic of violence and oppression toward African-Americans, [is] often overlooked as a symbol of terror for Mexican-Americans." Torres says that no region experienced more lynchings of Mexican Americans than Southern Texas, and the public spectacles on the Goliad County Courthouse lawn (pictured), now an historic landmark and tourist attraction, were witnessed by Anglo families "in a carnival-like atmosphere, bringing picnic baskets and taking photos." Lynchings of more than 871 Mexican Americans are documented across 13 Western and Southwestern states after the Civil War. But Torres says "these numbers don’t compare to what was done in Texas," where historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb estimate that more than 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered between 1910 to 1920. That wave of terror included numerous extra-judicial lynchings and murders of Mexican Americans by vigilantes, local law-enforcement officers, and Texas Rangers. Texas A & M-Kingsville journalism professor Manuel Flores wrote in an October 2017 column in the Corpus Cristi Caller-Times that the death and legend of Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez—framed for the 1863 ax murder of a White cotton merchant and horse trader in what was still Confederate Texas—symbolizes the racial violence against Mexican Americans in the state and "are as pertinent to the state of Texas as that of the Alamo and Goliad stories." Rodriguez was falsely accused of murder and the theft of $600 after the dismembered body of John Savage was found on the banks of the river near her traveler's lodge. Though there was no evidence of her involvement in the murder and she insisted “No soy culpable" ("I'm not guilty"), she was quickly tried, sentenced, and hanged. In 1985, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution absolving Rodríguez of the murder, and Gov. Mark White signed the resolution, posthumously pardoning her on June 13, 1985. Cardigan and Webb say that widespread lynchings of Mexican Americans persisted into the 1920s, "eventually declining largely because of pressure from the Mexican government." Issues of racial bias against Mexicans and others of Latino descent in the administration of the death penalty in the U.S. persist. 122 Latino prisoners have been executed in the United States since 1985. Texas has carried out 84.4% of those executions (103), including the controversial execution of Mexican national Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas on November 8, in violation of international treaty obligations to have permitted him to obtain consular assistance from his government. 373 Latino/a prisoners are on state or federal death rows across the United States, with three-quarters sentenced to death in California (188), Texas (67), or Arizona (27). A challenge to the constitutionality of Arizona's death penalty, filed by Abel Daniel Hidalgo, is currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition presents evidence that in Arizona, "a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim." The Court will consider during its December 1 conference meeting whether to accept Hidalgo's case for review.

Texas Set to Execute Mexican National Despite Treaty Violations, Innocence Claim

Texas plans to execute a Mexican national on November 8, despite claims that he is innocent and that Texas violated U.S. international treaty obligations by denying him access to legal assistance from his government. Senior Mexican diplomats called the death sentence imposed on Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas (pictured) "illegal" and a violation of due process. In a news conference in Mexico City on November 6, Carlos Sada, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, said “From the start, there has been a failure, and from our perspective, this is an illegal act.” Cárdenas was convicted and sentenced to death in Hidalgo County in 1998 for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of his 15-year-old cousin. No physical evidence links him to the crime, and his lawyers say there is no forensic evidence of sexual intercourse or any sexual assault. In a pleading filed with Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, his lawyer, Maurie Levin, has sought a stay of execution to obtain DNA testing of scrapings taken from under the victim’s fingernails, arguing that that Cárdenas’s “conviction and death sentence bear all the indicia of a wrongful conviction.” Those indicators, she writes, include “questionable eyewitness testimony, coerced, uncounseled confessions, and unreliable forensic evidence." Prosecutors have opposed permitting the DNA testing. Despite U.S. treaty obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations requiring law enforcement to notify foreign citizens of their right to assistance from their nation’s consulate, police failed to notify Mexico of Cárdenas’s arrest or Cárdenas of his right to speak with officials from his government. Levin said that Cárdenas repeatedly asked for a lawyer, but that the state did not appoint counsel for 11 days, during which time he was subject to interrogation and gave a series of inconsistent statements, including a coerced confession that was inconsistent with the physical evidence. Eyewitnesses to the abduction—including the victim’s sister, who knew Cárdenas—either did not identify Cárdenas in statements they gave to police or gave descriptions of the assailant that did not match Cárdenas. Mexico did not learn of Cárdenas’s arrest for five months, and has been attempting to assist him since that time. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention rights of 51 Mexican nationals sentenced to death in the United States, including Cárdenas, and ordered that foreign nationals whose consular rights are violated must be provided judicial review to determine whether that violation influenced the outcome of their cases. Cárdenas has sought review of his case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has granted "precautionary measures"—a form of injunction—against his execution until the treaty violation is adjudicated. However, in 2008, in a case in which Texas failed to provide such a hearing to Jose Ernesto Medellin, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that although the world court decision “constitutes an international law obligation” on the United States, it is nevertheless unenforceable against the states unless and until Congress passes legislation, which Congress has yet to do. Since then, a number of foreign nationals have been executed in the U.S. in violation of international treaty obligations without judicial review of their treaty claims. Gregory Kuykendall, a lawyer who represents Mexico, said "It's a significant treaty violation. ... What separates us from anarchy is our commitment to due process and that's the processes of the laws that are in effect in both the United States as well as internationally." Cárdenas has never been granted review of his treaty claim in the U.S. courts.

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