INNOCENCE: Barry Scheck Challenges Texas Decision Blocking Innocence Investigation

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, recently disagreed with the opinion issued by the Texas Attorney General limiting the power of the Forensic Science Commission to investigate the case of a possibly innocent man who was executed in 2004. The AG's decision held that the Commission does not have jurisdiction to examine evidence prior to 2005 and therefore could not look at evidence from the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured), who was executed for arson based on highly questionable evidence.  In an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Scheck described the state attorney general's opinion as, "yet another stunning example of politics preventing the commission from carrying out the responsibilities that led the Legislature to create the commission in the first place: to ensure that what passes as forensic science in Texas court rooms is actually based on science and to prevent innocent people from being wrongly convicted based on testimony that is not scientifically based."   Read full op-ed below.

Texas Blocks Investigation into Execution of Possibly Innocent Man

On July 29, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that the state's Forensic Science Commission (FSC) does not have authority to review evidence regarding the possible innocence of Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured), who was executed in 2004.  Willingham was convicted of setting the fire that killed his three children, but investigtions by prominent forensic scientists have discredited the evidence of arson presented at trial.  Abbott said evidence that was tested or offered into evidence prior to September 1, 2005 is beyond the scope of the FSC's legal jurisdiction.  In 2008, the Innocence Project filed a complaint with the FSC alleging professional negligence by arson investigators in the case. The Commission previously issued a report finding that the original arson investigators relied on now-outdated science in concluding that the fire was intentionally set. In a statement released by the Innocence Project, Co-Director Barry Scheck said, "We are disappointed in the Attorney General’s ruling.... We believe the reasoning of the opinion is wrong and contrary to the clear intention of the legislature when it formed the Commission. We urge the legislature to correct this injustice and fully empower the Commission to investigate all matters that could help prevent wrongful convictions."

Texas Court Stays Execution to Review Claim of Innocence

On July 28, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the scheduled August 18 execution of Larry Swearingen (pictured) in order to consider new evidence that might prove his innocence.  Swearingen was convicted of the 1998 murder of Melissa Trotter, whose body was found in the Sam Houston National Forest.  Trotter was last seen alive with Swearingen.  Forensic scientists who examined the evidence from Trotter's body have said that she could not have been in the forest for longer than two weeks, which means that her murder would have happened while Swearingen was in jail for an unrelated offense.  In 2007, Dr. Joye Carter, a medical examiner who testified at Swearingen’s trial in 2000 that the victim had been in the forest for 25 days, changed her original conclusion after reviewing new evidence that indicated the murder happened within two weeks of the body's discovery.

VICTIMS: Victim of Hate Crime After 9/11 Seeks Clemency for His Condemned Attacker

In 2001, Mark Stroman (pictured) shot several people in Texas whom he believed were Arabs in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Stroman killed at least two men and wounded Rais Bhuiyan, who is from Bangladesh and was working at a Dallas gas station.  Stroman received the death penalty for the murders and is scheduled to be executed on July 20.  Bhuiyan, who lost the use of one eye as a result of the shooting, has spent the last few months seeking clemency for Stroman.  In a recent interview with the New York Times, Bhuiyan said, "I requested a meeting with Mr. Stroman. I’m eagerly awaiting to see him in person and exchange ideas. I would talk about love and compassion. We all make mistakes. He’s another human being, like me.  Hate the sin, not the sinner. It’s very important that I meet him to tell him I feel for him and I strongly believe he should get a second chance. That I never hated the U.S. He could educate a lot of people. Thinking about what is going to happen makes me very emotional. I can’t sleep. Once I go to bed I feel there is another person that I know who is in his bed thinking about what is going to happen to him — that he is going to be tied to a bed and killed. It makes me very emotional and very sad and makes me want to do more." Stroman has been moved by Bhuiyan's actions and agrees, "The hate has to stop."  Read full-text of interview below.

Controversial Texas Case Settles with Plea Bargain

Judge FineA Texas capital case that precipitated a rare judicial review of the constitutionality of the state's death penalty recently ended on July 6 with an unexpected plea deal. At the end of six weeks of jury selection, the prosecution accepted defendant John Edward Green Jr.'s agreement to plead guilty to a lesser murder charge in exchange for 40 years in prison. The case was delayed in coming to trial when Judge Kevin Fine (pictured) agreed to conduct a hearing on whether Texas's death penalty law posed too great a risk of executing the innocent.  The hearing was begun in December 2010, although the prosecution refused to take an active part in the proceedings.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the hearing after 2 days of testimony, holding that the constitutional issue was not ripe for consideration and that the trial court was not the proper forum for deciding that issue.  The family of the two victims who were robbed and shot (one of whom died) in 2008 supported the plea agreement. A statement issued by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos's office cited concern for the victims and families when accepting the plea deal: "The victim's husband and sister (who is also a victim in this case) related that they wanted finality and certainty of sentence. They expressed grave concerns regarding the pretrial proceedings and previous rulings in this case."

FOREIGN NATIONALS: Obama Administration and U.N. High Commissioner Seek Relief for Texas Death Row Inmate

On July 1, the Administration of President Barack Obama joined former government officials and national organizations intervening in the case of Texas death row inmate Humberto Leal Garcia. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to delay Leal's execution scheduled for July 7. The Solicitor General wrote that Leal's execution "would place the United States in irreparable breach of its international-law obligation to afford (Leal) review and reconsideration of his claim that his conviction and sentence were prejudiced by Texas authorities' failure to provide consular notification and assistance under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations."  In a 30-page brief, the Administration also stated that complying with obligations to "notify consuls in such cases would serve U.S. interests as well as those of the condemned man," including "protecting Americans abroad, fostering cooperation with foreign nations, and demonstrating respect for the international rule of law."  The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has also written a letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry, asking the governor to commute Leal's sentence to life in prison.

2011 Death Penalty Update

Between January and the end of June 2011, there were 25 executions in 9 states.  During the same time period last year, there were 29 executions.  Of the executions this year, 8 were carried out using the drug sodium thiopental, while 17 involved a new drug, pentobarbital. Earlier in 2011, Hospira Inc., the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, announced that it would no longer manufacture the drug, forcing states to search for foreign sources or alternative drugs for their lethal injections.  Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina have used pentobarbital instead of sodium thiopental in their executions in 2011. Ohio is the only one of those 7 states to use pentobarbital as the sole drug in its lethal-injection process.  In the first half of 2011, 18 clemencies have been granted, commuting the defendant's death sentence to life without parole. Fifteen of the commutations were in Illinois, where Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill repealing the state's death penalty. The repeal goes into effect today, Juy 1.  Seventy-six percent (76%) of the cases resulting in executions so far this year involved the murder of at least 1 white victim, even though generally whites are victims of murder less than 50% of the time.

NEW RESOURCES: Most Recent DEATH ROW USA Report Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "Death Row USA" shows that the number of people on death row in the United States is continuing to slowly decline, falling to 3,242 as of October 1, 2010. In 2000, there were 3,682 inmates on death row.  Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 44% white, 42% black, and 12% Latino/Latina. California continues to have the largest death row population (714), followed by Florida (394) and Texas (322). Pennsylvania (220) and Alabama (204) complete the list of the states with the five largest death rows in the country.  California and Pennsylvania have not carried out an executiion in over five years.  Death Row USA is published quarterly by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The report contains the latest death row population figures, execution statistics, and an overview of recent legal developments related to capital punishment.