Lawyers' late filings can be deadly for inmates—- Tardy paperwork takes
away final appeals for 9 men, 6 of whom have been executed
MISSED DEADLINES IN CAPITAL CASES
6 men have been executed who lost final federal appeals because of blown
Johnny Ray Johnson: Executed Feb. 12, 2009, for the rape murder of a
Willie Marcel Shannon: Executed Nov. 8, 2006, for a carjacking killing at
a Houston shopping center
Robert Andrew Lookingbill: Executed Jan. 22, 2003, for the beating death
of his grandmother in Hidalgo County.
Leonard Uresti Rojas: Executed Dec. 4, 2002, for the shooting deaths of
his common-law wife and his brother in Alvarado.
Spencer Corey Goodman: Executed Jan. 18, 2000, for the abduction murder of
a woman in Fort Bend County.
Andrew Cantu Tzin: Executed Feb. 16, 1999, for the stabbing deaths of 3
people in Abilene.
At least 3 living death row inmates' lawyers also filed federal appeals
Keith Steven Thurmond: sentenced to death in 2002 for the murders of his
estranged wife and a neighbor in Montgomery County.
Quintin Philippe Jones: sentenced to death in 2001 in Tarrant County for
killing his great-aunt.
Marlin Enos Nelson: sentenced to death for a 1987 murder.
3 men on Texas' death row and 6 others already executed lost their
federal appeals because attorneys failed to meet life-or-death deadlines,
essentially waiving the last constitutionally required review before a
death sentence is carried out.
Johnny Johnson, executed in February for a Houston murder, was the most
recent: His lawyers missed a federally mandated filing deadline by 24
One of his attorneys made the same mistake in the case of death row inmate
Keith Steven Thurmond, a former Montgomery County mechanic now on death
row awaiting execution, according to case records.
In both cases, the lawyer waited until after business hours on the last
day an appeal could be filed and then blamed a malfunctioning filing
machine for his tardiness, according to a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals
opinion issued last week. The court chastised the attorney for using the
same excuse twice.
The opinion pointed out that based on the problems in the previous capital
case, the lawyer already knew the machine was broken and could have easily
filed electronically by using his computer.
Most of the late filings came in death row cases overseen by federal
judges in the Southern District of Texas. In an interview, U.S. District
Judge Hayden Head, the Corpus Christi-based chief judge of the Southern
District, said he was unaware of the problem and could not comment.
The Houston Chronicle reviewed records in 9 appeals that were filed too
late. In some cases, lawyers or judges appear to have miscalculated or
misunderstood the dates of the deadlines, which generally fall 1 year
after state appeals are concluded. In others, computer failures or human
foibles are blamed, records show.
"Any decent judges would be deeply ashamed of the quality of legal
representation in most capital cases in Texas," said Stephen Bright, a
leading specialist in capital case law and who directs the Southern Center
for Human Rights in Atlanta. "The very least they could do about it would
be to prohibit lawyers who miss the statute of limitations from taking
another case and referring them to the Bar for disciplinary proceedings."
One last chance
A federal writ of habeas corpus a right guaranteed by the Constitution
usually gives an inmate a last chance to have the courts review errors or
overlooked evidence that could invalidate a conviction or death sentence.
Jerome Godinich, the attorney in both Johnson and Thurmond's cases,
appears to be the only Texas attorney to have filed too late in more than
1 recent death row appeal, based on the 9 cases reviewed. He also filed
late in a 3rd Texas death row case, records show.
In the 3rd case, however, a Houston-based U.S. district judge took so long
to appoint Godinich that the appellate deadline already had lapsed. Court
records show Godinich requested more time but took 162 days to file the
appeal. The judge then ruled that it, too, was too late to be considered,
Godinich did not respond to several telephone and e-mail requests for an
interview. He has faced no fines or other public penalties from the
Houston-based federal judges who both appointed and paid him to represent
the 3 men.
Late appeals not tracked
In the case of Johnson, the inmate executed in February for a 1995 rape
and murder, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson said the
federal district judge considered other legal arguments, though the appeal
ultimately was rejected for being filed too late. She said such mistakes
were rare in Harris County cases.
The Texas Attorney Generals Office, which handles federal appeals, has
moved aggressively in several cases to get late filings dismissed on
behalf of the state. But spokesman Jerry Strickland said the office does
not keep track of how often or how many federal appeals have been filed
Thurmond, a Montgomery County mechanic on death row for the murders of his
estranged wife and his neighbor, said Wednesday he had never been told
that his federal appeals had been denied both by the U.S. District Court
in Houston last year and by the 5th Circuit last week.
He said he hadn't seen or heard from his attorney in more than a year.
"So what am I supposed to do now?" he asked.
A jury concluded that Thurmond, who had no previous criminal history, shot
and killed his wife and neighbor in 2001, the same day that his wife
sought a protective order and took their son to live with the neighbor.
Thurmond says he is innocent. But the only issues raised by his lawyer in
his appeal, filed too late, were that his trial attorney failed to
investigate allegations that Thurmond was abused as a child and a jury
might have spared his life because of it.
James Marcus, an expert in capital case law who teaches in the Capital
Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, said missing
the deadline for a federal writ of habeas corpus thereby waiving all
federal review is the equivalent of "sleeping through the trial."
Federal courts, he noted, have overturned several recent Texas death cases
for errors overlooked by state judges, including one involving allegations
of discriminatory jury selection by Harris County prosecutors. Federal
judges also awarded a new trial to another Montgomery County death row
inmate this year based on new evidence presented about forensic errors in
Sought new attorney
Quintin Phillippe Jones, another Texas death row inmate who also recently
lost his federal appeal because of an attorney's tardiness, said he did
everything he could to alert the federal courts to report problems months
before his Fort Worth attorney blew his federal deadline. Jones wrote
letters to the judge, filed 2 motions with the help of other prisoners in
an attempt to get another attorney, and even sent 2 separate complaints to
the state bar. Nothing worked.
"I heard he didn't file (on time) through another lawyer," Jones said.
"I'm the one who pays for his mistake. It cost a lot, and I'm paying for
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Death row inmate loses appeal on mental illness
A Texas death row inmate who came within hours of execution has lost an
appeal. His lawyers argued in a federal appeals court that he's too
mentally ill to be put to death.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal from Jeffery
Wood, 35, condemned for the January 1996 slaying of Kriss Keeran at a
convenience store in Kerrville, Texas.
Wood was convicted of capital murder even though he sat in the car outside
while his roommate, Daniel Reneau, fatally shot Keeran, 31. Under Texas
law, a participant in a capital murder is equally guilty of the crime.
Both men then robbed the store, taking more than $11,000 in cash and
Reneau was executed in 2002.
Wood was scheduled to die last August, but a federal judge delayed the
lethal injection hours before the execution so Wood could be tested to
determine whether he's mentally able to understand why he should be
executed. He does not have an execution date.
In the appeal to the New Orleans-based appeals court, Wood's lawyers
contended they needed a 2nd expert to examine Wood.
"Mr. Wood lacks a rational understanding of his death sentence and of the
reasons for his imminent execution," attorney Scott Sullivan said in his
motion filed earlier this week.
Prosecutors argued Wood already had an expert "of his own choosing."
Last summer, Sullivan said in a motion that he met with Wood and that the
prisoner told him he believed his trial judge was corrupt but would accept
a $100,000 bribe and then deport him to Norway where he could live with
his wife. Sullivan said Wood also believed the government will pay him
$50,000 a year once he's released and that he's willing to give that money
to the judge.
The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of prisoners determined to
be mentally disabled, but that protection has not extended to those with
(source: Associated Press)