In this edition:
Scheduled executions and case updates: The State of Texas is scheduled to put 11 people to death before the end of the year, including two executions this month; federal executions set for first time since 2003; prosecutors take the death penalty off the table in two cases; El Paso death row inmate dies of natural causes
In case you missed it: Faith leaders call for clergy to be allowed in the execution chamber; Texas legislators form House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus; remembering former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens
New resource: “The Penalty” documentary film now available on Amazon
Featured event: TCADP’s San Antonio Chapter will meet on August 14
Quote of the month
“The problems that have plagued the death penalty at the state level — the risk of executing the innocent, arbitrariness and bias, high costs, a lack of deterrence and the failure to deliver ‘closure’ to victims’ families — exist at the federal level too.”
– Wyoming State Representative Jared Olsen, “I’m a Republican and I Oppose Restarting Federal Executions,” New York Times, July 29, 2019
Scheduled executions and case updates
Scheduled executions in Texas
The State of Texas is scheduled to execute two people in August:
- On August 15, 2019, the State of Texas is scheduled to put Dexter Johnson to death for the murders of Maria Aparece and Huy Ngo in Harris County in 2006. The crime occurred less than two weeks after Johnson’s 18th birthday (individuals under age 18 are not eligible for the death penalty). He was scheduled to be executed on May 2, 2019, but a federal judge granted a stay on April 30 after determining his newly-appointed lawyer needed more time to review the case and investigate any undeveloped claims.
- The State of Texas is scheduled to execute Larry Swearingen on August 21, 2019; it is his sixth serious execution date since 2007. He was convicted of the 1998 rape and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter, a student at Montgomery Community College. Her body was discovered in the Sam Houston National Forest on January 2, 1999, nearly a month after she disappeared from campus. Prosecutors originally theorized that Trotter had been dead for 25 days when her body was found, but further examinations by pathologists suggest this is timeframe is impossible based on the preservation of her body. Swearingen was in police custody on unrelated charges for the three weeks preceding the discovery of Trotter’s body.
Swearingen has consistently maintained his innocence, and over the years his attorneys have filed numerous appeals seeking DNA testing of items from the crime scene. According to The Intercept’s Jordan Smith, “While the state’s case against him was built on circumstantial evidence, there was also a trove of physical evidence that prosecutors seemingly either ignored or dismissed.” Look for an action alert on this case from TCADP in the next few days.
The State of Texas has 11 executions scheduled from August 15 through November 20, 2019 (this includes a date for Rodney Reed). In 2018, Texas accounted for 13 of the 25 executions in the United States. To date this year, the State has carried out 3 of the 10 executions nationwide. Four other scheduled executions were stayed by state or federal courts. For updates on cases, visit our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
In stark contrast to declining use of the death penalty nationwide, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on July 25, 2019 that it would carry out executions for the first time since 2003, setting dates in December 2019 and January 2020 for five individuals. There currently are 61 people on federal death row. The federal government has executed three people since 1988.
According to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Attorney General William Barr told the federal prisons bureau to adopt an execution method similar to the protocol used in Texas – a single dose of pentobarbital. It is unknown how the federal government plans to obtain the drug.
There has been bipartisan outrage to the announcement, with experts noting deep flaws in the federal death penalty system and the impact on corrections officers. Read these pieces in The Hill and the Washington Post.
Prosecutors remove threat of death penalty to resolve cases
In the last month, prosecutors have taken the death penalty off the table in two separate capital cases:
- On July 10, 2019, Brian Flores pled guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing Joshua Rodriguez and Victoria Dennis in San Antonio in 2015. Last year, Visiting Judge Susan Reed declared a mistrial in Flores’ case, after his defense attorney, Ed Camara, suffered a concussion and was deemed unable to proceed with the jury selection process due to his injuries.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who was elected in November 2018, had planned to seek the death penalty for Flores in a new trial before reaching the plea agreement. This reflects declining use of the death penalty in Texas, and particularly in Bexar County, where jurors have imposed just two new death sentences since 2009.
- On July 17, 2019, Sarah Nicole Henderson agreed to plead guilty to two counts of capital murder in exchange for prosecutors dropping the death penalty; she was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing her two young daughters, aged 5 and 7, in Henderson County in 2017. Her trial was scheduled to begin on July 30, where she was expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
District Attorney Mark Hall noted that the plea agreement “…brings some finality to a case where even if she had received the death penalty, it could take decades and endless court hearings, legal briefs and additional expert evaluations before actually carrying out the sentence.”
To date in 2019, one man has been sentenced to death in Texas. Last year, Texas juries imposed seven new death sentences.
El Paso death row inmate dies of natural causes
Ignacio Gomez, who spent more than 20 years on death row, died of cardiac arrest on July 21, 2019. A Mexican national, Gomez was convicted of killing three teenagers – 16-year-old twin brothers Michael and Matthew Meredith and 19-year-old Tolbert “Toby” Hatheway Jr. – in 1996 in El Paso. As reported by the Houston Chronicle, he had long suffered from mental illness and spent much of his time in the prison psychiatric ward. His lawyer claimed he was incompetent to be executed. Gomez was the seventh Texas death row inmate to die in custody since 2014.
In case you missed it
Clergy advocate for the right of condemned people of all faiths to spiritual comfort at moment of death
Nearly 200 Texas faith leaders have urged the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to reconsider its policy removing chaplains from the execution chamber. In an interfaith statement sent to top officials within TDCJ on July 22, leaders representing more than a dozen faith traditions call for the department to allow chaplains of all faiths to be present at the request of the condemned inmate. Read coverage of the statement from Baptist News Global.
On April 2, 2019, TDCJ’s Correctional Institutions Division published a revised Execution Procedure in which it removed all chaplains from the execution chamber. The change came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the March 28 execution of Patrick Murphy based on his complaint of religious discrimination. TDCJ had denied Murphy’s request for a reasonable accommodation to have a Buddhist priest with him during his execution, noting that only its own Christian and Muslim chaplains were allowed to be present in the chamber.
Texas legislators form House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus
In July, a group of lawmakers announced the creation of a new House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. According to State Representative Joe Moody (D-El Paso), who will lead the bipartisan group alongside State Representative Jeff Leach (R- Plano), the caucus will “help educate colleagues on criminal justice issues and work together to advance reform proposals.”
Remembering former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died on July 16, 2019 at the age of 99. He expressed regret about one vote during his 35 years on the bench: upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty and Texas’s revised death-penalty statute in 1976. In an interview with NPR in 2010, which took place shortly after he left the Court, Justice Stevens said, “I really think that the death penalty today is vastly different from the death penalty that we thought we were authorizing.”
A compelling documentary film, “The Penalty,” is now available to watch on Amazon. The film seamlessly weaves together three storylines, each of which exposes the flaws and failures of the death penalty in dramatic, often unexpected, ways. The filmmakers aim to organize screenings of “The Penalty” in Texas this November. Stay tuned for details!
The TCADP San Antonio Chapter will meet on Wednesday, August 14, 2019 at 6:30 PM at the Oblate School of Theology, Building 4 of the Oblate Renewal Center (285 Oblate Drive). Contact coordinator Mardi Baron at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.