2017-05-18 14:15:30 UTC
Court lifts reprieve for Nicaraguan man on Texas death row
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday lifted a reprieve it gave a
Nicaraguan man a day before he was to be executed 2 years ago for killing a
Houston high school teacher during a 1997 robbery.
The state's highest criminal appeals court had halted the scheduled August 2015
lethal injection of Bernardo Tercero after his attorneys contended Harris
County prosecutors unknowingly presented false testimony from a witness at his
trial in 2000 for the death of 38-year-old Robert Berger. Wednesday's ruling
affirms the findings of Tercero's trial court that last year held a hearing on
the claim and determined the testimony was proper.
Berger was a customer in a Houston dry cleaners shop in March 1997 and was with
his 3-year-old daughter when records show Tercero came in to rob the store.
Berger was fatally shot and the store was robbed of about $400. Prosecutors
said Tercero was in the U.S. illegally at the time.
Tercero, now 40, argued the shooting was accidental. He testified Berger
confronted him and tried to thwart the robbery, and the gun went off as they
struggled. He was arrested in Hidalgo County near the Texas-Mexico border more
than 2 years after the slaying. A second man sought in the case never has been
Tercero's case has attracted attention in his home country, where a clemency
plea from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in 2015 was forwarded to Texas
Gov. Greg Abbott.
(source: Associated Press)
Appeals court hears arguments in Williamson County death penalty case
A defense lawyer for a man given the death penalty for a Williamson County
killing argued before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday that the
evidence used to convict Steven Alan Thomas did not prove he committed the
A Williamson County jury convicted Thomas of capital murder in October 2014 and
sentenced him to death for the sexual assault and strangulation of 73-year-old
Mildred McKinney in 1980.
Defense lawyer Ariel Payan said Wednesday that Thomas' fingerprint, which was
found on the back of a clock in McKinney???s bedroom, could have been there
because Thomas worked for a pesticide company that had been to her house.
Payan also said Thomas' sperm was found on a piece of medical tape wrapped
around one of McKinney's thumbs but that did not prove he sexually assaulted
her. McKinney also had DNA inside of her from 3 other unknown men, he said.
The same arguments about how the evidence could not prove Thomas' guilt were
made by his lawyers during his trial.
Payan also said Wednesday the testimony of a jailhouse snitch during Thomas'
trial could not be confirmed and should have been inadmissible. The inmate,
Steven Shockey, told a jury that Thomas told him about being high on cocaine,
breaking into a house, having to restrain a woman before she got out of bed and
taking money and jewelry.
Williamson County Assistant District Attorney John Prezas, who was representing
the state on the appeal, said the physical evidence alone was enough to convict
Thomas without Shockey's testimony. The clock that had Thomas' fingerprint on
it was found in the middle of McKinney's bed near some of the cord used to tie
her up, Prezas said.
He also said Thomas' sperm was found not on medical tape but on a ribbon tied
around McKinney's thumb that was used to restrain her hands. Prezas also
questioned whether Thomas had been to McKinney's house when he worked for his
brother's pesticide company. Thomas' brother testified during the trial that
McKinney was one of their clients but he didn't have records that showed Thomas
made a service call to her house, Prezas said.
By state law, every death penalty case is automatically sent to the Court of
"The litigants can request oral argument or not," Payan said after the hearing.
"I almost always do, and it is usually granted but not always."
It was unclear Wednesday when the judges would make a decision.
(source: Austin American-Statesman)
The slowly-shifting status of capital punishment in PA
Anti-establishment lawyer Larry Krasner's win in the Philadelphia District
Attorney Democratic primary Tuesday put him on track for a probable victory in
Krasner has made a name for himself as a longtime defense lawyer in civil
rights cases, but he is perhaps best-known for his ardent opposition to the
death penalty. His election dredged up a recurring discussion Pennsylvania has
been grappling with for decades: what does the future of capital punishment in
the commonwealth look like?
Pennsylvania is 1 of only 2 states in the northeast that still allows the death
penalty. It has the 5th most inmates on death row in the nation, but in the
last 40 years, has only executed 3 people.
Why the disparity?
Marc Bookman, with the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation--which offers
legal training and consulting for capital punishment cases--said death penalty
cases in Pennsylvania are often faulty.
"We haven't properly funded the defense, we haven't made sure the prosecutors
were trained, that the defense attorneys were trained," Bookman said. "So we've
had any number of death sentences, and them virtually all of them have been
reversed by the courts."
Bookman's organization opposes the capital punishment--mainly on the grounds
the trials are a waste of time and resources.
"At this point it's nothing more than symbolism," he said. "What you have is
kind of a conveyer belt of convictions and reversals. And a situation like that
is terribly unfair, it costs an incredible amount of money...you know the death
penalty has essentially become a black hole."
In 2015, Governor Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on the death penalty. Several
studies on it are currently in the works.
(source: WITF news)
Larry Krasner wins Democratic nomination for Philly District Attorney
A civil rights lawyer who has defended Black Lives Matter and Occupy
Philadelphia protesters is poised to become Philadelphia's next district
Larry Krasner has never worked as a prosecutor but benefited from a $1.5
million donation from liberal billionaire George Soros to an independent
political action committee that ran commercials and sent out canvassers in
support of his candidacy.
Krasner is a staunch opponent of the death penalty and mass incarceration. He
has said that none of his clients have been sent to death row in 25 years of
defending capital cases.
Krasner pulled ahead in a crowded field to win the Democratic nomination
Tuesday over several veteran prosecutors and a former city manager. He will
face the only Republican candidate, Beth Grossman, in the fall.
The victory followed an intriguing campaign as 8 newcomers vied for a job that
helps shape city policy on sanctuary cities, police use of force, prison reform
and other national issues.
The candidates hoped to succeed 2-term incumbent Seth Williams, who goes on
trial next month in a federal bribery case. They included a Pakistani-American,
a Cuban-American, a black Muslim and Krasner, who also got a nod from
singer-songwriter John Legend, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
Several supported prison and bail reform and prisoner re-entry programs,
despite efforts under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to return to the era
of long prison terms for drugs and other crimes.
The other Democrats included Joe Khan, a former city and federal prosecutor;
Rich Negrin, a former city prosecutor and city managing director; and Tariq
El-Shabazz, who did a stint as Williams' top assistant.
One "juvenile lifer" released this year after serving 41 years in prison for a
killing committed when he was 17 was out canvassing on Election Day, urging
voters to support justice reform efforts. Michael Twiggs, 59, was taking part
in a project run by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"If we get a D.A. in place who will be somewhat compassionate, not so eager to
throw lives away, who would be fair," Twiggs said last week, "then I think that
... we'll be getting a better outcome."
In the city controller's race, Rebecca Rhynhart defeated incumbent Alan
Butkovitz for the Democratic nomination.
(source: ABC News)
Judge refuses to overturn cop killer's death sentence
A Pennsylvania judge refused to overturn a cop killer's death sentence this
week in an "anticipated" move likely to force the case to state Supreme Court.
The Associated Press reported a Pike County judge on Monday denied the
defense's motion for a new sentencing hearing, just 1 week after Eric Frein's
attorneys argued emotional testimony from the slain officer's widow clouded
Michael Weinstein, 1 of Frein's attorneys, said he expected the judge's ruling
and believes the case will work its way up to the state's highest court,
according to the AP.
Jurors found Frein guilty on April 20 of nearly a dozen charges stemming from
the Sept. 12, 2014 ambush of 2 state troopers during a shift change at the
Blooming Grove barracks in rural Pike County.
Cpl. Bryon Dickson II died in the attack. Trooper Alex Douglass sustained a
gunshot wound to the back as he tried to pull Dickson to safety.
Frein received the death penalty for his crimes April 26. His attorneys vowed
In court documents filed last week, the defense claimed Tiffany Dickson's
testimony undermined any "logical reasoned moral decision the jury could make"
to instead impose life imprisonment. During last month's hearing, the defense
cast the gunman's father, Eugene Michael "Mike" Frein, as an abusive,
domineering man who fostered his son's anti-government views.
Prosecutors mocked the characterization and called it a poor deflection from
the gunman's "wickedness of heart" in what Pike County District Attorney Ray
Tonkin described as a calculated and remorseless killing.
Tonkin "praised" the judge's ruling Monday, according to the AP.
One of Lee County's most notorious killers still on death row
2 decades after 1 of Lee County's most notorious crime sprees, the NBC2
Investigators go behind prison walls to uncover why the ringleader, who was
sentenced to die, is still alive.
The "Lords of Chaos" terrorized Lee County for weeks back in April of 1996.
After burning down a historic Coca-Cola bottling plant off US-41, the group
then turned its sights towards Mark Schwebes, a band teacher at Riverdale High.
Derek Shields was a student in Schwebe's class. "He was a real good guy; he did
real well with the students. He was getting me back into music."
Shields was just 18 when he became a member of the "Lords of Chaos," a teenage
gang comprised of 4 key members. The leader of the group was Kevin Foster, a
former student at Riverdale.
"I feared him; I feared him big time," said Shields, speaking from his prison
facility in Hardee County. "He was a likable guy until you learned that he was
But what started out as a series of petty crimes, arson and vandalism cases
quickly took a violent turn April 30. That's when the group decided to kill
Schwebes at his Pine Manor home after he caught them trying to vandalize the
"I really didn't think they would go that far," said Shields. "I didn't think
we were gonna do it."
Shields was ordered by Foster to knock on Schwebe's front door while Foster
waited behind with a shotgun. "He was standing right behind me, and I was
looking down both barrels of that gun," said Shields, who claims he was also in
fear for his own life. When the band teacher answered the door, Shields bolted
to the car where 2 other teenage "Lords of Chaos" members were waiting. That's
when Foster opened fire, twice, killing Schwebes on his front doorstep.
"When I heard that 2nd shot, I thought it was for me," remembers Shields. "I
really thought that 2nd one was me."
Mark's sister, Pat, still recalls the moment she learned her brother was gone.
"I got a phone call from my father. My dad was very upset, he was crying, and
he told me that Mark was dead," she said. "I asked, did he die in a car
accident? He said no, he was murdered."
Detectives later tracked down and arrested the 4 teens responsible. Shields and
2 others took plea deals. Shields was sentenced to life in prison.
Foster's case went to trial. He was later convicted of murder and sentenced to
death, by a 9-3 jury recommendation. Foster was 18 years old at the time of his
arrest. He's now 39.
Foster remains on death row 21 years later. According to an estimate provided
by the Florida Department of Corrections, Foster's housing and food have cost
taxpayers about $440,000.
"It's a slow process. They take a lot of time, and the courts are jammed," said
Joe D'Alessandro, the state attorney when Foster was convicted. He says recent
changes to the state's death penalty laws only drag out the already lengthy
"When there's a ruling and a change to the death penalty, then the lawyers say,
'Wait a minute, this should apply to my client,' and you start all over again,"
Just last year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled all jury recommendations for
the death penalty must be unanimous. Foster's attorneys appealed, citing the
ruling, but a judge later denied their request.
"We are living murder victims. Because we have to deal with this. It doesn't
stop," said Pat Schwebes. "I don't care if [Foster's] sentence was turned over
to life in prison. That would be a situation for me to say, alright, we're
done. Move on."
Although Shields was sentenced to life in prison, he says he plans to ask a
judge for an early release sometime in the near future.
Foster and the 2 other teens arrested in this case did not return our letters
requesting an interview.
(source: NBC News)
State to seek death penalty against Gray
A little over a month after uncertainty unfolded in a Chambers County capital
murder case, prosecutors have reached a decision and will seek the death
penalty against a suspect in a Valley homicide dating back almost 2 years.
In July of 2015 Valley, Alabama police officers discovered the body of Renee
Eldridge of Columbus, Ga. She had went missing over the 4th of July holiday
weekend of that year. Her body was discovered 3 days later in Osanippa Creek in
Valley. Only July 13th authorities took Stacey Gray into custody for her death
near Notasulga in Macon County.
Gray has sat in the Chambers County Detention Facility in LaFayette awaiting an
idea of what penalty he may face in the case if convicted. In September of 2016
it was announced that prosecutors would seek the death penalty against Gray. In
March of 2017 that outcome was put on hold as prosecutors had until May 11th to
make a decision on which penalty they would seek in the case against Gray.
Last week prosecutors came back and announced they would be seeking the death
penalty against Gray for the capital murder charges in the death of Eldrige.
Family members of Eldridge have made the 50 mile trip from Columbus to
LaFayette for the hearings. Eldridge was laid to rest in her hometown of
Columbus is July of 2015.
The overlooked argument that could save a death row inmate's life
[By Fredrick Vars, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. An
expanded version of this article is forthcoming in the Washington & Lee Law
The Supreme Court recently heard the case of an Alabama death row inmate, James
McWilliams. A thus far overlooked argument could save his life and help level
the playing field in other capital cases.
McWilliams was charged with rape and murder. He could not afford a lawyer, so
one was assigned to him by the court. Before trial, his lawyer asked for and
was granted a psychiatric evaluation. McWilliams, on psychotropic medication at
trial, was convicted. Just two days prior to the judicial sentencing hearing,
the state produced an expert report stating that McWilliams suffered from
"cortical dysfunction attributable to right cerebral hemisphere dysfunction."
At the hearing, McWilliams's attorney requested a continuance to get a 2nd
opinion from an independent expert, so as to understand both the report and
voluminous mental health records produced by the state at the last minute. That
request was denied. As a result, McWilliams presented only his own and his
mother's testimony during the sentencing phase. Both described McWilliams's
head trauma and poor mental health. In rebuttal, the state presented its own
experts' mental health witnesses. An aggravating factor is a prerequisite for a
death sentence, so the state also offered evidence of three such factors,
including a past felony conviction. The judge sentenced McWilliams to death.
The question presented now is whether a 1985 Supreme Court case, Ake v.
Oklahoma, clearly established that an indigent defendant who needs an expert is
entitled to one who is independent of the prosecution. The parties have
presented competing views of Ake, which were thoroughly vetted during oral
argument. But perhaps the best argument remains hidden in plain sight.
Whatever else it said, Ake made perfectly clear that an indigent criminal
defendant is entitled to "an expert of his own" "when the State presents
psychiatric evidence of the defendant's future dangerousness" during capital
sentencing. There are good reasons the parties and the Court have thus far
missed the relevance of this proposition for McWilliams.
First, the state in McWilliams did not expressly assert future dangerousness.
But it clearly implied that McWilliams would be dangerous in the future when it
introduced evidence of a prior felony conviction. Felony convictions are often
relied upon to establish future dangerousness, and criminal history is a proxy
for future offending. The past felony conviction implied that McWilliams was,
and would continue to be, a recidivist.
Second, the state did not rely initially on psychiatric evidence, but presented
it only in rebuttal. This distinction is immaterial. McWilliams's mental health
was an issue well before sentencing and by far the most powerful mitigating
factor. The state had its mental health experts at the ready for rebuttal.
Surely the state cannot avoid Ake by reserving its psychiatric evidence for
certain introduction later. This kind of sandbagging is patently unfair.
Understanding these 2 points, there can be no doubt that McWilliams's case fell
squarely within the clearest part of Ake's mandate. The state put future
dangerousness at issue and presented psychiatric evidence during his capital
sentencing, so McWilliams was entitled to "an expert of his own."
In addition to deciding the case before the Supreme Court, this reasoning
compels the conclusion that criminal defendants must be provided an independent
expert in the sentencing phase of all death penalty cases. Ake explains that
the state "has a profound interest in assuring that its ultimate sanction is
not erroneously imposed." All mitigating circumstances must be considered.
Attorneys are ill-equipped to gather social history and psychological evidence,
so mitigation specialists are essential.
Another Supreme Court case, Wiggins v. Smith, is instructive. In that case, the
Court sustained a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel because the
defense attorney failed to adequately investigate social history and therefore
failed to uncover powerful evidence of sexual abuse. The Court chastised
defense counsel for failing to "commission" a social history report. In other
words, the Court instructed defense counsel to "commission" an expert report,
not just rely on the state's expert. A constitutional duty to gather mitigating
evidence is meaningful only if indigent defendants are provided with
independent expert help.
The Court in Ake promised independent expertise in capital sentencing. It has a
chance now to make good on that promise, and perhaps save a life in the
Death penalty lives on in Louisiana
An effort to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana died in a House committee
Wednesday after one of the bill's original co-sponsors switched his vote.
The bill's failure in the House Criminal Justice Committee signaled that a
duplicate measure in the Senate by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, would
suffer the same fate when it arrived, causing him to shelve his effort as well.
"Why would I bring a bill (to the Senate floor) that can't get out of this
(House) committee?" Claitor said.
Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, said fellow former lawman Rep. Steve Pylant,
R-Winnsboro, didn't warn him that he was voting against the bill. Pylant was
the swing vote in the 9-8 decision. "I was surprised," Landry said. "It's not
the way I would have conducted my business with a colleague."
But Pylant said he never intended to vote for House Bill 101, but instead
co-sponsored the measure so he could get his message out to the public that the
state should start executing those who have been given the death penalty.
Pylant has said in previous interviews he believes the death penalty is just,
but it shouldn't exist if Louisiana wasn't following through on executions.
"There are a few who don't deserve to live," he said.
Louisiana has carried out just 1 execution in the past 10 years and that was of
an inmate who asked that the sentence be carried out.
"I was trying to bring attention to the fact we're not doing it now; I
co-sponsored the bill to get the message out that we're not doing it," Pylant
said. "I got on line so I could get my message out. We need to either get in
the business (of executions) or get out of it."
Landry said he will bring the bill back next year.
"I still fundamentally believe there should be a moratorium on the death
penalty," he said."It's cost us too many dollars and too many lives and too
many families have been broken up."
Faith leaders like Bishop Shelton Fabre, representing the Louisiana Conference
of Catholic Bishops, testified the death penalty is an affront to God. Former
death row inmates who were ultimately exonerated like Ray Crone of Arizona also
testified in favor of the bill.
"Ending the death penalty is not about public policy or public opinion but
because of our belief that all human life is sacred," Fabre said. "It's
essential in ending a culture of death and creating a culture of life."
But families of victims testified against the bill, while Louisiana's district
attorneys said it's an appropriate tool in the most heinous cases where the
jury's conscience has been shocked by the viciousness of a crime.
Edie Triche's son Jeremy Triche, a St. John the Baptist deputy, was murdered in
"The death penalty will not return my son, but it's simply a matter of
justice," she said.
(source: Monroe News Star)
House committee rejects death penalty bill
A bill that would have done away with the death penalty in Louisiana failed to
make it out of committee.
House Bill 101 from Rep. Terry Landry would have eliminated death penalty for
offenses committed on or after August 1 of this year.
The House Administration of Criminal Justice rejected the bill by a 9-8 vote.
Before a final vote, lawmakers did approve an amendment that would have left it
up to voters to do way with the death penalty. The State Senate will take up a
KENTUCKY----female to face death penalty
Prosecutors to seek death penalty against woman charged with killing family
The Commonwealth Attorney's Office says prosecutors will seek the death penalty
against Courtney Taylor.
Kentucky State Police say Taylor shot and killed her husband Larry, and her 2
teen daughters, Jolie and Jessie on Friday, January 13th. Police say she also
raised a gun at 2 Whitley County Sheriff's deputies when they entered her home.
Taylor pleaded not guilty during her circuit court arraignment to 3 counts of
murder and 2 counts of wanton endangerment.
Back in February, a detective testified that Taylor told them she shot her
husband after he depleted a cash settlement of more than $264,000 she had
deposited in June.
(source: WKYT news)
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