As 2015 draws to a close Texas Moratorium Network looks back on the top Texas death penalty news stories of the year. Each day, I will update this post with another Texas death penalty news story that broke in 2015. I will continue to post the list of top ten Texas death penalty news stories each day until I reach number one.
1) Alfred Dewayne Brown was exonerated and released after more than ten years on Texas death row for a crime he did not commit. He walked free and into the loving arms of his family and friends on June 8, 2015. “I went in an innocent man and I came out an innocent man,” said Brown. He has been placed on the Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence List as Exoneree #154.
Lisa Falkenberg, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, took notice of Dewayne and wrote a series of articles concerning Dewayne Brown and the Harris County grand jury system. On April 20, 2015, she won the Pulitzer Prizefor her series.
Dewayne has flourished since his release. He has re-united as a free man with his daughter. He has a job now. He enjoys taking care of his horses. He has traveled to speak about his case in Washington, D.C and in Austin at a press conference we held on October 24.
Dewayne spent 12 years, 2 months and 5 days behind bars for something he had no part in. That is 4,449 days or 106,776 hours of his life that was stolen from him. Nearly every one of those days were spent in solitary in a cell no larger that a small bathroom.
Together with other friends, Texas Moratorium Network created a fundraising campaign for Dewayne and raised a total of $6,775 to help him readjust to life in freedom . The donation page is still active, if anyone would like to donate to him. He has not received any compensation from Texas and it may be a long time, if ever, that he gets compensation from Texas.
2) There were only three new death sentences in Texas in 2015. In 1999, there were 48 people sentenced to death in Texas ("Where is the Texas death row class of 1999 now?" by Eric Dexheimer , Austin American-Statesman, September 9, 2015). Texas went all the way into October before anyone was sentenced to death in 2015. It is remarkable that death sentences in Texas have gone from 48 in 1999 to only 3 in 2015. It shows that more and more Texans are rejecting the death penalty, not only in their private opinions but in their capacities as members of juries who vote against death sentences and as prosecutors who decide not to seek the death penalty in specific cases. If we can cut death sentences down from 48 to only 3, then we can eventually cut them down to zero. As the number of new death sentences continue to decline, the day is coming when the U.S. Supreme Court will step in and decide that the death penalty is unconstitutional because of the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Death sentences have been steadily declining in the U.S. over the past 15 years. The country has now imposed fewer death sentences in the past ten years than in the decade just before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, Death Penalty Information Center’s Executive Director.
While new death sentences declined in Texas to only three in 2015, the state continues to lead the nation in the number of annual executions with 13 in 2015. Yet, only six states in the entire nation conducted any executions in 2015. Eighty-six percent of executions this year were concentrated in just three states: Texas (13), Missouri (6), and Georgia (5). Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 531 people (as of the end of 2015), more than the next six states combined — Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama. Executions have become a predominately Southern punishment, which bolsters the argument for the Supreme Court to rule it unconstitutional.
3) Texas State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr filed an historic first-ever bill in Texas Senate that would completely abolish the Texas death penalty.
This was the first time a state senator has ever filed legislation in the Senate to completely abolish the death penalty in Texas. It happened because organizations in Texas held the Statewide Texas Lobby Day to Abolish the Death Penalty on March 3 and death row survivors Ron Keine and Sabrina Butler from Witness to Innocence and Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network met with Senator Lucio’s general counsel and requested that Senator Lucio file abolition legislation.
(There was an abolition bill filed in the Texas Senate in 1969, but it would not have completely abolished the death penalty.)
Here is a report from the Austin American-Statesman on the lobby day, which was widely covered in the media, including the Dallas Morning News, potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of people in Texas with our message.
Last summer, Senator Lucio attended the Democrats Against the Death Penalty caucus at the Texas Democratic Party state convention. The caucus has been held every year since 2004 when it was started by Scott Cobb. The caucus has proven to be an effective method for persuading Texas Democrats to make abolishing the death penalty a higher priority among both elected officials and ordinary people in the Texas Democratic Party.
Here are links to the two pieces of legislation filed by Senator Lucio. One is a regular bill (SB 1661) and the other is a proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 54).
Many groups and people from across Texas participated in the Statewide Lobby Day to Abolish the Death Penalty, including Texas Moratorium Network, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Students Against the Death Penalty, and Witness to Innocence.
4) Lester Bower, who had a strong case of innocence, was executed on June 8, 2015 after 31 years on Texas death row. He spent more time on death row than any other person executed in Texas. Bower maintained his innocence to the end.
According to Jordan Smith of The Intercept, “serious questions remained about the state’s investigation and prosecution of Bower. Indeed, in 1989, some five years after Bower was sentenced to death, the conviction began to unravel. Documents challenging the state’s case surfaced — thanks to the dogged work of Bower’s pro bono attorney team — and a woman came forward to say that she knew who killed the four men, and that it wasn’t Bower. She has maintained her story — corroborated by others — for nearly 26 years. (For more background and recent revelations, read The Intercept’s earlier story on the case.)”The potential for an innocent person to be executed is far from remote — and not just in Texas. Also see, “Did Texas Execute an Innocent Lester Bower?” in Politico.com. The judge who heard the new evidence said in 2012 said “…the new evidence produced by the defendant could conceivably have produced a different result at trial,”, but he said it did not warrant a new trial, because “…it does not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is actually innocent”. The ruling illustrated the dilemma for defendants. “He [Judge Fallon] points out in pretty clear terms that this guy probably would have been found not guilty had this evidence been available at trial,” Maurice Possley said. “But now, all these years later, he can’t meet the new standard, which is actual innocence. That was not the standard at trial. Then it was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Bower joins a disturbingly long list of people executed by Texas who may have been innocent, including Todd Willingham, Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, David Wayne Spence, Shaka Sankofa (born Gary Lee Graham), as well as others (DPIC list).
5) Rising awareness of the effects of solitary confinement on Texas death row, as shown in 2015 media articles on the issue. Everyone on death row lives in solitary confinement, confined in their 6 x 10 foot cells 23 hours a day, allowed one hour of recreation, which is often suspended by the prison or voluntarily skipped by the inmate. On June 10, 2015, Time Magazine published an article by Anthony Graves "I Spent 16 Years in Solitary Confinement Hell. It Needs to End." He spent 16 years in solitary confinement, 12 of them on Texas death row before his release and exoneration in 2010. He wrote, "solitary confinement plays tricks on your mind. You’re bound by four walls, you’re cut off from society, and you’re left with just your own thoughts. Sometimes you start to feel like, if they treat me like this, I’m going to act like this. And then you risk becoming the kind of person that it seems like they’re trying to tell society that you are. Human contact was what I missed most—something that told me that I was still loved, and that I was still able to love. We don’t realize how important human contact is. When we give hugs and shake hands, it’s because we need to. I don’t know how to explain the emptiness it leaves when you are not allowed human contact anymore. It felt like they were starving me to death."
The Texas Observer also took up the issue of solitary confinement in an article on March 16, 2015, "Letters from Death Row: Alone on the Inside". In that article, Texas death row inmate Thomas
Whitaker is quoted saying that long periods of solitary confinement can result in loss of speech. “When you live in an environment where nearly everyone is hostile to you, you learn to say less and less until you arrive at the point where vocalization seems increasingly odd to you,” he wrote. The article says that "depression and other forms of mental illness are not unusual for inmates on death row. In Texas, a quarter of inmates facing execution, and therefore held in solitary confinement
, have been diagnosed with either a serious mental illness or intellectual disability. But the Observer
found that prisoners often choose a life of permanent isolation, refusing to leave their cages. It’s a catch-22: Mental illness can lead inmates to never leave their cells, never leaving their cells can exacerbate—or even cause—mental illness.
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, death row inmates are offered an hour of recreation each day, alone, in a separate area of the prison. But many refuse and are instead confined to the same 12-by-6 feet cell for decades. Others are abandoned by family and friends—either because they no longer stand by them or because they simply cannot afford to make the sometimes hundreds of miles visit to the prison."
6) Todd Willingham's prosecutor John Jackson was accused of misconduct that led to the wrongful conviction and execution of an innocent man. In a major turn in one of the country's most-noted death penalty cases, the State Bar of Texas on March 5 filed a formal accusation of misconduct against John Jackson, the county prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters. The Marshall Project reported that "following a preliminary inquiry that began last summer, the bar this month filed a disciplinary petition in Navarro County District Court accusing the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham's defense." It accuses Jackson of having intervened repeatedly to help a jailhouse informant, Johnny E. Webb, in return for his testimony that Willingham confessed the murders to him while they were both jailed in Corsicana, the Navarro county seat.
New evidence emerged that indicates that a key prosecution witness testified in return for a secret promise to have his own criminal sentence reduced. "In a previously undisclosed letter that the witness, Johnny E. Webb, wrote from prison in 1996, he urged the lead prosecutor in Willingham’s case to make good on what Webb described as an earlier promise to downgrade his conviction. Webb also hinted that he might make his complaint public”, reported the Washington Post.
7) Rodney Reed was issued a stay of execution on February 23 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, less than ten days before his scheduled execution date of March 5, so new evidence can be considered that Reed's attorneys say proves their client's innocence. So far, no new execution date has been scheduled. Rodney's father, Walter Reed, a Bastrop native and retired Air Force veteran, died March 27. He was 72. Later in October, Reed's attorneys filed a motion in Bastrop district court stating they have found new evidence of a previously undisclosed investigation of the fiancé of murder victim Stacey Stites. They say the new evidence points to Stites’s fiancé Jimmy Fennell as the killer. Rodney's mother and brother, Sandra and Rodrick spoke at the 16th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on October 24. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty continues to organize events to help Rodney's family prove his innocence. Keep up to date on the We Demand Justice: Free Rodney Reed Facebook page.
8) Charles Sebesta, a former Texas district attorney, was stripped of his law license in June after a panel of the State Bar determined he withheld evidence and used false testimony to win a capital murder conviction against Anthony Graves, a now-exonerated former death row inmate. Graves, who faced two execution dates and spent more than 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, including more than 12 on death row, said the ruling against Sebesta was vindication and quoted Shakespeare. "The worm has finally turned," he said. "And it's pointing toward justice now. It's a good day." As part of announcing the action, the State Bar also offered a statement on the egregiousness of Sebesta's behavior. "Mr. Sebesta's disbarment cannot begin to make up for what happened to Anthony Graves, but we hope it can bring him some sense of justice," Laura Popps, deputy counsel for the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, said in a news release.
9) Raphael Holiday was executed in Texas on November 18
after appeals lawyers who were appointed to his case unilaterally decided not to seek clemency or pursue additional appeals and then opposed Holiday's efforts to replace them with lawyers who would. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent that she agreed that the federally appointed lawyers had abandoned their client
(pdf), saying that Holiday had been left to navigate the clemency process from his jail. Holiday’s clemency application may have benefited from “more zealous advocates,” she wrote.
10) Antonio Williams committed suicide in February. He became the 13th Texas death row inmate to commit suicide in the modern era. He had been sent to death row in 2007. Two witnesses whose testimony helped send him to death row had recanted their statements, saying they were pressured to lie by prosecutors and investigators. He was back in Houston to attend hearings for his appeals and was found dead in his Harris County jail cell early in the morning. His lawyer said an outside agency is needed to properly investigate the death.