death penalty news—-TEXAS

Feb. 20


Perry says innocence commission is not needed

Top state jurists support a commission to investigate wrongful
convictions, but the governor believes such a panel would be a needless
addition to state bureaucracy.

State Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson endorsed the commission idea in 2005
and 2007 and says he hasn't heard a worthy objection yet. He wants state
lawmakers to pay for a panel.

"What better way to spend public dollars than to make sure the innocent
doesn't go to jail?" Jefferson, who leads the state's top civil court,
told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the state's highest criminal court, the
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, offered qualified support, saying she
doesn't want a commission that duplicates work of the Innocence Projects
statewide and nationwide.

This month, 9 men who were exonerated of crimes urged lawmakers to study
the causes of wrongful convictions and try to prevent them. Since 2001, 33
men have been exonerated, including 17 in Dallas County using DNA testing.

Gov. Rick Perry doesn't think that a commission is needed, said
spokeswoman Allison Castle. She said Perry supports a better system for
providing attorneys to poor criminal defendants, and favors
post-conviction DNA testing.

"He is committed to providing a fair criminal justice system. But the
governor's sentiment is that we don't need another layer of bureaucracy,"
Castle said.

District attorneys fear that a commission could become a forum for bashing

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who sponsored failed bills to
create a 9-member Innocence Commission, said a commission could help
restore confidence in the Texas criminal justice system.

(source: Associated Press)


Fort Worth man may face death penalty for fatal shootings at child's
birthday party

A Fort Worth man who was found guilty Thursday of fatally shooting a woman
and her granddaughter at a children's birthday party last April could face
the death penalty for his crime.

The jury that deliberated nearly four hours before convicting Erick Daniel
Davila of capital murder will return to the courtroom of state District
Judge Sharen Wilson today to continue hearing evidence in the trial's
punishment phase.

Davila will be sentenced either to death or life in prison for what
prosecutors called the "cowardly" murder of Annette Stevenson, 48, and her
5-year-old granddaughter, Queshawn Stevenson.

Authorities say Davila used a semiautomatic assault rifle to kill the two
and wound four others including three children during the party at
Annette Stevenson's East Fort Worth home.

In finding Davila guilty of capital murder, the jury rejected the lesser
charges of murder or manslaughter. Davila, 21, showed no reaction as the
verdict was announced.

Jerry Stevenson, who was at the party and may have been Davila's intended
target, said the verdict brought some relief. But nothing, he said, can
fully alleviate the agony of losing his daughter and mother.

"It gives me just a little peace," he said after the verdict was read.
"It's been hard. I just wanted justice. My mother, she was loving. And [so
was] my daughter. I miss them so much."

Defense attorneys Robert Ford and Joetta Keene argued during closing
arguments that prosecution witnesses failed to identify Davila as the

"There is so much reasonable doubt about how much evidence you can even
trust," Keene said. "Evidence of Erick's innocence is people not picking
him out of a photo spread. In order to feel good about your verdict, you
have to have trust in your government. This is the state of Texas. Bring
us competent evidence."

Keene and Ford also said prosecutors failed to establish a motive for the

"Intent is the keystone in a criminal case," Ford said. "The intent is not
there. This should not have been a capital murder case to begin with."

Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Robert Gill told jurors that
Davila, a member of a street gang, continued to hold a grudge after being
shot in 2005 by members of a rival group.

Gill said that Davila sported several tattoos, including one that Gill
said was a way of declaring that members of the rival gang should be

The prosecutor said that on April 6, an armed and angry Davila went to the
Village Creek town homes, the site of the birthday party, in hopes of
catching up with his rivals.

"He was out there to shoot people to avenge what had happened to him,"
Gill said.


Texas judge faces public hearing for conduct over 2007 death-penalty

The top judge of Texas' highest criminal court was told Thursday that
she'll have to publicly defend her 2007 decision to close the court at 5
p.m. rather than allow a last-minute appeal in the case of a man executed
later that night.

Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,
will have to justify her conduct and possibly fight for her job in a
rare public hearing ordered by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The commission ordered an inquiry into whether her behavior "constitutes
incompetence in the performance of duties of office" and "casts public
discredit on the judiciary."

The hearing could result in a recommendation that the Republican be
removed from the court she was first elected to in 1994.

Keller has 15 days to formally respond to the charges. The process,
including the hearing and the decision, could take more than a year and a
half, The Associated Press reported.

Unusual move

The move "is rare as can be," said Larry Fox, former chairman of the
American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional
Responsibility. "A once-in-a-decade event."

Fox said the hearing offered a chance "to restore the reputation of the
Texas judiciary" after Keller's decision sent shockwaves across the

Keller declined to comment. Her attorney, Chip Babcock, told The
Associated Press that she "absolutely and totally denies these

The "notice of formal proceedings" issued by the commission comes after
more than a year of orchestrated public outrage over the handling of
Michael Richard's case.

Richard, convicted in the 1986 rape and murder of a woman in Hockley, was
slated for execution at 6 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007, the same day the U.S.
Supreme Court accepted a case on the constitutionality of lethal

Richard's lawyers planned to file an appeal on those grounds but had
computer problems. When they called the Court of Criminal Appeals to
explain the delay, Keller told court officials that the court would close
at 5 p.m.

Richard was executed that evening after attorneys were unable to file the
appeal to the closed court. Legal experts say it is common practice for
courts to accept filings after the close of business, particularly in
death-penalty cases.

Scores of complaints

The allegations against Keller state that she was at home, meeting a
repairman, when court officials called her with the late-filing request.

They also say she disregarded court procedures by not referring defense
requests to file the appeal after hours to the Court of Criminal Appeals
judge who was supposed to be handling the case that day.

After Richard was executed, a massive number of complaints were filed with
the Commission on Judicial Conduct, said its executive director, Seana

Willing said a public hearing was more appropriate than the commission's
typical confidential hearing.

"The result of what happened was very serious," Willing said. "We can't
discount that."

Unlike a private proceeding, a public hearing is "a real adversarial
process," she said. Keller now has "this opportunity for due process, to
cross-examine and confront witnesses."

Willing said there are 3 possible outcomes. The charges could be
dismissed; Keller could be censured; or a recommendation could be made to
the Texas Supreme Court for her removal from office.

Damaged reputation

Brian Wice, a defense attorney and legal analyst for NBC in Houston, said
removing Keller is "a very real possibility."

Wice, who clerked at the court before Keller took the bench, counts
himself as Keller's friend. He called her actions "knuckleheaded" but said
she is a hard worker who "cares deeply about doing her job."

"Her reputation's already been damaged," he said. "I'm glad for Sharon
that she'll have the opportunity to be in a public forum where she finally
gets to come out swinging."

Keller, a former assistant district attorney in Dallas, was the 1st woman
to serve on the court. She has been controversial for several years, with
a tough stance on crime earning her the nickname "Killer Keller."

Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who organized
a petition drive for complaints, said the hearing is "a great step towards
rehabilitating the criminal justice system and the Court of Criminal

The handling of the Richard case was a blot on Texas justice, he said.

After the initial uproar, the court quickly changed its rules to allow for
electronic filings.

Keller's actions also are under scrutiny in the state Legislature. Rep.
Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, has filed a bill seeking her impeachment.

Keller has served as presiding judge since 2000. Her term expires in 2012.

(source for both: Dallas Morning News)