In this edition
Scheduled executions: Texas scheduled to execute two men this month, despite the fact their juries did not hear critical mitigating evidence about their backgrounds
TCADP 2023 Annual Conference: Join us on February 25, 2023 to hear from exoneree Anthony Graves and other notable speakers
In case you missed it: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denies relief to Robert Roberson while U.S. Supreme Court orders state court to reconsider its decision in the Texas death penalty case of Areli Escobar; men on death row in Texas sue for an end to solitary confinement
Legislative update: Abolition bills filed in the Texas House and Senate
Featured events: TCADP book group meeting tonight, February 1, with Michelle Lyons; TCADP General Membership Meeting on February 16, 2023
“From the trauma of juvenile detention, to the incompetence of his court-appointed lawyers, to the indifference of the Supreme Court to his rights or his fate, the state failed Terence Andrus.”
“Terence Andrus Deserved Better Than What the Supreme Court Gave Him,” Balls & Strikes, January 25, 2023
Terence Andrus took his own life on January 21, 2023 after struggling with mental illness while on death row in Texas. He was an artist and a poet who sought to rise above the trauma he experienced as a child and teenager. Learn more about him.
The State of Texas is scheduled to carry out two executions—one week apart—in February. Both cases raise troubling concerns about racial bias and the abysmal legal representation that pervades the Texas death penalty system, particularly at the trial level.
On Wednesday, February 1, 2023, the State of Texas is scheduled to execute Wesley Ruiz, who was convicted of shooting Dallas police officer Mark Nix in 2007 after a car chase that ensued when Officer Nix attempted to stop Ruiz in his vehicle. Ruiz is deeply remorseful for his crime and has worked to better himself during his fourteen years on death row. We appreciate everyone who contacted the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in support of his clemency application.
Next week, on February 8, 2023, the State is scheduled to execute John Balentine. Balentine, a Black man, has spent more than two decades on death row. He was convicted of killing three white teenagers—Mark Caylor, Kai Brooke Geyer, and Steven Brady Watson—in Amarillo in 1998 after a dispute with one of the victims, who had threatened to kill him on prior occasions, escalated.
Balentine received abysmal representation from his trial attorneys, who did virtually nothing to gather information about their client’s childhood and background. Consequently, the jury did not hear about Balentine’s history as the victim of sexual and physical abuse, his childhood experiences of abject poverty, neglect, and domestic violence, or his history of learning impairments and life-long brain damage. In signed statements gathered since the trial in 1999, several jurors indicated they had wanted to hear this evidence of mitigation; at least two jurors felt it would have changed their vote from a death sentence to life in prison.
In addition to filing an application for clemency with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbott, Balentine has asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to allow him to file a new motion for post-conviction relief and to stay his execution. This new filing points to newly discovered evidence, including declarations from jurors and others, that the jury foreperson harbored longstanding and virulent racist views that affected the jury’s deliberations in Balentine’s case. The new evidence also reveals the foreperson bullied other jurors who wanted to return a life sentence for Balentine.
Nationwide, three people have been put to death this year by three states: Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, which executed Robert Fratta in January. Texas has five additional executions scheduled through April.
The TCADP Annual Conference: 25 Years of Igniting Change will take place in person on Saturday, February 25, 2023 from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM at St. David’s Episcopal Church in downtown Austin. Join us for an inspirational day featuring keynote speaker, Anthony Graves, a panel discussion with capital litigators, and a variety of breakout sessions on such topics as conservative opposition to capital punishment, advocating through storytelling, the intersection of mental illness and the death penalty, and surviving death row.
During the awards luncheon that day, we will honor six individuals selected by the TCADP Board of Directors as our 2023 Award Recipients. They include a pastor, professors, journalists, and a current District Attorney, all of whom have created awareness of the deep flaws of the death penalty. More details, registration, and sponsorship opportunities here. (Note: Registration rates will increase after February 10, 2023.)
U.S. Supreme Court orders reconsideration in Texas death penalty case based on flawed DNA evidence
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider its decision in the death penalty case of Areli Escobar. Prosecutors in Travis County support Escobar’s request for a new trial and agree with defense attorneys that his conviction is based on flawed DNA evidence. Escobar was convicted of killing Bianca Maldonado Hernandez in 2011 in Austin. In 2016, an audit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission raised troubling questions about how the Austin Police Department’s crime lab was handling and analyzing DNA evidence. This led to the shutdown of the lab, and it has cast doubt on numerous convictions.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denies relief to Robert Roberson despite evidence of his innocence
On January 11, 2023, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) issued a perfunctory three-page decision denying relief to Robert Roberson despite copious new evidence of his innocence, which was presented during Roberson’s nine-day evidentiary hearing in Anderson County. Roberson was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 for the death of his two-year-old daughter, Nikki. He has consistently maintained his innocence, and there is significant evidence that Niki’s death was a tragic accident, exacerbated by her chronic illness.
Roberson’s evidentiary hearing focused on four claims, including an actual innocence claim and the use of false, misleading, and scientifically invalid testimony. The CCA decision ignored hundreds of pages of scientific articles describing the evolution of scientific understanding since his 2003 trial, and it disregarded amicus briefs filed in support of Roberson by the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences and by a group of exonerees who were wrongly convicted under the same discredited “Shaken Baby Syndrome” hypothesis the State asserted during Roberson’s trial.
Men on death row in Texas sue for an end to solitary confinement
A lawsuit filed in federal court last month by several Texas death row prisoners alleges it is unconstitutional for the State to hold them in solitary confinement. Men on death row in Texas spend between 22 and 24 hours a day in their single cells. According to the Texas Tribune, the lawsuit claims the extended isolation deprives the prisoners of their right to access medical care and legal counsel and also causes severe physical and psychological harm.
The 88th Texas Legislature began on January 10, 2023. Bills to abolish the death penalty have been filed in the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate: State Representative Joe Moody (House District 78-El Paso) has filed HB 142, and State Senator Sarah Eckhardt (Senate District 14-Austin) has filed SB 516. Please take a moment to thank Rep. Moody and Senator Eckhardt for their leadership on this issue: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Read TCADP’s position papers on the bills.
TCADP Book Group
The TCADP book group meets on Zoom every six to eight weeks and reads a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs. Our next meeting will take place tonight, Wednesday, February 1, 2023 at 7:30 PM Central Time, when we will discuss Death Row: The Final Minutes with author Michelle Lyons. Michelle served as the Communications Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for many years; in that role, she witnessed nearly 300 executions. All are welcome! Register here for the Zoom link.
TCADP General Membership Meeting
TCADP’s General Membership Meeting will take place on Zoom on Thursday, February 16, 2023 from 7:00 to 8:00 PM Central Time. Attendees will hear a report on the state of our organization and participate in the election of new board members. We’ll then break into small groups for discussions led by TCADP Board Members. If you have questions about your membership status, email Executive Director Kristin Cuellar at email@example.com.