When the justice system fails us
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins told the press last week
that he wanted to re-examine about 40 death penalty cases in his county.
Mr. Watkins also said he would seek temporary stays of execution, if
needed, until he completes the reviews of all Dallas County death
sentences currently on death row.
Collin County District Attorney John Roach needs to do the same.
Both Dallas and Collin Counties have been in the news lately for their
handling of capital trials. Dallas County has seen a number of
high-profile exonerations of innocent defendants convicted in an era of
"win at all costs" prosecutorial misconduct. Mr. Watkins cited the case of
Patrick Waller, who was convicted of a 1992 robbery-rape.
By the time Mr. Waller was finally cleared, the statute of limitations had
run out on prosecuting the real perpetrators. Not only did an innocent man
spend years in prison wrongfully, but the real guilty party got off
Last week, Collin County District Court Judge Greg Brewer dismissed the
murder indictment against Michael Blair. Mr. Blair was convicted and
sentenced to die for the murder of young Ashley Estell in 1993. DNA
evidence has since undermined the case against him, and the real child
killer may never be identified.
Another death sentence may be reversed in the case of Charles Dean Hood,
who was convicted and is scheduled to die in a case that has rocked the
legal community. Twice now, Mr. Hood has come within hours of being
executed after a trial prosecuted by the secret lover of the judge.
Collin County is well-known for its no-nonsense harsh sentences and
vigorous prosecution of evildoers. Unfortunately, it appears that, at
least some of the time, our zeal to convict has overrun our sense of
Judicial and prosecutorial zeal has caused the recusal of another Collin
County judge in the case of Mark Bell. Several other of the nine Collin
County death row inmates cases need to be re-examined.
In 1 those 9 cases, that of Victor Saldao, the Collin County DA is still
seeking execution, even after then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn
asked the federal courts to overturn the sentence after the jury was told
that, "because [Saldao] is Hispanic, this is a factor weighing in favor of
future dangerousness." The expert witness then added, "Hispanics are
over-represented in prison compared with their percentage of the general
They sure are over-represented in Collin County death sentences. Of our
nine inmates on death row, six are Hispanic, most convicted of killing
non-Hispanic whites by all-white juries.
Similar racist testimony by the same expert from the Saldao trial was used
in the punishment trial of Gustavo Julian Garcia, who is also awaiting
execution after being sentenced to death in a Collin County court.
Our notion that all defendants are innocent until proven guilty in a fair
trial is one of the glues that hold our society together. Most of us don't
fear our courts, because we are confident that, even if we are wrongly
charged, the truth will prevail.
When that confidence is lost, we no longer live under the rule of law, but
the rule of men men who wish us harm.
In a letter to DA Roach on the Hood case, Texas Attorney General Greg
Abbott wrote, " a death sentence is the most serious and solemn act of any
state. The impartiality of a defendants trial and conviction must be
beyond reproach." He said, "neither the victims nor justice will be
served" by the execution of a man convicted in an unfair trial.
As important as the notion of a fair trial is the unavoidable problem that
when an innocent man is convicted, a guilty criminal is left free to
commit new crimes and to hurt more victims.
Referring to the conviction of Patrick Waller, Mr. Watkins noted, "This is
larger than just having innocent folks in jail. This is about having
criminals out on the street with cover to go and commit their offenses."
(source: Opinion; Bill Baumbach of Wylie was a Democratic candidate for
Collin County Commissioners Court—-Dallas Morning News)