death penalty news—-TEXAS

Jan. 21

TEXAS—-new execution date

William Berkley has been given an April 22 execution date; it should be
considered serious.

(sources: TDCJ & Rick Halperin)


Texas man charged in deaths of 5 family members

A southeast Texas man was charged Wednesday in the weekend shooting deaths
of 5 family members, including his 2-year-old niece, who also was

Maron Thomas, 20, remains jailed on a $1 million bond, accused in the
deaths of his mother, stepfather, sister, brother and niece. Police said
Thomas was naked when he was caught trying to break into a neighbor's home
after the shootings.

"This is one of the most horrific crimes we've had," Austin County
District Attorney Travis Koehn said.

Investigators said an ongoing family dispute led to the shootings, but
they declined to give additional details.

The 5 bodies were discovered Sunday afternoon at the family's single-story
brick home in Bellville, a rural town of about 4,000 people 55 miles
northwest of Houston. Police say the shootings took place early Sunday

Preliminary autopsy reports indicate all 5 died of gunshot wounds, and the
2-year-old girl was decapitated with a machete. Her head was found near
her body, Austin County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Paul Faircloth said.

A shotgun and a handgun found near the scene were both used to kill the
family, Texas Ranger David Maxwell said. Authorities would not say how
many times each victim was shot.

Before the capital murder charge was filed, Thomas was held on charges of
breaking into a vehicle and trying to break into a home 1 1/2 miles from
his family's house.

Faircloth said he didn't know whether Thomas had an attorney, and the
court was not open Wednesday evening to check whether an attorney has been
listed in the case. Austin County court records aren't available online.

Relatives who were at Thomas' home Wednesday declined to comment.

Faircloth said Thomas broke into a car after the shootings and was naked
when a neighbor caught him trying to break into the neighbor's house about
3 a.m. Sunday. The neighbor held Thomas at gunpoint until police arrived.
By then, Thomas was wearing spandex workout shorts, he said.

Thomas was taken to the county jail, where he told deputies he had killed
his family, Maxwell said.

Those found inside the house were identified as Thomas' mother, Debra
Washington, 54; his stepfather, George T. Washington, 69; his sister Kiana
Phearse, 25; and his 2-year-old niece, Khalilah Chambers-Massey. The naked
body of his brother, Cedric Thomas, 19, was found in a thick expanse of
woods behind the house.

Relatives and neighbors have described the Washingtons as a friendly
couple who had lived in the house with Thomas since moving from Houston
about 2 years ago.

Koehn said the single count of capital murder covers all 5 slayings, but
Thomas could be charged with additional counts. Prosecutors have not
decided whether they will seek the death penalty.

Authorities took blood samples from Thomas to determine whether he might
have been using drugs at the time of the shootings, Maxwell said.

Bellville drew attention in August with the shooting death of a physician
during a burglary at his ranch. 2 suspects were arrested days later and
charged with killing Dr. Jorge Mario Gonzalez of Houston.

(source: El Paso Times)


Rodney Reed Case Back in Court

The legal procedural drama that is the Rodney Reed death penalty case is
back in federal court. On Dec. 22, 2009, lawyers for Reed filed a whopping
158-page brief in federal district court, laying out all the reasons Reed
deserves a new day in court.

Reed was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 murder in Bastrop
of 19-year-old Stacey Stites. The state said that Reed, while on foot,
somehow overcame Stites as she drove to work for an early morning shift at
H-E-B and that semen DNA found in Stites proves the state's case. Reed's
defenders say the DNA evidence is only proof that the 2 were intimate and
that in fact Reed was having a consensual relationship with Stites. A far
more likely suspect in her murder, they say, is Jimmy Fennell, a former
Georgetown police officer to whom Stites was engaged. Fennell is currently
serving a 10-year prison sentence for the kidnapping and sexual assault of
a woman while on duty and responding to a call for police service.

The Reed case has been bounced back and forth between state and federal
court since the late Nineties. When new evidence came to light about
Fennell's alleged history of violence toward women, the case was removed
from federal court and sent back to the Court of Criminal Appeals. To
date, however, the CCA, Texas' highest criminal court, has denied Reed
relief. "We're back where we were in 2002," said Reed attorney Bryce
Benjet. Now, however, all of Reed's claims for relief are being presented
in one appeal, as opposed to the piecemeal approach the CCA required.
Benjet said he hopes that the federal court now will grant Reed an
evidentiary hearing. "What we really want is an opportunity to put on live
evidence about these claims that the state has refused to hear," he said.
The state's response to Reed's latest filing is due in February.

(source: Austin Chronicle)

********* Federal appeals court orders new trial for black suspect

Dallas County's long history of racial discrimination in jury selection
added a chapter from a new era this week.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for Cecil
Keith Hayes, a black man from Mesquite who was convicted of armed robbery
and sentenced to 70 years in prison by a nearly all-white Dallas jury in

A 3-judge panel concluded that prosecutors illegally struck two qualified
black prospective jurors during jury selection and then tried to disguise
their intentions to seat an all-white jury.

Unlike previous court findings of jury discrimination in Dallas County,
Tuesday's ruling focuses on a case decided almost 2 decades after a
landmark Supreme Court decision that prohibited biased practices.

In the Hayes case, prosecutors initially struck all eight black
prospective jurors. One was impaneled after the trial judge rejected the
prosecutor's explanation that the woman had been sleeping in court and was
"too grandmotherly."

The trial judge accepted explanations that another black juror appeared
"hostile" during questioning and that a second one gave inconsistent
answers about whether she would require the state to produce the firearm
allegedly used in the crime.

The appeals court deemed those explanations not credible, and it
criticized the trial judge, Thomas Thorpe, for accepting the prosecutor's

"Hayes has shown that the state's reasons for striking … were
implausible or invalid, and therefore were pretexts for discrimination,"
stated the decision written by Judge Catharina Haynes, a former civil
court judge in Dallas.

Hill years

The case was prosecuted during the term of District Attorney Bill Hill, a
disciple of legendary District Attorney Henry Wade, who served from 1950
until 1986.

Hill, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has insisted that he
did not tolerate discrimination by his prosecutors. He strongly disagreed
with the results of a 2005 investigation by The Dallas Morning News that
found prosecutors excluded blacks from juries at twice the rate they
excluded whites.

Hill's successor, Craig Watkins, said Wednesday that he believed
discrimination was a problem when he took office in January 2007. Watkins,
who is black, said he instituted a policy last summer that any prosecutor
who intentionally engages in jury discrimination faces automatic

Watkins said he did not plan to appeal the reversal of the Hayes

"My first inclination would be to agree that he needs a new trial, retry
the case, do it right and get the conviction," Watkins said.

The decision marked the 2nd time in 13 months that the appeals court has
overturned a case from Dallas County because of jury discrimination. Last
January, the court reversed the 1979 death penalty conviction of Jonathan
Bruce Reed.

Those rulings followed a 2005 Supreme Court decision that reversed a
Dallas County conviction from 1986 because of overt racial discrimination
by prosecutors.

Both cases were reversed for violating the Supreme Court's ban on jury
discrimination expressed in a 1986 decision, Batson vs. Kentucky. A
concurring opinion cited an investigation of jury selection by The News as
evidence that discrimination continued to be a problem in the criminal
justice system.

Jordan Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas, said the Hayes
decision shows that courts remain wary of prosecutors' explanations for
excluding nonwhites from jury service.

"It shows that race discrimination is still a worrisome part of
prosecutions in Dallas County," he said in an e-mail, "and we cannot
comfortably assume that such discrimination is simply a relic of an
earlier era."

Hayes was a 31-year-old with a history of theft-related arrests when he
was picked up by Garland police in October 2001 and charged with a series
of armed robberies attributed to a man nicknamed the "Jump Start Robber."
The robber's ploy had been to approach victims with a plea for help in
starting his car.

Hayes was convicted in one robbery in June 2002. In jury selection,
prosecutors removed all but two blacks. The jury imposed a 10-year prison

2nd trial

At his 2nd trial, in September 2002, prosecutor Valerie Tabor used her
strikes to remove all 8 eligible blacks. After the defense attorney
objected, Thorpe disallowed 1 strike and placed a black woman on the jury.

Tabor, who now works as an assistant for the Dallas County public
defender, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Adrienne Dunn, the attorney who handled Hayes' federal appeal, said she
did not know whether the prosecutor acted out of bias. But she said
prosecutors were probably unhappy with the 10-year sentence that the
earlier, racially diverse jury had imposed.

Dunn and her co-counsel focused their appeal on two of the excluded

Their argument was that prosecutors seated white jurors who possessed the
same characteristics that the state's attorneys found objectionable with
the excluded blacks.

She said she hopes the reversal demonstrates a sea change in judicial
attitudes toward the bar on jury discrimination.

"It's time to start taking Batson seriously again," she said.

(source: Dallas Morning News)