death penalty news—–TEXAS

Dec. 4


DA Watkins questioned victim in death penalty trial

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins regularly sits in on
high-profile trials at the courthouse. It's his job to know how his
prosecutors are doing. Today he did a little prosecuting of his own and
questioned a witness during the county's third death penalty trial this
year. Robert Sparks is accused of killing his wife, 2 stepsons and raping
his stepdaughters last year.

Mr. Watkins, who has made it no secret that he is personally against the
death penalty, felt that this case was so egregious that Mr. Sparks
deserves to die for it. So he questioned one of the girls, who was raped,
when she took the witness stand this afternoon.

As a former defense attorney, Mr. Watkins also had to cross to the other
end of the table, a move he said he readily prepared for.

Mr. Watkins methodically walked the girl through her testimony and used an
easy hand with the 15-year-old, who admitted that she did not want to be
in the courtroom re-hashing that fateful day.

If Mr. Sparks is convicted, look for Mr. Watkins to step back into the
courtroom in the punishment phase of the trial.

(source: Dallas Morning News)


Prisons seek $66 million to get rid of phones, contraband

Texas prison officials are seeking nearly $66 million in public money
some of it right away for new security equipment to rid lockups of cell
phones and other contraband.

The request, which is more than double the amount officials proposed
several months ago, comes just weeks after a systemwide sweep uncovered
hundreds of smuggled cell phones, including 18 on death row.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Brad Livingston
said Wednesday that given the seriousness of the contraband problem, he
would seek $30 million in immediate funding.

The money would go for such things as video surveillance, walk-through
metal detectors, X-ray machines and wand detectors. Twenty
maximum-security prisons, including the Polunsky Unit, which houses death
row, would be equipped with a comprehensive video system.

Oliver Bell, Texas Board of Criminal Justice chair, issued a stern warning
to anyone who might be unaware of the security measures instituted in the
prisons since October, when 10 death row inmates were found to have made
nearly 2,800 calls from a smuggled phone.

One of those inmates, Richard Tabler, who is linked to four slayings, made
threatening calls to State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the
Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"We will find (the contraband) wherever it is. We will stop it at the
perimeters. We are willing to do every single thing that is legal," Bell
said at Wednesday's board meeting.

The funds sought by prison officials would need approval from the
governor's office and the Legislative Budget Board, not the full
Legislature. So far, the odds of it passing seem good.

Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, said: "Security is
paramount. The governor believes this is an imperative step."

Smuggled phones pricey

A systemwide lockdown was ordered after the discovery of cell phones in
death row, and in the three-week sweep that followed, 289 cell phones and
cell phone parts were discovered, along with 183 weapons.

Brian Olsen, executive director of AFSCME, the union that represents many
of the state's correctional officers, said he welcomed more cameras in the
prisons but wondered, with the system short at least 2,700 correctional
officers, who would monitor the video?

"To me, this is just a stopgap," Olsen said. "We should be giving
emergency pay raises to (correctional officers)."

The prison board recently requested 20 percent pay raises for its
correctional staff.

Smuggled cell phones fetch hundreds of dollars in prisons, and thousands
on death row. Employees are believed to sneak at least some of the phones
into prisons. No employees have yet been charged with contraband smuggling
since the lockdown began, though investigators are pursuing leads, said
the prison system's inspector general, John Moriarty.

Moriarty noted pat-down searches are now conducted on all people seeking
entry to the prisons.

Pay phones to be monitored

Well-behaved inmates will soon have access to pay phones, but their calls
will be monitored. Officials worry that inmates calling on unmonitored
cell phones may order hits from prison or run criminal enterprises.

And prison officials will soon be testing cell phone jamming technology at
a jail in Austin. A federal law bars states from using the technology but
Texas leaders believe there's momentum in Congress to change the law.

(source: San Antonio Express-News)


Texas needs help from Congress, and this time the state is not asking for

The Lone Star State needs Congressional action to enable officials to jam
cell phone signals at Texas prisons.

Later this month, Texas officials will test jamming technology that has
been developed by a Florida-based firm, the Express-News reported.

The firm recently conducted a successful trial at a South Carolina prison.

The test is a response to the discovery that almost 300 cell phones have
been smuggled into Texas prisons.

The Express-News reported that 18 of the phones were discovered on death
row, where one was used to make 2,800 calls.

And state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, received threatening calls from
one death row inmate.

Prison inmates, particularly death row inmates, shouldn't be allowed
unfettered use of telephones.

It is a privilege they have lost and don't deserve. And the worst of the
lot can make use of the unmonitored cell phones to plot more crimes and
threaten innocent people.

Texas House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Plano, came up
with the notion of testing the phone jamming technology.

Once state officials are comfortable with its effectiveness, the next step
is to get Congress to amend what the Express-News described as "an
obscure, decades-old federal law that prohibits states from interfering
with federal airwaves."

An exemption to allow the jamming of prisoner cell phones would solve the

Eliminating all smuggling into prisons is a difficult proposition, but
blocking the illicit calls would end the market for cell phones in prison.

(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News)


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—–Thursday, December 4, 2008

Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Releases Report on Death
Penalty Developments in 2008

"Average" Number of Executions Carried Out in Record Time as New Death
Sentences Reach Lowest Level in Texas in 30 Years

(Austin, Texas) Today the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
(TCADP) released its annual report on death penalty developments
statewide, in advance of the December 7 anniversary of the resumption of
executions in Texas in 1982. According to the report, Texas juries newly
condemned 9 individuals (8 men and 1 woman) to death in 2008, the lowest
number of new death sentences since official reinstatement of the death
penalty in 1976. Juries also resentenced 2 people to death.

A de facto moratorium on executions nationwide existed from September 26,
2007 until April 16, 2008 while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the
constitutionality of the lethal injection protocol used by the majority of
death penalty states. On April 16, the Court ruled in Baze v. Rees that
the current protocol used by Kentucky (and other states, including Texas)
does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The decision lifted all
stays in effect at the time and paved the way for the resumption of
executions. Texas' first execution of the year took place on June 11,
2008, when Karl Chamberlain was put to death. The State went on to execute
17 more people in the latter half of 2008, accounting for 50% of all
executions in the United States this year. Seven of those executed had
been convicted in Dallas County.

"2008 can only be characterized as yet another rollercoaster year for the
death penalty in Texas," said TCADP Executive Director Kristin Houl. "The
state carried out a 'typical' number of executions in a record amount of
time averaging nearly 1 per week over a 5-month period. Yet officials'
zeal for executions was not matched by public desire for new death
sentences, as evidenced by the continued steep decline in the number of
new inmates arriving on death row."

This past year also was notable for the executions that did not occur. 6
inmates with execution dates in 2008 received last-minute stays, due to
concerns about possible innocence, the fairness of their trial, or issues
related to mental retardation or mental illness. The case of Charles Hood,
in particular, challenged the integrity of the Texas judicial system,
after solid evidence confirmed that the judge who presided over his
original trial was romantically linked to the prosecutor who sought his
death sentence. Hood received a stay from the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals on September 9 on an issue unrelated to the improper relationship;
his attorneys continue to seek a new trial.

Other highlights of TCADP's report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in
2008, include the following:

* In 2008, the State of Texas carried out 18 executions in 5 months. Only
8 other states carried out executions this year; none executed more than 4
people. Texas has executed 423 people since 1982. Currently there are 354
inmates on death row in Texas 344 men and 10 women.

* Michael Blair became the 9th inmate exonerated from death row in Texas
after DNA testing failed to connect him to the crime for which he was
convicted and sentenced to death. * 7 other inmates were removed
permanently from death row in 2008; their sentences were commuted to life
in prison. This includes Thomas Miller-El, Johnny Paul Penry, and LaRoyce
Smith, whose convictions and/or death sentences had been overturned at
various junctures by the U.S. Supreme Court.

* Jurors rejected the death penalty in at least 4 capital murder trials in
2008, opting instead for the punishment of life in prison without the
possibility of parole.

* Harris County, which accounts for more executions than any state in the
country (besides Texas), did not send a single person to death row in

* Texas defied federal officials and the International Court of Justice
when it executed Mexican national Jose Medellin on August 5, 2008, despite
the fact that he had been denied the right to contact his consular office
upon his arrest in 1993 as afforded by the Vienna Convention on Consular

* The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana on June 25, 2008
invalidated the death penalty provision of "Jessica's Law," which the
Texas Legislature passed in 2007. The Justices ruled 5-4 that the death
penalty is unconstitutional as a punishment for the crime of raping a
child and they effectively barred its imposition for any crime that does
not take the life of the victim.

Texas already has scheduled 11 executions for the first 3 months of 2009.
"Despite continued concerns about the flaws and failures of the Texas
death penalty system and growing public awareness of its fallibility the
'conveyor belt to death' continues to operate on high gear," said Houl.
"TCADP urges all elected officials to take a hard look at this costly,
broken government system a system that produces wrongful convictions and
most likely wrongful executions and to support alternatives that protect
society and punish the truly guilty."

TCADP is a statewide, grassroots organization based in Austin, Texas.
Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2008: The Year in Review is available
online at
Contact Kristin Houl at to receive a copy directly via

(source: TCADP)