Articles Posted in Capital Murder

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fire.jpgIn the early morning hours of December 23, 1991, a fire quickly spread through the Texas home of Cameron Todd Willingham and Stacy Kuykendall. Kuykendall had already left the house to run errands. Willingham was able to escape moments before flames completely engulfed the house. Their three daughters did not survive. The fire was ruled an arson and Willingham was tried for murder and sentenced to the death penalty in August 1992. He was executed February 17, 2004. Willingham maintained he was innocent and now his family is seeking a posthumous pardon.Surviving relatives Eugenia Willingham and Patricia Willingham Cox are petitioning Texas to exonerate Willingham based on new evidence and new scientific procedures that have developed since 2004. At the trial, the Willingham’s conviction was based largely on the testimonies of the fire investigators and Willingham’s cellmate. Jailhouse informant Johnny Webb stated that Willingham admitted that he had set the fire on purpose. Webb was subsequently released from prison early. Years later, Webb recanted his testimony and declared that Willingham was innocent. Assistant Fire Chief Fogg and Fire Marshall Vasquez testified that the fire was started by an accelerant. But, in the trial, both men acknowledged that the fire could have been caused by other means than accelerants.

Since the time of the trial, new science has emerged that refutes the testimonies of the police investigators. Studies and reports by leading arson experts have cast serious doubts on the validity of the evidence used to convict Willingham. In 2004, independent expert Gerald Hurst reviewed the evidence and determined that faulty forensic evidence was used. An expert panel of five arson scientists stated that the indicators used by the State’s experts have been proven to be scientifically invalid. In 2009 the State of Texas ordered that Willingham’s case be re-examined. In that same year, a report issued by Dr. Craig Beyler, stated that “a finding of arson could not be sustained”. Dr. Beyler discredited the testimony from a fire marshal at Willingham’s trial stating that the testimony was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics”. In addition, the Texas Forensic Science Commission stated in 2011 that there is a lack of science education amongst fire investigators.
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texas-flag.jpgTexas’ execution of Marvin Wilson raises the issue of whether this state violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In the United States of America it is illegal and immoral to execute a child. But, the line between right and wrong blurs when the execution of a man with the intelligence of a child is in question. The execution of Marvin Wilson, whose mental capabilities was that of a seven-year-old, is a gross miscarriage of justice. The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution states that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Texas has effectively slapped the Eighth Amendment in the face.

Marvin Wilson, 54, was executed in Huntsville, TX, on Tuesday, August 7, 2012. Wilson was convicted in 1992 for the shooting of 21-year-old Jerry Robert Williams in Beaumont, TX. Wilson was sentenced to death for the murder of Williams, even though the prosecution had no forensic evidence and failed to find any eyewitnesses to the actual shooting. Wilson was tried in the District Court of Jefferson County and entered death row on May 9, 1992. Wilson filed on March 3, 2006, with the US Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit.

Williams was a police informant when he was killed on November 10, 1992. Wilson had been arrested for drug possession and out on bond when Williams was murdered. Andrew Lewis was Wilson’s accomplice, and witnesses claimed they saw Wilson and Lewis drive away from a gas station with Williams in the car. Williams was later found with gun shots in his head.
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overton.jpgIn the first part of our Hannah Overton blog, we reviewed the facts of her 2007 capital murder trial and the procedural aspects of the case that placed her back in court. She was found guilty by omission in the poisoning death of 4-year-old Andrew Burd and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

While it is true that Overton was tried in a court of law by her peers, there is a question of whether a miscarriage of justice occurred. In February of this year the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided that a hearing needed to be held to determine if Overton got a fair trial. On Monday, April 23, an evidentiary hearing began to determine if there is enough evidence to grant Overton a new trial, to allow her to go free, or if the decision stands. Her criminal defense lawyers are arguing key points: the prosecutors failed to turn over favorable evidence to the defense, she had ineffective counsel during the trial and that she was not convicted on reliable science. Judge Jose Longoria of the 214th State District heard statements for six days and now has one month to send his recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

There were many people who were called to testify during the hearing. Attorney David Jones told the court that he was sorry for the way he handled the original trial. During questioning in the hearing he broke down in tears and stated that there was more that he could have done for his client. Jones stated that he did not review a videotaped deposition of the world’s leading expert on sodium intoxication before the defense decided not to use the video before the jury. He said that this video proves that Hannah was innocent.

Former lead prosecutor Sandra Eastwood admitted that she had been taking diet pills and was drinking alcoholic during the trial. She testified that she was an alcoholic. During the hearing she said that she cannot recall certain details of the trial, but she was adamant that she did not withhold evidence. Eastwood was fired in April 2010 from the district attorney’s office on charges unrelated to the Overton trial. In addition, Anna Jimenez, who was appointed as District Attorney of Nueces County after the Overton trial and who sat second chair during the trial, claimed that Overton should not have been tried for capital murder and she recounted how she repeatedly went to her bosses during the trial to complain of Eastwood’s unethical behavior.

Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County Medical Examiner, also took the stand last week. Fernandez had been the person who ruled the death a homicide. He has said that he will review any and all new evidence, and may change the cause of death if it is warranted.
Local pediatrician Dr. Edgar Cortes saw Andrew twice in the months before Andrew’s death. He testified that he had told Eastwood that he believed the boy’s death was an accident. He also had information that this child was not a normal child and that he had cognitive delays and other problems. The state during the trial painted young Andrew as a normal, healthy child.
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Hannah Overton, who is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, is back in the 214th District Court in Nueces County, Texas for a hearing on her application for a writ of habeas corpus with her writ lawyers lead by Cynthia Orr and assisted by Gerry Goldstein, John Raley and Dayna Jones. In 2007 Hannah was tried in the 214th District Court, Nueces County, Texas. She was found guilty of capital murder by omission in the poisoning death of 4 year old Andrew Burd.

In a rather uncommonly strict remand order, the Court of Criminal Appeals ordered on February 8, 2012 that the trial court must hold a hearing with live testimony within 90 days of the order and that all supplemental findings and conclusions of law must be returned to the Court of Criminal Appeals within 120 days of the order. Justice Cochran, joined by Justices Price and Johnson, issued a statement concerning the remand order. In that statement, Justice Cochran gave direction to the parties and the trial court on what needs to be decided in this matter. “The judiciary must be ever vigilant to ensure that verdicts in criminal cases are based solely upon reliable, relevant scientific evidence–scientific evidence that will hold under later scrutiny.” Justice Cochran went on to say: “The problem in this case…is not that the science itself has evolved, but that it is alleged that the scientific testimony at the original trial was not fully informed and did not take into account all of the scientific evidence now available.” Justice Cochran concluded by stating: “These are not easy issues, but fairness both to the applicant who is serving a sentence of life without parole and to the State and the memory of the child victim, demands that our verdicts will withstand the test of time such that the guilty are punished and the innocent are not. Further, public support of the American criminal justice system depends upon its confidence that the courts reach accurate verdicts based upon reliable scientific evidence.”

In addition to wading through the scientific evidence, Judge Longoria will also hear testimony concerning whether the state withheld Brady evidence, whether trial counsel were ineffective and whether Hannah is innocent based on newly discovered evidence.
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food.jpg Three Bexar County inmates are currently scheduled for execution, but there will be no last meal requests for Frank Garcia, Guadalupe Esparza, and Rodrigo Hernandez.

In a swift and definitive move, the State of Texas has suspended the practice of serving a last meal to death row inmates. According to restaurant owner Brian Price, a former inmate and last meal request chef, prisoners do not necessarily get what they ask for when ordering their last meal. Just because a prisoner asks for special items does not mean they actually get them. Could they order anything they wanted? Yes, but according to Price, what they requested and what they were actually served were usually two different things. A prisoner’s request was filled by the prison chef (usually an inmate themselves) and limited to what was available in the prison kitchen. Now, instead of requesting a special meal before they are administered a lethal injection, prisoners who are to be executed will now have whatever the general population is eating.

In the center of this decision is Texas State Senator John Whitmire (Democrat, 15th Senatorial District). Whitmire is a member of the Texas Sunset Commission which is responsible for reviewing state agencies to identify and eliminate waste, duplication, and inefficiency in state government. He also chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. It has been stated that eliminating the last meal from the prison system has nothing to do with saving tax payers money. In fact, Price offered to provide last meals for free, but was turned down by the state.
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The legal system in the State of Texas has come under fire lately for their inconsistencies. Two recent cases highlight the unstable nature within the courts. The state takes a hard-line on criminals, but are citizens actually getting fair trials? San Antonio, Texas has come under scrutiny in the past as well for executing an innocent man, Ruben Cantu. Currently, there are 23 inmates on death row from Bexar County.

Steven Michael Woods Jr. was executed on September 13, 2011. A drifter with no prior record, he was the 10th person put to death in the state of Texas this year. He was convicted of capital murder in 2002 for the 2001 deaths of a man and woman in The Colony, TX, located in North Dallas. Woods and a co-defendant (Marcus Rhodes) were tried for the deaths. Woods admitted he was at the scene, but insisted that he did not do the actual killings. There was no physical or DNA evidence linking Woods to the murder. Woods’ conviction was based primarily on witnesses’ testimonies. Witnesses were not present at the murders and based their testimonies on conversations they had heard. Rhodes, who admitted to shooting and stabbing the victims, pleaded guilty to avoid a trial. Backpacks belonging to the victims were found in Rhodes’ car and the guns used were found at the home of Rhodes’ parents. Rhodes, who admitted to doing the actual killings, is serving a life sentence in prison while Woods, who did not murder anyone, was executed.

The case against Woods’ was primarily based on Texas’ Law of Parties (Texas Penal Code Section 7.02). The law states that a person can be held criminally responsible by aiding and abetting a felony in the course of which a murder is committed by others but who does not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill. In other words, a person can be convicted of guilt by association, even if they did not have the intent or knowledge that a murder was going to be committed.
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The recent release of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin (also known as the West Memphis Three) may remind the residents of San Antonio and Bexar County of another young man – Ruben Cantu. Ruben Cantu was a Texan who was tried in San Antonio, Texas for the murder and attempted murder of two males at a construction site. While the two cases vary in both the scope of the crimes and the outcomes of those convicted, they can teach us an indispensable lesson in the fallible nature of our criminal justice system.

In both cases, all four young men were all tried as adults (despite the fact that Damien Echols was the only one who was over the age of 18 years old at the time of his alleged crime) and there was no physical evidence linking them to the crimes. In addition, the prosecution’s entire cases hinged on the shaky testimonies of sole eye witnesses. Testimonies that were later recanted.

In San Antonio, Ruben Cantu was convicted and later executed for armed robbery and murder that occurred in 1984. Many believed, and still believe, that Ruben Cantu became the prime suspect months later when he shot an off-duty police officer in a barroom altercation. Was Ruben Cantu framed for a crime he did not commit because of an unrelated incident? In the years following his conviction, the surviving victim Juan Moreno, the co-defendant David Garza, the then Bexar County District Attorney Sam Millsap, and the head juror have all publicly declared that Ruben Cantu’s guilty verdict and death sentence were a mistake. The state of Texas administered a lethal injection to an innocent man.
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crime scene tape.jpgA female teenager in Texarkana, Texas has been formally charged with three counts of capital murder in the deaths of a Texarkana woman and her two children. According to reports, the suspect’s mother contacted officials saying that her daughter confessed. After being interviewed at her home, the teenage girl was arrested and remains at a juvenile detention facility. According to police, the girl had information about the May 11th fire that killed the three individuals that only someone at the scene would have known.

There are several ways that a murder becomes a capital offense in Texas. One being whoever “intentionally commits the murder in the course of committing or attempting to commit…arson…” Tex. Penal Code §19.03.

This case raises two interesting legal points. First, privileged communications that are recognized under the law. The Texas Rules of Evidence govern what privileged communications are not admissible in court. There are certain privileged communications that the courts will not allow to be admitted against a defendant in court. For example, the common privilege is the attorney-client privilege. Other common privileged communications are the husband-wife privilege, clergy-penitent privilege, and the physician-patient privilege. There is no parent-child privilege specifically addressed by the Texas Rules of Evidence. There have several attempts by lawmakers to add a parent-child privilege to the Federal Rules of Evidence, however none of them have ever passed. Thus, it remains in Texas and in Federal Court that parents may be forced to provide incriminating information against their own child. Even the few states who do recognize parent-child privilege only apply the privilege to communications between a minor child and his or her parent.
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On Thursday, July 7, 2011, the state of Texas executed Mexican National Humberto Leal Garcia Jr. for the May 21, 1994, rape and murder of San Antonio native Adria Sauceda. Garcia had been tried in Bexar County, Texas and received a First Degree conviction. Garcia’s case received international attention because he was denied his right to speak to the Mexican consulate. At the time of his arrest, Garcia did not reveal that he was a Mexican national and the issue of his nationality was never raised during the trial by his court-appointed attorney. As such, Garcia was not informed of his right to contact the Mexican consulate under the Vienna Convention. The Obama admininstration objected to Garcia’s execution arguing that it did not follow international law and could effect the rights of American’s who travel abroad.

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 is an international treaty that outlines the legal rights between countries. The consulate works at an embassy in a foreign country. One of their main functions is to protect the interests of their countrymen in the foreign country. Under Article 36, a foreign national is to be informed “without delay” of their right to contact their embassy and consulate if they are arrested. But, in Garcia’s case he was denied this important right and he paid the ultimate penalty with his life. President John F. Kennedy once said: “For our nation is founded on the principle that observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty – and defiance of the law is the surest path to tyranny.” –President John F. Kennedy, Speech on Civil Rights, September 30, 1962 . With the execution of a man in the United States who was denied one right, we have failed our system of justice.

It is no secret that almost every year Texas sits at the top of the list for executing more prisoners than any other state. Governor Rick Perry has cautioned that “…if you commit the most heinous of crimes in Texas, you can expect to face the ultimate penalty under our laws.” Statement from Governor Rick Perry’s office.
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