State to handle capital appeals
Texas, which executes more convicts than any other state in the nation,
will open its 1st capital defense office next year to manage appeals for
death row inmates after years of reports that appointed private attorneys
repeatedly botched the job.
"The status quo has been an international embarrassment," said state Sen.
Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the law that created the office. It
was supported by an unusual alliance between the State Bar of Texas, the
Court of Criminal Appeals and public defense advocates, who all backed it
in the last legislative session.
The law was inspired by a series of stories about Texas inmates who lost
crucial appeals after court-appointed attorneys missed deadlines or filed
only so-called "skeletal" writs documents with little information often
copied from other cases. It represents a significant reform for Texas, one
of the only capital punishment states that lacks a public defender to
oversee key death row appeals known as state writs of habeas corpus.
The office, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a staff of 9,
won't open soon enough to help any of the inmates whose appellate rights
were squandered recently.
"Better late than never," said Juan Castillo, 1 of 4 death row inmates
whose state appeals were never filed by the San Antonio attorney assigned
to represent them. "This is a start. There's a lot of cases" that have
been screwed up.
Ellis first introduced the bill in 2007 in response to reports about how
death row inmates' lawyers had mismanaged appeals. But the bill was
blocked then by last-minute lobbying from Harris County's former DA.
In the aftermath, appellate mistakes continued. The Houston Chronicle
reported earlier this year that 3 attorneys had repeatedly blown state or
federal appellate deadlines for their death row clients, effectively
surrendering their clients' rights to appeal. The Court of Criminal
Appeals recently found 2 attorneys in contempt of court for their shoddy
work, including Castillo's lawyer, Suzanne Kramer, and referred them to
the State Bar of Texas for possible disciplinary action.
Kramer has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Governor signed bill
By the 2009 legislative session, remaining opposition to establishing a
state capital defense office had virtually disappeared, Ellis said. The
law was approved late in the session and signed by the governor last
"I think that everyone agrees (death row inmates) deserve one fair shot at
presenting their issues, whether they're meritorious or not," said Andrea
Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. "We saw too
many cases where poor state habeas representation forced people to lose
The Office of Capital Writs will be funded by redirecting money already in
the state budget: $500,000 formerly used to pay private attorneys for
appeals and $494,520 from the state's Fair Defense account, already
earmarked for indigent defense. Ultimately, its attorneys will likely
handle most state appeals about 10 a year, if the current pace of death
State writs of habeas corpus are considered the most critical step in
death row appeals. It is at that stage that any innocence claim,
allegation of prosecutorial misconduct, flawed trial defense or other
issue involving omissions or case errors must be raised or the arguments
cannot normally be raised later in the process.
The state writ of death row inmate Keith Thurmond, a former Montgomery
County mechanic on death row for the 2001 murders of his wife and her
lover, first was assigned to an inexperienced attorney who badly botched
it. He next was given a Houston attorney, Jerome Godinich, who failed to
file his federal appeal on time. Godinich, who has missed deadlines in 3
federal death row appeals, has blamed the mistake in Thurmond's case on
another lawyer and a faulty after-hours filing machine.
Thurmond fears that he will be executed before his innocence claim, or any
other challenges to the outcome of his 2002 trial, are ever heard by any
"I'm lost," he said. "I don't know what to do. I haven't had no
representation since I've been here."
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Texas Seeks To Improve Image In Death Penalty Cases
Texas, the death penalty capital of the country, seems to be looking to
change its ways.
The state has passed legislation creating a capital defense office next
year, which will handle appeals for death row inmates, according to this
article from the Houston Chronicle.
The appellate office will have a staff of 9 and a budget of about $1
Texas has gotten roundly criticized over the years for its handling of
capital murder cases. There have been strange capital murder tales coming
out of the Lone Star state in recent years, including a capital murder
defendant represented by a sleeping lawyer; a defendant sentenced to death
by a judge who allegedly was having a secret affair with the prosecutor in
the case; and a defendant who was executed after he was barred from filing
an appeal after the 5:00 pm closing time of the state's highest criminal
appellate court. That later case prompted a move to impeach Sharon Keller,
a judge on the state's court of criminal appeals.
The Chron reports that the legislation creating the capital defense office
was inspired by stories of Texas inmates who lost appeals because their
lawyers missed deadlines or filed "skeletal" writs, which contained only
scant information often copied from other cases.
"The status quo has been an international embarrassment," state senator
Rodney Ellis, who sponsored the legislation, told the Chron.
(source: Wall Street Journal)
Slain infant's mother mentally ill, her family says
The 33-year-old San Antonio woman accused of decapitating her infant son
and eating parts of his body had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and
postpartum psychosis, family members said Monday.
Otty Sanchez said she killed Scott Wesley Buchholz Sanchez on Sunday with
a steak knife and two swords before mutilating the baby and eating parts
of his body, including his brain, nose and toes, police said.
She has been charged with capital murder and remained under 24-hour
observation Monday at University Hospital, where she was treated for
self-inflicted knife wounds.
The father of the baby now is asking that she receive the death penalty.
"She was a sweet person and I still love her, but she needs to pay the
ultimate price for what she has done," said Scott W. Buchholz, who
referred to his child as "baby Scotty."
Sanchez's relatives are hoping authorities will take into consideration
her history of mental illness, which included a recent diagnosis of
"It's just tragic and unbelievable what happened," said Greg Garcia,
Sanchez's first cousin who considers her a sister. "She was a good,
hard-working person, but she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia last
Child Protective Services officials said the agency has never investigated
Sanchez. On Monday, the agency was at the home of the woman's mother,
where early Sunday morning police found the mutilated body. Sanchez is the
aunt to two young children, 5 and 6, who live there.
Police said the 2 children, their mother, and Sanchez's mother were in the
home at the time of the slaying. The adult women had taken turns caring
for baby Scotty at night. Sanchez's shift began at 1:30 p.m. Her sister
discovered the baby's body about 4:30 a.m. and called police about 5 a.m.
Sanchez told detectives that she was "hearing voices" and the devil made
her kill the baby boy she had given birth to June 30, police said.
The Bexar County District Attorney's Office will review the homicide
detectives' recommended capital murder charge, which is punishable by the
"You can still be prosecuted if you have some form of mental illness,"
said Bexar County First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg. "The
test is if you understand the difference between right and wrong. The
question is whether or not you know your act is wrong."
Defense attorneys can request competency hearings to determine whether
Sanchez is fit to stand trial.
Relatives said Sanchez's mental health had severely deteriorated in the
week before baby Scotty's death. On July 20, she moved out of the home she
was sharing with the baby's father.
That day she checked herself into a hospital after hearing voices, but she
soon checked herself out. She then took the baby to her mother's home.
Buchholz called her every day to persuade her to return to their home.
She reappeared about 2 p.m. Saturday at Buchholz's parent's home.
"We were so happy to see Scotty again," said Buchholz.
She was at the home for about 15 minutes when Buchholz told Sanchez that
he needed a copy of baby Scotty's birth certificate and Social Security
card. The request seemed to set her off, Buchholz said.
"She grabbed the baby and just said, 'I gotta go. I gotta go. I'm out of
Sanchez and Buchholz met in 2003, while enrolled in the San Antonio
College of Medical and Dental Assistance. The relationship was on and off
for the past 6 years, but they became more dedicated after learning she
was pregnant last year, relatives said.
Buchholz also has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Buchholz said Sanchez
had been hospitalized for her mental illness at least once.
(source: San Antonio Express-News)