2017-09-04 14:41:42 UTC
Austin has too few defense lawyers for death penalty cases
Capital murder cases are demanding of attorneys, who sometimes spend 400 hours
If participation continues to dwindle, the county might have to go elsewhere to
When you see one at the courthouse, the other usually is nearby.
Allan Williams and Steve Brittain, friends for decades, are among a handful of
Travis County defense attorneys who are approved to represent indigent
defendants in death penalty cases.
Both are 68 and not long from turning in their courthouse badges and retiring.
And that's a concern, according to observers, who point to a shortage of
up-and-comers ready to replenish the roster.
"It's dwindling," state District Judge Julie Kocurek said.
Capital murder cases chew up big chunks of time - 400 hours, sometimes - which
might be the biggest reason just 9 attorneys in Austin have applied and been
approved to represent the indigent defendants in the 21 capital cases pending
in Travis County.
Williams has 3 of them and Brittain 2. They're teaming up on another one.
"It's challenging," Brittain said. "It might be a little like childbirth. You
forget how bad it is, and then you want to do it again."
The vast majority of capital murder defendants are indigent and receive free
legal representation that's paid for by the county.
Hoping to recruit reinforcement attorneys, Kocurek, chairwoman of a judicial
region that covers 26 Central Texas counties, put together a symposium Thursday
that attracted about 45 lawyers to the Austin Bar Association building for
education on the finer points of capital law.
Why should the public care? Because, says lawyer Ariel Payan, there will be
significant costs to taxpayers if the county has to cast a wider net and bring
in attorneys from other counties.
Payan's docket includes 9 capital cases - 4 with him as lead counsel - plus
another one in Waco. Increasing the stable of capital-approved attorneys "would
be a benefit," he said.
"We need capable people," he said. "The last thing you want is to convict an
innocent person or have to try a case again because the trial attorney screwed
Lawyers who defend those charged with capital murder are paid $150 per hour by
the county. On the low end, they'll make $30,000. But more complicated cases
can reach $60,000.
There are 20 attorneys in Travis County who are approved to provide 2nd-chair
assistance in indigent cases.
Simple murder rises to capital murder - and puts the death penalty on the table
- when the defendant is charged with an associated crime such as robbery,
kidnapping or aggravated sexual assault. A conviction triggers an automatic
sentence of life without parole. Unless, of course, the state seeks death.
Unlike other areas in the state that dole out far more death sentences - Texas'
543 executions outnumber the next 6 states combined - Travis County generally
prefers life sentences. The most recent death penalty case was for cop killer
Brandon Daniel, who a jury decided should die after finding him guilty in 2014
of the 2012 shooting of Austin police officer Jaime Padron.
District Attorney Margaret Moore has yet to pursue the death penalty in her
eight months on the job but says she's in favor of execution when it's
appropriate. 2 defendants accused in separate slayings at the University of
Texas fail to satisfy the state's criteria for death. Meechaiel Criner was 17
in April 2016, when he is accused of strangling UT student Haruka Weiser.
Kendrex White, who authorities say killed Harrison Brown in a random stabbing
spree in May, is not charged with any associated crimes that would bring
It's not uncommon for a death penalty trial to last a month, with jury
selection alone eating up 2 weeks. Lawyers press 120 or more jurors on their
feelings about the death penalty.
Invariably, Brittain said, a juror will comment that he looks exhausted.
"Yes, ma'am," Brittain responds, setting up the punch line. "I'm 35 years old."
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
Husband Admits to Killing Wife After Taking Too Much Cold Medicine
"She didn't deserve this." "I can't believe this." Not the sort thing you'd
expect to hear from a person who admits to killing their wife, but that's what
Raleigh, North Carolina man Matthew James Phelps told 911 dispatch Friday. He
said he stabbed his wife Lauren Ashley-Nicole Phelps to death after taking too
much cold medicine.
"I have blood all over me and there's a bloody knife on the bed, and I think I
did it," he said. "I can't believe this."
Phelp said he took the medicine because he had trouble sleeping. He seemed to
be crying as the 911 dispatcher tried to help save Ms. Phelps' life, if
"Oh my God," the suspect said. "Oh God. She didn't deserve this. Why?"
We have reached to the Raleigh Police Department for comment.
Jail records obtained by Law Newz show that he has been charged with murder,
and is scheduled for a court date on Tuesday. He is being held on no bond. If
convicted, Phelps could get the death penalty.
Florida Supreme Court will hear challenge to executive authority
Governor Rick Scott has preemptively announced that he will be appointing
justices to replace 3 of the sitting Florida Supreme Court justices whose terms
are set to expire the day after Scott's successor takes office. This
announcement drew sharp criticism from across the political spectrum, many
arguing that the law regarding Supreme Court appointments was specifically
written to limit the power of a lame duck governor.
Though critics of Scott frame their opposition as a noble defense of the state
constitution, his supporters classify the opposition as virulently partisan.
The 3 justices whose terms are coming to an end - R. Fred Lewis, Barbara
Pariente, and Peggy Quince - are all generally considered liberal in nature.
Appointments by Scott would ensure a conservative majority for the FL Supreme
Court. This, his supporters say, explains the true motives of criticism from
On June 14, The League of Women Voters (a non-partisan political organization)
petitioned the FL Supreme Court to hear their case against the governor's
proposed action. They cite the Florida Constitution and prior cases as an
The Scott has precedent of his own that he is using to defend his stance. He
recently referenced the end of Governor Lawton Chiles term, when Chiles
partnered with his successor (Governor Jeb Bush) to jointly appoint Justice
Peggy Quince to the court.
Scott has been accused of executive overreach by multiple petitioners in the
past year alone. Most notably by Aramis Ayala, the Orlando State Attorney who
Scott removed cases from based on her refusal to pursue the death penalty in
any circumstances. Ayala also took Scott to the state's high court, who heard
arguments from both sides at the end of June. Just over 2 months later, Scott
finds his alleged constitutional authorities challenged once again.
On Friday, August 25, the Supreme Court announced that they will hear The
League of Women Voters' case against Scott. Oral arguments will be presented on
November 1 at the FL Supreme Court and are open to the public.
3 teens charged in death of Orthodox MMA fighter ---- An argument broke out at
Rajman's home and at least 1 shot was fired before the suspects drove off the
sheriff's office said
The 11th-grader was arrested on her way to school Friday.
Roberto Ortiz and Jace Swinton, both 18, were arrested Friday, Sept. 1, along
with high school junior Summer Church, 16, for the death of Aaron Rajman, the
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office said.
Church will be tried as an adult.
Police say the girl was the mastermind behind the murder. Church was astonished
- because she said her daughter had willingly talked to detectives 3 times
since the July 3rd murder of her friend Aaron Rajman, and told them everything
"This was no random act of violence", Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave
Aronberg said in a statement.
There was a tense moment in the parking lot of the Palm Beach County Criminal
Justice Complex between the family and friends of victim Aaron Rajman and the
mother of defendant Jace Swinton.
The 3 defendants could face the death penalty if convicted of the heinous
crime, MMA Mania reported.
With this said, it is clear that her daughter did not participate in the
shooting so her 1st-degree murder indictment does not make sense.
He is believed to be the only Orthodox Jewish MMA fighter. His last victory was
in 2015, when he beat Rusty Crowder via split decision. Rajman's training
facility, West Boca Tai Chi, offered a particularly fond remembrance of the
fighter, noting he had a "huge heart" and "quick smile".
Investigators allege that Swinton and Ortiz entered Rajman's home and shot the
occupant during a home invasion.
An argument broke out and at least 1 shot was sacked before the suspects drove
off, the sheriff's office said.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is investigated the nature of the home
invasion and the case is being investigated as a homicide.
Rajman was a member of the American Top Team gym and had an 8-1 record as an
amateur fighter before he turned professional in 2014 with a 2-2 record. But
Judi Church said her daughter wasn't at the home invasion, wasn't in the auto,
wasn't in on the plan.
"My understanding is that several people rushed Rajman and it doesn't matter
how powerful or fast you are, you are not as faster than a bullet".
Celebrating Oktoberfest in Alabama with executions
October is a pleasant time of year to be in Alabama - especially if you love
killing. Sure, happening times can be had in pumpkin patches and at the
Kentuck, Cotton and Boll Weevil festivals - and Oktoberfest is always
well-celebrated with bawdy bamas, barrels-worth of beer, and brats - but now
al.com, Alabama's largest media outlet, is reporting that Alabamians can ring
in the change of season with back-to-back executions. Specifically: "The
Alabama Supreme Court has scheduled October execution dates for 2 death row
inmates. Jeffrey Borden is set to be executed on October 5, and Torrey McNabb
on October 19."
1 capital punishment cheerleader ginning up her pom-poms for these back-to-back
killings is Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich. She recently waxed on
about her love for the death penalty to a class of cops learning how to handle
digital evidence in violent crime cases. Standing alongside Alabama's rookie
Attorney General Steve Marshall, Rich remarked, as if reflecting on her
favorite pie, "Well, I'm kind of fond of the death penalty."
D.A. Rich wasn't asked a question to logically elicit her blood-lusting,
full-throated hankering for state-sanctioned murder; rather, Rich volunteered
her affinity for the death penalty to the officers as "she couldn't stay at the
event because she had to be in court later ... in a capital murder case that
was being retried." Perturbed about having to attend a court hearing concerning
the reversal of Garrett Dotch's 2008 murder conviction, a case she prosecuted,
Rich complained: ???We got the death penalty. And we have this pesky little
group called the Equal Justice Initiative [EJI] that likes to hire fancy
lawyers in New York pro bono and spend millions of dollars trying to repeal the
death penalty in the state of Alabama." Venting further, D.A. Rich said: "I
think we need the death penalty ... so we're continuing to fight the Equal
Justice Initiative and big law firms who have millions of dollars and want to
come down and reverse all of our death penalty cases."
Putting aside (1) D.A. Rich's malcontent over the world-renowned, award-winning
work of that "pesky" EJI group spearheaded by civil rights attorney Bryan
Stevenson, and its laudable, effective efforts fighting not only the death
penalty, but racism and injustice across Alabama and America, and (2) the fact
that legions of individual EJI attorneys, appointed and volunteer private
attorneys in Alabama, and also federal public defenders (including myself,
once) have won reversals of Alabama death penalty cases - not just "big law
firms" - Rich's histrionic about there being any "repeal" of the death penalty
in Alabama, is overly melodramatic at best.
On its website, the Death Penalty Information Center observes: "Judicial
override of jury recommendations of life, the imposition of death sentences
after non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations, and prosecutorial
misconduct, race bias, and ineffective assistance of counsel have made Mobile
County, Alabama, one of the most prolific death sentencing counties in the
United States ... Just 2 prosecutors, Ashley Rich and Jo Beth Murphree, account
for 90% of the Mobile death penalty cases decided on appeal since 2006, and
both have had death sentences overturned for improper prosecutorial practices."
In July of 2011, D.A. Rich was even celebrated for her passion pursuing
poisonous injections with her selection by the Association of Government
Attorneys in Capital Litigation for its "Best of the Best" award. (Though Rich
received this national award in part for obtaining a death sentence in the
aforementioned Dotch case that was subsequently overturned, there is no
indication Rich was stripped of her award, or that she's giving it back.)
Moreover, as I have written elsewhere, after a hiatus of more than two years,
Alabama has been busy "ritualizing killing" long before the announcement of
Borden and McNabb's forthcoming execution dates. Since the possibly torturous
execution of Christopher Brooks in January of 2016, the death chamber in that
hell on earth Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama, has been busily humming along;
it has claimed three more lives since Brooks's, including the irrefutable
torture of Ronald Bert Smith in December of 2016. (Strapped to a gurney like it
was a stake, Smith acted just like you might expect someone being burned alive
from the inside out, heaving, coughing, clenching his fists, moving his lips,
and opening an eye during an excruciatingly savage 13-minute death rattle.)
Additionally, it was just this summer that a patently unfair new death penalty
law aimed at accelerating executions in Alabama by gutting death row inmates's
rights to appeal their convictions was signed into law. If D.A. Rich is "fond"
of the death penalty, she???s not only been having her cake, she???s been
eating it for a disturbingly long, dehumanizing stretch now; the signing of the
so-called "Fair Just Act" into law was the rancid cherry on top.
None of this changes the fact that Alabama is less muggy and buggy - and can be
a very nice place to visit - especially in October. But, should you find
yourself having a brat and a beer with D.A. Ashley Rich and a brouhaha breaks
out, be careful! Nietzsche counseled: "Mistrust all in whom the impulse to
punish is powerful ... the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces.
Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than
(source: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an
assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and
Beheading defendant insane, defense attorneys say
The court-appointed attorneys for murder defendant Alton Alexander Nolen plan
to use an insanity defense at his upcoming jury trial over a beheading at a
Moore food plant.
Potential jurors will gather Tuesday for the 1st time to fill out
questionnaires. Jury selection is set to begin Sept. 11.
Nolen, a Muslim convert, has admitted in court that he beheaded one co-worker
at Vaughan Foods in 2014 and tried to behead another. He repeatedly has asked
to be executed, saying that is the only punishment acceptable under his
His attorneys contend he is so severely mentally ill that he did not know his
actions were wrong. They confirmed in a legal filing last week they will ask
jurors at his murder trial to find Nolen legally insane.
"Should the jury not agree with this assessment and find the defendant guilty,
counsel will present evidence and argument the defendant is mentally ill,
intellectually disabled, and should not receive the death penalty," they told
the judge in the legal filing.
An insanity defense is rarely successful in Oklahoma courts. If found not
guilty by reason of insanity, Nolen, 33, would be sent to the state's mental
facility in Vinita, possibly for the rest of his life.
Nolen actually pleaded guilty last year to 1st-degree murder and 2 assault
offenses. Cleveland County District Judge Lori Walkley had planned to decide
his punishment herself at a sentencing last April, after addressing new
concerns raised by his attorneys about his mental state.
However, by law, Nolen had to acknowledge in court he stood by his guilty plea
before the sentencing could go forward. At a hearing in April, he refused to
even talk to or look at the judge. He kept his handcuffed hands pressed against
his ears as she spoke.
Finally, the judge said she had no choice. She told Nolen she would not accept
his guilty plea and that his case would be set for jury trial.
Prosecutors have indicated in court filings that Nolen still could at any point
"state his desire to continue with his guilty plea." However, they also have
indicated they don't expect that to happen, particularly since Nolen has fought
with sheriff deputies the last two times he was brought to court.
The jury trial is expected to last as long as 5 weeks. The 1st stage of the
trial - selecting a jury - likely will take a week or more.
But first, the judge has to rule on almost 100 legal issues raised by
attorneys, mostly by the defense.
Among the issues to be decided is whether an expert can testify for the defense
that Nolen's "professed beliefs" are inconsistent with the teaching of Islam.
Prosecutors object to any testimony from Robert Hunt, a professor at Southern
Methodist University and an expert on Islamic beliefs. They call his opinions
about Nolen's beliefs irrelevant. They point out Hunt has admitted he has no
expertise in psychology or psychiatry.
Hunt "simply cannot speak to" the state of Nolen's mind "at the time of the
crime," prosecutors argued.
Defense attorneys contend the testimony is appropriate to counter prosecution
claims that Nolen is an extremist or a member of ISIS.
Nolen had researched ISIS and beheadings on his computer and had an ISIS flag
in his car, prosecutors have said.
"Dr. Hunt will explain ... Alton Nolen's ... belief that beheading a person is
an approved means of getting rid of a person who 'oppressed' him is not an
Islamic belief," defense attorneys wrote in a legal brief.
Defense attorneys argued jurors could find that Nolen's beliefs are delusional
because they "are so outside the norm of traditional Islamic beliefs."
Nolen is charged with 1st-degree murder and 5 assault counts. If convicted of
1st-degree murder, he could be sentenced to life in prison, life without the
possibility of parole or death.
Prosecutors allege he beheaded co-worker Colleen Hufford inside Vaughan Foods
on Sept. 25, 2014, shortly after he was suspended for making racial remarks.
She was 54.
Prosecutors allege he also assaulted 3 other workers who tried to stop him as
he cut Hufford's neck.
Prosecutors allege he then tried to behead another co-worker, Traci Johnson,
and charged with a knife at the company's chief operating officer, who shot
him. Prosecutors allege Johnson was his primary target, because she had
complained about his remarks. He did not know Hufford.
Nolen had started working at the plant in January 2013 while at a halfway house
for felons finishing prison sentences, records show.
(source: The Oklahoman)
Canyon County considering death penalty agreement
Officials with the Canyon County Public Defender's office say they are
considering a possible agreement with a nearby county to handle their legal
defenses in death penalty cases.
The Idaho Press-Tribune reports that Canyon County currently doesn't have
anyone in their public defense office certified to be a lead attorney in a
death penalty trial.
Public Defender Krista Howard told Canyon County commissioners Thursday she
wants to pursue an agreement with Ada County Public Defender's office. This
would allow Ada County to take over Canyon County's death penalty cases if the
defendant requires a public defender.
Death penalty cases are rare in Canyon County, but Howard says it's not
impossible more could arise in the near future. Currently, Canyon County only
has one death penalty and the defendant is being represented by a private
Canyon County commissioners told Howard they would consider an agreement.
(source: KTVB-TV News)
Solving a capital punishment conundrum
Nevada death row inmate Scott Raymond Dozier confers with Lori Teicher, a
federal public defender involved in his case, during a Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017,
appearance in Clark County District Court in Las Vegas.
Scott Dozier wants to die, and he doesn't care how.
The 46-year-old convicted killer of 2 men in their 20s mangled and disposed of
the bodies of his victims in 2007, and said as much in letters to Clark County
Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti and his attorneys in October. Dozier
renounced his right to appeal his death sentence after more than 9 years on
death row in Nevada.
"I'm ready to go," Dozier told Togliatti during a July 27 hearing.
The problem is that Nevada could not provide a way to execute him. After a
stockpile of a sedative (midazolam) and opiate painkiller (hydromorphone) used
as 2 of 3 narcotics for executions in Nevada expired last summer, the state
lacked the means to carry out Dozier's execution.
While a few of the 30 other states where the death penalty is legal still allow
for other methods of capital punishment - like gas, firing squad and
electrocution - Nevada law calls only for lethal injection.
But the state's recent request for proposals to dozens of drug manufacturers
for a new supply of the drugs used for execution went without response for the
better part of 8 months. Pfizer, which produces midazolam and hydromorphone,
and other drug companies refused to sell them for capital punishment.
After reaching terms on May 23 with Cardinal Health for a purchase, state
officials settled on a new concoction for Dozier: sedative (diazepam), opioid
painkiller (fentanyl) and anesthetic (cisatracurium.) The three have never been
used before in an execution in the United States.
The change prompted backlash from groups such as the American Civil Liberties
Union of Nevada, which has indicated strong opposition to Dozier's execution
despite his requests to be put to death.
"No other state has used a lethal combination like this, and it's not clear
whether this experimental protocol complies with all state and federal laws,"
ACLU of Nevada Director Tod Story said. "Nevadans deserve answers on exactly
how the state plans to kill a prisoner in its custody."
A Clark County jury convicted Dozier and sentenced him to death in 2007 for
killing 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller at the La Concha Motel, draining Miller's
body of blood in a bathtub and taking $12,000 that Miller had brought from
Arizona to buy substances for making meth.
Dozier was also convicted of 2nd-degree murder 2 years earlier in Phoenix for
shooting and killing 26-year-old Jasen Green, stuffing the Green's body in a
plastic container and leaving it in the Arizona desert.
Dozier is scheduled to be put to death Nov. 14 at the recently completed
$870,000 execution chamber at Ely State Prison.
He is not the only death row inmate to serve as a guinea pig for a state's new
lethal cocktail recipe this year. On Aug. 24, the state of Florida executed
convicted murderer Mark Asay using etomidate, a sedative, in place of
midazolam, after also failing to obtain new orders of the drug from its
The time Asay was injected to when he was pronounced dead was no longer than 5
minutes and had "no complication," according to Florida authorities.
(source: Las Vegas Sun)
Lara hearing to resume Tuesday----3 days are scheduled to complete the lengthy
After a s6-week lull, proceedings in the capital murder case against Edwin Lara
will resume Tuesday and could include discussion about whether the case's gag
order has been violated.
A lengthy hearing to decide if a confession Lara made about the death of
23-year-old Kaylee Sawyer can be used at trial started July 10 and stretched
through July 20. However, due to witness availability, the proceedings were
suspended for weeks.
Tuesday is scheduled to be the 1st of 3 days of hearings, which will include
testimony and closing arguments. Deschutes County Circuit Judge A. Michael
Adler will then issue a ruling, possibly after closing arguments, but more
likely at a later date.
Lara, 32, is accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering Sawyer in
the early hours of July 24, 2016, while on duty as a Central Oregon Community
College security guard.
He is charged with 4 counts of aggravated murder, the only crime punishable by
execution in the state of Oregon. Deschutes County District Attorney John
Hummel is seeking the death penalty, and Lara is due to stand trial in October
The final 3 days of the hearing were originally scheduled to start Sept. 11 but
were bumped up a week due to scheduling conflicts, court documents indicate.
A possible addition to the hearing could be arguments regarding a motion filed
by the defense July 28. While the contents of the motion are sealed - as nearly
all filings in the case have been - the title sheds some light: "Motion for
Sanctions for Violation of the Court's Order Prohibiting Extrajudicial
An extrajudicial statement is a statement made outside of court. The case has
had a gag order stipulating that none of the attorneys or investigators
involved in the case speak about it outside of court. From the title, it would
appear the defense team ??? Benjamin Kim, of Oregon City; Steve Lindsey, of
Portland; and Thaddeus Betz, of Bend - is alleging the gag order has been
The gag order on the case was originally imposed July 26, 2016, by Deschutes
County Circuit Presiding Judge Alta Brady. The original language prohibited
statements out of court. It was amended Aug. 11, 2016, by Adler, to limit
statements that could affect a potential jury's ability to be fair. 7 days
later, Adler again amended it, claiming Hummel had violated the order days
before while speaking with the media. The 3rd order again barred any discussion
of the case outside of the courtroom.
Since then, no statements about the case have been made outside of the
courtroom, aside from Hummel announcing his decision to pursue the death
penalty. Court proceedings discussing potential evidence included roundabout
arguments specifically tailored to keep any details of the case out of the
For a year, all that was known about the case was Lara had been charged with
murdering Sawyer and Hummel's office had accused him of kidnapping and
attempting to sexually assault her.
It was not known how Lara allegedly came in contact with Sawyer, or what may
have taken place - until the 1-year anniversary of her death.
On July 24, attorney Tim Williams filed a civil lawsuit against COCC and Lara
on behalf of the Sawyer family. The lawsuit describes an encounter between
Sawyer and Lara in graphic detail.
4 days later, the defense filed the motion seeking sanctions due to a violation
of the gag order. Williams said he has not been contacted by the court or
anyone else involved regarding a possible violation of the gag order. He said
he reviewed the order before filing the civil lawsuit and found it did not
pertain to him.
However, in trying to comply with the spirit of the order, he limited
information about the case to court filings rather than verbal statements.
He said if it were possible, he would have held off filing the civil suit until
the criminal trial had wrapped up, but the statute of limitations to bring the
suit closes July 24, 2018.
While the civil lawsuit is open, Williams said proceedings likely won't pick up
until criminal matters are concluded.
(source: The Bend Bulletin)
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