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Death Row Inmate's Mental Health Crumbles Even As Relief May Be Near

Posted: May 3, 2005

During 25 years on Texas' death row, Cesar Fierro's mental health has deteriorated to the extent that his attorney hardly recognizes him. Since being sentenced to death in 1980, his mother has died, his brother has died, his wife divorced him and his daughter stopped visiting him. Gradually, he refused to even speak with his lawyers.

"He wouldn't come out of his cell for months at a time unless he was forcibly extracted," says David Dow, a constitutional law professor at the University of Houston Law Center and director of its Texas Innocence Network. "He refused to shower and there were feces on his cell wall. It was very disturbing . . . ."

Dow said that when Fierro was sent to death row in 1980, he was a soft-spoken, slightly overweight man in his mid-20s who was highly respectful of his lawyers and the process, which he felt would set him free.

"When I saw him last year, he had long, stringy hair and a strong wind could have blown him over," says Dow. Even when told of some good news from the courts, Fierro raged and rambled incoherently, banging the phone against the glass partition of the visiting room.

Fierro's case is one among about 50 similar cases in which the International Court of Justice recently ruled that the convictions and death sentences of Mexican nationals should be given further review in U.S. courts. President Bush has ordered the courts in Texas and elsewhere to comply with the World Court's ruling, but Texas authorities have said Bush lacks the proper authority. The issue of the effect of the World Court's ruling is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.


Puerto Ricans Again Reject Federal Death Sentence

Posted: May 3, 2005

Two Puerto Rican defendants were given life sentences by the same jury that had convicted them of murder in the course of an armored truck robbery that occurred in 2002.  Puerto Rico has not used the death penalty for almost 80 years and forbids the practice in its constitution.  However, the U.S. federal death penalty applies to the Commonwealth.

Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila said that the jury acted in accordance with Puerto Rican tradition, which "loathes and is against the death penalty." Federal prosecutors said the federal death penalty should apply because the defendants, Hernando Medina Villegas and Lorenzo Catalan Roman, interefered with interstate commerce.  Puerto Rico has not had an execution since 1927. 


PUBLIC OPINION: New Jersey Citizens Favor Life Without Parole Over Death Penalty

Posted: April 29, 2005

In a dramatic shift from 1999, citizens in New Jersey now favor life without parole over the death penatly for those who commit murder. In a Rutgers University poll released on April 28, 47% of N.J. respondents preferred life without parole rather than the death penalty. In a similar poll six years ago, 44% of respondents chose the death penalty, while 37% supported life without parole. 


DNA Evidence May Lead to Exoneration in Former Capital Case

Posted: April 29, 2005

Results from DNA testing may soon lead to the exoneration of Larry Peterson in New Jersey.  He would become the first person in the state to be cleared of a homicide through DNA evidence.  Peterson was convicted of a rape and murder that occurred in 1987.  For the past 10 years, Peterson tried to have DNA evidence from his case tested.  At his original trial in which he faced the possibility of a death sentence, the prosecution maintained that hairs from the crime scene belonged to Peterson.  He was convicted and given a life sentence.  DNA testing has now shown that the hairs belonged to the victim, and that semen from the crime scene belong to another male.  Peterson's lawyers from the Innocence Project have filed a motion to have his conviction overturned.


Soldier Sentenced to Death for Iraq War Murder

Posted: April 29, 2005

A 15-member military jury sentenced Sgt. Hasan Akbar to death for killing 2 U.S. military officers in Kuwait in 2003 during the opening days of the Iraq invasion.  At his sentencing, Akbar said, "I want to apologize for the attack that occurred.  I felt that my life was in jeopardy, and I had no other options.  I also want to ask you for forgiveness."  He is the first American since the Vietnam era to be prosecuted for murdering a fellow soldier in wartime.  (N.Y. Times, April 29, 2005 (AP)).

No one has been executed under the military's death penalty since 1961.  There are 7 other soldiers facing possible execution, including two who have had their death sentences reversed on appeal.  Seven of the eight (87%) soldiers now on death row are members of racial minorities. 


Supreme Court to Consider "Lingering Doubt" Evidence in Capital Cases

Posted: April 26, 2005

Oregon v. Guzek - The U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will consider whether capital defendants have a constitutional right to present evidence that would cast doubt on their conviction during the penalty phase of their death penalty trials, a question that has divided state and lower federal courts for many years. The defendant, Randy Lee Guzek, sought to introduce alibi evidence after he was convicted during the sentencing phase of his trial. This evidence tended to show that he had not been present at the victims' home at the time of the murders.


Los Angeles Times Calls for Moratorium on California Death Penalty

Posted: April 22, 2005
A recent Los Angeles Times editorial called on California lawmakers to impose a moratorium on executions until a state commission charged with examining the fairness and accuracy of California's death penalty laws can finish its work. The paper noted that a similar review led by New York state lawmakers resulted in findings that effectively ended capital punishment in that state for this year. The editorial stated:

Many Californians, lawmakers as well as voters, share those concerns (as expressed in New York) about fairness and fallibility. They worry as well about the

NEW RESOURCE: "A Life and Death Decision" Examines Jury Deliberations

Posted: April 20, 2005

"Scott Sundby's new book, "A Life and Death Decision: A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty" is an impartial look at capital jury deliberations through the examination of data collected by the Capital Jury Project and other studies of group decision-making.  Drawing on the Capital Jury Project's interviews with more than 1,000 jurors from across the country who had taken part in death penalty cases, the book addresses crucial issues such as jury instructions, jury room setup, and voir dire procedures. While focusing on a single case,


NEW RESOURCE: "Executed on a Technicality"

Posted: April 20, 2005

Executed on a Technicality: Lethal Injustice on America's Death Row, by Professor David Dow, is a behind-the-scenes look at the death penalty through the lens of an attorney who formerly supported capital punishment. Dow, who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center and founded the Texas Innocence Network, provides case histories illustrating serious flaws in the death penalty system. He uses these cases to guide readers through a web of coerced confessions, incompetent representation, racist juries, and unfair judges,


Death Penalty Prosecutions May be Halted if Funding is Inadequate

Posted: April 20, 2005

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled that trial judges can halt prosecutions of poor defendants until the state comes up with the money to pay for an adequate defense.   Louisiana has in the past failed to adequately fund indigent defense programs. "I think it's a warning," said Phyllis Mann, appointed counsel for Benjamin Tonguis and Adrian Citizen, two death penalty defendants whose cases were reviewed by the state supreme court.  "The court is saying as plainly as they possibly can not to let people languish."  Tonguis and Citizen have been awaiting trial with limited or no funds to prepare a defense since their arrests in April and October 2002. When funding for these two cases ran out, the trial judge tried to tap into a parish-imposed tax. He ordered the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury to provide $200,000 for appointed counsel and $75,000 to be placed in escrow for other case-related expenses, but the Louisiana Supreme Court forbid such a tax because it is the state legislature's responsibility to fund indigent defense expenses.