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TCADP April 2020 Newsletter: Case updates; exonerations in 2019; and recommended media

In this edition of our monthly newsletter, you’ll find updates on scheduled executions and other Texas death penalty cases, a new report on exonerations in 2019, and recommended films, podcasts and other popular media on the death penalty.

In this edition:

Scheduled executions: Despite the global pandemic and recent stays, six execution dates remain in place in Texas

In case you missed it: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejects judge’s recommendation of a new trial for El Pasoan Robert Avila; North Texas community newspaper explores the cost of the death penalty; new report documents exonerations in 2019

Recommended media: “Clemency” and “Just Mercy” now available online; new series on wrongful convictions coming soon to Netflix

Thank you for standing with us: Expressing gratitude to all of our supporters, especially our Partners for Justice and Sustaining Members

*Correction* TCADP’s email on March 25, “COVID-19 and the death penalty,” listed the wrong address for men on death row in Texas.  The correct mailing address is Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351.  We apologize for the error and thank the supporter who pointed this out to us.

Quote of the month
“As those who work in capital systems know well, modern death penalty administration is the antithesis of efficient and effective use of government time and resources.  Whatever happens with the death penalty while we deal with COVID-19, I think there will be very strong arguments that this punishment is a kind of ‘legal luxury’ that we really cannot and ought not invest resources in while we try to rebuild after COVID-19.”

– Professor Douglas A. Berman, “Might COVID-19 ultimately bring an end to the death penalty in the United States?” Sentencing Law and Policy blog, March 22, 2020

Scheduled executions
Execution dates remain in place despite the global pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked on the judicial system.  To date in 2020, the State of Texas has put two people to death.  Two executions scheduled for March were stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for 60 days “in light of the current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address that emergency.”

The State of Texas was scheduled to execute two people this month, but on April 1, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a 60-day stay to Fabian Hernandez; his execution date was April 23.  He was sentenced to death for the murders of his estranged wife, Renee Hernandez, and Arturo Fonseca in El Paso in 2006. Hernandez is one of two people sentenced to death in El Paso in the last decade. 

The April 29 execution date for Billy Joe Wardlow is still pending. Wardlow was 18 years old when he killed 82-year-old Carl Cole at his home in rural Morris County during a botched attempt to steal Cole’s truck.  He was sentenced to death in 1995 after his attorney failed to present significant mitigating evidence.

In November 2019, Wardlow filed a habeas writ (appeal) with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that raises the question of whether a jury can make a reliable determination about the future dangerousness of someone who is 18 years old at the time of the crime.  In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it is unconstitutional to impose a death sentence on individuals under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.  Since that time, scientific research has continued to show that brains do not fully mature until our early-to-mid-twenties.  

In an important article published last December in American Scholar, Lincoln Caplan notes that in the 25 years Wardlow has spent on death row, “he has become in middle age a trusted, peacemaking, and in many ways exemplary inmate.”  For Caplan, “Wardlow stands out as someone the legal system has wronged repeatedly, especially in deciding his punishment.”

We are monitoring Wardlow’s case closely and will provide updates on our website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

Looking past April, five more executions are scheduled to take place in Texas. We know attorneys are doing everything they can to stop these executions from moving forward.

In case you missed it
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejects recommendation for new trial in El Paso death penalty case 
On March 11, 2020, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) upheld the conviction of Rigoberto “Robert” Avila, Jr., who was convicted in 2001 in El Paso in a trial marred by reliance on outdated science and misleading testimony.  The ruling came more than 17 months after 41st District Court Judge Annabell Perez of El Paso recommended a new trial for Avila after overseeing a thorough inquiry into his case under Article 11.073 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.  That statute, adopted by the Texas Legislature in 2013 with overwhelming bipartisan support, was intended to provide a remedy for people who were convicted based on false or outdated science.  Judge Perez issued detailed written findings concluding that Avila had been denied a fair trial, which the CCA rejected in a brief, unsigned opinion. Read coverage from the Texas Tribune and The Appeal.

Community spotlight on the cost of the death penalty
The most recent issue of the Richardson, Texas edition of Community Impact (“a hyperlocal community newspaper”) features an in-depth analysis of the cost of the death penalty, with commentary from defense attorneys, prosecutors, and Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, among other experts.  Editor Olivia Lueckemeyer observes that “the morality of the death penalty has been debated for years, but what sometimes gets forgotten is the toll capital punishment can take on a county’s bottom line.”  The article includes several excellent infographics and cites data from TCADP, including our 2019 year-end report and fact sheet on this topic.  

National Registry of Exonerations records 143 exonerations in 2019
new report from the National Registry of Exonerations, released on March 31, 2020, chronicles 143 exonerations last year.  This includes 15 cases in Texas and 3 individuals who had been sentenced to death.  Of the 143 exonerees, 10 people served more than 30 years in prison – including time on death row – for crimes they did not commit.  Collectively, these individuals spent a total of 1,908 years in prison, an average of 13.3 years lost per exoneree. Official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government actors occurred in at least 93 exonerations in 2019. Seventy-six defendants were exonerated of homicide; official misconduct played a role in more than 70% of those cases.

For a sobering perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on wrongfully convicted individuals who are still incarcerated, read “Innocent Prisoners Are Going to Die of the Coronavirus” from The Atlantic.

Recommended Media
The TCADP website includes a lengthy list of podcasts, films, books, and television shows that focus on the death penalty and criminal justice issues.  Here are some  recommendations for April: 

– Released to theaters nationwide this past January, the feature films “Clemency” and “Just Mercy” are now available to rent or buy online on Amazon and other digital platforms. 

– Episode 24 of the podcast “Justice in America” from The Appeal focuses on the death penalty and features Aramis Ayala, a State Attorney in Florida who in 2017 announced she would not seek death sentences.

– “The Innocence Files,” a new docuseries from Netflix, focuses on cases of wrongful conviction and will be available to stream on April 15, 2020.  One episode tells the story of Alfred Dewayne Brown, who was exonerated in 2015 after serving more than a decade on death row in Texas for a crime he did not commit.  Learn more and look for a forthcoming announcement from TCADP about opportunities to engage with Dewayne’s attorney.  

Thank you for supporting TCADP 
TCADP thanks everyone who donated to our Amplify Austin fundraising campaign in March.  We owe a special debt of gratitude to our Partners for Justice and our Sustaining Members, whose automated recurring gifts are providing much-needed resources for our work during this time of tremendous social and economic upheaval.  

Thanks to all of you for standing with us as we continue to promote our vision for justice in Texas.  Please stay safe and healthy and keep in touch.