executions forensic science Melissa Lucio Rodney Reed Texas Court of Criminal Appeals U.S. Supreme Court

TCADP May 2022 Newsletter: Ending the “cycle of futility”

In this edition

Scheduled executions: State of Texas carries out its first execution in more than six months; Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grants a stay to Melissa Lucio

In case you missed it: Nueces County District Attorney calls the death penalty “unethical”; forensic science reformers and exonerees file briefs in support of Robert Roberson; U.S. Supreme Court agrees to consider DNA issue in case of Rodney Reed but declines to review racial bias claim in Love v. Texas; Stephen Reeves, Executive Director of Fellowship Southwest, explains his opposition to the death penalty

Featured events: Next TCADP book group meeting; Dallas event featuring author Maurice Chammah

Quote of the month

“I am grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence.”

– Melissa Lucio, April 25, 2022

Scheduled executions

The execution of Carl Wayne Buntion epitomizes cruel and unusual punishment
The State of Texas carried out its first execution of 2022—and the first execution in more than six months—on April 21, 2022, putting Carl Wayne Buntion to death. Buntion, who had recently turned 78, was the oldest person executed by the State and had spent more than 30 years on death row. The execution of this frail, elderly man who did not pose a threat to anyone violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. We thank his attorneys for their valiant efforts on his behalf.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals spares the life of Melissa Lucio
Two days before she was scheduled to be put to death, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) granted a stay to Melissa Lucio and ordered the trial court in Cameron Country to consider multiple claims related to new evidence of her innocence of the accidental death of her daughter, Mariah. One of six women on death row, Lucio had faced execution on April 27, 2022 despite an outpouring of support from lawmakers, faith leaders, anti-domestic violence/sexual assault organizations, and many others who shared doubts about her conviction and supported her application for clemency or a reprieve.

The CCA directed the trial court to review Melissa’s claims that (1) but for the State’s use of false testimony, no juror would have convicted her; (2) previously unavailable scientific evidence would preclude her conviction; (3) she is actually innocent; and (4) the State suppressed favorable, material evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland.

Listen to the emotional moment Melissa learned the CCA had stayed her execution and send her a note to let her know you will keep fighting for her.

TCADP thanks everyone who raised their voices in opposition to the executions of Carl Wayne Buntion and Melissa Lucio.

At this time, the State of Texas has three executions scheduled, although we expect the October 5 date for John Ramirez to be withdrawn (see below for details). One execution is set for July and another for August. Nationwide, four people have been put to death this year; Missouri, Arizona, and Georgia have scheduled executions in May. In Tennessee, the Governor has suspended executions for the remainder of 2022 and ordered an independent review of the state’s lethal injection protocol.

In case you missed it

Prosecutors continue to call for an end to the death penalty
After an execution date was set for John Ramirez, Nueces County District Attorney (DA) Mark Gonzalez petitioned the court to withdraw it, explaining that the motion for a date was made by the Assistant District Attorney without his knowledge. In his motion to withdraw the execution date, which now awaits the District Court Judge’s approval, DA Gonzalez states he “has the firm belief that the death penalty is unethical and should not be imposed on Mr. Ramirez or any other person while [he] occupies the office in question.” We commend DA Gonzalez for using his discretion as a DA to advance justice in Nueces County.

Earlier this year, DA Gonzalez joined a statement released by Fair and Just Prosecution in which he and a bipartisan group of 56 other elected prosecutors from across the country committed “to work toward the elimination of our nation’s failed death penalty system, once and for all.” Recently, Miriam Aroni Krinsky, Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, Virginia, and Dan Satterberg, Prosecuting Attorney in Seattle’s King County, co-authored a piece that explores the failings of capital punishment in America. The piece suggests the question we grapple with should not be “how we kill” but rather “if we kill.” They write, “We’ve seen this cycle play out over and over in capital punishment: a new reform promises to fix what’s broken about the death penalty, but the closer we look, the more it unravels. It is finally time to end that cycle of futility.”

Forensic science reformers and exonerees file briefs in support of Robert Roberson, whose Actual Innocence claim is pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
A non-profit dedicated to reforming forensic science, crime laboratories, and the use of quasi-science in courtrooms and a group of exonerees once convicted using the “Shaken Baby Syndrome” hypothesis have filed amicus briefs with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in support of Robert Roberson, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Anderson County in 2003. Roberson seeks a new trial to present scientific evidence of his innocence of the tragic death of his two-year-old daughter, Nikki.

Developments at the U.S. Supreme Court
On April 18, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to consider the death penalty case of Kristopher Love v. Texas, which presented a racial bias claim pertaining to jury selection in his 2018 Dallas County trial. A juror was seated despite responding to a questionnaire that he believed statistics showed nonwhites were more violent than whites. Per Texas’s unique sentencing guidelines, jurors must determine whether the defendant poses a continuing threat to society (aka “future dangerousness”) in order to impose a death sentence. The trial judge denied the defense’s attempt to strike the juror for cause. Justice Sotomayor was joined by Justices Kagan and Breyer in her dissent from the Court’s decision not to review Love’s case, writing, “Whatever the nature of the bias, if a trial court seats a juror who harbors a disqualifying prejudice, the resulting judgment must be reversed.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted the case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed’s attorneys are challenging the constitutionality of a Texas DNA testing statute. The Court will hear arguments to determine when the statute of limitations begins running for prisoners who seek DNA testing on newly discovered evidence. Reed maintains his innocence of the murder of Stacy Stites over 20 years ago in Bastrop County; his case has garnered national support from lawmakers, religious leaders, and celebrities.

A faithful perspective on the death penalty
Stephen Reeves, the Executive Director of Fellowship Southwest, has written a powerful opinion piece on how he came to oppose the death penalty. Reeves says he was profoundly impacted by the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, TCADP’s 2022 Annual Conference Keynote Speaker. The piece outlines his career of advocacy in both legal and faith settings. We are thankful for Reeves’s voice against capital punishment and our partnership with Fellowship Southwest.

Featured events

The TCADP Book Group meets every six to eight weeks on Zoom and reads a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs. When possible, we invite the authors to join us. Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday, June 1, 2022 at 7:30 PM Central Time, when we will discuss Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System by M. Chris Fabricant of the Innocence Project. Register here!

TCADP Media Award recipient, Maurice Chammah, will participate in a book reading on May 12 at Interabang Books in Dallas. Maurice is the author of Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, which the TCADP Book Group read together last year and is now available in paperback.