Archive | Texas. Court of Criminal Appeals

20 November 2013 ~ Comments Off

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Dismisses Duane Buck Petition

Today, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Duane Buck’s appeal for a new, fair sentencing hearing free from racial bias. With today’s decision, Texas has once again reneged on the clear and unequivocal promise made by former Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn that Mr. Buck would not face execution based on a racially biased death sentence. Despite this promise, Mr. Buck is now at grave risk of execution in Texas.  Read the statement from his attorneys below.

Buckfinal-01The ongoing Duane Buck case is an egregious example of racial bias in the criminal justice system. In 1997, at Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing for the murders of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler in Harris County, Texas, the trial prosecutor elicited testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a future danger because he’s black. The prosecutor then relied on this testimony in arguing in favor of the death penalty, and the jury sentenced him to death.

At first, there was hope Texas would rectify this mistake. Three years after Duane Buck was sentenced to death, then-Texas Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) John Cornyn identified seven cases in which Texas relied on testimony linking race to future dangerousness, including Mr. Buck’s. Recognizing the error, Cornyn promised not to oppose new sentencing hearings for these seven defendants, and Texas upheld this promise in all of the cases — except for Duane Buck’s.

Now, given another chance to remedy the situation, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has dropped the ball again, denying Duane Buck’s appeal for a new sentencing hearing. With today’s ruling, the Harris County District Attorney’s office could seek an execution date any time, and Duane Buck’s life is at stake once more.

As might be expected, this shocking case — and its most recent development — have provoked a large outcry in Texas and across the nation, from the civil rights community, faith leaders, elected officials, former prosecutors and judges, and numerous other prominent individuals. Even one of Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutors and the surviving victim in the case have called for a new, fair sentencing hearing.

Take Action Today!

If you have not done so already, please join more than 50,000 Texans and concerned citizens nationwide and across the world in signing a petition by one of Mr. Buck’s trial prosecutors, Linda Geffen, which urges the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to agree to a new sentencing hearing and, with this latest development, to not set an execution date.

Mr. Buck’s life was spared by the U.S. Supreme Court before his September 2011 scheduled execution. Two U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed that Mr. Buck’s death sentence requires review because “our criminal justice system should not tolerate” a death sentence “marred by racial overtones.”  In today’s ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, three of the nine appeals court judges joined in a dissent, as noted in the statement from attorneys below.

For more information about Mr. Buck’s case, please go to: http://www.naacpldf.org/case-issue/duane-buck-sentenced-death-because-he-black

Watch a powerful, 10-minute video about Mr. Buck’s story, “A Broken Promise in Texas: Race, the Death Penalty and the Duane Buck Case” here: http://youtu.be/tD6WWN38ZGc

Statement from Attorneys for Duane Buck in Response to Today’s Ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

“We are gravely disappointed that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has dismissed Duane Buck’s appeal and failed to recognize that his death sentence is the unconstitutional product of racial discrimination. As noted by three members of the Court, ‘[t]he record in this case reveals a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness at the punishment stage.’  These judges recognized that this outcome ‘jeopardizes both the integrity of the underlying conviction and of this Court’s judicial processes’ and deprives Mr. Buck of ‘one full and fair opportunity to present his claims.’

“With today’s decision, Texas has once again reneged on its promise to ensure that Mr. Buck would not be executed pursuant to a death sentence that was the unfair product of a prosecutorial appeal to racial bias and stereotype. ,For this reason, more than one hundred civil rights leaders, clergy of various faiths, former judges, former prosecutors, and thousands of individuals in Texas and across the world, have joined our call for a new, fair, and colorblind sentencing for Duane Buck. We now urge the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to respect these calls and refrain from seeking an execution date for Mr. Buck. We will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the important due process and equal protection issues at stake in Mr. Buck’s case, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will intervene to right this unequivocal wrong.”

- Attorney Kate Black, Christina Swarns, Director of the Criminal Justice Practice at NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of Texas Defender Service

November 20, 2013

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24 October 2013 ~ Comments Off

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Overturns Conviction of Manuel Velez

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has overturned the conviction of Manuel Velez, who was sentenced to death in Cameron County in 2008 for the murder of one-year-old Angel Gabriel Moreno. The baby was the child of Velez’s new girlfriend, Acela Moreno, who served five years of a ten-year sentence for her role in the baby’s death.  Velez’s defense attorneys failed to present critical medical evidence of injuries that the baby had sustained in the weeks and months before his death – injuries that Velez could not have caused as he was working on a construction site in Tennessee at the time.

Last year, the court threw out his death sentence after determining that the jury heard misleading testimony from an expert witness regarding the circumstances of incarceration if Velez was sentenced to life in prison.

According to a lengthy feature article in Texas Monthly, (“Reasonable Doubt: The Manuel Velez Case,” first published on March 6, 2013), “On April 2, 2013, state district judge Elia Cornejo Lopez ordered that Manuel Velez receive a new trial. The Cameron County judge agreed with Velez’s appellate attorneys, who have argued that Velez received a woefully poor defense at his 2008 capital murder trial. … Lopez noted that the trial attorneys did not ‘adequately investigate and present evidence that Moreno had a history of abusing her children and that she admitted to striking Angel on the day in question.’”

The Brownsville Herald reports that “the court overturned Velez’s conviction because of ineffective assistance based on these facts” (“Appeals court throws out Velez’s capital murder conviction,” October 24, 2013).

The Cameron County District Attorney’s office is weighing its options in deciding how to proceed with the case.

Read more about the court’s ruling in the Brownsville Herald.

Learn the background story on this case from Texas Monthly.

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11 September 2013 ~ Comments Off

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rules that death row inmate cannot be forcibly medicated

A ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today, September 11, 2013, finds that a state district judge does not have the authority to order Texas death row inmate Steven Staley to be forcibly medicated in order to render him competent to be executed.   Staley has been on death row since 1991; he was convicted of the 1989 murder of Robert Read at a Fort Worth restaurant.

According to the Austin Chronicle (“Court Rules Judge Didn’t Have Right to Forcibly Medicate Death Row Inmate”, Sept. 11, 2013), “The ruling, by a 5-4 majority of the court, vacate’s a trial court’s order to forcibly medicate death row inmate Steven Staley, but is silent on whether the Texas Constitution would absolutely forbid the execution of someone forcibly drugged or whether Staley is too ill to be executed at all.”

Staley was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic soon after he arrived on death row.  At times over the last few years, he has been forced to take anti-psychotic drugs against his will.  Staley believes that the drugs are poisoning him.  State officials argue that this forced medication is necessary in order to render him competent to be executed.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ford v. Wainwright that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who does not understand the reason for, or the reality of, his or her punishment.  The Ford decision left the determination of insanity and competency for execution up to each state, however, and it has not prevented the execution of scores of offenders with severe and persistent mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Read more about today’s ruling in the Staley case from the Austin Chronicle.  Previous posts on his case are available here.

From Brian Stull with the ACLU:
The Texas CCA ruling in Staley v. Texas is at:

http://www.cca.courts.state.tx.us/OPINIONS/HTMLOPINIONINFO.ASP?OPINIONID=24578

Additional coverage of the ruling, courtesy of Steve Hall at StandDown Texas:

Texas Tribune:

http://www.texastribune.org/2013/09/11/court-rules-mentally-ill-inmate-incompetent-execut/

Texas Tribune/Fort Worth Star Telegram:

http://www.star-telegram.com/2013/09/11/5154220/death-row-inmate-cant-be-medicated.html?rh=1

 

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05 December 2012 ~ Comments Off

CCA Overturns Conviction of Cathy Lynn Henderson, Orders New Trial

Today the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the recommendation of Judge Jon Wisser that Cathy Lynn Henderson should receive a new trial based on evolving scientific understanding of infant head trauma.  Henderson was convicted and sentenced to death in Travis County for the 1994 murder of three-month-old Brandon Baugh.  While she was baby-sitting him, Brandon suffered from a head injury that prosecutors said was deliberately caused by Henderson but that she claimed was an accident.

According to the Austin American-Statesman (“Henderson granted new trial in baby’s 1994 death,” December 5, 2012), former medical examiner Roberto Bayardo “testified at Henderson’s trial that it was ‘impossible’ to attribute the boy’s extensive head injury to an accidental fall. Later, Bayardo said advancements in the understanding of pediatric head injuries indicate that relatively short falls onto a hard surface could produce injuries similar to those he discovered during Brandon’s 1994 autopsy.”

The Austin Chronicle reports that three judges disagreed with the appeal court’s finding (“Henderson Granted New Trial,” December 5, 2012):

Presiding Judge Sharon Keller and Judge Michael Keasler joined in Judge Barbara Hervey’s conclusion that just because science has changed and evolved – and thus, cast doubt on a conviction – that doesn’t mean that there is any “ground on which relief should be granted.”

The case now returns to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who must decide whether to retry Henderson – and more importantly, whether to again seek the death penalty.

Henderson is one of 10 women on death row in Texas.

Read more in the Austin Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman.  (Thanks to Steve Hall at StandDown Texas for providing these links.)

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07 August 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Family of author John Steinbeck “deeply troubled” by scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson

Texas is scheduled to execute Marvin Wilson later today for the 1992 murder of Jerry Robert Williams in Beaumont. Although Wilson has an I.Q. of 61, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded, Wilson faces lethal injection because the state of Texas uses unscientific guidelines to determine which defendants with intellectual disability are protected from execution. These guidelines, called “the Briseño factors,” after the decision that announced them, rely on stereotypes about mental retardation to exclude all but the most severely incapacitated from their constitutional protection against execution.

 

In formulating the “the Briseño factors,” a Texas court wrote that “most Texas citizens would agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt from execution. But does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?”

 

John Steinbeck’s son has released the following statement about the Marvin Wilson case and the Briseño decision, which cites his father’s work:

 

“On behalf of the family of John Steinbeck, I am deeply troubled by today’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61. Prior to reading about Mr. Wilson’s case, I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, i.e, Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous, and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.”

 

- Thomas Steinbeck

###

Marvin Wilson’s scheduled execution has been condemned by numerous prominent groups and organizations, including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Texas Senator Rodney Ellis, Texas Representative Lon Burnam, and others. The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News have editorialized that the execution must be stopped.

 

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06 August 2012 ~ Comments Off

Disabilities Advocate, State Legislator Join Calls to Stop the Execution of Marvin Wilson

Over the weekend, a number of media outlets featured calls to stop the execution of Marvin Wilson.  The State of Texas is scheduled to execute Wilson on Tuesday, August 7, for the 1992 murder of Jerry Robert Williams in Beaumont.  Advocates contend that his execution should be prohibited by the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision Atkins v. Virginia, which categorically barred the death penalty for persons with mental retardation (now referred to as intellectual disabilities) but left the determination of these disabilities to each state.  The Texas Legislature still has not amended the state’s death penalty statute to comply with Atkins.  Instead, Texas uses a set of unscientific guidelines, called “the Briseño factors,” which are not medically or clinically recognized diagnostic tools for identifying intellectual disability and were developed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals based on stereotypes.

An opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle from Margaret A. Nygren, the executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (“Texas should not execute intellectually disabled man,” August 3, 2012), states that:

Intellectual disability is a medical condition and should be assessed by a specialist. Unfortunately for its citizens, Texas evaluates defendants for intellectual disability using factors that are not used by medical professionals, and are based on false stereotypes that exclude all but the most severely incapacitated. Evaluating individuals using these factors, called the Briseño factors, is fundamentally incompatible with the scientific and clinical understanding of intellectual disability.

When Wilson came before the state of Texas to prove his intellectual disability and seek his constitutional protection from execution, the state did not present any evidence against him having an intellectual disability. The state did not provide any expert witnesses (or witnesses of any kind) to refute the court-appointed, board-certified expert’s diagnosis of mild mental retardation. However, because Texas unfairly uses unscientific factors to cherry-pick which people with intellectual disability will be exempt from execution, Wilson was essentially deemed “not disabled enough” to receive the constitutional protection he is entitled to because of his medical condition.

 

Nygren goes on to state that:

The Supreme Court has affirmed this constitutional protection as the law of the land, in every state, and for every individual with an intellectual disability. Texas should respect the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities and commute Wilson’s sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole.

Read the full op-ed in the Chronicle.

An editorial by the New York Times calls on the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, stating that “The court should accept Mr. Wilson’s case for review and end Texas’s illegal defiance of its explicit holding that the death penalty for the mentally retarded is unconstitutional.” (“Mentally Retarded and on Death Row,” August 4, 2012)

State Senator Rodney Ellis, from Houston, also has weighed in on this case, asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay Wilson’s execution. In a press release, he states that “Mr. Wilson’s case is a clear example of how Texas law continues to violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. … Before we administer the ultimate penalty we must utilize standards to ensure we are in compliance with the Constitution of the United States.”   Read more in coverage from the Texas Tribune (“Advocates: Don’t Execute Mentally Retarded Man,” August 3, 2012).

A good overview of the case is available from the Huffington Post (“Marvin Wilson, Texas Man With 61 IQ, To Be Executed In Days,” August 3, 2012).

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31 July 2012 ~ Comments Off

Houston Chronicle Lauds Druery Stay of Execution

A new editorial published by the Houston Chronicle (“Texas execution stay a wise move,” July 30, 2012) praises last week’s decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay the execution of Marcus Druery, noting that “The alternative, to execute a human being who may not even understand why he is being executed, would be barbaric.”

Druery was scheduled to be executed tomorrow, August 1, for the 2002 murder of Skyyler Browne, even though serious and disturbing questions surround his mental competency.   The CCA granted the stay in order to review his attorneys’ request for a full and fair competency hearing.

The editorial notes that the state does not dispute that Druery suffers from a psychotic disorder and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but still contends that he is competent to be executed and has fought against a competency hearing. Here’s an excerpt from the Chronicle:

We applaud the court’s decision, as far as it goes. We fervently hope that their review will persuade the justices to remand the case back to the Brazos County court for a competency hearing. Execution is irrevocable, and should never be invoked as long as a shred of doubt exists as to its constitutionality in any given case.

Read the full editorial.  Additional coverage of the case appears today in Salon.com “(“Marcus Druery: Another questionable Texas execution,” July 31, 2012).

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30 July 2012 ~ Comments Off

“Will Texas Execute a Psychotic Man?” More on the Marcus Druery Stay of Execution

“Will Texas execute a psychotic man?” That’s the question posed by Andrew Cohen in his latest piece in The Atlantic (July 30, 2012).  Cohen is referring, of course, to Marcus Druery, who was scheduled to be executed on Wednesday, August 1, for the 2002 murder of Skyyler Browne in Brazos County.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Druery a stay of execution late last week, pending review of the appeal of the denial of a competency hearing by Brazos County District Court Judge J.D. Langley.

The state’s own mental health professionals have repeatedly diagnosed Druery as schizophrenic and delusional – a diagnosis that prosecutors have not challenged .  Yet his competency to be executed  - whether he possesses a rational understanding of the connection between the crime for which he has been convicted and his punishment – has never been considered on its merits by any court.  Here’s an excerpt from Cohen’s article:

If the substance of the Druery appeal has to do with a single man’s mental health, the process that led us here is illustrative of the deeply flawed nature of Texas’ capital punishment system. We see in this case a judge more angry about delays than he is committed to accuracy. We see prosecutors with risible disdain toward defense counsel. And we see it all in a case in which the condemned man has been judged to be seriously mentally ill over and over again by the state’s own doctors.

Read the full article in The Atlantic, which also includes excerpts from and links to briefs filed by Druery’s defense attorneys.

Read additional coverage of the stay of execution in the following media outlets (thanks to StandDown Texas for providing these links):

Associated Press (via KTRK-TV): “Texas death row inmate has Aug. 1 execution stayed,” July 27, 2012

Houston Chronicle: “Appeals court halts execution over competency issue,” July 27, 2012

Bryan-College Station Eagle: Appeals court delays Marcus Druery execution,” July 28, 2012

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