Texas Court Orders Release of Former Death Row Prisoner Who Spent 32 Years in Prison Without a Valid Conviction

A Texas Court of Appeals ruled on January 19, 2017 that all charges against Jerry Hartfield should be dismissed with prejudice after the state had kept the intellectually disabled former death row prisoner in prison for 32 years without retrying him after his conviction had been overturned. Calling the situation a "criminal judicial nightmare," the court ruled that the three-decade delay in trying Hartfield violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. Hartfield had been convicted and sentenced to death for a 1976 murder, but in 1983, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction and death sentence because a juror in his case had been improperly excluded. Hartfield, an illiterate man with an IQ of 51, believed he was awaiting retrial, but prosecutors were working to render the court's ruling moot under Texas law by having the governor commute his sentence to life. However, they failed to do so in the time period prescribed by law, and then-Governor Mark White's order attempting to commute Hartfield's former death sentence to life without parole was without legal effect. Hartfield's attorneys did nothing further because they believed they were done with the case. In 2006, a fellow prisoner helped Hartfield begin filing motions in his case. In 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals told him his motions were improperly filed because the provision under which he sought review applied only to people who had been convicted. At that point, he refiled his claims saying he was improperly incarcerated without a conviction, and finally got a new trial. Hartfield's new lawyers then asked for the charges to be dismissed because he had not received a speedy trial, but prosecutors successfully persuaded the trial court that Hartfield himself was partly to blame for the delay. In 2015, he was retried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. If his sentence were counted from his first trial, his 38 years in prison would have made him eligible for parole. He appealed his conviction, once again arguing that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated, and a Texas Court of Appeals agreed, noting that there was precedent for a delay of as many as eight years, but not 32. Prosecutors may appeal the ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. David R. Dow of the University of Houston Law Center, one of the lawyers who represented Mr. Hartfield on appeal, described Hartfield's case as, “the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong with the criminal justice system.”

Texas Set to Execute Christopher Wilkins Despite Lawyers' Conflicts of Interest

Christopher Wilkins (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Texas on January 11, even as he has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that he has been improperly denied the opportunity to develop and present evidence that he suffers from significant cognitive deficits. Wilkins' Supreme Court petition asserts that his trial lawyer, Wesley Ball, who later withdrew from the case because of a potential conflict of interest, barely conducted any investigation into the case until just before jury selection and ignored a recommendation from a defense psychologist that Wilkins' mental functioning should be evaluated because he suffered from several cognitive deficits and was exposed to LSD as as a child, in addition to having other risk factors for brain damage. Wilkins' state post-conviction lawyer, Jack Strickland—who was responsible for investigating and presenting new evidence in the case—accepted a position with the prosecutor's office while representing Wilkins before filing a habeas application for Wilkins that only presented claims that had been procedurally barred or that were not reviewable. Wilkins repeatedly tried to fire Strickland but the state court refused to appoint new counsel and dismissed Wilkins' habeas petition. The federal district court judge then refused to provide Wilkins' federal lawyer funding to investigate his case, gave him only 45 days to prepare his federal habeas petition, and then denied the petition because Wilkins had not presented the evidence he says an investigation would have developed. When Wilkins' current lawyer filed a new petition in state court, the Texas courts refused to consider it, saying the evidence should have presented in his first habeas petition. Judge Elsa Alcala of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dissented, writing that Strickland "appears to have wholly failed to act as counsel" for Wilkins, and that the defective petition Strickland filed should have been considered "a nullity." Wilkins' petition in the United States Supreme Court argues that federal law entitles him to investigative and expert services that are "reasonably necessary" to assist him in developing the factual basis for his habeas corpus claims, and that the Texas federal court rulings denying him that assistance are out of step with the practices of other federal circuits. If Wilkins is executed, he will be the first person executed in the United States in 2017. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court denied Wilkins' petition for writ of certiorari and motion for stay of execution on January 11 and Texas executed him that evening.]

Texas Sues Food and Drug Administration Over Seizure of Execution Drugs

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice filed suit on January 3, 2017 against the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the FDA's continued detention of drugs Texas had attempted to import for executions. In October 2015, Texas and Arizona attempted to import sodium thiopental, an anesthetic commonly used in executions prior to 2010, from Harris Pharma, a supplier in India. The FDA halted both shipments, saying that their import violated federal law. The FDA does not comment on litigation, but has previously said that sodium thiopental has no legal uses in the United States. The agency has indicated in the past that an injunction issued by a federal district court in Washington in 2013, and which later was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, requires it to halt importation of the drug. No U.S. manufacturer currently produces sodium thiopental, and so the drug is unavailable from domestic sources. Texas argues that the drug should be allowed to be imported under a "law enforcement exemption" to usual importation rules. In a statement about the lawsuit, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton attacked the agency, saying "[t]here are only two reasons why the FDA would take 17 months to make a final decision on Texas’ importation of thiopental sodium: gross incompetence or willful obstruction." Texas has used an alternative drug, pentobarbital, in executions since 2012. A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said, "We cannot speculate on the future availability [of] drugs, so the agency continues to explore all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process."

Experts Say Texas' Future Dangerousness Concept Is Based on Junk Science

Since 1973, juries in Texas have had to determine whether a defendant presents a future danger to society before imposing a death sentence. But while they have found that each of the 244 men and women currently on the state's death row poses "a continuing threat to society," experts argue that juries cannot accurately predict a defendant's future. According to Dr. Mark Cunningham, a psychologist and leading researcher on the issue of future dangerousness, “[j]uries show absolutely no predictive ability whatsoever” on this issue. In Texas capital cases, prosecutors typically present testimony from psychiatric witnesses who offer their opinion that the defendant will commit future acts of violence. One witness, psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson, testified in 167 capital cases, repeatedly responding to hypothetical questions posed by prosecutors (even after he was expelled from state and national professional associations because of this practice) that defendants whose institutional records he had never reviewed and whom he had never evaluated were certain to commit future acts of violence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently granted a stay of execution to Jeffery Wood—who had no history of violence and did not himself kill anyone—to permit him to challenge Dr. Grigson's testimony in his case as false and unscientific. Studies show that the ostensibly objective inquiry into future dangerousness has not reduced the arbitrary imposition of death sentences and that, in fact, testimony on the issue has often instead introduced racial bias into trials. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering the case Buck v. Davis, in which a psychologist testified that the fact that defendant Duane Buck (pictured) is African-American increases the likelihood that he presents a future danger to society. A study led by Stanford University Prof. Jennifer Eberhardt found that in interracial murders involving a White victim and a Black defendant, the physical features of the defendant greatly affected the outcome of the case. In those cases, defendants with stereotypically African facial features were more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as Black defendants who had a less stereotypically African appearance. The American Psychiatric Association has sought to eliminate the question of future dangerousness from jury decisions, writing in an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court: “[t]he unreliability of psychiatric predictions of long-term future dangerousness is by now an established fact within the profession.” Kathryn Kase, director of the Texas Defender Service, described the determination of future dangerousness as "akin to giving jurors two cotton swabs, asking them to look at them and saying, ‘Does the DNA match?’ If an expert can’t figure it out, then how can jurors do that? It is no accident that African Americans are overrepresented on death row.”

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Dallas County, Texas Imposing Fewer Death Sentences After Years of Discrimination

With 55 executions since the 1970s, Dallas County, Texas, ranks second among all U.S. counties -- behind only Harris County (Houston), Texas -- in the number of prisoners it has put to death. It is also among the 2% of counties that account for more than half of all prisoners on death row across the country, and produced seven new death sentences and one resentence between 2010 and 2015, more than 99.5% of all U.S. counties during that period. Dallas County has a long history of prosecutorial misconduct and racial discrimination, evidenced most tellingly in its biased jury selection practices. Long-time Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, whose tenure in office spanned the years 1951 to 1987, once told an assistant prosecutor, “If you ever put another n****r on a jury, you’re fired.” An office manual first written in 1963 instructed Dallas County prosecutors not to “take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated.” In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court took notice of what Justice Anthony Kennedy described as a "culture of discrimination" that was “suffused with bias against African-Americans," and overturned the capital murder conviction of Thomas Joe Miller-El because prosecutors removed 10 of the 11 Black potential jurors on the basis of race. 51 people have been exonerated of serious crimes in Dallas County since 1989, including Randall Dale Adams, who had been sentenced to death after witnesses for the prosecution committed perjury at his trial. Dallas has shown signs of change in recent years. No new death sentences have been imposed since 2013. That year, District Attorney Craig Watkins said he would advocate for the Texas legislature to pass a Racial Justice Act, permitting death row prisoners to challenge their sentences based upon statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Former Assistant District Attorney James Fry said in 2009 that concerns about innocence had changed his views on the death penalty: "For years I supported capital punishment, but I have come to believe that our criminal justice system is incapable of adequately distinguishing between the innocent and guilty. It is reprehensible and immoral to gamble with life and death."

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Argument in Texas Intellectual Disability Case

During argument November 29 in the case of Moore v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court expressed skepticism about Texas' idiosyncratic method of deciding whether a capital defendant has Intellectual Disability and is therefore ineligible for the death penalty. A trial court, applying the criteria for Intellectual Disability established by the medical community, found that Bobby James Moore (pictured) was not subject to the death penalty. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal reversed that ruling in 2015, saying that Moore did not qualify as intellectually disabled under Texas' “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), an unscientific seven-pronged test based in part on the character Lennie Smalls from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." Moore's attorney, Clifford Sloan, argued that "Texas is very extreme and stands alone" in rejecting clinical standards used by the medical community to determine Intellectual Disability and replacing them with “nonclinical” and “anti-scientific” criteria. Five justices seemed sympathetic to Moore's case, raising concerns about the arbitrariness of allowing states to set their own criteria for deciding who is intellectually disabled. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "You're opening the door to inconsistent results ... something that we try to prevent from happening in capital cases." Justice Stephen Breyer said that, without nationwide uniformity, there will be "disparities and uncertainties" and "people who are alike treated differently." Justices Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor questioned whether application of the Briseño factors excluded some individuals whom clinicians would regard as being intellectually disabled. Justice Anthony Kennedy asked Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller whether the purpose of Texas' system was to "really limit" the definition of intellectual disability. When Keller said that was not the intent, Kennedy asked, "But isn't that the effect?" The Court is expected to rule on the case by June 2017.

NEW VOICES: Special Olympics Chair Urges Supreme Court to Strike Down Texas' 'Horrific' Criteria for Determining Intellectual Disability

Timothy Shriver (pictured), the Chairman of the Special Olympics, has called on the U.S. Supreme Court to end Texas' "use of stigmatizing stereotypes" in determining whether a defendant has Intellectual Disability and is therefore ineligible for execution. On November 29, the Court will hear argument in Moore v. Texas, a case challenging Texas' use of the “Briseño factors”—a set of unscientific criteria based in part on the fictional character of Lennie Smalls from the novel "Of Mice and Men"—to determine whether capitally charged prisoners have significant impairments in adaptive functioning that could qualify them for an Intellectual Disability diagnosis. In a column in TIME magazine, Shriver called Texas' method of adjudicating Intellectual Disability "horrific." He wrote, "[t]he inaccurate Texas standard reinforces one of the most damaging stereotypes about people with intellectual disability—that they can’t be 'good' at anything." In Moore's case, the judge relied on the fact that Moore was able to play pool and earned money mowing lawns as evidence that he did not really have an intellectual disability. Shriver applauded the Supreme Court's 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia, which barred the death penalty for defendants with Intellectual Disability. His article highlights some of the reasons people with Intellectual Disability should be exempt from execution: "people with intellectual disabilities have abilities but also challenges: they are less able to advocate for themselves; more likely to be coerced into behaviors they don’t understand; less likely to understand the implications of their actions and at higher risk for unreliable trials and wrongful convictions." Shriver encouraged the Court to bolster that protection by ending Texas' practices, which he said contravene established medical and clinical criteria: "It’s time for the Supreme Court to remind our nation that the Constitution and the vision of rights it embodies have no place for ill-informed and deadly stigmas."

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Former Death Penalty Capital Shows Signs of Change

Harris County, Texas, the county that leads the nation in executions, has served as a bellwether in recent years of the nationwide decline of the death penalty. Although the 10 new death sentences imposed in Harris County since 2010 are more than were imposed in 99.5% of U.S. counties, they are significantly fewer than the 53 new death sentences that were handed down in Harris in 1998-2003 and the 16 from 2004-2009. The 2016 Kinder Institute survey of Houston residents showed that just 27% prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder. Though the number of death sentences has dropped, systemic problems of prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate representation, and racial bias persist. Kelly Siegler, a prosecutor who obtained 19 death sentences, was found by a Texas court to have committed 36 instances of misconduct in a single murder case. In another case, she brought the victim's bloodstained bed into the courtroom and reenacted the murder using one of the knives from the crime scene. Harris County became nationally known in the 1990s for bad defense lawyering when a capital defense attorney slept through his client's trial. A judge told the defendant, "the Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to be awake." Today, Harris County defendants still receive ineffective counsel because of a pay system that discourages defense lawyers from seeking plea bargains or hiring expert witnesses. Every new death sentence imposed in Harris County since November 2004 (not including resentences) has been imposed upon a Black or Latino defendant. Former Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who oversaw 40 death sentences between 2001 and 2008, resigned after a civil suit uncovered racist emails he sent using his official email account. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding Buck v. Davis, a Harris County case in which a Black defendant was sentenced to death after his defense attorney introduced racially-biased testimony during sentencing. Three Harris County defendants have been exonerated from death row, most recently Alfred Brown (pictured) in 2015. Prosecutors withheld evidence that corroborated Brown's alibi, Brown's girlfriend was threatened and eventually imprisoned until she agreed to testify against him, and officials refused requests to test DNA that may implicate another suspect.