TCADP November 2019 Alert: Miscarriages of Justice

In this edition

Scheduled executions and case updates: State of Texas poised to execute three people this month, including Rodney Reed; Harris County imposes new death sentence, while Fort Bend County jury rejects the death penalty; Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejects recommendation of relief for Paul Storey

In case you missed it: Texas After Violence Project releases new report; victims’ family urges President to stop first federal execution in 16 years; more than 250 conservative leaders voice support for ending death penalty; hypnosis continues to play troubling role in criminal justice system

New resources: Updated resource page on TCADP website features films about the death penalty, documentaries, TedTalks, books, and podcasts, including “Finality Over Justice”

Featured events:  Screenings of “The Penalty” in Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth; TCADP 2020 Annual Conference will take place in San Antonio  


Scheduled executions and case updates

Scheduled executions
The State of Texas is scheduled to execute three people this month:

– Justen Hall is scheduled to be executed on November 6, 2019. He was sentenced to death by an El Paso  County jury in 2005 for the murder of Melanie Billhartz in 2002. Hall has asked to give up his appeals at several points during his time on death row.  If it proceeds, he will be the first person executed from El Paso County since 2010.  More than 30 other individuals have been executed by the State of Texas after waiving their appeals. 

– On November 13, 2019, the State of Texas is scheduled to execute Patrick Murphy for the death of Officer Aubrey Hawkins.  Hawkins was killed during the robbery of an Oshman’s sporting goods store in Irving in 2000.  Although Murphy was on the other side of the building acting as a lookout when the shooting occurred, he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2003 under Texas’ law of parties, which holds a person criminally responsible for the actions of another if they are engaged in a conspiracy.  

This is the second execution date Murphy has faced this year.  At the eleventh hour, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his March 28, 2019 execution based on his complaint of religious discrimination.  Murphy’s request for a reasonable accommodation to have a Buddhist priest instead of a Christian chaplain in the execution chamber had been denied. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) noted that only its own staff, comprised of Christian and Muslim chaplains, were allowed to be present in the chamber.  

Murphy’s attorneys are asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his sentence or, in the alternative, recommend the Governor issue a 90-day reprieve to give TDCJ an opportunity to amend its execution procedure to allow chaplains of all faiths in the execution chamber.  Learn more about this case and support Murphy’s request for clemency or a reprieve by contacting the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

– Rodney Reed is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas on November 20, 2019 despite mounting evidence of his innocence. Three top medical examiners have found that it was medically and scientifically impossible for Reed to have committed this crime.  Additional new evidence further supports the theory that it was the victim’s fiancé – a former police sergeant who served a decade in prison for kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in custody – who committed the crime.  Yet, incredibly, the state has fought efforts to conduct DNA testing that could prove who is really responsible for the murder of Stacy Stites in 1996 in Bastrop County. 

It is chilling to think that Texas is prepared to go ahead with the execution of Rodney Reed when the integrity of his conviction is in shambles. Please contact Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and ask them to grant clemency before the State of Texas makes another fatal mistake.  You’ll find additional information in this action alert from the Innocence Project.

Rodney Reed is one of 24 individuals cited by Injustice Watch in a study of defendants sentenced to die who have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of their innocence.  Their research of the 24 cases – 25% of which are from Texas – appears in the Spring 2019 issueof the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy.  The website will feature profiles of the cases throughout the fall. 

The State of Texas is scheduled to carry out one more execution this year, on December 11, 2019.   In 2018, Texas accounted for 13 of the 25 executions in the United States.  To date this year, the State has carried out 7 of the 17 executions nationwide.  Ten other execution dates were withdrawn or stayed by state or federal courts.  For updates on cases, visit our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Case updates
Harris County jury imposes new death sentence, while neighboring Fort Bend County rejects the death penalty in 2013 case

For the first time since 2004, a Harris County jury has sentenced a white defendant to death. On October 11, 2019, Ronald Haskell received the death penalty for the murders of Katie and Stephen Stay in 2014 in Spring; he also killed four of their children. The jury rejected his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity after deliberating for eight hours. It was the first death penalty trial prosecuted by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office during the administration of Kim Ogg.  More than one-third of the current death row population in Texas is comprised of individuals convicted in Harris County.  Haskell is the second person sentenced to death in Texas this year.

The same week as the Haskell verdict, a Fort Bend County jury rejected the death penalty for La’Melvin Dewayne Johnson.  He was convicted of fatally shooting three men – Harvey Simmons, Johnny Simmons, and Donntay Borom – at a carwash after losing his job there in 2013.  After a week-long trial, the jury deliberated for six hours and returned with a sentence of life without parole. This was the first capital murder trial for Fort Bend District Attorney Brian Middleton, who was elected in November 2018.  He commented that “The sentence will not alleviate the pain caused by the defendant’s actions, but the punishment was severe, and our community is safer as a result.” Fort Bend has not handed out a death sentence since 2012; there are currently two men on death row from that county.   It’s the third time this year a Texas jury has rejected the death penalty in a capital murder trial. 

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejects recommendation of relief for Paul Storey

On October 2, 2019, a majority of judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) rejected State District Judge Everett Young’s recommendation that Paul Storey receive a new sentencing hearing or a reduced sentence. Judge Young found prosecutors had presented false evidence and withheld evidence from the defense. 

Storey was sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of Jonas Cherry in Tarrant County in 2008. A prosecutor claimed during her closing argument in the punishment phase of the trial that “… it should go without saying that all of Jonas’s family and everyone who loved him believe the death penalty is appropriate.”  In fact, Judy and Glenn Cherry, the parents of Jonas, opposed the death penalty. In 2017, when Paul Storey faced execution, they campaigned publicly to stop it, releasing this powerful video statement

The majority of CCA judges did not consider the merits of Storey’s claim but rather ruled that Storey’s habeas counsel, who is now deceased, could have uncovered the false evidence introduced by prosecutors through “reasonable diligence” and could/should have made the claim earlier.  Two judges – Yeary and Walker – filed separate dissenting opinions; Judge Slaughter joined both dissents. 


In case you missed it

Texas After Violence Project releases new report

On October 10, 2019, the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) released a new report, Nobody to Talk To: Barriers to Mental Health Treatment for Family Members of Individuals Sentenced to Death or Executed.  The report summarizes the attention that death row families’ traumatic experience has received over the years in scholarly contexts.  It also presents findings from TAVP’s interviews with family members of individuals sentenced to death or executed in Texas, focusing on their experiences with mental health services and barriers to accessing those services. Download the report.

Victims’ family urges President to stop first federal execution in 16 years

In a powerful video released in late October, Earlene Peterson, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed in the crime that put Danny Lee on federal death row, asks President Trump to commute Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Among other reasons for opposing the execution, Mrs. Peterson is concerned that Lee’s codefendant received a life sentence while Lee is scheduled for execution on December 9, 2019. Watch the 6-minute video and 58-second video.  The New York Timespublished a compelling profile of Mrs. Peterson, which can be accessed here.

Conservatives Concerned releases statement of support for ending death penalty

On October 28, 2019, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty released a statement endorsed by more than 250 conservative leaders, including 18 Texans, supporting an end to the death penalty.  The statement notes they “have come to the conclusion that the death penalty does not work and can’t be made to work, not in spite of our conservative principles, but because of them.” 

Hypnosis continues to play role in criminal justice system, despite serious concerns about reliability

Charles Flores has been on Texas’ death row for two decades. His conviction was based largely on the identification of a single eyewitness, who had been hypnotized. Hypnosis is meant to help a person relax and recall memories, which is why investigators have been using it on eyewitnesses since the 1970s.  Studies have shown that hypnosis causes people to recover at least as many false memories as accurate ones, however. Texas is one of 13 states that allows hypnotically-induced testimony, while 27 states have banned its use. Read more about the use of hypnosis and its role in the conviction of Charles Flores in this in-depth article in The Guardian


New resources

Check out the updated Resource page on the TCADP website!  It presents feature-length and short films about the death penalty, documentaries, TedTalks, books, and podcasts, including “Finality Over Justice,” a new podcast from Practical Reason/EPF Media. 

Two men are tried and convicted for the same crime by the same prosecutor.  Is this an aberration? “Finality Over Justice” takes a closer look at two cases—Joseph B. Nichols in Texas and Thomas M. Thompson in California—and the fight for truth and justice. This podcast features TCADP’s Executive Director, Kristin Houle, as well as Lee Greenwood and Gabriel Solis. 


Featured events

San Antonio
The TCADP San Antonio Chapter will meet on Wednesday, November 13, 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 mardibaron@gmail.com for details.

Statewide

“The Penalty” tours Texas

The Texas tour of “The Penalty” will continue in November, with screenings in Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. This powerful documentary weaves together three storylines, each of which exposes the flaws and failures of the death penalty in dramatic, often unexpected, ways.  To learn more or watch a trailer, go to www.thepenaltyfilm.com

Sunday, November 3, 2019: Blue Starlight Drive In – Austin, 8:00 PM, gates open at 7:15 PM, 2103 E M Franklin Ave, Austin, TX. Buy tickets here. Filmmakers Laura Shacham and Will Francome will participate in a talk-back afterwards, along with Caitlin and Jesse Baker, the children of Debra Masters Baker, who was murdered in Austin in 1988.

Monday, November 4, 2019, Northwest Vista College – San Antonio, 7:00 PM. The screening will take place in the Cypress Campus Center 121 (CCC 121), Lago Vista Room. The college is located at 3535 N. Ellison Drive, San Antonio, TX 78251 (near Sea World). Free and open to the public.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019, University of Houston Downton, 6:00 PM, Wilhelmina Cullen Robertson Auditorium, 3rd floor Academic Building, One Main St., Houston, TX 77002
 

This free screening will be followed by a Q&A with co-director Will Francome, producer Laura Shacham, and Professor Nicole Casarez, an attorney and communication professor at the University of St. Thomas.  Working with her investigative journalism students, Professor Casarez played a pivotal role in the exoneration of Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison, including 12 years on death row, for a crime he did not commit.  

The UHD Visitor Parking Garage is located at the corner of Travis Street and Girard Street (201 Girard, Houston, 77002). The entrance is off Girard Street.  

Thursday, November 7, 2019: Thurgood Marshall School of Law – Houston, 5:00 PM

Friday, November 8, 2019, 14 Pews – Houston, 7:00 PM, 800 Aurora St, Houston, TX 77009. Buy tickets here.
 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019:  First Congregational United Church of Christ – Fort Worth, 6:30 PM, 4201 Trail Lake Dr., Fort Worth, Texas, 76109. Free and open to the public.

WednesdayNovember 13, 2019Angelika Film Center, Dallas, 7:00 PM; 5321 E Mockingbird Lan #230, Dallas TX. The screening will be followed by a Q & A with co-director Will Francome and producer Laura Shacham.  Purchase tickets.

ThursdayNovember 14, 2019: Southern Methodist University – Dallas, 5:30 PM; Harold Clark Simmons Hall, 101A, 6401 Airline Road, Dallas, TX. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with co-director Will Francome, producer Laura Shacham, and Executive Producer Walter Long.  A limited number of tickets are available for purchase for $15 at http://bit.ly/SMUDRpenaltyfilm. This event is part of a colloquium series sponsored by the SMU Dispute Resolution Graduate Program. 

TCADP 2020 Annual Conference: Saturday, February 29, 2020

Registration for the TCADP 2020 Annual Conference – 2020 Vision for Texas: A Leap Towards Justice – is now open!  The 2020 Conference will take place on Saturday, February 29, 2020at the Whitley Theological Center at Oblate School of Theology (285 Oblate Drive, San Antonio, TX 78216).

TCADP’s Annual Conferenceis a special one-day event for all of our supporters and anyone who wants to learn more about the death penalty.  It features a panel discussion, workshops, a keynote address, and the presentation of our annual awards. The conference provides a unique opportunity to connect with supporters across the state and hear about the progress we are making towards ending the death penalty in Texas.  Look for exciting program announcements in our December Alert.