Criminal appeals court race focuses on change—-3 Republican judges,
challengers acknowledge problems in the judicial system
Problems in the criminal justice system, highlighted by a series of
exonerations, are the top issue in this year's races for the Court of
Both incumbent judges and their challengers are talking about the need to
improve the reliability of eyewitness identification and preserve DNA
3 Republican judges are seeking re-election. 2 of them face a Democrat and
a Libertarian, and 1 faces a Libertarian only.
While the candidates in these low-funded, down-ballot races still struggle
for voters' attention, the debate this year concerns issues that go to the
heart of whether the state's criminal justice system is broken.
That sentiment can be traced to publicity concerning 18 people in Dallas
County who have been cleared of crimes by DNA evidence. Other
jurisdictions also have discovered bad convictions.
Last year, the Court of Criminal Appeals was widely criticized after
Presiding Judge Sharon Keller closed the clerk's office at 5 p.m.,
shutting off a last-minute appeal of death row inmate Michael Richard, who
was executed later that evening. Other judges on the court said they would
have considered Richard's request for a stay because the U.S. Supreme
Court that day had effectively halted executions while it reviewed the
constitutionality of lethal injections.
Susan Strawn, a Houston lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said she
wants to help restore credibility to the court. She is challenging Tom
Price, a member of the high court since 1997.
"(The court) has been reversed too many times by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It doesn't have modern procedures as shown by what happened in the Richard
case," said Strawn, a Democrat.
Strawn said that Price hasn't taken a leadership role in court initiatives
on criminal justice integrity or indigent defense.
Price said he is focused on lowering prisoner recidivism by addressing
root causes of substance abuse. As a former Dallas County trial judge,
Price was involved in developing a drug treatment center where judges
could send offenders.
Texas is locking up too many people who abuse alcohol and drugs or who
suffer from mental illness, Price said.
"It's time that society stops building penitentiaries and addresses issues
that are important to people. Every time someone reoffends, there's
another victim," said Price.
Matthew Eilers, who works for a legal software company, is the Libertarian
The Universal City lawyer said he would work for "easier access to DNA
testing to allow a person to prove themselves innocent so we don't execute
an innocent defendant."
Judge Paul Womack is seeking his third, six-year term. He said he supports
the court's efforts to prevent wrongful convictions, including reviewing
how confessions are taken from suspects.
"It seems to me that the problem of wrongful convictions is a judicial
branch problem and we should take the lead in making improvements," he
Womack's opponent, Democrat J.R. Molina is making his 4th and last, he
said run for the high court.
He blamed partisan politics for his lack of success in previous races.
The Fort Worth lawyer and former prosecutor said the court has ignored
precedents to reach the results it wants in certain cases.
Round Rock lawyer Dave Howard is making his 2nd race as a Libertarian
candidate. He said he has "virtually no chance of winning" but wants his
campaign to raise awareness of Libertarian ideas.
"The primary purpose of the judiciary is to preserve and protect the
constitution," he said. "An 'activist judge' is, most of the time, a judge
who dares to stand up to the Legislature and say, 'No, that law is
The 3rd race involves Judge Cathy Cochran, a member of the court since
2001. She heads a panel that advises lawmakers on needed changes to the
rules governing criminal cases. She said Dallas County's experience with
retesting DNA evidence in old cases has been "very eye-opening for
"It keeps cropping up that not all results are accurate and perhaps not
fairly obtained," she said.
Her Libertarian opponent, William Strange of Dallas, said he would
question all existing procedures of the court with regard to the death
"I am committed to building a reputation for fairness," he said. "I am not
afraid to take an unpopular or minority position if I believe it is
justified by the law."
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Punishment trial continues for Hector Medina, killer of his 2 children
The sentencing phase of Hector Medina's capital murder trial resumed this
Hector Medina Defense attorney Donna Winfield had started calling
witnesses last month to show that Mr. Medina did not deserve the death
penalty for killing his 2 children after their mother left him. But a
juror broke her arm, so the trial was postponed until today.
During the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial last month, Mr. Medina's
attorney admitted that her client shot the children. She asked the jury to
consider his mindset at the time. Ms. Winfield, however, did not
specifically offer an insanity defense.
If he doesn't get the death penalty, Mr. Medina faces life in prison with
no opportunity for parole.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Jury decides on capital punishment for man convicted in baby's death
It didn't take jurors very long to decide on a sentence for Manuel Velez.
The 43-year-old Brownsville man was convicted in the death of 1-year-old
Angel Moreno last week.
Jurors started deliberations around 3 p.m. Friday and emerged 2 hours
later with their sentence: the death penalty.
Cameron County First Assistant District Attorney Chuck Mattingly believes
the jury made the right decision.
"They took their job very seriously," he said. "They asked to review the
evidence after they were sent back to deliberate. They took their time
State District Judge Able Limas did not allow full use of Velez's past
criminal history but Mattingly said prosecutors brought most of Velez's
past to light.
"We were able to present his criminal history punishment, called witness
on future danger," he said. "Another witness form Wisconsin who had
arrested him for aggravated battery."
The sentencing interrupted by numerous outbursts in the courtroom
prompting heightened security.
Judge Limas sent Velez's brother out of the courtroom in handcuffs earlier
in the week for allegedly making threats.
Velez's mother and urrent wife were visibly upset and agitated, but Velez
remained stoic during the proceedings.
(source: Brownsville Herald)