Can Austin County afford 4 capital cases?—-Decision still pending on
whether to seek death in Bellville slaying, a costly prospect
Less than an hour's drive from downtown Houston, rural Austin County
prides itself on bucolic charm. Progressive Farmer magazine cites it as
"one of the absolute best" places to live, and, with a population of only
27,000 scattered over 656 square miles, visitors are as likely to
encounter grazing cattle as human inhabitants.
Tranquility was shattered in August, though, when authorities allege four
men murdered a prominent Houston physician during a botched attempt to
kidnap his pregnant wife. Grand jurors last week indicted the men on
capital murder charges.
The suspects' speedy arrest and indictment is a bittersweet victory,
though, for longtime District Attorney Travis Koehn. Now his 3-man office,
which typically handles a dozen trials a year and hasn't sought the death
penalty in more than 2 decades, could be prosecuting 4 such cases, each of
which could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Such staffing and financial burdens are the bane of small-town district
attorneys, with some protracted death penalty cases forcing their counties
to raise taxes to cover expenses.
"It's a very, very big burden," said Elna Christopher, spokeswoman for the
Texas Association of Counties. "It just wreaks havoc with the whole
Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski described her county's predicament as
one fairly large unknown." If Koehn elects to seek death for all 4
defendants, who almost certainly are indigent, the county will be obliged
to provide each with 2 lawyers.
State assistance is available to hard-pressed counties the governor's
office offers financial help for prosecutors, the Task Force on Indigent
Defense helps defray expenses for court-appointed lawyers, and the
Attorney General's Office sometimes provides prosecutors.
But, Christopher noted, financial help comes in the form of reimbursement
after a trial's conclusion. Counties still are stuck with up-front costs.
Indigent defense payments, she said, typically cover 10 % of a county's
Koehn last week said he hasn't determined whether to seek death in all the
cases but vowed to "not shirk our responsibility just because we have a
lot more work." The prosecutor said he likely will ask the Attorney
General's Office for assistance.
Facing capital murder prosecution in the Aug. 22 fatal shooting of Dr.
Jorge Mario Gonzalez, 56, a pulmonary specialist who headed The Methodist
Hospital's critical care section, are ranch hand Noel Cerna, 21; his
brothers Cristobal Cerna, 23, and Moises Cerna, 18; and the Cernas'
cousin, Misael Santollo, 18.
Gonzalez was killed as he traded gunshots with 4 men after they ambushed
the doctor, his wife and their 18-month-old child at the family ranch near
Bellville. Authorities believe the attackers intended to rob and kidnap
Defense covering bases
Calvin Garvie, a Bellville lawyer assigned to defend Santollo, declined to
discuss the allegations against his client other than to say, "I always
believe they're innocent."
Houston lawyer James Rivera, who is representing Noel Cerna, said he and
co-counsel Katherine Scardino have launched their own investigation but
"have a long way to go."
"We have to operate at this point as if the death penalty is a
possibility," he said. "Koehn has not tipped his hand."
If Koehn seeks the death penalty, it will mark the first time an Austin
County prosecutor has done so since 1988, when Billy Hughes was tried and
convicted a 2nd time for the 1976 murder of Texas Department of Public
Safety Trooper Mark Frederick.
Koehn, who was involved in that prosecution, handled 1 other capital
murder case but didn't seek the death penalty.
Other area prosecutors and county officials know the hard choices Koehn
faces in plotting his strategy.
Last winter, Wharton County commissioners approved funds to temporarily
hire Kelly Siegler, a former Harris County assistant district attorney, to
help District Attorney Josh McCown in Wharton's first death penalty trial
in 29 years.
Jurors convicted and condemned the defendant, James Freeman, for the
murder of game warden Justin Hurst.
'Not a perfect system'
Seeking the death penalty, McCown said, requires the full-time work of 2
prosecutors. Unless additional staffing is obtained, catching up with the
mounting caseload virtually is impossible. Thus, he said, "a lot of little
counties never send anyone to death row."
"This is one of those things a district attorney doesn't like to talk
about," McCown said. "You don't want to think that you're letting money
come into play. You ought to consider the facts of a case and make your
decisions in a vacuum. In a perfect world, that's the way you do it. But
in a county this size, you have to consider the level of expertise, the
financial resources. If you don't, you're stupid. This is not a perfect
system or a perfect world."
Jasper County Judge Mark Allen said his county spent upward of $1.5
million in the trials of 3 white men indicted in the 1998 dragging death
of James Byrd Jr. Byrd, who was black, was dragged three miles behind the
men's truck in what prosecutors successfully argued was a hate crime.
Even though the U.S. Department of Justice provided about $100,000 in
assistance, county commissioners still had to raise taxes to cover costs,
"It created a powerful financial burden," he said.
In the Austin County case, Koehn said trials likely won't begin until late
"We have 4 different defendants. We'll be dealing with eight attorneys.
Our district judge covers 3 counties, so every third month we have a
regular felony trial," the district attorney said in explaining the delay.
"But people who commit crimes in Austin County are held accountable," he
added. "They pay the highest price there is to pay."
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Rules of Texas politics
Re: "Perry blocks search for truth," Join the Debate, Thursday Viewpoints.
Tracey from Australia is "dumbfounded" and wonders how Gov. Rick Perry is
allowed to "get away with this stuff." Well, I have a quick primer in
Texas politics for her.
You see, here in Texas, if you love guns but hate abortion, gays and
government, you get a free pass on everything else. The politicians
learned this long ago, and with nothing to fear, they milk it for all it
Michael J. Harrity, Dallas
Politicians must admit mistakes
Re: "No More Delays — Perry maneuver in Willingham case a cheap stunt,"
I, for one, am outraged by the conduct of Gov. Rick Perry in his
replacement of the chairman of the state's forensic science panel. This
governor has great difficulty acknowledging his mistakes, and in this
case, a possibly innocent man's life hung in the balance.
Among the most important guarantees of our Constitution is the right to a
fair trial with scrupulous attention to the rules of evidence. When it is
discovered that a conviction is based on flawed evidence, the convicted
party has a right to a new trial with any new evidence presented to the
Our governor refused that right posthumously to Todd Willingham and is now
trying to cover up his erroneous decision.
When politicians reach a point that they can admit a grievous error, our
country will take a giant step forward.
Fred H. Speno, Dallas
(source: Letters to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)
County forensic examiner caught up in controversy over 2004 execution
Hidalgo Countys chief forensic pathologist will join a state body charged
with investigating negligence and misconduct at Texas' crime labs, Gov.
Rick Perry said last week.
But the appointment of Dr. Norma Jean Farley has erupted into a
controversy that has critics questioning the governor's decision to shake
up the membership of the 8-person panel.
On Wednesday 2 days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was set
to examine a dubious arson investigation used to sentence a Corsicana man
to death Perry announced he would replace 3 of the panel's members. The
newly appointed chairman canceled the Friday meeting to give new members
time to review the case.
"I'm just thrilled to be selected for this," Farley said Friday. "But
somehow I got caught in the middle of this argument I knew nothing about."
The case of Cameron Todd Willingham has recently drawn attention from
national media outlets ranging from CNN to The New Yorker magazine as well
as death penalty opponents, who consider it one of the most likely
instances in decades of an innocent man being put to death.
Convicted in 1992 of setting a house fire that killed his 3 daughters,
Willingham maintained his innocence up until his execution in 2004.
Perry has repeatedly said he was convinced of Willingham's guilt when he
refused to commute the man's sentence. The governor described his decision
to appoint new members to the commission as "pretty standard business as
usual," The Associated Press reported last week.
Commission chairman and Austin defense attorney Sam Bassett, Tarrant
County Assistant District Attorney Alan Levy and forensic scientist Aliece
Watts all had terms set to expire Sept. 1 although at least Bassett had
requested another appointment, he said Friday.
They will be replaced by Farley, Williamson County District Attorney John
Bradley and a defense attorney yet to be named by the governor.
"It was disappointing," Bassett said of his dismissal. "I'm concerned that
the timing came so close to the meeting. So many people had worked so hard
to prepare for this."
Bassett refused to speculate on the governor's motivation in removing him
from the panel, but Barry Scheck co-director of the New York-based
Innocence Project compared Perry's move to one that President Richard
Nixon made in 1973.
"Rather than let this important hearing go forward and the report be
heard, the governor fires the independent chairman and two other members
of this commission," Scheck said in a written statement. "It's like Nixon
firing (special prosecutor) Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the
Scheck's organization has helped overturn dozens of Texas convictions
using newly analyzed DNA evidence. It is one of several groups that have
examined the Willingham case over the past several years and come to the
conclusion that his conviction hinged on an arson report that amounts to
Independent arson expert Craig Beyler reviewed the case for the Forensic
Science Commission and was scheduled to present his report on Friday. In
it he states the previous investigation is "hardly consistent with a
scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics."
Even the Navarro County prosecutors who secured Willingham's conviction
have conceded the original arson investigation was flawed but have since
held that plenty of other evidence existed to convict him.
Farley said Friday that she learned of her appointment to the commission 2
weeks ago and has been caught off guard by the political conflagration
that followed it. While the panel has no authority to find Willingham's
guilt or innocence, she is eager to give the case another look.
"I'll look at anything that comes our way, fair and impartially," she
(source: The Monitor)