Texas

Texas

False or Flawed Forensic Evidence Raises Questions About Two Texas Capital Convictions

Two recent appellate decisions by the Texas courts have thrust into the national spotlight the continuing controversy over the use of false or flawed forensic testimony to secure convictions in death penalty cases. On October 18, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a Travis County (Austin) trial court to conduct a hearing to consider evidence that the Austin police crime lab had botched its analysis of DNA evidence and presented scientifically false DNA testimony leading to the conviction and death sentencing of Areli Escobar in 2011. The same day, the court reversed an order of a Harris County (Houston) trial court that had granted Arthur Brown a new trial after the lower court had found that prosecutors had presented false ballistics testimony in securing Brown's conviction and death sentence in 1993. In his petition for relief, Escobar argued that he was entitled to a “comprehensive, independent review” of the scientific evidence presented in his case because his capital conviction “rests on forensic evidence developed by incompetent scientists using bad science.” The Austin crime lab has come under fire during the past few years as a result of improper procedures and poor quality control—problems that ultimately resulted in the closure of the lab and dismissal of almost all its employees. The court of appeals directed the trial court to examine Escobar's claims that the lab staffed his case with poorly trained analysts, cross-contaminated samples, practiced questionable analytical methods, and provided false and misleading DNA testimony that tainted his prosecution for the sexual assault and murder of a neighbor. The appeals court also ruled that Escobar was entitled to review of a claim that prosecutors had presented misleading forensic testimony about his proximity to the murder scene based on false or misleading cell-tower location information. The same day that it granted Escobar further review of his claims, the appeals court overturned the decision of a Houston trial court that had granted Brown a new trial based on the prosecution's presentation of false or misleading ballistic expert testimony at his trial. In securing his conviction and death sentence for four drug-related murders that he and two accomplices allegedly committed in southwest Houston, prosecutors relied on the testimony of a firearms expert who said "absolutely" that the bullets recovered from the victims matched two guns that were linked to Brown. Brown's execution had been stayed in October 2013 to allow for additonal review of that evidence. After reviewing the new ballistic evidence, the trial court determined that the state presented forensic testimony that was "plainly wrong and false" with respect to one of the guns and that was "plainly false" with respect to the other gun. However, the appeals court ruled that, even if the forensic evidence was false, it did not entitle Brown to a new trial because the jury could have still convicted him under Texas's law of the parties, a broad rule that makes a defendant criminally liable for the actions of his accomplices. Judge Elsa Alcala dissented, rejecting the majority's conclusion that guilt was a foregone conclusion and noting that "other evidence of guilt was exceedingly weak when examined without the support of the erroneous firearms evidence." She noted that the testimony from the two witnesses at the crime scene had credibility issues, and Brown's sister recanted her testimony that Brown had told her he shot and killed six people, saying she had been coerced into testifying falsely. Given these facts, Judge Alcala concluded that knowledge that the forensic testimony painting Brown as the shooter was false and unreliable may have affected the jury's determination of guilt or the sentence it imposed in the case. 

Witnesses—Alabama Prisoner Still Moving 20 Minutes Into Execution With Controversial Drug

Alabama executed Torrey McNabb (pictured) on October 19, amid questions of state interference in the judicial process, resulting in another apparent failure by the drug midazolam to render a prisoner insensate during an execution. Alabama prison officials defended the execution—which took 35 minutes—as conforming with state protocol, most of which has been withheld from the public. Montgomery Advertiser execution witness Brian Lyman reported that at 9:17 p.m., twenty minutes into the execution and after two consciousness checks, "McNabb raised his right arm and rolled his head in a grimace" and then fell "back on the gurney." Associated Press reported that his “family members and attorneys who witnessed the execution expressed repeated concerns to each other that he was still conscious during the lethal injection.” Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn dismissed McNabb's responses as "[i]nvoluntary movement," which he said were not unusual. "I’m confident he was more than unconscious at that point," he said. McNabb had been challenging the state's execution protocol in court for more than a year at the time Alabama issued a warrant for his execution. He had won an appeal permitting his case against the state's use of midazolam to move forward to trial, and the Alabama federal courts had issued an injunction stopping the execution so that judicial review of the state's execution process could take place. However, on October 19, the U.S. Supreme Court, over the dissents of Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, lifted the injunction, vacating the stay and permitting the execution to proceed. Two-and-a-half hours after the execution was scheduled to begin, the Supreme Court denied another last-minute stay application, without dissent, and the execution proceeded. The execution capped a dramatic 48 hours during which Texas courts halted two other executions that had been scheduled for October. On October 18, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had stayed Clinton Young's October 26 execution to permit an evidentiary hearing on his challenge that newly discovered gunshot residue evidence showed that the state's lead witness was the actual killer in his case, and a Texas trial court had stayed the execution of Anthony Shore to investigate allegations that he may have colluded with another death-row prisoner to falsely confess to the murder for which that prisoner had been condemned. McNabb's execution was Alabama's third and the 21st in the United States in 2017.

Supreme Court Directs Florida to Reconsider Intellectual Disability Decision in Death Penalty Case

The United States Supreme Court has ordered the Florida Supreme Court to reconsider a decision that had denied a death-row prisoner's claim that he was ineligible for the death penalty because he has Intellectual Disability. On October 16, the Court reversed and remanded the case of Tavares Wright (pictured, left), directing the Florida courts to reconsider his intellectual-disability claim in light of the constitutional standard the Court set forth in its March 2017 decision in Moore v. Texas. The decision in Wright v. Florida was the sixth time the Court has vacated a state or federal court's rejection of an intellectual-disability claim and remanded the case for reconsideration under Moore—and the third time it has done so in less than a month. Earlier in October, the Court vacated two decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit and remanded the cases of Texas death-row prisoners Obie Weathers and Steven Long for reconsideration in light of Moore, and on October 18, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals cited Moore  as grounds for reconsidering its own prior rejection of intellectual-disability claims raised by Carnell Petetan, Jr. (pictured, right). Moore was expected to have broad impact in Texas, where—the Court unanimously agreed—the state courts had unconstitutionally adopted an unscientific set of lay stereotypes to determine whether a defendant facing the death penalty had impairments in functioning that qualified him or her as intellectually disabled. Five members of the Court also stressed in the majority opinion in Moore that the state had improperly rejected claims of intellectual disability by emphasizing a capital defendant's perceived adaptive strengths, instead of "focus[ing] the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits," as required by accepted medical practice. Lawyers in Harris County (Houston)—which has executed more prisoners than any other county—anticipate that more than a dozen prisoners sentenced to death in that county may be entitled to reconsideration of their death sentences under Moore, and one prisoner, Robert James Campbell, has already been resentenced to life. However, the Supreme Court's recent rulings indicate that its pronouncement in Moore that a state's determination of Intellectual Disability must be "informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework" is not limited to Texas. In May, the Court vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Taurus Carroll after his lawyer invoked Moore to argue that Alabama had unconstitutionally deviated from accepted methods of determining intellectual disability. In the Florida case, Wright's lawyers argued that the state supreme court's decision in his case was inconsistent with a line of Supreme Court cases on intellectual disability—Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which declared execution of those with intellectual disability to be unconstitutional; Hall v. Florida (2014), which struck down Florida's approach to measuring the role of IQ in determining intellectual disability; and Moore. Although its order did not set forth the reasons for its decision, the Supreme Court agreed and directed the Florida courts to reconsider the issue.

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. 

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