death penalty news—-TEXAS

August 26


Prosper murder suspect's death sentence overturned by appeals court

A federal appeals court overturned the death penalty sentence of a man
convicted for a Prosper robbery style murder because of his mental

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals filed a 2 to 1 decision to stop the
execution of 42-year-old Eric Lynn Moore who has been sitting on Texas
death row since 1991.

A Collin County district court convicted and sentenced Moore to death
along with Kenneth Eugene Bruce in connection with the robbery and murder
of 54-year-old Helen Elizabeth Ayers and 58-year-old Robert Ayers of
Prosper on Dec. 10, 1990.

Moore, Bruce, Sam Andrews Jr. and Anthony Quinn Bruce who was a juvenile
at the time went to Ayers home and asked for help because their car broke
down. Mrs. Ayers invited them in and after they entered the home, the
suspects produced weapons and demanded money and jewelry. Mr. and Mrs.
Ayers were forced into a bedroom and shot twice each. Mrs. Ayers died from
gun shot wounds to the head and leg. Mr. Ayers was shot twice in the back
and survived. Moore is currently on Death Row. Kenneth Bruce was executed
by lethal injection on Jan. 14, 2004. Andrews and Anthony Bruce were
sentenced to life in prison.

The 5th Circuit Court upheld a previous ruling from the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals late last week.

"After considering the evidence, the district court found Moore to be
mentally retarded," the court wrote, "and enjoyed the State from executing

Moore's attorney, Scott Smith of Sherman, said he and his co-counsel had
been working since 2002 on getting a higher court to examine Moore's
"element of retardation" in his murder conviction.

"It's taken us that long to get to the point we're at now," Smith said.

Smith said the state's standard for determining mental retardation in
criminal cases had not been specifically established by the Texas

"When Atkins (a legal claim for mental retardation) came out in 2002, it
did not define for practioners what retardation is," Smith said. "So we
left it to the state to determine retardation and Eric was one first cases
to come through the pike, Texas had not established that standard–That
uncertainty caused the case to go up and down the district courts and
federal courts."

The 5th Circuit Court agreed Moore had met that standard or as Smith put
it, "at least 2 of them did."

Circuit Judge Jerry Smith cast the only dissenting vote on Moore's case.

"Haphazardly-applied standards of review, casually-read caselaw and
superficially-scrutinized evidence make for an unfortunate combination,"
Judge Smith wrote in his dissenting opinion. "Here, they result in shallow
analysis and the wrong result. The only mitigation is that the majority
opinion is unpublished, so it is not binding on anyone or any court."

A representative from the Texas Attorney General's Office said prosecutors
have until Sept. 4 to submit a petition to rehear the case in a higher
court. The same representative could not be reached for additional comment
by presstime.

(source: McKinney Courier-Gazette)


Report faults arson convictions that put 2 Texas men on death row

Arson investigations that put 2 Texas men on death row were poorly
conducted and reached conclusions that couldn't be supported by fire
science or investigative standards, an independent expert hired by the
state concluded in a report released Tuesday.

The new study comports with findings in 2006 of 5 fire-investigation
experts hired by the Innocence Project: that The determination that the
fires were intentionally set was based on faulty and obsolete myths about
fire behavior.

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in February 2004 for setting his
house on fire and killing his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins.

He protested his innocence up until his execution.

Ernest Willis, convicted in 1987 of a fire that killed 2 women, was
released from death row in October 2004 after a district attorney directed
a fresh investigation and concluded that junk science was used to convict

The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired Dr. Craig L. Beyler of
Maryland to conduct the new study.

He found that both investigations failed to meet modern or contemporaneous
understandings about how fire behaves. "The investigators had poor
understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge" when the
evidence was insufficient to draw any conclusions, he said.

The Texas Fire Commission did not return calls seeking comment.

Forensic Science Commission chairman Sam Basset called the 64-page report
a major 1st step but cautioned that it is not the end of the

"The commission will request a response from the Texas State Fire
Marshal's Office and other interested parties involved in the cases," he
said, adding that the final report is likely to be issued in the 1st half
of 2010.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, had urged the commission to undertake such
as study.

"Dr. Craig Beyler's report on the Todd Willingham case confirms what
numerous other experts have already said: The arson investigators used
disproven scientific theories to come to the conclusion that this was a
case of arson," Ellis said.

He commended the Forensic Science Commission for continuing its
consideration of the case and said he would await their judgment. But he
added that, "this case has given many of us pause for years."

John Howard Jackson, who prosecuted Willingham in 1992, said in an earlier
interview that he agreed that the investigative techniques were flawed but
still believes that Willingham was guilty. He pointed to the lack of burns
on Willingham's feet and his confession to a fellow inmate in the county

In his report, Beyler said evidence of the burns Willingham suffered were
well-documented, including scorch marks on his hands, singed hair on his
chest and head, and a burn on his shoulder, which Willingham attributed to
falling plaster as he crawled blindly on the floor of his childrens
smoke-filled room looking for them.

Beyler noted that the chief investigator, then-state Fire Marshall Manuel
Vasquez testified that an accelerant was used to start the fire and that
Willingham was not injured fighting to get his children out.

"FM Vasquez seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of
fires and how fire injuries are created," Beyler stated.

He said that the fire marshal was directly contradicted by other evidence
and testimony and that his approach to the fire scene examination "is not
found in any text of the day."

Vasquez could not be reached for comment.

(source: Dallas Morning News)


Expert blasts fire investigation that led to execution

Key testimony that sent a Corsicana auto mechanic to the execution chamber
for setting a house fire that killed 3 young children was based on faulty
investigations that ignored eyewitness reports and failed to follow
accepted scientific procedures, an expert review of the case concludes.

While the 51-page report by nationally known fire scientist Craig Beyler
stops short of charging that Cameron Willingham wrongfully was sent to his
death, it dismisses as slipshod the investigations by Deputy State Fire
Marshal Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg.

Willingham maintained his innocence until his execution in 2004.

"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted
of a crime I did not commit," Willingham said from the death house gurney.

The men's investigations into the December 1991 blaze at Willingham's
residence failed to meet current standards of the National Fire Prevention
Association or even standards that were in place at the time of the fire,
Beyler wrote.

Some of the testimony Vasquez offered to support his claim that the fire
was set to kill Willingham's 1-year-old twins and 2-year-old stepdaughter,
Beyler contended, was "hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is
more characteristic of mystics or psychics."

Beyler performed the review for Baltimore-based Hughes Associates Inc., a
global fire protection engineering firm commissioned last year by the
Texas Forensic Science Commission. The commission was created by the
Legislature in response to the Houston Crime Lab scandal and other
irregularities at state forensic labs.

Commission Chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin lawyer, said the panel will
interview Beyler at its Oct. 2 meeting in Irving. Bassett said the
commission will seek a response from the state fire marshal's office.
Vasquez died in 1994.

"This is a major step in the commission's review," the chairman said in an
e-mail, "but it is by no means the end of the investigation."

Another investigation

The forensics commission also is reviewing a fatal 1986 West Texas arson
fire which led to oilfield worker Ernest Willis being sentenced to death.
Months before Willis' scheduled execution, a judge determined the man had
been convicted on faulty evidence.

Beyler's report is the 2nd review critical of the Corsicana

A 2008 study by 5 national fire experts commissioned by The Innocence
Project found much of the prosecution's expert testimony in Willingham's
trial was based on outdated and invalid investigative criteria. The panel
called for improved training for fire investigators and prosecutors who
handle such cases.

Former Navarro County District Attorney Jack Johnson, who prosecuted
Willingham, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In his review, Beyler charged that Fogg's official report made no mention
of examining electrical appliances or the ceiling fan in the children's
bedroom as possible causes of the blaze. Even after admitting that the
children could have set the fire and that a stain on the porch identified
in his testimony as an indicator of arson might have nothing to do with
the blaze, Fogg remained firm the fire was arson.

"He relied on his personal belief rather than using the scientific method
or the process of elimination," Beyler wrote. "In the end, the only
(basis) for the determination of arson … is the burn patterns on the
floor of the children's bedroom, the hallway and the porch interpreted as
accelerant spill. None of these determinations have any basis in modern
fire science."

Vasquez's conclusions were contradicted by eyewitnesses accounts of the
fire, Beyler found. Beyler also argued that Vasquez misread burn patterns,
erroneously concluding that they indicated the fire had been deliberately

The deputy fire marshal came in for harsh criticism for testimony that
implied his conclusions were infallible. In his testimony, Vasquez told
jurors that the fire clearly had been set with the intent of killing the
children and that Willingham's account of the fatal morning was false.

Both Fogg and Vasquez, Beyler found, had "poor understandings of fire
science," and their determination that the fire was arson could not be

(source: Houston Chronicle)

Comments are closed.