death penalty news—TEXAS

August 25


Cameron Todd Willingham case: Expert says fire for which father was
executed was not arson—-Texas panel reviewing execution of father for
setting deadly blaze

In a withering critique, a nationally known fire scientist has told a
state commission on forensics that Texas fire investigators had no basis
to rule a deadly house fire was an arson — a finding that led to the
murder conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.

The finding comes in the first state-sanctioned review of an execution in
Texas, home to the country's busiest death chamber. If the commission
reaches the same conclusion, it could lead to the first-ever declaration
by an official state body that an inmate was wrongly executed.

Indeed, the report concludes there was no evidence to determine that the
December 1991 fire was even set, and it leaves open the possibility the
blaze that killed three children was an accident and there was no crime at
all — the same findings found in a Chicago Tribune investigation of the
case published in December 2004.

Willingham, the father of those children, was executed in February 2004.
He protested his innocence to the end.

The Tribune obtained a copy of the review by Craig Beyler, of Hughes
Associates Inc., which was conducted for the Texas Forensic Science
Commission, created to investigate allegations of forensic error and
misconduct. The re-examination of the Willingham case comes as many
forensic disciplines face scrutiny for playing a role in wrongful
convictions that have been exposed by DNA and other scientific advances.

Among Beyler's key findings: that investigators failed to examine all of
the electrical outlets and appliances in the Willinghams' house in the
small Texas town of Corsicana, did not consider other potential causes for
the fire, came to conclusions that contradicted witnesses at the scene,
and wrongly concluded Willingham's injuries could not have been caused as
he said they were.

The state fire marshal on the case, Beyler concluded in his report, had
"limited understanding" of fire science. The fire marshal "seems to be
wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries
are created," he wrote.

The marshal's findings, he added, "are nothing more than a collection of
personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire

Over the past 5 years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by 9 of the
nation's top fire scientists — first for the Tribune, then for the
Innocence Project, and now for the commission. All concluded that the
original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify
the determination of arson.

The only other evidence of significance against Willingham was another
inmate who testified that Willingham had confessed to him. Jailhouse
snitches are viewed with skepticism in the justice system, so much so that
some jurisdictions have restrictions against their use.

Samuel Bassett, an attorney who is the chairman of the commission, said
the panel will seek a response from the state fire marshal and then write
its own report.

Contacted Monday, one of Willingham's cousins said she was pleased with
the report but was skeptical that state officials would acknowledge
Willingham's innocence.

"They are definitely going to have to respond to it," said Pat Cox. "But
it's difficult for me to believe that the State of Texas or the governor
will take responsibility and admit they did in fact wrongfully execute
Todd. They'll dance around it."

(source: Chicago Tribune)


Expert Hits Arson Finding in Case that Led to Defendant's Execution

A nationally known expert has concluded that a fire was not arson, a
finding that contradicted trial testimony that led to the conviction and
execution of a Texas man.

The expert, Craig Beyler, reviewed the case of Cameron Todd Willingham for
the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created to investigate allegations
of forensic mistakes, the Chicago Tribune reports. The newspaper obtained
a copy of his report.

Willingham was convicted of murder for the deaths of his 3 children who
perished in the fire. Beyler is 1 of 9 top fire scientists who have
reviewed the case and found that the original investigators relied on
outdated theories and folklore, the story says.

Beyler wrote that the state fire marshal investigating the case "seems to
be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire
injuries are created."

(source: ABA Journal)


Some killers shake my stance on execution

By a strict accounting of the facts, James Broadnax isn't a particular
standout from the other sad sacks and misfits whose sorry histories led
them to death row. He has confessed to killing two people for a few bucks
and a car, a crime as incalculably stupid as it was cruel.

By state law, this made him an eligible candidate for capital punishment.
Whether the facts of the crime alone would have earned him the maximum
sentence is anybody's guess. The random combinations of juries and judges,
lawyers, witnesses and victims make every trial a little different, even
when the crude and brutal crimes seem numbingly familiar.

But James Broadnax sealed the deal all by his lonesome. He made his own
awful dog of a case about a hundred times worse, confessing to the
killings with showy indifference, proudly doodling gang graffiti in jail,
laughing in the courtroom when his victim's stricken mother broke down on
the witness stand.

It's a testament to his lawyers' commitment that they didn't throttle him
themselves. They worked hard and put forth the best defense they could,
with no help from their obnoxious client. He made himself a death penalty
poster boy.

Broadnax was so repulsive a defendant, in fact, that he shook District
Attorney Craig Watkins' stated reservations on capital punishment.

"I'm working through this right now. It's difficult," he told The Dallas
Morning News on Friday, after Broadnax was sentenced to death for the June
2008 murder of Stephen Swan, who was killed along with fellow Garland
musician Matthew Butler. "This guy didn't have any remorse whatsoever. And
maybe it's true that there are just people out there that need to be dealt
with in this way."

I sympathize with the DA's conflicted sentiments.

It's easy (especially among the rank and file of orthodox liberal
journalists) to oppose the death penalty, particularly when it has been
unfairly or arbitrarily applied.

When a defendant gets railroaded to confess and his lawyer sleeps through
the trial, you start thinking, let's just get rid of it. That way, we
never, ever run the risk of executing the wrong person.

What do we do, then, with the James Broadnaxes, that infinitesimal
category of despicable, perversely proud, deliberately unsalvageable
capital offender?

I don't know, because the death penalty opponent who can look at this guy
with absolutely unshaken conviction is more committed to principle than I
can manage. The law is meant to be indifferent and dispassionate, applied
according to rule, not emotion.

Yet the terrible things human beings sometimes do aren't abstract. They
couldn't be more personal, more destructive, more ruinous to order,
decency and innocence.

As an ex-court reporter, I have covered the trials of pitiful screwups,
people who hadn't really planned to kill, or at least were later sorry
that they did. Some of them killed because they panicked, or because they
were dumb and weak and somebody led them into it. Locking them up, perhaps
permanently, is enough.

But I have also covered trials of genuine monsters: a psychopath who raped
and murdered a baby, an empty-eyed teenager who stabbed a trusting elderly
neighbor to death for a jar full of change.

I covered the trial of a married, reasonably educated, well-brought-up man
who liked to dress in camouflage and terrorize young couples parked on a
local lovers' lane. He coldly slaughtered two college students when one of
them recognized him from high school.

Having seen those people and the damage they did, I cannot bring myself to
say, unequivocally, that there should be no death penalty.

"I don't know that I ever will get to the position where I can say I'm for
or against" capital punishment, Watkins said.

I don't know that I will, either.

(source: Column, Jacquielynn Floyd, Dallas Morning News)


Man accused of killing officer had sued Santa Fe

A Houston man who is accused of gunning down a Pasadena police officer
last week had previously sued the city of Sante Fe for police brutality.

In April the city agreed to settle the police-abuse lawsuit for $125,000.
At that time Sergio Robles said he wanted the 2 police officers involved
in the beating incident to be fired.

"I want to see them fired because they already done this to somebody else,
and I don't want it to happen again," Robles had said.

In the federal lawsuit, Robles accused two officers of beating and
spraying him with pepper spray while he was pinned to the ground on Aug.
21, 2006. That's exactly 3 years to the date of the Pasadena police
officer shooting.

The city settled the lawsuit after a jury acquitted Robles of a resisting
arrest charge.

On Monday, his then-lawyer, Randall Kallinen, said he was shocked when he
learned Robles had been involved in Friday's incident that left Officer
Jesse Hamilton dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

"It was a complete surprise," Kallinen said. "From my knowing him, I would
have never expected anything like this to occur."

Kallinen said Robles, 24, was recently diagnosed as schizophrenic and was
prescribed medication. He described his former client as "pretty

The coincidence of Robles being involved in 2 police altercations on the
same date, he said, is just that coincidence.

"It's unbelievable," said Pasadena Police spokesman Vance Mitchell. "I
can't say anything else."

Pasadena authorities said Robles shot and killed 29-year-old Hamilton
during an early morning disturbance call. Hamilton was talking to Robles'
mother at the front door of her trailer home on Bob Street, when Robles
came to the door and fired at the officer. Another officer shot Robles
seconds later, police said.

Robles' mother called police because her son had become agitated over a
disturbance between he and his wife that had carried over from the night
before, police said.

Robles also had just been released from Harris County Jail on a DWI charge
the day before the shooting. Kallinen questioned whether Robles had
received his medicine while he was jail. Harris County jail officials said
they could not comment about Robles' medical history because of federal
privacy laws.

Robles, who was shot in the head, remained at Memorial Hermann
Hospital-Texas Medical Center on Monday. Hospital officials, however, said
they could not release any information about his condition.

He has been charged with capital murder and aggravated assault.

Meanwhile, Pasadena police and Hamilton's family spent Monday preparing
for his funeral. Hamilton joined the department in January 2005 and was
the father of 2 girls. His services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at
Grace Community Church, 14505 Gulf Freeway in Houston.

(source: Houston Chronicle)