Archive | U.S. Supreme Court

28 June 2012 ~ Comments Off

40th Anniversary of Furman v. Georgia; Death Penalty Still “Arbitrary, Capricious, and Discriminatory”

Today, June 29, 2012, marks 40 years since the United States Supreme Court overturned all existing death penalty laws, ruling in the case of Furman vs. Georgia (1972) that the death penalty system, as it was being administered, was arbitrary, capricious, and discriminatory.  At the time, Justice Potter Stewart said death sentences were as cruel and unusual as being “struck by lightning.” The Furman decision commuted the sentences of all 629 people on death row nationwide and sent states scrambling to revise their capital punishment statutes.

An America without the death penalty was short lived, however.  Just four years later, the Supreme Court totally reversed course and found that the new death penalty laws of several states (including Texas) “promised” to make the process fairer and less arbitrary.   The Court’s decision in Gregg vs. Georgia on July 2, 1976 declared the death penalty constitutional and paved the way for the resumption of executions.

In an opinion piece published this week in California Progress Report (“Time to Kill the Death Penalty?” June 28, 2012), marking the 40th anniversary of the Furman decision, Professor John J. Donohue, a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research, writes that “Four decades later, there is plenty of evidence that the death penalty continues to be applied in an unfair manner and not a shred of evidence that the death penalty deters.”  He goes on to address the implications of a recent report from the National Research Council, which concluded that studies about deterrence “should not serve as a basis for policy decisions about capital punishment.”   Read the full opinion piece.

Read more about Furman vs. Georgia.

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14 May 2012 ~ 2 Comments

Court of Criminal Appeals Grants Stay to Steven Staley

Update as of 5:00 PM on May 14:  We just learned that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution to Steven Staley.  The court did not provide a reason for the reprieve, saying only that it had determined the execution should be halted “pending further order by this court.”

Read more from the Associated Press:


Previous post:

Unless the courts intervene, on Wednesday, May 16, 2012, the State of Texas will execute Steven Staley for the 1989 murder of restaurant manager Bob Read, who was taken hostage during a robbery.  At issue is Staley’s competency to be executed, given his long-standing diagnosis of severe mental illness.

Staley was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic after he arrived on death row in 1991.  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.

In Texas, the state legislature did not establish a statute governing the process to determine competency to be executed until 1999, and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which considers cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, has never found a death row inmate incompetent for execution.  Texas’ statute does not address the issue of forced medication, however, and some state and federal courts have allowed it.  According to Staley’s attorney, John Stickels, the U.S. Supreme Court has not addressed the question of involuntary medication for the purposes of execution.

Read coverage of the case from the Associated Press (as printed in the Houston Chronicle) and commentary from Slate.

Read an earlier blog post on Steven Staley, which includes links to more information about the death penalty and severe mental illness.

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02 May 2012 ~ Comments Off

Anthony Bartee Receives Stay of Execution; May be Temporary

From the San Antonio Express-News, as of 5:14 PM:

UPDATE: A San Antonio man may not be facing death by lethal injection today following an order from Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery to grant a stay of execution for Anthony Bartee in relation to a civil rights suit filed by Bartee’s attorney against the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office.


The suit is part of a flurry of appeals Houston-based attorney David Dow filed today on behalf of his client requesting additional DNA testing. In the past few hours the U.S. Supreme Court denied the request for a stay and the appeal.


The civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court — that has since been appealed by the District Attorney’s office — is the only pending matter keeping the 6 p.m. execution from occurring.


And while Biery issued an order staying the execution that states attorneys on both sides must file and confer by May 15, the court will now have to address the response of the suit by the DA’s Office. The execution itself has not yet been officially called off in Huntsville.

Read more:

From the Associated Press and published today at 4:41 PM in the Houston Chronicle:

A federal judge in San Antonio has at least temporarily stopped the execution of a rapist who was on parole when prosecutors say he killed a neighbor and stole the man’s motorcycle.


U.S. District Judge Fred Biery granted a reprieve Wednesday afternoon to 55-year-old Anthony Bartee after his lawyers filed a civil rights lawsuit against Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed. Bartee was scheduled for lethal injection later in the day.


His lawyers want additional items from the crime scene to undergo DNA testing.


The prosecutor’s office immediately appealed the court order to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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27 April 2012 ~ 2 Comments

State of Texas Executes Beunka Adams

Last night, April 26, 2012, the State of Texas carried out its fifth execution of the  year.  Beunka Adams was executed for the murder of Kenneth Vandever, 37, outside Rusk in 2002.

Both Adams and his co-defendant Richard Cobb were sentenced to death for the crime.  Vandever and two women were abducted from a convenience store. Vandever was fatally shot. The women also were shot, and one of them was raped.  Both survived and one of the victims identified Adams.  According to the AP, “Adams was tried for capital murder under the Texas law of parties, which makes an accomplice equally culpable as the actual killer. A fellow inmate in the Cherokee County Jail testified Adams bragged to him that he did the shootings,” but evidence from Cobb showed Cobb was the gunman.  Cobb does not have an execution date.

Adams received a stay of execution from a federal judge earlier in the week but it was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Criminal Appeals after the Texas Attorney General’s office appealed the ruling.  His attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Adams received ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial and in the early stages of his appeal, but the Court refused to intervene.

Read more in the Huffington Post.

Another Texas execution is scheduled to take place next week on May 2, 2012.  Take action now to urge the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Perry to grant a reprieve to Anthony Bartee so that all of the DNA evidence can be tested and Bartee’s attorneys can pursue relief through available legal avenues.

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27 January 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Texas Carries Out First Execution in 2012; Newbury, Member of “Texas Seven,” Receives Stay

Last night, January 26, the State of Texas carried out its first execution of 2012. Rodrigo Hernandez, 38, originally on parole in Michigan, had his DNA linked to the crime for which he was sentenced to death in 2002. The victim, Susan Verstegan, was sexually assaulted and strangled in 1994 in San Antonio.  It was the second execution in the nation, following the January 5 execution of Gary Welch in Oklahoma. Read more.

The night prior to Hernandez’s execution, another death row inmate, Donald Newbury, was granted a stay by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Newbury had been scheduled to be executed on February 1.  The reason for the stay is related to death row inmates’ initial appeals and the lack of legal assistance that was provided to Newbury. This comes at a time when a similar case is before the Supreme Court from Arizona. Newbury’s current lawyers argued that their client should be granted a stay until a decision is made on the Arizona case. Read more.

Newbury was convicted of killing a police officer, Aubrey Hawkins, from Irving in 2000 when he escaped along with 6 other prisoners.


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15 December 2011 ~ 1 Comment

TCADP 2011 Annual Report: Texas Carries Out Fewest Executions Since 1996

Thursday, December 15, 2011

CONTACT: Kristin Houlé, Executive Director
512-441-1808 (office); 512-552-5948 (cell)

Spanish Translation

State of Texas Carries Out Fewest Executions Since 1996,
According to New Report from TCADP
New Death Sentences Remain at Record-Low Level, Imposed by Just Six Counties in the State

(Austin, Texas) — Executions dropped to the lowest number since 1996 and death sentences in Texas remained at a historic low level in 2011, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s (TCADP) new report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2011: The Year in Review. TCADP is an Austin-based statewide, grassroots advocacy organization.

In 2011, the State of Texas carried out 13 executions, which is 50% less than in 2007.  It accounted for 30% of the national total, once again a smaller percentage than years past but still twice as many as any other state.  Texas has executed a total of 477 people since 1982; 238 executions have occurred during the administration of Texas Governor Rick Perry, more than any other governor in U.S. history.

For the second year in a row, juries condemned eight new individuals to death in Texas. This remains the lowest number of new death sentences since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Texas’ revised death penalty statute in 1976.  Once again, just six counties in the state of Texas accounted for the new death row inmates: Fort Bend (1); Galveston (1); Harris (3); Harrison (1); Tarrant (1); and Travis (1).  This represents 2% of all Texas counties.

“Texas – along with the rest of the nation – is steadily moving away from the death penalty,” said Kristin Houlé, Executive Director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  “Use of the death penalty has been relegated to just a few jurisdictions in the state as prosecutors and jurors accept alternatives that protect society and punish those who are truly guilty.  Still, longstanding concerns about the arbitrary and biased administration of the death penalty remain.”

An analysis of data from 2007 to 2011 reveals that only 23 Texas counties have imposed death sentences over the last 5 years; of these, only 10 counties have done so in the last 2 years.  Out of a total 51 death sentences imposed in this time period, Harris County leads with 9; it is followed by Dallas County, with 7 new sentences since 2007, and Tarrant and Travis Counties, with 4 new sentences each.  The other 19 counties imposed 1-3 sentences each.  Together, these 23 counties represent just 9% of the 254 counties in Texas.

Significantly, no new death sentences were imposed in Dallas County for the first time in five years.  Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Charles Payne, but the jury rejected the charge of capital murder and instead found him guilty of murder in the shooting of police officer Senior Cpl. Norm Smith.  This represented the first time since 1996 that prosecutors in Dallas County did not secure a capital murder conviction in a case in which they sought the death penalty. In another Dallas case, prosecutors dropped their pursuit of the death penalty and agreed to a life sentence for Johnathan Bruce Reed after he was found guilty for a third time in the 1978 murder of Wanda Jean Wadle. Overall, Dallas County accounts for 102 death sentences since 1976.

Bexar County, which has sentenced the third highest number of people to death in Texas, has not imposed any new death sentences since 2009.

Notably, six out of the eight new death sentences were imposed on people of color, including four African Americans and two Hispanics/Latinos.  Over the last five years, nearly three-fourths of all death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color – 41% African American, 29% Hispanic/Latino, and 2% other.  In Harris County, where these patterns are even more pronounced, 12 of the last 13 defendants sentenced to death are African American and the 13th is Hispanic/Latino.

Five inmates scheduled for execution in 2011 received stays, while the execution date for another inmate was withdrawn.

  • On September 15, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed the execution of Duane Buck, pending a conference on his cert petition. During his trial, psychologist Walter Quijano, a witness for the defense, testified on cross-examination that the fact that Buck is African American increased the likelihood of his being dangerous in the future.  Such improperly elicited, racially-based testimony by Dr. Quijano led to new sentencing hearings in six other cases where the State of Texas conceded error – but not for Duane Buck.  On November 7, 2011, the Court declined to review Buck’s case.
  • On November 7, 2011, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay to Henry “Hank” Skinner, who was scheduled for execution on November 9.  Key pieces of evidence collected at the crime scene have never been subjected to DNA testing, and for the last 10 years officials have refused to release it for analysis.  The court stayed the execution to consider Skinner’s case in light of recent legislative changes to the statute related to post-conviction DNA testing. This was the second stay of execution for Skinner in two years.

Other highlights of Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2011: The Year in Review include the following:

  • In one capital murder trial, the jury rejected the death penalty and opted for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.  In two other cases, death-qualified jurors convicted the defendant on a charge less than capital murder, which took the death penalty off the table.  In the last four years, death-qualified juries have rejected the death penalty in at least 14 cases.
  • Six inmates received reduced sentences in 2011 and were removed from the death row population, including Chelsea Richardson, one of ten women on death row.
  • The State of Texas executed Humberto Leal on July 7, 2011 for the 1994 rape and murder of Adria Sauceda in San Antonio.  As a Mexican national, Leal was legally entitled to seek assistance from the Mexican consulate, which could have provided him with competent legal counsel.  Texas authorities failed to inform him of this right, which is afforded to Americans and foreigners who travel abroad by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
  • In July, the capital murder trial of John Edward Green, which was in its sixth week of jury selection, ended abruptly when Harris County prosecutors accepted an offer from the defense.  In the deal, Green pled guilty to a lesser murder charge in exchange for a 40-year prison term; he had faced a possible death sentence if convicted.  A pre-trial motion in his case prompted two days of unprecedented testimony on the risk of wrongful conviction last December.

“Recent developments have infused the public conversation about the death penalty with new energy and new urgency,” said Houlé.  “Now, more than ever, we urge concerned citizens and elected officials to engage in dialogue about the realities of the death penalty system and reconsider this irreversible punishment by focusing on its local impact as an expensive, arbitrary, and error-prone public policy.”

Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2011: The Year in Review is available online at  Contact Kristin Houlé at to receive a copy directly via email.

See for a map of new death sentences by county from 2007 to 2011.

See for a map of death sentences by county from 1976 to 2011.

Download this press release:

In Spanish.



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15 November 2011 ~ 2 Comments

Black Defendants Received 12 of Last 13 Death Sentences in Harris County

According to an investigation by the Houston Chronicle, 12 of the last 13 defendants sentenced to death in Harris County have been African American.  The 13th death sentence was handed down last month (October 2011) to Jaime Cole, who is Hispanic.

In her article “Harris death penalties show racial pattern” (November 14, 2011), reporter Lise Olsen  makes these important observations:

  • Eight of 12 African-Americans were sentenced to death during the tenure of Chuck Rosenthal, who resigned as district attorney in 2008 over sexually-charged and racially-tinged emails.
  • Under [current Harris County District Attorney Pat] Lykos, four more African-Americans and one Hispanic also were sentenced to die.
  • More than a third of the state’s current 305 death row inmates came from Harris County. So did half of the 121 black inmates on death row, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data.
  • Blacks account for about half of recent murder arrests in Harris County. But they more often get charged with capital murder than whites or Hispanics, an analysis of more than 300 recent court cases by the Chronicle shows.

The article also notes that “The role of race in capital punishment has emerged repeatedly this year in the unsuccessful appeals by Duane Buck, an African-American from Houston convicted in a double murder.  His 1997 sentencing featured testimony from a former prison psychiatrist who claimed blacks are more dangerous than whites.”  Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Buck’s petition for relief.

This data from the Chronicle reflects statewide racial patterns in sentencing.  According to TCADP’s 2010 annual report, over the last four years, nearly three-fourths of all death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color – 40% African American, 30% Hispanic/Latino, and 2% other.

Read the full article in the Houston Chronicle.

Also read a blog post regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to turn down the petition of Duane Buck by New York Times Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal.

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07 November 2011 ~ 1 Comment

Prominent Leaders Call on Harris County D.A. to Remedy Duane Buck Case

More than 60 prominent civil rights leaders, faith leaders, elected officials, and former presidents of the American Bar Association are calling upon Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos to provide remedy in the case of Duane Buck, who was scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas on September 15, 2011.   Read the press release below; read their letter to D.A. Lykos here.

Buck was sentenced to death for the 1995 murders of his ex-girlfriend, Debra Gardner, and Kenneth Butler.  During his trial, psychologist Walter Quijano, a witness for the defense, testified on cross-examination that the fact that Buck was African-American increased the likelihood of his being dangerous in the future.  This improperly elicited, racially-based testimony by Dr. Quijano led to new sentencing hearings in six other cases where the State of Texas conceded error – but not for Duane Buck.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted a last-minute stay of execution to Buck on September 15, but today it denied his petition for writ of certiorari. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, dissented.  Read their dissenting opinion.

Read coverage of the case in the Atlantic
(“In the End, Supreme Court Says No to Duane Buck,” November 7, 2011).

For Immediate Release
November 7, 2011
Contact: Laura Burstein, or 202-626-6868

More than 60 Civil Rights and Faith Leaders, Elected Officials, Former Prosecutors, and Past ABA Presidents Call On Harris County D.A. to Provide Remedy in Case of Duane Buck

Death Penalty Case Tainted by Racial Bias Now in Hands of Texas State Officials, following Denial by U.S. Supreme Court

(Harris County, Texas; November 7, 2011) Prominent individuals from Texas and across the country are calling on Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos to remedy the sentence in a death penalty case involving the government’s reliance on the defendant’s race at sentencing. Duane Buck was scheduled to be executed on September 15, 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened. Today, the Court denied Mr. Buck’s petition for writ of certiorari.


At Mr. Buck’s capital murder trial in 1997, the State relied upon evidence that African-Americans are more likely to be dangerous as a basis for asking his jury to sentence him to death. District Attorney Lykos now has the discretion to remedy this error.


Prominent Texans calling for District Attorney Lykos to provide a remedy include seven members of the Texas Legislature; former Texas Governor Mark White; former Bexar County District Attorney Sam Millsap and Harris County Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin (who served as a prosecutor in Mr. Buck’s case); seven Past Presidents of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and current President Earl Musick; President of the Texas NAACP Gary Bledsoe; Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese; Pastor James Nash of Houston Ministers Against Crime; and Southwest Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League Martin B. Cominsky.


In a letter delivered to District Attorney Lykos on September 28, 2011, the signatories wrote: “We write to you today, as elected officials, civil rights leaders, faith leaders, legal professionals, past ABA presidents, a former governor, and concerned citizens dedicated to protecting the integrity of the criminal justice system, to request that you refrain from seeking an execution date in Duane Buck’s case until the parties and courts have been given adequate opportunity and time to address the troubling issues in Mr. Buck’s case. We believe that no one should be executed whose death sentence was based on racially-biased evidence.”


Other distinguished signatories include John Payton, Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.; Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Deborah Lauter, National Civil Rights Director of the Anti-Defamation League; and past American Bar Association Presidents Philip Anderson, William Ide, Carolyn Lamm, and Roberta Ramo.


On May 5, 1997, Mr. Buck was convicted of capital murder in Harris County for the July 1995 shooting deaths of Debra Gardner and Kenneth Butler. A third person, Phyllis Taylor, was shot but survived her wound. Ms. Taylor is also a signatory to the attached letter. She has forgiven Mr. Buck and does not wish to see him executed.


During Mr. Buck’s trial, the prosecutor relied on evidence from psychologist Walter Quijano that being an African-American increased the likelihood one would be dangerous in the future. In its closing argument, the government vouched for the credibility of Dr. Quijano’s opinion and urged the jury to rely on it to find that Mr. Buck would be dangerous. The jury found him to be a future danger and he was sentenced to death.  As Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent from the denial of certiorari, “the prosecution invited the jury to consider race as a factor in sentencing.”


On June 9, 2000, while Mr. Buck’s case was pending on appeal, then-Attorney General of Texas John Cornyn issued a press release acknowledging error in the cases of six individuals whose death sentences had been unconstitutionally based on the government’s reliance on race as a factor in sentencing. The Attorney General identified Mr. Buck’s case as one of those six cases. He further stated that Texas would not contest federal appeals in those cases, and stated that if the attorneys for the identified defendants raised claims challenging the government’s reliance on race at sentencing, the Attorney General would waive all procedural defenses available to it.


Despite this concession, Mr. Buck is the only defendant of the six identified by Mr. Cornyn who has not been granted a new sentencing trial free from the government’s reliance on his race as a basis for requesting a death sentence.


“The use of race in sentencing poisons the legal process and breeds cynicism in the judiciary,” the letter to District Attorney Lykos reads. “Refraining from setting an execution date for Mr. Buck until the courts have a meaningful opportunity to address the fundamental injustice in his case will help restore public confidence in the criminal justice system.”



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