2017-06-23 12:58:49 UTC
A Texas Death Row Inmate's Fight for Basic Justice Is Finally Heading to the
Supreme Court----Carlos Ayestas' case is about "the right to be fairly charged
A man on Texas' death row has what seems like a fairly simple request: he wants
his lawyers to do an investigation into his background - something his counsel
says he's legally entitled to before being put to death.
Carlos Ayestas, a mentally ill undocumented immigrant from Honduras, is arguing
that a series of missteps by his trial lawyers led him to be sentenced to death
in 1997 at the age of 28, without the jury hearing any mitigating evidence that
could spare his life. Even after appealing to a federal court in 2009, there
has been no investigation into his personal history, nor have any of the courts
given weight to his mental health, and therefore there has been no way bring up
the kind of personal details that could spare Ayestas his sentence.
Now, in his last chance for justice, the US Supreme Court will hear Ayestas'
case this fall. According to the brief filed in June, the defendant will ask
the high court to enforce the statutes that are supposed to protect poor
defendants facing the death penalty. Specifically under consideration are the
state resources that should be made available to pay for experts or
investigators, but have been denied throughout Ayestas' appeals process.
In 1995, Ayestas, who'd come to the United States seven years prior, and 2
accomplices fatally strangled 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque in the course of a
robbery in her home in Harris County, Texas. Police quickly identified the
perpetrators but did not yet have them in their custody when, 2 weeks after the
crime, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler wrote a memo
recommending that Ayestas receive the death penalty based on 2 aggravating
factors: 1, because the victim was elderly and murdered in her own home and, 2,
because Ayestas "is not a citizen."
"It's intolerable that a person's nationality would play a role in seeking the
death penalty," says Sheri Johnson, one of Ayestas' current lawyers. "In Texas,
there are at least a handful of [undocumented people on death row]." (Foreign
nationals on death row have a right to consular notice, but they don't always
receive it, Johnson explains. Right now she says that this issue is on hold
while the team litigates the funding issue.)
Lawyers appointed to indigent defendants are frequently undertrained,
underpaid, and overworked, placing defendants at an immediate disadvantage.
But, making matters worse, Harris County is notorious for its poor handling of
death penalty cases for indigent defendants. According to a 2016 report from
the Fair Punishment Project that focused on the counties still applying the
death penalty, Harris County was plagued by subpar lawyering, overzealous
prosecutors, and racial bias - all of which disproportionately impact poor
defendants. And in 2015, a state court found that Siegler herself committed 36
instances of misconduct in just one murder case.
2 days after the Siegler wrote the memo, Ayestas was captured in Kenner,
Louisiana, and charged with capital murder.
For the trial, the state court appointed 2 lawyers, Diana Olvera and Connie
Williams, to represent Ayestas. Olvera and Williams then asked the state court
to appoint an investigator to look into Ayestas' background, a routine part of
capital murder trials. But the investigator, John Castillo, didn't actually
start his investigation until 15 months after it was assigned - and just 1
month before jury selection was slated to start.
As part of his investigation, Castillo had Ayestas fill out a questionnaire.
His responses, according to his current lawyers, indicated that he suffered
multiple head traumas, had been drinking since he was a teenager, regularly
used cocaine, and was under the influence of the drug and alcohol on the day he
murdered Paneque. But, according to Johnson, his lawyers did little with that
information at trial.
Ayestas' trial lawyers did not look into his past either, which would also be
typical in capital trials to supplement the work of the state-appointed
investigator. They did not meet with any friends or family or with anyone who
knew him in any of the places that he lived as an adult. Although Olvera says
that Ayestas originally asked not to have his family contacted, about 2 weeks
before jury selection began in June 1997, they reached out to his family
members in Honduras and asked them to come testify at trial. Ayestas' mother,
though, believed she was going to receive a letter from her son's lawyers that
she could use to obtain a visa. It's unclear whether there was miscommunication
about the letter, but no such letter arrived; Ayestas' family members' visas
were denied and no one showed up to his trial.
The guilt phase of the trial began in July 1997 and lasted 2 days. The defense
lawyers presented no witnesses and Ayestas was quickly convicted.
The following sentencing phase, during which jurors were tasked with deciding
if Ayestas should be put to death, was even shorter. Prosecutors presented
jurors with evidence of the defendant's past criminal offenses and testimony
from Paneque's son. Meanwhile, Ayestas' lawyers again presented no witnesses.
Instead, they offered the jury 3 letters from a prison instructor who was
teaching Ayestas English.
"His lawyers presented virtually no mitigation evidence at all," says Johnson.
"The jury had no sense of anything that could weigh against death."
The sentencing phase lasted less than a day. It took jurors 12 minutes to
deliberate and sentence Ayestas to death.
During his appeals process, Ayestas' court-appointed lawyer continued to leave
information on his substance abuse buried and to ignore his mental health
If anyone had done a mental health evaluation, they likely would have
discovered that the defendant was suffering from schizophrenia. The onset of
the disease is typically in one's early-to-mid 20s, around the time Ayestas
committed the murder. While his application appealing to the state court was
pending in 2003, Ayestas suffered a serious psychotic episode and was
subsequently diagnosed with the illness.
It was not until 2009, when his appeal was in federal court, did his
newly-appointed lawyers finally sought to do a background investigation into
his mental health and substance abuse issues. But the court denied the funds
the team needed to do a thorough investigation.
The Criminal Justice Act provides indigent defendants with a right to
representation and any other services the accused might need to prove his or
her case in federal court. The law also comes with a capital provision which
allows defendants facing the death penalty access to higher-quality lawyers and
investigators and experts that are "reasonably necessary" in the
post-conviction phase. Ayestas' lawyers argue that the Fifth Circuit Court of
Appeals, which was next in line to hear Ayestas' case, also applies a
"substantial need" test that requires a "higher showing" than the "reasonably
necessary" requirements of the federal law.
So after Ayestas appealed to the Fifth Circuit, it ruled in March 2016 that he
didn't have a "substantial need" because he should've been able to prove he
didn't have adequate counsel at the time he requested assistance. The court
also believed that the potential mitigating evidence would not have made a
Now, Ayestas' lawyers are arguing that he doesn't need to prove that his trial
lawyers failed to properly investigate his case because that's what the funding
request was supposed to accomplish. "It's something of a circular standard,"
Johnson says. In their appeal to the Supreme Court, they'll try to prove that
the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test is "incompatible" with the goal of
Criminal Justice Act: to provide quality legal representation for indigent
defendants. "Mr. Ayestas's case is about the right to be fairly charged and
defended," Lee Kovarsky and Callie Heller, 2 attorneys for Ayestas, said in a
joint statement after the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. "Mr.
Ayestas had been denied his constitutional right to nondiscriminatory treatment
and effective representation." His attorneys say they want the high court to
reverse the Fifth Circuit decision, get the funds to conduct an investigation,
and finally give Ayestas a chance to be heard.
In an amicus brief, the American Bar Association strongly urged the Supreme
Court to rule in favor of Ayestas, saying that the Fifth Circuit ruling
jeopardizes the criminal justice system. "It threatens," the Association
writes, "the integrity, fairness, and reliability of the habeas process, of
capital sentences, and ultimately of our criminal justice system."
(source: Mother Jones)
DA will seek death penalty in Palmer Township homicide
Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against an Easton man charged with
homicide in Palmer Township.
Dekota Baptiste allegedly killed Terrance R. "Lex" Ferguson because of a
dispute over Baptiste's girlfriend at the time, Theresa Duarte.
Police say the 24-year-old Easton man followed Ferguson into the parking lot of
the Auto Zone store on 25th Street on Feb. 23. Police say Duarte and an
unidentified man were crouched down in the back seat of Ferguson's car.
Baptiste allegedly argued with Ferguson, then emptied six bullets in a stolen
revolver into Ferguson's car. Ferguson, 36, of Bangor, was killed.
Court papers filed Thursday in Northampton County by Assistant District
Attorneys Erika Farkas and Abraham Kassis say they plan to seek the death
penalty against Baptiste because he committed murder while attempting to kill
or seriously injure Duarte and while putting Duarte in grave risk for her life.
He committed murder while in possession of a stolen gun, the filing says. Even
if the gun were legally purchased, Baptiste didn't have permission to own a
gun, the papers say.
He was expected to be arraigned Friday morning in the shooting death outside
the Auto Zone in Palmer Township.
Farkas and Kassis say they plan to call Ferguson's family and friends to
testify during the death penalty phase of Baptiste's trial.
Police captured Baptiste in the 1400 block of Lehigh Street in Easton after the
shooting, police said. His discarded gun was found in Wilson Borough, police
DA to seek death penalty against Georgia fugitives
A Georgia prosecutor said Wednesday he will seek the death penalty against a
pair of inmates accused of killing 2 correctional officers while escaping from
a prison transport bus.
District Attorney Stephen Bradley, of the 8-county Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit,
made the announcement at a Putnam County court appearance for Ricky Dubose and
Donnie Russell Rowe.
The 2 were back in Georgia after being apprehended Thursday night in Tennessee
following a massive 3-day manhunt.
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills and a plethora of law enforcement officers
returned the 2 to Georgia overnight. They had been held in a Rutherford County,
Tenn. jail since they surrendered to a 35-year-old Mufreesboro father.
Dubose and Rowe are being charged with 2 counts of murder and one count each of
escape and hijacking a motor vehicle.
They were denied bond on Wednesday.
In response to a reporter's shouted question, Rowe said Wednesday he would
plead not guilty. He and Dubose were then hustled out of the courtroom. They
were wearing waist chains and leg irons.
Their court appearance Wednesday morning came the day after the funeral for the
2nd of 2 correctional officers shot dead just before dawn June 13.
Sgt. Christopher Monica's funeral was Tuesday afternoon in Milledgeville. The
service for Sgt. Curtis Billue was on Saturday in McIntyre, his hometown.
Both were veteran officers working at Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville
when they were killed as they were transporting 33 inmates from one prison to
another. The other 31 prisoners on the bus at the time of the shooting stayed
Rowe and Dubose managed to escape from their waist chains and leg irons and get
through the metal door separating the inmates from he guards. Police said they
got the officers' 9 mm Glocks, fired multiple times, carjacked a Honda that had
stopped behind the bus on Georgia 16 between Sparta and Eatonton and
disappeared, setting off a huge manhunt.
A $130,000 award was offered for their capture.
(source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Prosecutors will again seek death against Bunnell man in deadly kidnapping
Prosecutors will again seek the death penalty against a Bunnell man who
kidnapped, robbed and shot to death a Daytona Beach woman.
Cornelius O. Baker, 29, gunned down Elizabeth Uptagrafft on Jan. 7, 2007, after
abducting her from her living room then driving her in her own car to Flagler
County. A jury recommended death for Baker by 9-3 vote in 2009 and Circuit
Judge Kim C. Hammond imposed the sentence.
But the Florida Supreme Court in March vacated the sentence against Baker
citing a ruling that jury recommendations for death must be unanimous.
The 7th Circuit State Attorney's Office on Thursday released a notice to seek
the death penalty against Baker. It is the 1st case in Volusia and Flagler
counties in which prosecutors seek to reimpose a death sentence that was
vacated due to the Florida Supreme Court's ruling in 2016 that a jury's death
penalty recommendation must be unanimous.
Assistant State Attorney Chris Miller's notice listed 4 aggravators which he
said supported the death penalty: Uptagrafft was killed while Baker was
committing or trying to commit a burglary, robbery or kidnapping; the killing
was committed for monetary gain; it was "especially heinous, atrocious, or
cruel" and it was committed in a "cold, calculated, and premeditated manner."
A hearing for Baker is scheduled for Aug. 17 before Circuit Judge Margaret
Hudson at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in Bunnell.
Baker pistol-whipped the 56-year-old Uptagrafft when he and his girlfriend
burst into her Michigan Avenue home. When Baker struck her, the gun fired, its
bullet burning a bloody gash along Uptagrafft's head.
Baker also beat and choked Uptagrafft's elderly mother, Charlene Burns, who was
on oxygen, and then pistol-whipped and beat Uptagrafft's son, Joel Uptagrafft,
then 40. After stealing jewelry and an ATM card, Baker eventually drove
Uptagrafft in her car to some brush in remote western Flagler County where he
shot her twice.
Baker's then-girlfriend, Patricia Roosa, helped him in the robbery and
kidnapping but she remained in the car when Baker shot and killed the
grandmother. Roosa was sentenced to life in prison.
Uptagrafft's family has not been unanimous on their views of trying to send
Baker back to death row. Some family members said they will not attend the
sentencing hearing and would be OK with allowing Baker to spend the rest of his
life in prison. But others want to see Baker returned to death row, that
includes Uptagrafft's granddaughter, Kerri Uptagrafft, 20, of Green Cove
She said her father, Brian Scott Uptagrafft, and her uncle Joel Uptagrafft,
also want to see Baker returned to death row.
She said her grandmother would have continued seeking the death penalty against
a killer of one of her family.
"If it was the other way around my grandmother would not have given up on me,"
Kerri Uptagrafft said.
(source: Daytona Beach News-Journal)
OHIO----new death sentence
Man Sentenced to Death Penalty in Girlfriend's Ohio Slaying
An Illinois man convicted of abducting his estranged girlfriend from Kentucky
and killing her along an Ohio interstate has been sentenced to receive the
A judge in southwest Ohio's Warren County sentenced Brookport, Illinois,
resident Terry Froman on Thursday. The judge followed the recommendation of
jurors who this month found Froman guilty of aggravated murder and kidnapping
in the September 2014 slaying of Kimberly Thomas.
A message left at Froman's attorney's office hasn't been returned.
Froman's attorney said during the trial evidence would show "mitigating
Prosecutors say Froman became vengeful when Thomas ordered him out of her
Mayfield, Kentucky, home. They say Froman abducted Thomas from Kentucky after
fatally shooting Thomas' 17-year-old son, Michael E. Mohney.
Froman faces charges in Kentucky for Mohney's death.
(source: Associated Press)
Future Of Ohio's Death Penalty Hangs On Legality Of Midazolam
In 2014, Dennis McGuire of Montgomery County was executed. The process did not
go as planned.
Witnesses reported McGuire struggled against his restraints and made choking
noises before finally dying after 26 minutes, an unusually long time for that
No executions have happened in Ohio since, and the state has been caught in a
protracted legal battle over which drugs can be used in executions.
The latest chapter in that battle happened last week in the U.S. Sixth Circuit
Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The court heard arguments from the state and
from Mark Haddad, a lawyer representing three death row inmates.
A previous injunction from a lower court judge, halting the state's execution
process, questioned the use of the drug midazolam. A 3-judge panel of the Sixth
Circuit Court upheld the injunction.
But in light of 1 judge's vehement dissent and an urging from Ohio Attorney
General Mike Dewine's office, the full bench of the Sixth Circuit Court agreed
to void the panel's decision and take up the case.
Doug Berman, professor at the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State
University, says that the question at the heart of the case has a lot of
"Whether it's firing squad, hanging, electrocution, guillotine ... though it's
possible to make that painless, it seems like there's a chance if done
improperly that there would be excruciating pain in the execution process,"
Berman says. "Lethal injection emerged and was adopted by every state including
Ohio because of the belief, the hope, the desire to have a method that would be
painless in carrying out a death sentence."
Whether midazolam ensures a painless death, though, is up for debate. Haddad
argues that midazolam puts the prisoners at risk of cruel and unusual
punishment, and the state could return to using a single overdose of
Ohio is not the only one struggling with the legality of midazolam. Arkansas
has also faced legal setbacks, including one in April from the U.S. Supreme
Court, to carrying out its own executions.
And that means this case could have nationwide implications.
(source: WOSU news)
Mattoon man once on death row dies in prison
Patrick Wright, who was once on death row for killing a Mattoon woman 34 years
ago, died in prison last month.
Wright, who was 74, died of heart failure and other natural causes while housed
at the Pontiac Correctional Center on May 5, according the Livingston County
He was imprisoned for the June 1983 killing of Carol Specht and attacking her
daughter Connie at their apartment on South Sixth Street in Mattoon in June
Wright was accused of stabbing Carol Specht several times after slashing her
daughter's throat as well as trying to sexually assault both women. The attacks
occurred when Wright found the women home during a burglary attempt.
He received the death penalty after his conviction and years of appeals didn't
change that until a federal court ordered a new sentence.
Former Gov. George Ryan's commutation of death sentences for Illinois prisoners
in 2004 meant the death penalty was not possible, and Wright was was
re-sentenced to a life prison term later that year.
Wright was found unresponsive in his prison cell, Livingston County Coroner
Danny Watson said. He was then taken to the prison's infirmary and died there,
the coroner said.
The main cause of death was bleeding from a vascular condition in Wright's
stomach that caused blood vessels to burst, Watson said. Wright also was
experiencing heart failure and had emphysema, he said.
Wright's time on death row ended when a federal court ruled that then-Coles
County Circuit Judge Paul Komada should have given more consideration to his
troubled childhood before deciding on the death sentence.
Ryan's commuting the state's death sentences ended Wright's eligibility for
that when he was re-sentenced.
Wright was returned to Coles County in May 2004, when then-Circuit Judge Dale
Cini ordered a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Wright then
ended his appeals.
The main contention at the re-sentencing was whether Wright would receive a
life term or, as his attorneys requested, be sentenced to a specific number of
years then be required to live in a mental facility after his release.
At the time of his 1983 trial, Wright pleaded not guilty by insanity, claiming
he was driven to break into Specht's home and attack the two women because of a
sexual obsession with women's shoes.
Specht, who was 44 at the time of her death, was the founder of what was then
known as the Coles County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and was also
involved in other, similar organizations
(source: Herald & Review)
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