2017-06-03 12:47:16 UTC
Is the death penalty dying in Dallas County?
The crimes were heinous but Dallas County jurors couldn't condemn the convicted
A college student killed 3 people at a drug house in a premeditated robbery.
A former special education teacher and U.S. Army veteran killed his girlfriend,
her teenage daughter, his estranged wife, her adult daughter and severely
wounded 4 children in a 2-city rampage.
But neither killer received the death penalty, a punishment reserved for the
"worst of the worst."
Statewide, juries have declined death sentences in nearly 1/2 of the cases
presented to them in the past 2 years.
So, what does it take to win a death penalty sentence?
"You gotta be perfect probably these days," said Edwin King, a special
prosecutor in one of the Dallas County cases.
Jurors couldn't agree to the death sentence in the 2 recent capital murder
trials. They were the first Dallas County cases in which the state sought the
death penalty since 2014.
The Dallas County District Attorney's office is planning to seek death for
Antonio Cochran, the man accused of kidnapping and killing 18-year-old Zoe
Hastings in 2015 while she was on her way to a pharmacy to return a rental
The decision to seek the death penalty is based on the the severity of the
crime, criminal background and what the victim's family wants, said Dallas
County District Attorney Faith Johnson.
"Our office only seeks the death penalty in the most heinous and serious of
crimes," Johnson said.
The death penalty case against Cochran is the 1st filed since Johnson took
office in January. Prosecutors in the case may face an uphill battle.
National support for the death penalty has drastically declined in recent
years. Fewer than 1/2 of the population supports capital punishment, according
to the Pew Research Center.
"Even in Texas, the death penalty is dying," said Jason Redick of the Texas
Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
In the 15 death penalty cases tried in Texas since 2015, jurors have sent only
eight men to death row.
Death sentences peaked in the 1990s. Between 2007 and 2013, Dallas County led
the state in defendants sent to death row. During that time, the county
sentenced 12 people to death.
Executions in Texas are also declining because of legal reforms that give
prisoners more chances to have their sentences reviewed.
Jurors are only selected after they agree that they can give the ultimate
punishment. Even so, they appear to be split on the issue in recent years.
"We know these aren't folks who are anti-death penalty folks," Redick said. "At
one point, they said they could hand out a death sentence."
Capital punishment has been controversial for years. There have been botched
executions. People sitting on death row have been exonerated. And critics point
to the disproportionate number of minorities sentenced to death.
Pursuing the death penalty can cost taxpayers millions. For many small
counties, the price is too high.
Seeking the death penalty in Montague County would've eaten up nearly 1/10 of
the yearly budget when Tim Cole was district attorney there. He is now a law
professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas and tracks death penalty
cases in the state.
His opinion of capital punishment has shifted over time.
"It is time for the death penalty to go away," he said. "My primary concern
with it is we don't seem to get it perfectly. ... The execution of one innocent
person isn't worth it to me."
He said the decision to pursue the punishment is too subjective. It's left to
each county's district attorney, and there are no standard guidelines to
determine when the lethal injection would be appropriate.
And in 2005, Texas passed a bill creating an automatic sentence of life in
prison without parole for anyone convicted of capital murder. The new
punishment put an end to a time when the worst killers might have once been
released into society.
Cole believes the automatic sentence is a factor in the death penalty decline.
Prosecutors may seek the punishment less often knowing the defendant will die
Also, jurors who say they support the death penalty may have a tough time when
faced with an actual decision.
"When you see the person, when you hear their history, their background,
sometimes they were abused as children themselves, sometimes they're mentally
ill ... it's a different thing," he said. "Now you have a face."
Jurors aren't simply asked to answer "yes" or "no" when considering the death
penalty. They must unanimously agree that the defendant poses a continuing
threat to society and that there are no reasons to save that person's life.
Those issues posed a problem for the 2 recent Dallas County cases.
In the case of Justin Smith, the college student who killed 3 people in a drug
house, more than a dozen people vouched for him. They believed he was once a
good man. He was known for mentoring his friends and regularly attending
church. His loved ones believed he could be a good man behind bars.
Smith agreed to a plea deal while the jury was still deliberating his sentence.
Jurors had indicated they couldn't agree on whether there were reasons to save
King, the special prosecutor in the case, said the attorneys tried to settle
before trial, but Smith wouldn't accept guilt.
King, who usually works as a defense attorney, said he still believes the death
penalty is an appropriate punishment but can likely only be used in the most
extreme cases - when there are mass casualties, children are killed or someone
kills a law enforcement officer.
"You've got to have some level of penalty to send a message," he said.
In the past, the horror of the premeditated murders of three people might have
been enough for a jury to sentence a man to death.
"It just shows that the citizens of Dallas County, they're not bowled over
merely by the facts of an offense," said Smith's defense attorney, Paul
"They know that if they don't give them death, they're going to die in prison
anyway," Johnson said. "Why put someone to death when you can give them life
The Dallas County jury deliberating whether to send Erbie Bowser to death row
couldn't agree on whether the 48-year-old man posed a continuing threat to
society, even behind bars.
His defense attorneys had argued Bowser was insane when he killed 4 women and
seriously injured 4 children. He has since been put on medications that
stabilize his mood, and nearly a dozen guards at the Dallas County jail
testified that Bowser was a model prisoner.
In both cases, the defendants didn't have lengthy rap sheets. Bowser and Smith
had both been law-abiding men before their crimes.
Public defender Andy Beach said Bowser didn't fit the bill for a death penalty
case. Not only did he have a history of mental illness, he didn't spend his
life committing crimes.
"That's not who you're trying to kill. You're trying to kill people who have
demonstrated from the time they were 15 years old that they've been a menace to
society," Beach said.
Texas cases in which the death penalty was sought since 2015:
Defendants who received life without parole:
Jonathan Sanchez, 29, was sentenced in Harris County for killing 2 women and a
man in a shooting rampage in Houston.
Daniel Garcia, 29, was sentenced in Nueces County for killing a convenience
store clerk during a robbery.
Brendon Gaytan, 30, was sentenced in Nueces County for killing 2 children in a
David Risner, 60, a former police officer, was sentenced in Bell County for
killing a small-town police chief.
Gabriel Armandariz, 34, was sentenced in Tarrant County for killing his 2
Justin Smith, 24, was sentenced in Dallas County for killing 3 people and
injuring 2 others in a drug house robbery.
Erbie Bowser, 48, was sentenced in Dallas County for killing 4 women and
injuring four children in a 2-city rampage.
Defendants who received the death penalty:
Gabriel Paul Hall, 24, was sentenced to death in Brazos County for killing a
retired Texas A&M University professor and seriously injuring his wife.
Amos Wells, 26, was sentenced in Tarrant County for killing his pregnant
girlfriend, her mother and her 10-year-old brother.
John Ray Falk, 50, was sentenced in Angelina County for killing a correctional
officer during an attempted prison escape.
James Calvert, 46, was sentenced in Smith County for killing his ex-wife.
Mark Gonzalez, 47, was sentenced in Bexar County for for killing a sheriff's
Demond Bluntson, 41, was sentenced in Webb County for killing his toddler son
and his girlfriend's 6-year-old son.
Charles Brownlow, 39, was sentenced in Kaufman County for killing a store clerk
following a rampage in which he killed 4 others, including his mother.
Joseph Colone, 38, was sentenced in Jefferson County for killing a woman and
her teenage daughter.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Jury of 6 men, 6 women chosen for Leeton Thomas' double-homicide trial starting
A death-penalty qualified jury of 6 men and 6 women has been selected for
Leeton Thomas' double-homicide trial, scheduled to begin Wednesday morning with
Selected over four days in Lancaster County Court, each juror said he or she
could follow the law and sentence Thomas to death if the facts warrant the
President Judge Dennis Reinaker excused 23 prospective jurors who said their
religious or personal objections to capital punishment would conflict with the
Attorneys for the prosecution and defense questioned 95 prospective jurors over
the 4 days in seating the panel of 12. They questioned 8 more to choose 2
Prosecutors are seeking to convict Thomas, 39, of fatally stabbing an East
Drumore Township woman and her 16-year-old daughter, both witnesses in his
sexual molestation case.
If convicted of 1st-degree, or premeditated murder, Thomas faces an immediate
penalty hearing at which the jury would consider sentences of death by lethal
injection or life in prison without possibility of parole.
First Assistant District Attorney Christopher Larsen contends Thomas is
eligible for the death penalty because of 5 aggravating circumstances,
including killing a witness to a crime and breaking a no-contact order.
State police accuse Thomas, who lived on Conowingo Road, of breaking into a
basement apartment on Spring Valley Road in East Drumore Township and fatally
stabbing Lisa Scheetz, 44, and Hailey Scheetz, 16.
Scheetz's 15-year-old daughter, Paige, survived stab wounds to the chest,
shoulder and back, and identified Thomas, a family friend, as her attacker
early on June 11, 2015, according to a court document. She has been listed as a
State police found Thomas at his home not long after the slayings and took him
Thomas, currently held without bail at Lancaster County Prison, had been free
since April 18, 2015 on $50,000 bail while facing 11 sexual assault counts
related to 2 Quarryville area girls.
A beefy man of average height, his black hair pulled back into a tight bun,
Leeton has been a quiet but alert presence in the courtroom.
He watched with interest as prospective jurors answered questions. On occasion
he engaged in whispered conversations with defense attorneys Douglas Conrad and
Samuel Encarnacion as they decided which jurors to accept.
Because his client is black, Encarnacion asked prospective jurors if they would
consider Thomas more likely to commit a crime because of his race and because
he is from Jamaica. No one admitted racial or ethnic bias.
The jury includes 1 black man.
The trial is expected to last 1 to 2 weeks.
Wilmington City Council says 'no' to reinstating state's death penalty
Wilmington City Council weighed in on whether Delaware should reinstate the
death penalty - passed a resolution against such a move 11-2 Thursday night.
The vote didn't come without debate. Councilman Bob Williams recalled heinous
murders he witnessed during his time with the Wilmington Police Department.
"People that subsequently were arrested for these murders just had no remorse
whatsoever - it was just another day," Williams said.
Williams and Councilman Bud Freel were the 2 dissenters. Freel says if his
children were murdered - he would support the death penalty in that case.
Councilwoman Loretta Walsh says she can relate to Freel's perspective. Her aunt
was murdered in Pennsylvania when she was a teenager.
"If somebody did really bad harm - or murdered - one of my kids, I probably
would be serving time in jail for murdering them," Walsh said.
However - she remains morally against it.
"Other than that, I don't want to play God with somebody's life," Walsh said.
"I believe the sort of Catholicism I was raised on doesn't say that capital
punishment is something that should be done."
Councilwoman Yolanda McCoy - a longtime death penalty opponent - presented the
resolution. She's also against allowing the death penalty only in cases
involving the murder of a law enforcement officer - saying there shouldn't be
any special treatment when it comes to justice.
"We understand that they serve us and they're always at service pretty much
every day for the community, but if that's the case - why not for soldiers, why
not for...there's a lot of different people who serve the community," McCoy
said. I feel like it needs to be fair and if they can't do that, they shouldn't
Accused cop killer's death penalty trial to begin Monday
Testimony is set to begin Monday in the trial for a man charged with murder in
the 2014 fatal shooting of Monroe County deputy Michael Norris.
Christopher Keith Calmer, 49, could face the death penalty if the group of
Upson County jurors selected to hear the case find him guilty.
Calmer allegedly opened fire on Norris and another deputy, Jeff Wilson, after
the lawmen had arrived at Calmer's parents' home near Interstate 75 and Pate
Road on Sept. 13, 2014.
Evidence presented at a pretrial hearing showed a family member had called 911
saying Calmer had been holding a gun to his own head, "acting out of his mind"
while mocking the fear felt by other family members.
Shots were fired after the deputies approached the front door.
Norris, 24, was shot in the head. Wilson, shot in the leg and buttocks,
handcuffed Calmer despite his injuries.
Calmer, who also was shot in the exchange, has been in custody since soon after
The trial is expected to last about 2 weeks, said Jonathan Adams, Towaliga
Judicial Circuit District Attorney.
Bibb and Upson county sheriff's offices are providing deputies and bailiffs to
help with courtroom security and driving jurors to Forsyth and back to Upson
County each day.
People who live or have businesses along jurors' route are being asked not to
display Back the Blue signs, blue lights or law enforcement memorials during
the trial. Calmer's lawyers have expressed concerns about the impact such
memorials could have on jurors and prosecutors have concurred.
Adams said no memorials were visible on the route Friday.
The last Monroe County death penalty case went to trial in 1998.
Andrew Allen Cook was sentenced to death for the 1995 shooting deaths of Mercer
University students Michele Cartagena, 19, and Grant Hendrickson, 22, at Lake
Juliette. Cook was executed in 2013.
Bush trial still on track for July start
After 2 days of hearings in the last month and numerous delays over the past 6
years, the death penalty trial for Sean Alonzo Bush appears set to start in
Bush, 48, is charged with 1st-degree murder in the shooting and stabbing death
of his estranged wife, 35-year-old Nicole Bush, who was found suffering from
multiple gunshot and stab wounds in May 2011 in her Fruit Cove home, and later
died at a hospital. He is also facing a charge of burglary of a dwelling with a
person assaulted while armed with a firearm.
Circuit Court Judge Howard Maltz in March scheduled jury selection for the
trial to begin July 10, but defense attorneys Raymond Warrren and Rosemarie
Peoples, both with the Public Defender's Office, told him in April they had a
slew of old motions that had never received a ruling.
Maltz heard the 1st round of those motions May 5 and heard arguments on at
least 6 others Friday morning, including 1 on the admissibility of "footwear
impressions" taken from the scene, that took nearly 2 hours for the defense
team, and assistant state attorneys Jennifer Dunton and Mark Johnson, to argue.
At the conclusion of Friday's morning session, Maltz acknowledged 1 pending
motion that still needs to be heard and sought guidance from the attorneys as
to whether any other motions would be coming.
"I anticipate more will be filed," Warren told him.
Maltz scheduled the morning of June 28 to hear the pending motion and any
others that may be filed between now and then.
He left jury selection for the trial scheduled for July 10, but has signaled in
the past it may be moved slightly if conflicts with attorneys' personal
schedules can't be resolved.
Bush's case has been rescheduled for trial at least 9 times since his arrest in
The most recent delays on the road to a trial came as the result of a January
2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that left Florida without a death penalty
The high court ruled the state's process left too much of the decision up to a
judge and not the jury.
Under the old system, juries submitted only a penalty recommendation to a
judge, who made the final decision.
The court also took issue with the requirement that a death recommendation had
to be supported only by a majority of the 12 jurors instead of a unanimous
After 1 attempt to rectify the issue from the Florida Legislature was struck
down by the state supreme court because it required only a 10-vote decision
from juries, Gov. Rick Scott signed a new bill into law in March that requires
a unanimous vote.
(source: St. Augustine Rercord)
Jury recommends death penalty for convicted murderer Juan Rosario----The jury
decided Rosario, 30, should be put to death for the murder of an 83-year-old
A jury unanimously decided to recommend the death penalty Friday night in the
case of convicted murderer Juan Rosario.
A judge will have to make the final decision.
The jury decided Rosario, 30, should be put to death for the murder of an
In April, Rosario was found guilty of beating and killing his neighbor, Elena
Ortega, 83, and then setting her home on fire.
Due to a new Florida law, Rosario's case required a unanimous decision from the
12-person jury. His case was the 1st capital case to go to trial in Orange
County since that statute was passed.
Additionally, Rosario's case, which is one of nearly two dozen taken away from
State Attorney Aramis Ayala by the governor, is also the 1st capital case being
tried since the governor made that decision. It came in response to Ayala's
announcement that she would not seek the death penalty in any case.
(source: WESH news)
ALABAMA----stay of impending execution
Alabama death row inmate gets stay of execution
A federal appeals court Friday evening blocked the execution of Alabama death
row inmate Robert Melson, scheduled to die next Thursday for the 1994 murder of
3 restaurant workers.
Alabama uses midazolam in its 3-drug execution procedure. The drug has been
present in botched executions and drawn controversy.
In a 5-page ruling, the 3-judge panel said that allowing his execution to go
forward would amount to "prejudging" a challenge to Alabama's death penalty
procedures that Melson and other death row inmates are mounting.
"The decision we reached would, in effect, telegraph the outcome of Melson's
co-appellants' appeals, and that would be untenable," the court wrote.
Alabama uses a lethal injection method that employs 3 drugs: A sedative, a
paralytic and drug that stops the heart. Alabama used pentobarbital after 2011,
but ran out of the drug and was unable to supply more. The state announced in
2014 it had switched its protocol to use midazolam as the sedative.
The drug was used in the executions of Christopher Brooks in January 2016 and
Thomas Arthur on May 25 of this year, without either many showing visible
distress during the ordeal. But Ronald Bert Smith, executed last December,
gasped and coughed for 13 minutes in his execution, and his attorneys said
Smith was not properly anesthesized for the execution. The drug has been
present in other botched executions.
Melson and the other plaintiffs argue they should be allowed to argue for a
single-drug execution method involving midazolam, pentobarbital, or sodium
thiopental. The latter drug was used by Alabama and other states until 2011,
when Hospira, the manufacturer, stopped marketing the drug in the United States
because of its use in executions.
The plaintiffs also challenge the effectiveness of a consciousness check during
executions, aimed at ensuring the condemned inmate is unconscious before the
painful drugs are administered. They are also seeking to allow attorneys to
have phones in the death chamber during an execution, to allow them to contact
a court should something go wrong.
The Alabama attorney general's office has argued that the inmates are not
challenging the use of midazolam, but the entire execution process itself, and
say that the statute of limitations on those challenges ran out long ago.
Melson was convicted in 1996 of the 1994 murder of 3 workers at a Popeye's
restaurant in Gadsden during a robbery. According to court records, Melson
ordered 4 of the workers into a freezer, then shot and killed James Baker, 17;
Tamika Collins, 18 and Darryl Collier, 23. A 4th person, Bryant Archer, then
17, was shot 4 times but survived and contacted the police.
Melson's direct appeals ran out in 2001. He argued he received inadequate
representation in a post-conviction appeal process, but the federal courts
dismissed that argument in 2014.
It is not clear when a decision on the appeal will be made. The stay outlines a
brief schedule lasting through June 28.
If the appeals fail, Melson would be the 2nd person executed by the state of
Alabama this year, after Arthur.
(source: Montgomery Advertiser)
Auburn man found guilty of capital murder in 2015 death of 5-year-old
An Auburn man was convicted Friday of capital murder in the 2015 death of his
5-year-old stepdaughter after a Lee County jury deliberated for about 3 hours
at the end of a 2-week trail.
George William Barton was found guilty of killing his stepdaughter, Caley
Presley, by beating her to death at their Rosie Street home in Auburn on June,
7, 2015. Barton pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease
or defect, claiming that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder
and bipolar disorder.
Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob A. Walker gave the jury the option to convict
Barton of capital murder, felony murder with an underlying charge of felony
aggravated child abuse, or reckless manslaughter, or to deem him not guilty by
reason of mental disease or defect.
Sentencing will begin on Monday at 9 a.m. The jury will choose between the
death penalty and life without parole, according to Lee County District
Attorney Brandon Hughes.
The jury had to vote unanimously for the conviction, but only 10 out of 12
jurors will have to agree on the penalty.
Before the conviction, the jury heard closing statements on Friday morning.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Jessica Ventiere told the jury that the law
states "we are all sane" and that "we're all adults, and we're all responsible
for what we do."
"The law is giving that presumption to you to work with. He is presumed
competent, he is presumed sane, and he is presumed to understand that what he
did he knew was wrong," Ventiere said.
She overviewed Barton's claimed mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder,
and said that no evidence has shown Barton has had any instances of mania along
with depression. District Attorney Brandon Hughes said it was "offensive to
(him)" for Barton to use mental disorders as a defense.
"Mental diseases and mental disorders, that's a real thing," Hughes said. "So,
for him to come in and use this as an excuse to getting away with killing a
5-year-old little girl, that's offensive to me."
Though Barton may not have displayed symptoms of bipolar disorder recently,
Barton's attorney Andrew Stanley countered that it was evident through medical
records that Barton suffered mental defects in the past.
Stanley brought up the testimony of Cyndi Barton, Presley's mother, when she
said that Barton "snapped." He also referenced Barton's interrogation by Auburn
police where he repeatedly said he didn't know what happened to Presley.
Stanley argued these instances showed Barton may have had a manic episode when
Presley was injured, causing him to not remember what actually occurred.
Nevertheless, Ventiere said, "Being bipolar is not a license to kill somebody."
Earlier in the trial, Auburn police officers testified that Barton attempted to
hide a container of pot after first-responders arrived on the scene and were
caring for Presley.
"I don't care about that little old joint," Ventiere said. "But you know what
it showed me? It showed me that when the cops came to the house he took a
blanket and he took that can that he knew had weed in it and he tried to hide
it. Now if you're in the throws of bipolar and you don???t know right from
wrong and you don't know what's criminal but you know that little bitty joint
is about to get you locked up, he knows exactly what he's doing."
"That shows right there that that man knew exactly what the criminal actions
were that he was committing," Ventiere said.
Issue of intent
One main topic of discussion in the prosecution's closing statements was the
issue of intent. In order to charge Barton of capital murder they were charged
to prove that Barton intended to kill Presley, not simply abuse her.
Ventiere outlined what intent could mean, comparing "flashes of intent" to
someone intended to catch something that was thrown at them moments before.
"Intent is not premeditation," Ventiere told the jury. "He didn't have to get
up that morning and eat his Cheerios and say, 'You know, I think I'm just going
to put an end to Caley today.' He didn't have to think about it; he didn't have
to give it much thought at all."
Ventiere said that even if Barton showed remorse after Presley died, his guilt
wouldn't alter his intent before.
"Even if it's legit, even if he's crying, it's for himself; it???s not for
Caley," Ventiere said. "Realizing the gravity of what you've done after you've
done it does not erase intent."
Ventiere continued to push the jury to remember that Barton "snapped that
girl's neck," during deliberations. Hughes repeatedly asked the jury to decide
"what makes sense" in the case. Either Caley was the "most accident-prone
child" or Barton got angry and "beat her to death."
Stanley countered these statements, citing the autopsy report that said she had
a small ligament laceration and no damage to her vertebrae. He also countered
other injuries Presley sustained that prosecution said Barton caused. He said
many of the injuries could be explained by other accidents, such as falling
from a bed or hitting a dresser, which was what Barton said he thought
Barton's Attorney W. Todd Crutchfield added that though they can guess, no one
knows what happened that day.
"What does that mean? We're here speculating," Crutchfield said. "We're not
here to exact vengeance, we're not here about retribution. We're here to
determine... whether George Barton intentionally killed Caley Presely beyond a
Hughes told the jury they not only spoke for Lee County, but for Presley. He
reminded them of Barton's statement that he disciplined Caley because he wanted
her to understand that he meant business.
"Now it's your chance to show the defendant that the people of Lee County mean
business," Hughes said.
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