Court rejects inmate's request to delay execution
A federal court Thursday refused to delay Tuesdays execution of Willie
Pondexter Jr., who was sentenced to die for the 1993 murder of an
85-year-old Northeast Texas woman. Represented by lawyers from the Houston
office of the Texas Defender Service, Pondexter, 33, claimed that Texas
prison officials and Polk County sheriff's officers wrongfully interfered
with efforts to collect information for a clemency petition.
Polk County is the home of the Allan Polunksy Unit, which includes the
state's death row.
Pondexter was sentenced to die for fatally shooting Martha Lennox after
burglarizing her Clarksville home.
The panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit gave no reason for
"I think the Fifth Circuit realized that Pondexters legal position is
unassailable, and so they decided to run out the clock to let him die so
that they do not have to address the merits of his allegations," said
Texas Defender Service lawyer David Dow.
Named in the civil rights lawsuit considered by the court were top prison
officials, Polunsky Warden Tim Simmons and Polk County Sheriff Kenneth
Hammack. Pondexter had sought a stay of execution so that his lawyers
could interview prison guards to support the contention that he has
"become a wholly different man" on death row.
In sworn affidavits accompanying the lawsuit, Harvard Law School students
Ariel Rothstein and Andrew Freedman, working with Houston lawyers,
detailed their Jan. 17 encounter with a sheriff's deputy after they left
the home of a prison guard they had tried to interview.
The pair was directed to the sheriff's office, where they were issued
trespassing warnings and told they likely would be jailed if they returned
to the guards property, the sworn statements say.
They also were advised, the affidavits state, that they should inform
sheriffs personnel beforehand if they returned to the county.
The lawsuit also contended the prison system maintains a "formal policy
prohibiting correctional officers" from speaking to condemned inmates'
lawyers. The policy, the petition argued, created an atmosphere in which
guards feared they would be disciplined or fired if they talked to
(source: Houston Chronicle)
High costs figure into death penalty debate, but Texas holds firm
Death penalty opponents across the country are using the plight of
strained state budgets as an added reason to abolish the final sanction.
The argument appears to be gaining traction in some states but not in
Texas, the nation's leading death penalty state.
"I don't think it's driving the effort in Texas the same way we're
witnessing in other states," said Kristin Houl, executive director of the
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Legislators in eight states are considering abolition bills, said Richard
Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, and
the issue of money has been raised in all of those discussions.
The cost of the death penalty includes not just the cost of high-security
incarceration and the execution itself, but years of appeals. The issue of
expense has been raised before but "resonates a lot more" because of the
fiscal crisis, Dieter said.
But "that doesn't mean it's the only issue people are considering."
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, co-author of an abolition bill, said
the cost issue is not his primary concern. "We're doing this on moral
grounds," he said.
But he believes capital punishment is "not worth what it costs. Our money
could be better spent in the correctional system."
He doesn't expect the cost issue to change many minds because, he said,
state policymakers are more interested in vengeance.
"It disappoints me that the very people that will talk about, 'We need to
be rational and look at the cost-benefit analysis of everything we want to
do,' are pandering to an emotion," he said. "And it's a bad emotion."
Dieter said numerous studies show "the bottom line is, it's costly," but
death penalty advocates are not convinced. They say such studies don't
take into account the deterrence effect of the death penalty or the money
saved through plea agreements spurred by fear of the death penalty.
And even if capital punishment is more costly, expense "should not be the
primary factor," said Dudley Sharp, who monitors death penalty
legislation. "It's like saying, 'Incarceration costs more than probation,
so we should get rid of incarceration and only probate people.' It's
The primary reasons to retain the death penalty have nothing to do with
cost, he said. "First is, it's just and deserved, and the 2nd is that it
helps protect us. And so those 2 things take precedent over cost savings."
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Condemned Inmate: Prison Officials Won't Let Guards Speak Out
Willie Pondexter has spent nearly 15 years on death row. Now some of the
people charged with guarding him would like to help save his life, if they
can get the chance.
Pondexter is scheduled for execution on Tuesday, 2 days before his 35th
birthday. His attorneys have filed a last-minute civil rights lawsuit on
his behalf, arguing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the
Polk County Sheriffs Office (death row is in Polk County) have intimidated
prison guards to keep them from speaking publicly on Pondexter's behalf.
The intimidation allegedly includes a bizarre incident in January in which
the Polk County Sheriff's Department detained two legal interns working on
Pondexters behalf for several hours after they had tried to interview a
Pondexter's attorneys are seeking a stay of execution for 120 days. They
want more time to collect testimonials from prison guards at death row in
Livingston about Pondexter's reformation in hopes to winning clemency and
commuting his sentence to life in prison. A federal district judge turned
down the lawsuit, and earlier today, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals
rejected the case without comment. His legal team will appeal to the U.S.
"The Polk County sheriff's department and TDCJ officials ensure that
corrections officers are not going to cooperate with lawyers of death row
inmates," said David Dow of the Houston-based Texas Defender Service,
which represents Pondexter and filed the civil rights suit on his behalf.
"They've created an environment of intimidation."
Pondexter was sentenced to death for taking part in the 1993 killing of
85-year-old Martha Lennox in the northeast Texas town of Clarksville.
Pondexter, then 19, and James Lee Henderson broke into Lennoxs home, shot
her in the head and made off with $18, according to state records.
Pondexter's guilt is not in doubt. In their case for clemency, his
attorneys have contended that Pondexter has changed in his years in prison
from a violent young gang member into a peaceful, responsible adult. Many
condemned prisoners have made this argument. What makes Pondexter
different is that prison guards on death row are vouching for him.
Pondexter has endured almost half his life on death row. The correctional
officers in the Polunsky Unit are the people who perhaps know him best. At
least half a dozen of them told Pondexter they didnt want to see him
executed and that they would speak up on his behalf.
Last fall, after Pondexters execution date had been set, Dow and his legal
team set out to talk with correctional officers who knew Pondexter. Hardly
any were willing to talk for fear of retaliation. "Those prison guards
that we have reason to believe would give affidavits that Pondexter is not
dangerous, that hes fully rehabilitated, that theres no reason to execute
him–they have been prevented from talking to us and we have been
prevented from interviewing them," Dow says.
Lloyd Coker, the only corrections officer who did speak with the legal
team, told Kate Black, an attorney with the Texas Defender Service, that
"Willie Pondexter has never posed any threat within the prison, even when
given the opportunity," according to an affidavit Black filed with the
federal lawsuit. "I have seen some guys on death row who are extremely
dangerous, and some of them I believe ought to be executed. Willie
Pondexter isn't one of those people..he could safely live out his days in
a structured environment. In fact, if Willie Pondexter were out here in
the free world, I would be willing to give him a job working on my
Although Coker spoke with Pondexter's attorneys, he told them he was too
scared to sign any documents advocating for clemency for fear he would
incur retaliation. "If people are not talking, it is probably because they
are scared to lose their jobs or scared of being written up," Coker told
Black, according to her affidavit. "And I likely wouldn't talk to you
about another inmate either. But Willie Pondexter is one of the few
inmates I'd be willing to speak up for. … I would really hate to see him
Michelle Lyons, a TDCJ spokesperson, told the Observer that the department
has no policy forbidding correctional officers from speaking with
attorneys or filing affidavits. "I cant imagine what the disciplinary
action would be," she said. TDCJ does forbid guards from forming personal
relationships or friendships with inmates because it can compromise
security. "That being said, an affidavit saying an inmate hasn't had
disciplinary problems would be allowed," Lyons said.
Dow believes that TDCJ doesn't want its guards urging clemency for death
row inmates. "It's pretty clear that there is an unwritten policy," he
said. "We have people who have told us as much that guards are
discouraged, if not forbidden from cooperating with lawyers like us, that
other guards who have cooperated have been retaliated against."
Ron McAndrewa prison consultant and former longtime warden and
correctional officer in Florida who has filed a letter with the Board of
Pardons and Parole supporting Pondexter's clemencysaid the code of silence
among prison guards is well known. "They're very, very afraid to speak,"
said McAndrew, who in 1998 spent time studying the Texas system while
overseeing Florida's switch to lethal injection from the electric chair.
"It's not about being written up, it's retaliation in general." He said
guards would risk being passed over for promotions, losing their jobs or
incurring stiffer punishment for minor infractions.
On Jan. 17, 2 Harvard Law School students, who were interning with Texas
Defender Service, were detained in East Texas by the Polk County deputies
for several hours. The reason for their detention wasn't clear, but the
law students had been trying to interview prison guards about Pondexter.
Dow suspects one of the guards called the Polunsky Unit, which called the
sheriffs department. When the students were pulled over, Deputy Terry
White radioed in that he had found "the suspects," said one of the
students, Ariel Rothstein, when reached by phone in Boston.
No charges were filed, though the students were issued a warning for
"criminal trespass." When they were finally released, deputies told the
students they would likely be arrested if they tried to visit prison
guards, and to contact the sheriff's office the next time they returned to
Polk County. "It became pretty clear after they threatened us twice not to
go back to the property that it was definitely a warning," Rothstein said.
"It was a very strong warning never to go back or else."
"I've never heard of anything remotely like this," said Dow, who's worked
on numerous death penalty cases in Polk County. "We've never trained
anyone on how to deal with being detained by law enforcement officers for
Chief Deputy Byron Lyons with the Polk County Sheriffs Department said the
department couldnt comment on the incident because of the pending lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Dow hopes the Supreme Court will grant Pondexter a stay.
Without testimony from the guards, he says, Pondexter can't make a strong
case for clemency, which violates his due process rights.
"[TDCJ] understand[s] that it puts pressure on the Board of Pardons and
Paroles as well as the governor's office when you have guards who are
saying that somebody who's been on death row for 15 years is not
dangerous. If the reason that we as a state decided to execute this guy is
because he's dangerous, then we've made a mistake. I don't think TDCJ
wants their guards participating in that conversation."
(source: The Texas Observer)
Sheriff: Suspect, woman were Klein classmates—-Duct tape on victim
yields prints, prosecutor says
The man accused of abducting and killing Sabrina Pina was a classmate of
hers at Klein High School, their photographs appearing in the same
yearbooks. Theodore Charles Schmidt also briefly attended the University
of Texas, where Pina later graduated.
For now, those are 2 details that connect the Spring woman with the man
authorities said abducted her, bound her with duct tape, shot her in the
head and left her body in a ditch in northwest Harris County.
"According to him, they hadnt spoken since just after graduating high
school," said sheriffs Lt. Rolf Nelson.
But, Nelson said, "everything suggests that he knew her and there was some
type of motivation that directed him to her."
Schmidt, 27, was charged Wednesday with capital murder in Pinas death and
is being held in the Harris County Jail without bail. Detectives arrested
him after a fingerprint left on a piece of duct tape stretched around
Pina's head was traced to him.
Tatiana Armenta, Pina's close friend and fellow Klein High alumna, said
Wednesday that she only vaguely recalled Schmidts name. She doesnt
remember Pina ever mentioning it.
"I don't know who he is. I haven't heard anything about him," Armenta
Detectives also are trying to piece together details about Schmidt, their
prime suspect. He is single and lives alone at Carrington Place, a luxury
apartment complex on FM 1960 West. Manager Paige Smart said Schmidts
two-bedroom unit normally rents for about $1,600 a month.
Schmidt has family in the Houston area, detectives said, adding that he
has worked as a mechanic.
He evidently has been making his living selling items off craigslist and
eBay," said Sgt. Wayne Kuhlman Jr., lead investigator in the case. "He
works out of his home."
Suspect was in database
Deputies had been watching Schmidt's home in the 12700 block of West FM
1960 after crime scene investigators linked the fingerprint left on the
piece of duct tape to him, Nelson said. The same type of duct tape that
covered her eyes was used to bind her hands.
Her body was found about 9 a.m. Sunday along Jack Road near Warren Ranch
Road, about 23 miles from where she was last seen alive. Investigators
said she was abducted about 2 p.m. Saturday outside Kohl's department
store at Texas 249 and Spring Cypress.
Investigators spent about 12 hours scrutinizing the fingerprint and
entering the information into their offender database. At about 1 a.m.
Tuesday, the print was identified as Schmidts. The find was crucial,
"It was huge," Lt. Nelson said of the break in the case.
Deputy Gail Mills said the work was time-consuming.
"It's difficult to process because you have multiple surfaces," Mills
said. "You have a nonadhesive side and an adhesive side that's all stuck
Schmidt had been in the offender database since at least May 2007, when he
was arrested for driving with a suspended license, according to Harris
County court records. Most recently, he was charged with theft in December
2008. He was released after posting $2,000 bail.
Schmidt was calm when arrested, but "actively denied" any role in Pina's
death, sheriff's officials said.
"He won't offer an explanation as to how that fingerprint got on the piece
of tape," Nelson said.
Detectives havent found evidence that placed Pina inside Schmidts
The gun used to kill Pina remains missing. Detectives declined to confirm
whether any firearms evidence that might link Schmidt to the slaying was
in his apartment, nor would they say whether any of Pina's belongings were
there. Her purse and cell phone have not been recovered.
"We don't want to speculate on anything," Nelson said. "Those facts
haven't been established."
(source: The Houston Chronicle)
Death penalty change sought
State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, is calling on the Legislature to
abolish the so-called "law of parties," which allows prosecutors to seek
the death penalty against defendants who play sometimes minor roles in
capital murder cases.
The unique statute holds that each participant in a capital crime can be
held equally responsible.
In any other state, the person who actually killed another person might be
eligible for execution, but the driver or other participants might not be.
Dutton's House Bill 304 would prohibit the application of the death
penalty unless the defendant had direct involvement in the killing. Dutton
said at least 12 people have been executed in Texas under the "law of
(source: Austin American-Statesman)