COVID-19 executions Tarrant County

TCADP August 2020 Newsletter: More federal executions scheduled

In this edition of our monthly newsletter, you’ll find information about federal executions, mid-year analysis of use of the death penalty nationwide, and the spread of COVID-19 in Texas prisons, including the unit that houses the men on death row.

In this edition: 

Scheduled executions: No executions in Texas this month but two federal dates set for the end of August

Case updates: Federal appeals court denies relief to Erica Sheppard; Tarrant County prosecutors determined to move forward with death penalty trial

COVID-19 and Texas prisons: TDCJ reports nearly 4,000 active cases at 101 units, including Polunsky 

In case you missed it: Death Penalty Information Center releases mid-year report on use of the death penalty nationwide; renaming prisons as part of the reckoning with racial injustice; Alfre Woodard of “Clemency” and Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors discuss art, activism, and the importance of voting

Featured events:  Two new webinar sessions this month; TCADP book group to read and discuss Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson 

Quote of the month 
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair.  Be hopeful, be optimistic.  Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.  Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

– Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who was laid to rest in Atlanta on July 30, 2020 after a life dedicated to justice and racial equality

Scheduled executions 
State of Texas
For the first month this year, the State of Texas has not scheduled any executions.  Two dates are set for September, however: John Ramirez on September 9 and Carlos Trevino on September 30.  We will provide information about those cases as it becomes available.

To date in 2020, the State of Texas has executed three people.  On July 8, Billy Joe Wardlowbecame the first person put to death by Texas in the midst of the pandemic. 

After putting three people to death over the course of five days in July, under inhumane and legally questionable circumstances, the federal government has scheduled two more executions in August and two in September. (Read firsthand perspectives on the first federal execution since 2003 in “Witnesses to the Execution” from The Marshall Project.)

– Despite opposition from the Navajo Nation and members of the victims’ family, the U.S. government has scheduled the execution of Lezmond Mitchell for August 26, 2020.  Mitchell is the only Native American on federal death row.  He was convicted of the carjacking and murder of Alyce Slim and her granddaughter in October 2001.

– On August 28, 2020, Keith Dwayne Nelson is scheduled to be put to death for the murder of 10-year-old Pamela Butler in 1999.  According to his attorney, “… the jury never heard key evidence about the significant trauma and extreme neglect Nelson experienced as child, including significant brain damage suffered as a newborn, repeated childhood sexual and physical abuse, and a multigenerational family history marked with severe mental illness.”

Death Penalty Action is sponsoring a petition to Congress urging the abolition of the federal death penalty and an investigation into the recent executions. We also encourage letters to your own member of Congress asking for an investigation.  Here’s a sample letter drafted by TCADP supporter, Dr. Barbara Laubenthal, which can be adapted for your own use. 

Follow TCADP on social media for updates on these cases.

Case updates
Federal appeals court denies relief to Erica Sheppard
Erica Sheppard is one of six women on death row in Texas. Last month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied her appeal in a 2-1 decision. Her attorneys argued that the jury did not hear evidence she suffered from brain damage or PTSD as a result of her traumatic childhood.  Sheppard was convicted and sentenced to death in Harris County in 1995 for the robbery and murder of Marilyn Sage Meagher.  She was 19 at the time of the crime. In her dissenting opinion, Judge Carolyn Dineen King writes that “the jury heard only isolated snippets of the extensive abuse and trauma that she suffered throughout her life. Unlike the majority, I cannot shrug off these important matters as mere cumulative evidence.” 

Tarrant County schedules death penalty trial amid climbing COVID-19 cases and deaths
Inconceivably, Tarrant County prosecutors are set to move forward this month with a capital trial in which they are seeking the death penalty; the defendant, James Floyd, is representing himself.  The jury was selected before the pandemic shut down most in-person court proceedings.  Among all Texas counties, Tarrant County ranks fourth in terms of death sentences and executions. It is one of only four counties where juries have imposed more than one death sentence since 2015.  It also was the only jurisdiction last year in which prosecutors sought the death penalty in more than one case. For more information about these and other trends regarding use of the death penalty in Tarrant County, read this blog post from Fort Worth law firm, Varghese Summersett PLLC.

COVID-19 and Texas prisons 
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), nearly 17,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at prisons throughout the state since the beginning of the pandemic.  As of August 3, 2020, there are more than 3,700 active cases at 101 units.   At least 110 prisoners and 14 staff members have died, and dozens of units are on lockdown.  There are 40 active cases at the Polunsky Unit, which houses the men on death row, and more than 700 recovered cases.  TDCJ has not confirmed recent reports that several men on death row have tested positive for COVID-19.  At the Mountain View Unit, which houses the six women on death row, two people have reportedly recovered from the virus. 

In case you missed it 
Use of the death penalty remains low in the first half of 2020
The coronavirus pandemic and continued national decline in use of the death penalty produced historically low numbers of new death sentences and executions in the first six months of 2020, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s mid-year review.  Two more people were exonerated after spending decades on death row.

Renaming prisons as part of the reckoning with racial injustice
Keri Blakinger of The Marshall Project explores the names behind some of America’s prisons, noting that dozens “take their names from racists, Confederates, plantations, segregationists, and owners of slaves.”  In “Will the Reckoning Over Racist Names Include These Prisons?”, she speaks to academics and advocates like Anthony Graves about what it would signify to rename these institutions.  

Actress Alfre Woodard and Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors discuss art and activism
On July 29, 2020, actress Alfre Woodard, who stars in the acclaimed film “Clemency,” and Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, participated in a wide-ranging conversation on art and activism, the importance of local elections, and breaking cycles of incarceration.   You can watch a recording of their conversation on the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Youtube channel. “Clemency,” which was released earlier this year, is the story of a death row warden who must confront the trauma wrought by years of overseeing executions.  It is available on multiple streaming channels.

Featured events
TCADP webinar series: Seeking Justice in Texas
TCADP’s webinar series continues this month with the following sessions:

– Ending Extreme Punishments for Youth in Texas; Tuesday, August 18, 2020, 12:00 to 1:00 PM Central Time
Presented by Professor Bill Bush of Texas A&M University-San Antonio and Lindsey Linder, Senior Policy Attorney for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

– Mental Illness and the Death Penalty; Tuesday, August 25, 2020, 12:00 to 1:00 PM Central Time
Presented by Dr. Kimberly Harrison

Learn more and register here. (Note: Both sessions will be recorded; you must register to receive the link.)

TCADP book group
The TCADP book group is reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  Join us on Wednesday, September 9, 2020 at 7:30 PM for what surely will be a vigorous discussion.  Register here.