Collin County murderer not executed after day of legal wrangling
After hours of legal wrangling between attorneys and judges, including
protests from leading legal ethicists over an alleged relationship between
a judge and prosecutor in the trial of Charles Dean Hood, Tuesday passed
without the Collin County murderer's execution.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately green-lighted the execution
by ordering a local judge to reinstate a death warrant that had been
withdrawn by another judge. The death warrant was reinstated, but the
execution was called off shortly before midnight when prison officials
said they didn't have time to ensure it was conducted properly before the
midnight deadline for the death warrant was to expire.
The bizarre tug-of-war between the lower court and the state's highest
criminal court over whether Mr. Hood got a fair trial is likely to roil
death penalty advocates and opponents who keep a close eye on the nation's
busiest death penalty state.
Mr. Hood came within 90 minutes of his scheduled 6 p.m. execution which
was delayed after a judge vacated his death warrant. But he could hardly
draw a ragged breath of relief before prosecutors filed an appeal to have
his sentence for a Plano double-slaying carried out.
The merits of the issue were then lost in a maze of technicalities as
judges and attorneys debated whether Mr. Hood's death warrant could be
vacated and reinstated.
On Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected a stay to consider
the issue of the alleged improper relationship, saying the allegation was
unproved and not new.
Sequence of events
About 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, without explaining his reasoning, a district
judge in Collin County ordered the death warrant vacated and immediately
recused himself from the case.
The prosecution then repeatedly appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The appeals court initially ruled that the district judge had no authority
to act, but since he had recused himself, the appeals court also said it
could not order him to reinstate the death warrant.
After more appeals from prosecutors, about 9:15 p.m. the Court of Criminal
Appeals ordered Judge John Ovard, the regional presiding judge, to
reinstate the death warrant. He did so shortly before 11 p.m.
The legal maneuvering dumbfounded defense attorneys.
"We've never been in this position before," said Andrea Keilen, executive
director of the Texas Defender Service, which is representing Mr. Hood.
"I've never seen anything like this."
"All of this is quibbling over technical issues in the case when what we
should be talking about is the trial judge and the trial prosecutor
engaged in an affair during a capital murder case," she said.
John Rolater, the assistant district attorney now handling the Hood case,
declined to comment.
Mr. Hood has been on death row since 1990 for the robbery and murders of
Ronald Williamson and his girlfriend, Tracie Lynn Wallace, in Plano the
When told Tuesday afternoon that his execution date had been withdrawn,
Mr. Hood, 38, cried, according to prison spokeswoman Michelle Lyons.
"I just thank God," he said. "I just walk by my faith. If it didn't
happen, I was going home to the Lord."
Relatives of the victims at the death chamber waiting to witness the
execution could not be reached for comment.
Rumors about the alleged intimate relationship between Judge Sue Holland
and then-District Attorney Tom O'Connell have circulated for years. They
have repeatedly declined to comment.
In a letter to The Dallas Morning News in 2000, Mr. Hood wrote, "During my
trial, the setting [sic] judge and district attorney were having a sexual
relationship, a huge ("conflict of interest")."
The allegations were publicized in 2005 in an article on Salon.com but had
not been raised at trial or during Mr. Hood's other appeals because
attorneys had no proof, only rumors.
But in early June, former Assistant District Attorney Matthew Goeller
swore in an affidavit saying the relationship was "common knowledge,"
lasting from 1987 until 1993.
Mr. Hood's attorneys felt that affidavit from a former prosecutor who
worked in the office during the time of the trial offered sufficient
reason to introduce the alleged relationship as a reason to reverse the
conviction and sentence.
"The absence of an impartial judge is a structural defect," they wrote.
But to the dismay of Mr. Hood's lawyers, and several leading legal
ethicists, the Court of Criminal Appeals declined to address the issue,
saying the information was not new.
The former assistant district attorney who filed the affidavit "does not
allege that he has any personal knowledge of such a relationship," Judge
Tom Price wrote in a concurring opinion denying the appeal and the stay of
Defense attorneys then turned to Judge Curt Henderson in the Collin County
district court, and he granted the execution date withdrawal.
Judge Henderson, who was an assistant district attorney in Collin County
from 1979 until 1986, then immediately recused himself. He asked the
presiding judge of the court's administrative region to appoint a new
Collin County prosecutors responded with the Tuesday evening appeal to the
Court of Criminal Appeals that argued that the trial court had no
authority to modify the execution date, saying Mr. Hood was engaging in
"gamesmanship" and a "fishing expedition" to find more evidence after the
Court of Criminal Appeals had already ruled.
Earlier in the day, Larry Fox, former chairman of the American Bar
Association Ethics Committee, worried about the impact of Mr. Hood's
possible execution. Mr. Fox was one of several other legal experts calling
for review of the case.
"I was thinking the headlines tomorrow for us around the world would be a
black mark on our system of justice," he said.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Austin judge finds inmate sane enough for execution—-More appeals are
likely in the landmark case
For 15 years, Scott Panetti has been Example No. 1 of the problems that
result when mental illness crosses paths with the criminal justice system.
They were evident at his capital murder trial, when he represented himself
and dressed up in a purple cowboy suit, making a bad joke of sober
proceedings when he subpoenaed JFK and Jesus Christ. And they were just as
apparent years later when the state tried to execute Panetti, only to see
appeals courts step in and grapple with the question of whether he was too
crazy to kill.
Now an Austin federal judge has decided that Panetti, convicted by a Kerr
County jury of killing his in-laws in 1992, may not be quite as sick as
advertised and likely has tried to manipulate doctors assigned to
investigate his mental state.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who conducted a hearing on Panetti's
sanity in February, concluded that he does not deserve the protection of
the courts at least not in his current state.
"If any mentally ill person is competent to be executed for his crime,
this record establishes it is Scott Panetti," Sparks concluded in his
A year ago, Panetti's lawyers were celebrating a decision by the U.S.
Supreme Court that declared Texas' standard for deciding competency for
execution was so narrow as to be almost meaningless.
Expanding on its 1986 ruling in Ford v. Wainwright, which made it unlawful
to execute the incompetent, the high court said a defendant had to have a
"rational understanding" of why he was going to be put to death.
Panetti's lead counsel, Greg Wiercioch, all but said his death row days
"Today the Supreme Court recognized that executing Scott Panetti would be
a mindless, meaningless and miserable spectacle," Wiercioch said.
His assumption was that any court ordered to review Panetti's case in
light of the Supreme Court's ruling which required that defendants have
more than just a technical understanding why they were being put to death
would see how sick he is and spare him the needle.
Sparks, however, did nothing of the sort.
While acknowledging that Panetti is seriously mentally ill, Sparks,
however, seized on the opinion of three doctors hired by the state who
suspected malingering and found behavior inconsistent with previous
diagnoses of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.
Sparks was also persuaded by tape recordings of conversations between
Panetti and his parents. They indicate he had a good grasp of his legal
case, and that he had adjusted his attitude and his level of cooperation
with doctors depending on which side was paying them.
To Sparks, Panetti's words suggested a rational appreciation of his
"It is not seriously disputable that Panetti suffers from paranoid
delusions of some type, and these delusions may well have contributed to
his murder of Joe and Amanda Alvarado," Sparks wrote. "However, it is
equally apparent from his recorded conversations with his parents that
these delusions do not prevent him from having both a factual and rational
understanding that he committed those murders, was tried and convicted,
and is sentenced to die for them."
Wiercioch said Sparks essentially ignored 30 years of medical evidence and
relied on a small amount of recorded conversation that did not mean
anything when viewed in light of Panetti's system of delusions.
Wiercioch insists Sparks missed the point of the Supreme Court's decision:
A condemned inmate's competency has to be considered in light of his
broader understanding of the crime, why he committed it and why he is
being punished for it.
In its review of the Panetti case, the Supreme Court acknowledged that
"rational understanding" is a difficult concept to define. It also pointed
out that some offenders might be so callous, unrepentant or lacking in
compassion that they might seem out of touch with reality, which does not
mean they cannot be executed.
But the high court said that defendants who are seriously mentally ill
need to be carefully examined to see that what they believe and understand
has some connection to the truth.
"Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an
awareness of a link between crime and its punishment in a context so far
removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose," the
majority opinion stated. "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale
for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it."
Sparks' opinion took a limited view of what that means. Panetti's illness
and belief system are largely irrelevant now if he can talk reasonably
about his appeals and understands he is engaged in an adversarial process
that could end with his execution, the judge said.
Under Sparks' interpretation, even the most bizarre delusional system
would matter little say, Panetti believing he killed his in-laws because
he had been anointed by God to stop an alien invasion of Earth because
the only matter relevant for execution competency would be a rational
understanding of the legal process involved in obtaining it.
"The tapes of Panetti's conversations with his parents establish that
Panetti has a fairly sophisticated understanding of his case, up to and
including the legal intricacies presented by Ford and the Supreme Court's
remand opinion," Sparks wrote.
Sparks also wrote that Panetti's unwillingness to engage mental health
experts equally regardless of which side was employing them also worked
against the claim that he is too ill to understand what is going on.
"This suggests nothing more exotic than a rational understanding that
Panetti's legal defense is an adversarial process and the State is on the
other side," the judge stated.
The case will be appealed and ultimately could end up back with the
Supreme Court for justices to determine whether Sparks followed the intent
of their previous ruling.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
2 in toddler death case given bond
A couple charged with capital murder in the April death of a toddler in
their care while her soldier parents were stationed overseas were allowed
bond on Tuesday.
Judge David Guaderrama of the 243rd District Court presided over the
arraignment and bond hearings for Nakia Dawkins and Shawntrell Dawkins,
who were arrested and charged with capital murder in the death of
2-year-old Milanya Harris. They are also charged with injury to a child —
Milanya's 4-year-old brother, Jailen Harris.
Bond was set at $500,000 each for the capital murder charge, and the
previously set bond of $50,000 each for the injury-to-a-child charge was
allowed to stand.
Assistant District Attorney Beto Acosta told the court the couple had
admitted corporal punishment, giving the children "a whooping" with a belt
as discipline. He said both children had multiple bruises from a belt
Acosta said an autopsy report showed Milanya died from blunt force trauma
with nine subdural hematomas on her head. Subdural hematomas are tumorlike
blood clots on the brain. He said that more than 40 % of her body was
covered with bruises, and that the medical examiner's office determined
her bruising was not consistent with a fall down the stairs, as the couple
Nakia and Shawntrell Dawkins had cared for the children for about 6
Stuart Leeds, Shawntrell Dawkins' lawyer, told the court the couple would
be allowed Army housing if they were released on bond.
"She's never been arrested in her life, judge, for anything," Leeds said.
He emphasized her family support system and said she would not be a flight
"My client cooperated with the police all the way," he said. "She's a very
honest person. She does what she says she's going to do."
Theresa Caballero, Nakia Dawkins' lawyer, said the couple denied killing
"Our clients called 911 right away when they saw the child wasn't
breathing," she told the court.
Acosta then argued that the couple had no ties to El Paso and are a flight
risk, particularly since the death penalty may be on the table.
The district attorney's office has not yet decided whether to seek the
Shawntrell and Nakia Dawkins remained jailed Tuesday afternoon.
(source: El Paso Times)
Courts grant go-ahead in Sonnier execution, date set
Following a ruling by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, the clock is
once again ticking for convicted killer Derrick Sonnier. He was scheduled
to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. June 3 at the Huntsville
"Walls" Unit when the execution was stopped. A few days later, June 9, the
TCCA lifted the stay of execution.
The execution of convicted killer Derrick Sonnier, 40, received a green
light once again less than a week after his scheduled death by lethal
injection was halted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
According to Roe Wilson, Harris County assistant district attorney, the
execution is set for July 23 in Huntsville. The new date was set June 13
after the stay imposed by the TCCA was lifted.
The states highest court stopped Sonniers execution June 3 only an hour
prior to the event after attorneys filed a last-minute appeal, maintaining
that lethal injection would violate their clients Eighth Amendment right
against cruel and unusual punishment.
After reviewing Sonnier's claim, the TCCA ruled that Sonnier has not made
a "showing of a constitutional violation." Of the 9 TCAA judges, 2 voted
against the lift on the stay of execution for Sonnier.
TCCA documents further show that judges argued that the Texas lethal
injection process is very similar to the Kentucky protocol which was just
recently upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, in respect to
both the chemicals used during lethal injection as well as in the training
of those individuals administering the drugs.
Judges J. Cochran and J. Womack, proposed to lifting the stay of
execution, opined that recent changes in the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice Execution Procedure manual, effective May 30, were designed to
mirror Kentucky's procedures even more closely.
Sonnier was convicted of the 1991 murder of Humble resident Melody Flowers
and her 2-year-old son, Patrick. He was convicted and sentenced to death
by a Harris County jury and was received on death row in March 1993.
Sonnier has been scheduled for execution 3 times – originally in October
2007, February of this year and again most recently in June.
The stay of execution granted June 3 was greeted by the victim's family
with emotional outbursts in front of the Huntsville "Walls" Unit death
chamber. Now, the clock is once again ticking for Sonnier.
"The train to justice unfortunately moves at a snail's pace and sometimes
you get hit by unexpected barricades like what happened last Tuesday with
Sonnier's stay of execution," said crime victims advocate Andy Kahan. "For
the victims family its one emotional roller coaster after another and
hopefully now the train is back on its path toward justice. There is no
issue of guilt or innocence. This family has waited long enough."
(source: The Humble Observerf)