Welcome to Texas: The Death Penalty State
You know those billboards you see on the side of freeways advertising new
subdivisions built in rural areas outside of town? "If you lived here,
you'd be home by now."
Someone needs to throw up a similar one next to the "Welcome to Texas"
signs you hit when coming in on I-10.
"If you'd done what our Governor has done, you'd be executed by now."
As the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004, sinks like
a rock, the truth has started to float to the top and the rats are
streaming out from all sides, led by none other than Texas Governor Rick
Perry. Perry has reason to be running – his office denied clemency to
Willingham just before he was executed, despite the fact that new
information was submitted from arson experts stating that "no evidence of
arson" was found (see Dare Devils: Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Death
This is the same Rick Perry – as a native Texan who voted for the Democrat
in that election, I feel honor-bound to remind you – who won with only 39%
of the vote in 2006. Even Texans know that at best this makes him
unpopular. It also means that our Governor, his hair a-glaze, has his work
cut out for him in his re-election race.
So it should come as no surprise that Perry is now pawing the ground like
a cat in a litter box, covering his tracks. Inconveniently for him, the
stink remains. As the state's Forensic Science Commission, which was set
up to investigate the Willingham case, was preparing a report on the
validity of the arson investigation, Governor Perry decided to replace
three of the nine members appointed to the commission. The chairman of the
commission was replaced with Williamson County District Attorney John
Bradley, who the Dallas Morning News calls "one of the most conservative,
hard-line prosecutors in Texas." The timing, according to the Dallas
Morning News, disturbed the former chairman, Austin lawyer Sam Bassett.
"In my view, we should not fail to investigate important forensic issues
in cases simply because there might be political ramifications," Bassett
But political ramifications, particularly to a professional politician
who's been called everything from a "cyborg" to "Tricky Ricky," are
exactly what keeps our Texas Governor up at night, not the death of
innocent people, under-funded public schools, teen pregnancy rates or
children without health insurance.
For the rest of us, Willingham's final words are a chilling reminder
echoing in the news around the world this week nearly 6 years after his
execution: "I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I
have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."
But, ultimately, Governor Perry's statement regarding his not-so-covered
cover up says it better than anything I could ever write. In one moment at
a press conference this week, he took all that was taken from Cameron Todd
Willingham – a breath of life, a beat in his heart, an air of innocence –
and said, straight faced, that his decision to replace the board members
was, simply, "Business as usual."
Welcome to Texas.
Dare Devils: Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Death Panel
I've chosen to ignore most of the health care rhetoric. I know what I
believe — the health care industry is so clearly broken that a thousand
monkeys typing explanations of benefits could come up with that conclusion
— and I'm sick of hearing Republicans argue otherwise. But on the subject
of death panels, which Sarah Palin dropped into her recent Wall Street
Journal op-ed with a wink, like a 12-year old flashing a passing car —
"Dare me, guys?" — I find the conservative argument bordering on the edge
of delusional. Republicans like Sarah Palin need to stop playing truth or
dare with people's lives.
Since when do conservatives care about anyone dying? With the exception of
their fetish for protecting a few eggs produced by women's ovaries every
twenty-eight days, the Republican Party has historically shown zero regard
for whether anyone lives or dies. People die every day, buried with
medical bills and coughing blood from their graves. The slaughter of
Iraqis is neither shocking nor awesome. Immigrants scrambling across the
border are not deserving of a life in this country, legal or otherwise.
Former Republican Party of Texas vice chairman David Barton, now enjoying
an appointment by the Texas Board of Education, has so little regard for a
human's life that he wants to strike Cesar Chavez from the history books.
In Barton's "expert" review of Texas schools' social studies curriculum,
he says Chavez "lacks the stature, impact and overall contributions of
others." He forgot to add, "Who are white" after that statement.
But the most disturbing representation of a life lost was the one
sentenced to Cameron Todd Willingham, who in 1991 lost his three children
in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas and was sentenced to death after
refusing a plea-bargain for life in prison. The New Yorker recently took
an in-depth look at the case, asking, "Did Texas execute an innocent man?"
Willingham, who maintained his innocence up to his death, spent 12 years
in prison going through the government's appeals process. The Texas Court
of Criminal Appeals, whose presiding judge is conservative Sharon "We
Close at 5 O'Clock" Keller, "was known for upholding convictions when
overwhelming exculpatory evidence came to light." The court denied
Willingham of his writ of habeas corpus and a month before his execution,
his file landed on the desk of Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin scientist and
fire investigator who began reviewing the case. Hurst's report, which
concluded there was "no evidence of arson," (a conclusion which has since
been reached by three additional investigations) was sent to Governor Rick
Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles along with Willingham's appeal
for clemency. The board members are not required to review any submitted
materials, and "usually don't debate a case in person." Instead, they cast
their votes by fax — a process which, the New Yorker article states, "has
become known as 'death by fax.'" Even more troubling: "Between 1976 and
2004, when Willingham filed his petition, the State of Texas had approved
only one application for clemency from a prisoner on death row."
It is, in fact, Texas' own death panel.
Health care reform at best will offer an alternative to the people who
need it the most, stymie medical costs, and create change within an
industry that has been allowed to run rampant. At worst, it would be
symbolic proof that the option can be supported and improved from there.
In either case, it is not going to create a government panel to put people
to death. We already have one.
"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted
of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for
something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return,
so the Earth shall become my throne."
– Cameron Todd Willingham's final statement, February 17, 2004
(source: Rachel Farris, Huffington Post)
Crash kills ex-death row inmate month after freed
A Texas death row inmate freed after an appeals court overturned his
capital murder conviction has died in an East Texas pickup truck crash.
Michael Roy Toney, 43, died in an 11 a.m. Saturday crash in Cherokee
County when his truck veered off Farm Road 347, overturned and ejected and
crushed Toney, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Toney had spent almost 10 years on death row for the 1985 bombing deaths
of 3 people in a Lake Worth trailer, near Fort Worth. The Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals ruled in December that the prosecutor withheld evidence
that might have helped Toney at his 1999 trial.
The Tarrant County District Attorney's office didn't deny the assertion.
In January, it recused itself from the case "to avoid the appearance of
impropriety," said District Attorney Joe Shannon.
The state attorney general's office dropped the charges on Sept. 2 and
Toney was released pending a new investigation.
On Thanksgiving night 1985, 15-year-old Angela Blount found a suitcase on
the porch, took it inside the family's mobile home and opened it. A bomb
exploded and killed her; her father Joe Blount, 44; and her cousin Michael
Columbus, 18. Her 14-year-old brother and mother were also in the Lake
Worth trailer but survived.
The case remained unsolved until 1997, when Toney was arrested while
jailed on an unrelated charge after telling an inmate he committed the
bombing. But Toney later testified that it was a scam to get the inmate
released, and he played along because he thought the bombing happened when
he was behind bars for another offense, according to court records.
He had testified he learned about the bombing previously from another
inmate who had lived with Angela Blount's former boyfriend, who had been a
suspect before authorities cleared him, court records show.
Although Toney denied any involvement in the bombing, his ex-wife and
business partner gave detailed accounts in testifying that he was the
Angela Blount's mother, Susan Blount, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
for a story in Monday's editions that she still believes that Toney was
"If this is Michael Toney who died, then I can finally say it is over with
and I don't have to worry about Michael Toney any more," she told the
(source: Associated Press)
Jeannette Brown describes her ordeal with convicted killer David L.
Wood—-Face-to-face with a killer
She was only 14 years old, about 5 feet 2 inches tall when a man tried to
rape her in the Northeast desert in 1980 — an ordeal that lasted only 10
minutes but has haunted her for 29 years.
Jeannette Brown identified her attacker from a police photo album as David
Leonard Wood, who 12 years after the attack would be convicted of killing
6 girls and young women and then sentenced to death.
After news of Wood's pending execution brought back memories of the
painful experience, Brown, 43, visited the site of the attack last week
and told her story for the 1st time.
She said she would have been killed that day but Wood may have been
spooked by a car that was parked in the desert. That car belonged to a
police detective who was there on another case, a coincidence Brown
believes saved her life.
Wood escaped by only a few minutes.
If he had been caught, Brown said, Wood's victims would be alive now.
> Wood, who has denied killing the women, lost several appeals, and was
set to be executed Aug. 20 in Huntsville. However, the Texas Criminal
Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution on Aug. 19 and ordered a
hearing to determine if he is mentally retarded.
Brown traveled to El Paso to find out whether Wood had served time for the
alleged crime against her, and to help confirm that he was guilty of
killing the women.
"I have nothing to gain from this," Brown said. "I know he killed those
girls. He would have killed me, too."
A court convicted Wood in 1992 of murdering six girls and young women in
1987, and burying their bodies in shallow graves in the same desert area
he took Brown. Most of his victims were young and petite.
Brown crossed paths with Wood after an argument with her mother over a
She said she got upset after her mother told her she could not keep it.
"I bolted out of the house with the kitten and started walking towards
McCombs," she said. "I was crying when a white car pulled up alongside me.
The man in the car offered me a ride. I ignored him at first. He kept
insisting on giving me a ride, and I started to feel embarrassed by this
car that kept pace with me.
"I was still crying and feeling embarrassed, so I accepted the ride. But,
the moment I got inside his car, I knew I had made a terrible mistake."
Wood headed toward the desert between McCombs and Dyer. At the time, Wood
lived on Hermes Street, also in the Northeast. She remembers that a song
by Dr. Hook was playing on the car radio.
"We drove on a main road," Brown said. "I was in his car about five to
eight minutes when he took a turn into the desert and made another turn.
We passed a car that was parked there. Then, we went over a hill and
disappeared into the desert."
After he stopped, Wood used his right arm to pull Brown out of the car
through the driver's side.
Then, without warning, he slammed her on the ground hard and yelled,
"Don't ever get into a car with a (expletive) stranger."
Wood got on top of Brown and began groping her in a rough manner.
"I started screaming, and he started choking me. He choked me several
times. Then, I yelled out at him, 'I never did anything to you.'"
Wood stopped suddenly and said, 'I know, I know.'"
Brown said Wood seemed angry and worried about the screaming. He got up
and told her, "Don't (expletive) move. If you move I am going to
(expletive) kill you.'"
Wood went inside his car and sat there for a few minutes, while Brown sat
on the ground, paralyzed with fear.
"That's when I thought, this is it. He went to get a knife or some other
weapon, and he's going to kill me. This is how my life is going to end,"
she said. Wood started up his car and drove away slowly. Brown said she
spotted the kitten and picked it up once she knew she would be safe.
Shortly after that, the detective who was in the desert investigating a
man's death approached. The car she and Wood saw when they entered the
desert was his.
Brown was so scared she did not want to get into the detective's car even
after he showed her his badge.
"When I think back on this, the detective being out there that day is what
saved my life," she said. "The detective was so close to catching him. It
all happened so quick. If the police had caught Wood in the act that day
in the desert, none of the rest — the murders — would have happened.
They probably would have kept him locked up."
Several patrol cars drove to the site, and Brown agreed to let one of the
officers take her home.
She and her mother gave statements to police, and Brown went to the police
station to look at a photo album. Out of dozens of pictures, she picked
out Wood's mug as soon as she saw it.
Brown said her mother, who was widowed and was raising the family alone,
was reluctant to press charges because she feared retaliation by Wood.
Maria Brown, the mother, confirmed her daughter's account and accompanied
her daughter to the site of the alleged attack.
Wood has declined requests by the El Paso Times to be interviewed.
Nothing came of Jeannette Brown's report, and later, Jeannette Brown
contacted John Guerrero, a former detective who served on the Northeast
desert deaths task force. She offered to testify at Wood's murder trial,
but he told her they had enough witnesses available.
"After that, I suppressed the experience again," Jeannette Brown said. "I
had nightmares and crying spells. I left El Paso when I was 19 years old
because of what Wood did to me."
Jeannette Brown said she is willing to help authorities with the case if
they think her testimony will help.
"The girls (Wood) killed do not have a voice. They cannot tell anyone that
it was David Wood who took them to the desert and attacked them and killed
"I can, and I wasn't the only one there. There was a detective in the
desert who wrote down David Wood's license plate. He saw him go into the
desert with me. David Wood did the same thing to me that he did to those
little girls, the only difference is that I survived."
Wood was sentenced to death after a jury in Dallas convicted him in 1992
of the 1987 murders of Desiree Wheatley, Ivy Susanna Williams, Karen
Baker, Janet Casio, Dawn Smith and Angelica Frausto.
He is also a suspect in the 1987 disappearances of Marjorie Knox, Melissa
Alaniz and Cheryl Vasquez-Dismukes.
Lawyers with the Texas Defenders Service, which focuses on death row
cases, have filed a motion arguing that Wood should not be executed
because he is mentally retarded.
Jeannette Brown says the argument that Wood is mentally retarded is
"Absolutely not. He is a predator. He is very cunning," she said. "He knew
he had malicious intent. He knew exactly what he was doing. Retarded?
(source: El Paso Times)
Jury process starts today in trial
The process of selecting a jury in the trial of a Texas Department of
Criminal Justice offender charged with murdering a Huntsville TDCJ officer
in September 2007 begins today in Centerville.
Jerry Duane Martin, 39, will be tried in Leon County in the death of Susan
Canfield, a TDCJ officer who was killed when Martin and fellow inmate John
Ray Falk Jr., 41, escaped from the Wynne Unit off Farm-to-Market Road 2821
on Sept. 24, 2007.
State District Court Judge Kenneth Keeling of the 278th Judicial District
will try the case.
Falk's trial has not been scheduled.
Walker County Criminal District Attorney David Weeks said Martins trial is
being held in Leon County due to complications involving other sites.
"We will be bringing in the intitial panel for the trial," Weeks said as
proceedings start at 9 a.m. today. "The judge will qualify them and we
will provide a quetionnaire they will fill out.
"Then both sides will have Tuesday to look at the questionnaire and then
we will star talking to the jurors individually, which is the process in a
death penalty trial."
Weeks said they expect to talk to 7 jurors a day, which is "a pretty long
He said 350 people have been summoned in Leon County.
He expects the jury selection to take at least 3 to 4 weeks.
"We will qualify close to 50 people," he said. "Once we have that many
people, we will go through the list starting with the 1st juror.
"The prosecution gets to accept or reject. If we accept, then the choice
goes to the defense. We each get 15 preemptor strikes we can use anyway we
"As we go through the process, we will certainly pick alternates, but we
haven't decided how many at this point. We will use the preemptor to go
through that process and that is when the jury will be finalized."
Weeks said he expects the trial to last throught the end of November and
maybe into December.
"It's hard to tell with the jury selection," he said. "We hope to cut down
the number of evidence and witnesses."
Weeks previously said tthe principal question is whether or not Canfield's
death qualifies as capital murder.
"This is a difficult case," Weeks said. The situation is very unique
because Ms. Canfield died as the result of being thrown off a horse, so
there are issues there that are different than most.
"I feel very confident, but it's going to be up to the jury. I believe
it's capital murder, but the jury's going to have the final word on that."
Weeks said that if Martin is found guilty, jurors will have the option of
recommending the death penalty.
Martin and Falk were indicted in March 2008 in the murder of Canfield.
The charge was elevated to capital murder due to provisions in the Texas
State Penal Code that allow a murder to be upgraded to capital if it
occurs during an attempted escape from a penal institution.
The 2 men were working outside the Wynne Unit when Martin approached an
officer and asked him to hold his broken watch.
As the officer reached for the watch, Falk distracted him with a sound,
allowing Martin to grab the officer's weapon.
Using the weapon to hold off nearby officers, the 2 offenders were able to
scale a barbed-wire fence. After stealing a second weapon at gunpoint and
exchanging fire with several nearby officers, they were able to commandeer
a City of Huntsville truck.
While escaping, they rammed Canfield.
Canfield, who was on horseback, was thrown from her horse and was killed
due to head injuries sustained when she struck the windshield of the truck
and the ground. Her horse was later euthanized due to wounds from the
collision and gunfire.
According to TDCJ reports following the incident, Martin was the driver of
the vehicle when it struck Canfield.
Martin and Falk later dumped the truck a mile away and hijacked a motorist
Madilene Loosier who was in line at a nearby bank drive-through.
Officers from several local agencies were able to shoot out the tires of
the hijacked vehicle, leaving Martin and Falk to continue to flee on foot.
Falk was apprehended within an hour after the escape, while Martin was
found hiding in a tree approximately three and a half hours later.
At the time of their escape, Martin was in the 1oth year of a 50-year term
for attempted murder, while Falk was serving a life sentence for a 1986
(source: Huntsville Item)
Willingham debate not focused on arson science
In a lot of ways, I wish the Texas Forensic Science Commission had picked
another arson case to examine besides Cameron Todd Willingham. Because
it's a death penalty case, the debate quickly devolves into a pointless
re-trial of Willingham (retrying his case in the media can neither bring
him back nor make him more dead).
But that wasn't the purpose of either the Forensic Science Commission or
the expert they hired, who were charged with evaluating the forensic
testimony in Willingham's arson conviction. And that evaluation (pdf),
conducted in accordance with current scientific knowledge about fire,
arguably has huge implications for some probably-innocent convicted
"arsonists" now sitting in prison. If this weren't a death penalty case
where the defendant was already executed, I doubt Rick Perry would have
bothered himself to intervene and maybe there'd be a better chance for
getting more innocent people out of prison.
These thoughts arose this morning as I read a hyper-defensive and frankly
embarrassingly dense 21-page rebuttal (pdf) from the City of Corsicana
Fire Chief. Most of the fire chief's report adumbrates in detail other
testimonial evidence that has nothing to do with the forensic testimony.
He seems to fancy himself a prosecutor and his main concern is to claim
Todd Willingham was guilty anyway, not to defend in any meaningful detail
the science presented at trial.
His rebuttal shows the chief seemingly unaware of the history or status of
modern fire science, and he ironically fails to understand the
implications of the expert testimony received by the commission. The chief
said that calling 1991 investigation methods "folklore" is "a bit strong"
but he doesn't know what they were, doesn't know how they changed, and he
pretty universally accepts what Beyler says they are now. He merely thinks
investigators shouldn't be faulted for not using more modern methods that
didn't exist yet.
But the Commission's point wasn't to fault investigators but to evaluate
their findings based on scientific assumptions in a field that everyone
acknowledges has changed dramatically since Willingham was convicted. In
1991, Corsicana investigators relied on junk science, or really
"folklore," to use Beyler's term, that had no actual relation to "science"
at all – but that was true of most arson investigators in America. There's
no need to be defensive to the point of denial. Worse, the chief betrays
his own ignorance by defending debunked methods as valid, discrediting his
views from the get-go.
Ignoring portions of the rebuttal unrelated to science (and thus equally
unrelated to the investigation at the Forensic Science Commission), the
chief's critique of the scientific debate boils down to a complaint that
"Beyler ignores the testimony of Doug Fogg, the Corsicana Fire Department
investigator, regarding the pour patterns and what could have caused them,
and Beyler also quotes Fogg as saying that plastic toys dont melt, and
that latex paint doesnt burn off wood, which he did not say," reported the
Corsicana Sun. At the end of his rebuttal, the chief goes on at length to
say that the fact that the floor was on fire is evidence that arson
occurred because "Fire burns up, not down."
These claims would be almost comical if they didn't come up in such a
macabre setting. Those assumptions about "pour patterns" and fire on the
floor are precisely among the aspects of junk forensics discredited by
modern methodologies. That's the point of Beyler's testimony and the fire
chief clearly doesn't know enough about the subject to engage in an
Mr. Fogg is not a scientist and to judge by the chief's rebuttal, even
today fire officials in Corsicana don't have anyone on staff with a firm
grasp of modern arson science. By comparison, Dr. Beyler has bachelors and
masters degrees in fire safety engineering, a PhD in engineering from
Harvard and is chairman of the International Association for Fire Safety
Science. The techniques of modern fire science were mostly developed via
hands-on experimentation within the last 20 years. Real-world testing
debunked a specific set of non-scientific mythologies and assumptions that
previously dominated arson investigation, some of which the chief still
clearly clings to. But when Dr. Beyler sees testimony about "pour
patterns" and fire on the floor presented to a jury as evidence of arson,
with no other evidence but "eliminating" accidental causes, for him that's
not even a hard call. Science just doesn't consider that good evidence
anymore, even though not long ago such testimony was common, though
erroneous, even when given in good faith. That's the piece of the puzzle
that makes sense of these conflicting claims about fire.
During the forensic testimony at Willingham's trial, jurors were assured
that "the fire does not lie," etc., implying that contradictory accounts
among witnesses could be sorted out through science. The rest of the
testimony was sketchy and inconclusive, with contradicting witnesses
telling different stories on virtually every critical point. (The other
important witness was a jailhouse snitch who has since recanted.) The
chief said this was just a colloquialism, but in context it had
significant import: With conflicting witnesses, forensic testimony was the
crux of the evidence for conviction, and although the jury was told the
fire did not lie, they had no way of knowing fire could be so profoundly
The chief's other big complaint focuses on the use of one three-word
phrase in a 51-page report – "standard of care," which he says is evidence
of bias. But because this is a death penalty case, unbiased sources are
few and far between and the fire chief clearly isn't one, either.
Personally, I read that phrase as referring to care in gathering and
maintaining evidence in the investigation. If Dr. Beyler has a bias, it
appears to be a bias for higher standards of professionalism in arson
investigations than what happens in Corsicana.
Bottom line, the arson testimony in Todd Willingham's trial was overstated
and reached definitive conclusions that a scientific understanding of fire
fails to support. Nobody will ever be able to prove a negative – that Todd
Willingham didn't set the fire – because evidence wasn't preserved and the
investigation can't be re-done by people who know what they're doing. But
it's possible now to say there was no solid forensic evidence of arson
presented to the jury, which was all the Commission was investigating in
the first place.
If this weren't a death penalty case, that might be enough to spark a more
thorough review of past arson convictions and expanded training and
research in fire science, which is what's needed. Instead, the Governor
appoints a crony who shuts down the inquiry so he can play hero to the
pro-death penalty crowd in the run up to the primary. That does not bode
well for anyone falsely convicted of arson who claimed innocence at trial
and is now sitting in prison based on discredited forensics. They're going
to have to wait on justice awhile longer while the culture warriors slug
it out over whether an innocent person received the death penalty.
(source: Grits For Breakfast)