death penalty news—–TEXAS

March 31


7 Mexican-born Texas death row inmates lose at Supreme Court

7 Mexican-born inmates on Texas' death row lost their bids for appeal
Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court, following the court's ruling last
week that another Mexican-born inmate's case couldn't be reopened despite
an order from President Bush.

Justices last week voted 6-3 against hearing the case of Jose Medellin,
convicted of the rape-slayings of 2 Houston teenagers 15 years ago, saying
Bush overstepped his authority by trying to order Texas to reopen
Medellin's case. That decision removed a legal hurdle blocking Medellin's

An international court ruled in 2004 that the convictions of Medellin and
50 other Mexicans on death row around the United States violated the 1963
Vienna Convention, which provides that people arrested abroad should have
access to their home country's consular officials.

The International Court of Justice, also known as the world court, said
the Mexican prisoners should have new court hearings to determine whether
the violation affected their cases.

But the Supreme Court said Texas could ignore the international court's
ruling in favor of granting new hearings.

The 7 inmates whose cases were denied review Monday are among 14 native
Mexicans on death row in Texas. Inmates whose cases were rejected include
Cesar Fierro, one of the longest-serving condemned prisoners in the state.
Fierro, 51, was convicted of the 1979 robbery-slaying of an El Paso taxi
driver. He's been on death row more than 28 years.

Other condemned prisoners to lose Monday:

-Ruben Cardenas, 37, convicted of the rape-slaying of a 16-year-old girl
abducted from Edinburg in 1997.

-Felix Rocha, 31, convicted of the slaying and robbery of a security guard
outside a Houston club in 1994.

-Virgilio Maldonado, 42, condemned for a 1995 robbery and slaying at a
Houston apartment complex.

-Robert Ramos, 53, convicted of the 1992 slayings of his wife and 2
children at their home in Progreso in Hidalgo County.

-Humberto Leal Garcia, 35, condemned for the abduction, rape and fatal
bludgeoning of a 16-year-old San Antonio girl in 1994.

-Ignacio Gomez, 38, convicted of the fatal shooting of 3 people in El Paso
in 1996.

Mexico, which has no death penalty, sued the United States in the world
court in 2003. Mexico and other opponents of capital punishment have
sought to use the world court to fight for foreigners facing execution in
the U.S.

In another Texas death row case Monday, the Supreme Court refused to
review the conviction of an inmate condemned for strangling a 65-year-old
Fort Worth man with 2 wire coat hangers and then leading police on a
4-hour chase in a stolen 18-wheeler.

Elkie Lee Taylor, 47, has been contending in appeals he shouldn't have
been condemned because he is mentally retarded and ineligible for the
death penalty under a Supreme Court ruling.

Taylor was convicted of capital murder for the 1993 robbery and murder of
Otis Flake at his Fort Worth home. Authorities said it was the 2nd killing
linked to Taylor over an 11-day period.

Like the Mexican-born inmates rejected by the court Monday, Taylor does
not have an execution date. All executions are on hold until the Supreme
Court decides a Kentucky case that challenges the constitutionality of
lethal injection, the method used for capital punishment in Texas and most
other states with the death penalty. A decision in the case is expected by
early summer.

(source: Associated Press)


The cost of justice—-Counties join public defender office

Regionalism has its advantages, such as cost-sharing on the most expensive
criminal cases – such as those involving capital murder charges.

Potter and Randall counties, therefore, have joined with nearly 2 dozen
other West Texas counties in an effort to reduce the cost of trying
defendants charged with the most serious criminal offense the state

Both counties have been feeling the capital murder pinch for some time
now, as they have seen the cost of providing defense counsel for indigent
defendants rise.

The West Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases office is funded
by a $3 million grant from the Texas Taskforce for Indigent Defense.

That money will come back to the participating counties in the form of
payment for legal services delivered to defend those charged with capital

As Randall County Criminal District Attorney James Farren noted, "Finances
play a role in whether or not we seek the death penalty."

Grant money administered by an umbrella agency would make it easier for
the county to seek the death penalty.

Jack Stoffregen, chief defender for the office, said the agency plans to
open a Potter-Randall area office by July 1.

Although counties and other local jurisdictions guard their autonomy
jealously, as they should, they also should realize the cost benefits of
tag-teaming public services when the need arises.

The escalating costs of defending individuals charged with capital murder
represents such a need.

Potter and Randall counties have answered the call and, if officials here
are correct, taxpayers should see a reduction in the expense related to
putting people on trial for capital crimes.

(source: editorial, Amarillo Globe-News)


Convicted Cop Killer To Appeal Death Penalty

A man convicted of killing a police officer heads back to court on Monday.

Manuel Garza has received the death penalty, but wants a new trial.

Garza killed Officer John Rocky Riojas in February 2001 following a chase
and struggle on the northwest side. Garza used the officer's gun.

Evidence led police to Garza, but they say he didn't give up without a
fight. One officer spoke about Garza's arrest during his trial.

"After I tackled him to the ground, I jumped," said Patrick Saenz of SAPD.
"We're both on the ground. He began swinging punches at me, trying to kick
me, attempted to get away I'm sure."

Garza and his attorney plan to make an appeal for a new trial today. We'll
let you know what happens.

(source: WOAI News)


Peckerwood Hill: An artifact of the death penalty

A shroud of low, ashen mist swathes Peckerwood Hill on a corpse-cold day
in Texas.

No matter. The Rev. Carroll Pickett knows the spot he seeks. The ground is
spongy with night rain, sunken in some places where cheap pine-box coffins
have rotted and collapsed, so he walks respectfully among the dead. A
plastic grocery sack flutters in the highest branches of a yellow pine, a
ghost guard keeping watch over almost 3,000 dead, indigent criminals Texas
has buried here for the last 160 years.

The history of the American death penalty is written across the handmade
concrete headstones on Peckerwood Hill, Texas' biggest and oldest prison
cemetery. It is as much an artifact of capital punishment as "Old Sparky,"
the Texas electric chair, now a museum piece.

More condemned men – 180 – are buried here than 29 other states have
executed in their entire history. Most share the ignominy of a nameless
tombstone marked only with their inmate number, a death date and a simple
"X" … executed.

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court likely will deliver its latest opinion
about the constitutionality of lethal injection – an execution method
first used in Texas in 1982. The justices' ruling could affirm or adjust
America's preferred death mechanism, or shake the institution of capital
punishment to its core for the second time in the last 40 years.

The dead on Peckerwood Hill are past caring. This place smells and feels
different from other graveyards. It's dark and sour, as if bad men decay
into bad earth. Not all were executed, but all were criminals doing time.
The memories here aren't happy, and few mourners leave flowers, much less
celebrate wasted lives.

And Peckerwood Hill is little more than a 22-acre potter's field, since
these dead prisoners had neither money nor family willing to claim their

Pickett stops. As Texas' death house chaplain between 1982 and 1997, he
escorted 95 men the last eight paces to their executions. The mildewed
cross at his muddy feet is stamped, simply and coldly, "3-14-84 X 670."

Pickett stood on this spot 24 years ago and conducted a secret funeral for
Inmate #670 – J.D. Autry, a 29-year-old kid who shot a Port Arthur
convenience store clerk in 1980 for a 6-pack of beer. Autry's was only the
2nd execution he'd attended.

"They called him Cowboy and he was my friend," the white-haired,
78-year-old Pickett said, kneeling to brush dry leaves from a small plaque
someone later placed at Autry's grave. "His time came and he was strapped
in a little after 11. We were in that room together, just me and him,
nobody else, for almost an hour. Then he got a stay just before midnight.
He spent all that time strapped down, waiting to die. Then he didn't."

Back on death row, the resurrected Autry became a hero of mythic
proportion. He'd gone where nobody else had ever gone, into the death
chamber, and lived to tell about it. Five months later, he walked the last
mile with Pickett for a second time and didn't come back.

After Autry, Pickett buried 20 more executed men on Peckerwood Hill (which
the now-retired Presbyterian minister prefers to call by its proper name,
Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery, for the assistant warden who personally cleaned
up the overgrown boneyard and located hundreds of unmarked graves in the
1960s. But "Peckerwood Hill" – a reference to poor Southern trash – is
what prisoners have called it for the last 100 years.)

"To walk out here is to know these people had two or three deaths,"
Pickett said. "Going to prison is like dying, but when their bodies
finally die, they're here all alone."

Pickett remembers all of them. He can tell you something about each one.
He carries a Bible and a log of their deaths. He can tell you what they
ate, their last words and how they faced death at the end. As he walks
down the line of gray stones, he pauses before the intermittent ones
marked with the telltale "X."

"Here's Jay Kelly Pinkerton," Pickett said. "I think he was about 17 when
he raped and stabbed a 70-year-old nun. In those moments before he died
(on May 15, 1986), I asked him why. He told me, 'I just wanted to know
what it was like.'"

A burial ground by accident

Peckerwood Hill was an unused patch of private land when the new Texas
prison in Huntsville mistakenly began using it as a burial ground in 1853.
A couple of years later, the landowners deeded it to the State of Texas,
reckoning a boneyard for scoundrels wasn't much use for anything else.

No burial records were ever kept, but photos of Peckerwood Hill in 1899
show many graves, all marked with wooden crosses, according to Jim
Willett, the former prison warden who now runs the Texas Prison Museum in
Huntsville. When it comes to death and prison, Willet is an indisputable
expert: In three years as warden between 1998 and 2001, he witnessed 89
executions, more than any warden in American history.

Over its first hundred years, Peckerwood Hill was little more than an
untended trash heap, spiritually and physically. Nobody cared much. Weeds
and brush engulfed it, hiding graves while time and the elements rotted
their wooden crosses. When Capt. Joe Byrd organized the massive cleanup in
the 1960s, he located 922 graves, although nobody knows exactly who's in
312 of them. Many more were lost forever.

"It's hard to believe they kept no records of who was buried here until
1974," Willett said recently. "They were burying people here for 120 years
before anybody thought to write it down. I think there are about 260
people that we don't even know who they are."

Peckerwood Hill's most famous "resident" busted out long ago. Kiowa chief
Satanta, who was imprisoned in 1874 for leading insurgent raids on Texas
settlers and inspired the character Blue Duck in Larry McMurtry's
"Lonesome Dove," committed suicide by leaping from a prison window and was
buried on Peckerwood Hill in 1878. In 1963, his grandson claimed his bones
and reburied them in Fort Sill, Okla. A monument to Satanta remains.

Until 1923, executions were carried out by county sheriffs in Texas,
usually by hanging. Then the State of Texas assumed the morbid duty and
the electric chair became the official death mechanism.

Texas executed its 1st inmate by electrocution on Feb. 8, 1924 – followed
quickly by 4 more within a few hours. Today, 3 of those 5 men are buried
side-by-side on Peckerwood Hill, and Texas has executed a total of 911
inmates since 1923. Some 405 of those were executed by lethal injection
before the U.S. Supreme Court decided to reconsider its constitutionality
last month.

Now as then, a grave is hand-dug by inmates, sometimes before there's a
dead man to fill it. Funerals always begin at 8:30 a.m., and there might
be 2 or 3 in short order. The dead convict is buried in his release
clothes, a work shirt and khaki pants. He is transported by a proper
hearse, not a state pickup. 4 inmates act as pallbearers, then bury the
casket after the death house chaplain said a few words. Sometimes mourners
come, sometimes they don't.

Another chapter of death-penalty history can be seen only by reading
between the barely tidy lines of headstones. In 1964, Texas executions
stopped while America wrestled with the humanity of death penalty, and
they weren't resumed for almost 20 years. So visitors will find no X'd
markers from the 1960s and '70s.

At midnight on Dec. 7, 1982, killer Charlie Brooks became the first
American to die by lethal injection. That night, America got a new kind of

And that night, the Rev. Carroll Pickett said an earnest prayer and helped
Brooks die a good death.

One man's long history

Pickett has buried hundreds of men here. Not just a handful of executed
killers, but small-time hoods with bad hearts, gangsters with AIDS,
bed-sheet and razor-blade suicides, victims of shanks, cancer and old age.

Pickett looks down at the ground, or perhaps the flawed souls concealed
there. The heavy air is colder now.

"Yes, I suppose they were bad," he said, "or at least did bad things. But
I knew a man who stuffed a sausage down his son's throat and killed him.
Later, he was active in the church and very generous. He changed. Some of
them … well, sometimes I've thought we might have been friends in a
different situation at another time."

Pickett pauses at another grave. Here lies Donald Franklin, who viciously
raped and murdered a San Antonio nurse. Before he was executed 13 years
later, he told Pickett he reckoned he'd be reincarnated as a tree in
Tyler, Texas. Then he died.

And a little further is the only condemned man who never talked to Pickett
about his crimes, even at the end. In 1976, James Demouchette and his
brother executed two Houston Pizza Hut workers so they could steal a bag
of change and a stereo. Almost 16 years later, he had nothing to say in
his last day on earth, no final words – except that he didn't want squash
or okra with his final meal.

But some tell everything, secrets that they won't take to their grave.
Other murders, rapes or inhumanities. Pickett carries those secrets with
him now because a clergyman he cannot betray their confidence, even though
the weight of knowing he might be able to salve a family's anguish is
sometimes to heavy to bear.

His last stop before dark is Clifton Russell, one of two inmates executed
on the same night in 1995. Pickett watched both of them die. Russell was
first, simply because his inmate number was lower. The stultifying burden
of ushering a man to his death, times 2.

"I don't know if I can ever get over that," Pickett said, pulling his
collar up against the wet wind.

A distant whistle blows at The Walls, the unit housing Texas' death
chamber, named for its fortress-like parapets. A dog howls in response
from the trailer park on the cemetery's southern edge.

"As I walk through these acres and acres of thousands and thousands of
convicts, I am bothered emotionally, spiritually and morally," Pickett
said on the way back to his car. "Many times, I have struggled with my
feelings about this place."

That's not all Pickett has struggled with. The death house chaplain who
escorted 95 men to whatever lay beyond for them, who walked the last 8
paces with them and who listened to whatever they wanted to say before
their last midnight, is now an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.
His 2002 book, "Within These Walls," sketches his extraordinary path from
a South Texas kid who believed in an eye for an eye to a gentle pastor who
witnessed the reality of it, and came to abhor it.

But Peckerwood Hill is an eternity from Austin and Washington. There are
no politics in a graveyard. The criminal dead here don't care anymore,
even if their X'd headstones reflect America's conflict – or lack of it –
about capital punishment over the last 100 years or so. And most of those
who care, well, they don't end up on Peckerwood Hill.

"We all die somehow," Pickett said as he leaves. "A lot of these men were
relieved to finally be done with it. If they believed in an afterlife, had
any faith at all, this was freedom."

(source: The Beaumont Enterprise)