death penalty news----TEXAS, ALA., OHIO, CALIF., USA
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Rick Halperin
2017-06-20 13:21:11 UTC
June 20


Thousands in jury pool for Zoe Hastings murder trial

Work has started on finding a jury for the trial of a man accused of killing an
18-year-old Dallas woman in 2015.

About 3,000 Dallas County residents will be called in and fill out
questionnaires so prosecutors and lawyers can find 12 people in the death
penalty case of Antonio Cochran. He's accused of stabbing Zoe Hastings to death
and dumping her body in the minivan she was driving in a creek after kidnapping
her from an East Dallas Walgreens in Oct. 2015.

The trial is set to start in late October, but to get there the jury selection
process is starting 4 months out.

The goal of the 19 page, 200-plus question document is to help prosecutors and
defense attorneys know who the jurors are. Nearly 1/4 of the questions are
about potential jurors' views on capital punishment.

Jury consultant Kacy Miller analyzed the questionnaire.

"The state is looking for jurors who are willing to give the death penalty,"
Miller said. "The defense also needs jurors who are willing to give the death
penalty -- but maybe just not as frequently."

Recent Dallas County juryies have said no to the death penalty for quadruple
murderer defendant Erbie Bowser and another convicted killer, Juan Andrade.
Both juries in those cases opted for life in prison without parole.

When there is a guilty verdict in a death penalty case jurors must then answer
2 questions: Is the person a continuing threat to society? Is there no reason
worth saving their life?

Heath Harris, former First Assistant Dallas County D.A. who is now in private
practice, has tried death penalty cases from both the prosecution and defense

"Seems like there's an increase in whether people feel like the death penalty
is a deterrent," Harris said.

But the death penalty and how it's administered has also itself, seemingly,
been on trial of late.

Some courts are debating whether its practice is humane. Plus, several
exonerations across the country - including death row inmates ??? are also
impacting potential jurors and making it more difficult to get a unanimous
death penalty verdict.

"It's absolutely more difficult today," said attorney Robert Udashen. "When I
first started practicing law police and prosecutors always wore the white hats
and juries trusted anything prosecutors and police officers said."

Udashen says the overall climate change towards police grand juries and
prosecutors has caused jurors to think long and hard before voting yes to the
ultimate punishment - death.

(source: Fox News)


HCSO: Mom charged with capital murder in daughter's death

A mother has been charged with capital murder in the stabbing death of her
4-year-old daughter in west Harris County.

According to the Harris County Sheriff's Office, 34-year-old Laquita Lewis was
charged with capital murder Monday morning. The single mother of 4 has been
denied bail and faces life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.

Prosecutors said that Lewis allegedly stabbed her child, Fredricka Allen,
multiple times in the chest and left her on the floor of the master bedroom.

Neighbor Burim Hoax is having a tough time dealing with the news.

"I couldn't believe that happened. Bad news. I didn't have any idea what
happened last night and I still don???t believe," he said.

Hoax says 4-year-old Fredricka would greet him in the apartment complex parking
lot almost every morning. "She would say to me, good morning."

Family members say they got some text messages from the Lewis. She basically
told them she hurt Fredricka.

Those family members called 911 and urged deputies to come check on the girl at
the Timberwalk Apartment Homes located in the 5600 block of Timber Creek Place.

Deputies found that little girl dead inside her home just before 9 p.m., but
investigators think she was stabbed to death earlier in the day.

Investigators said the mother was in a car accident and rushed to a hospital
around 6 p.m. It was there at the hospital that deputies say the mother started
texting family, apologizing for what she had done.

Deputies also say, earlier in the day, the woman got into a fight with her

"We don't really know what the catalyst of that argument was," said Thomas
Gilliland, spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office. "Obviously it was
some sort of, enough to escalate to where she killed the 4-year old.

Now, Lewis is in custody.

The scene was so bad that chaplains were out here to console family members of
the little girl, as well as the deputies who discovered her body.

"There's not enough words to describe the horrible death of this child," said

According to the Harris County DA's office, Lewis was charged in November for
making a terroristic threat during a Thanksgiving incident in which she
brandished a knife at her 16-year-old son. Lewis, who at the time had no prior
criminal record, was sentenced in February to 15 months of deferred
adjudication in that case.

The DA's office says that as part of her probation requirements, she was
required to take a Texas Risk Assessment System evaluation, which ranked her
with a score of zero (the lowest score) for her risk for recidivism.

(source: KHOU news)


Death-Row Inmate Wins High Court Battle Over Experts

A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that an Alabama death-row inmate was
denied his constitutional right to an independent mental health expert to help
the defense team in his murder trial.

James Edmund McWilliams Jr. challenges his death sentence for robbing, raping
and killing convenience store clerk Patricia Reynolds in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in

Months before he murdered Reynolds, McWilliams attended couple's therapy with
his pregnant wife and underwent psychological testing, which found that he is
"extremely disturbed" and "has much internal anxiety."

While three doctors nevertheless concluded he was competent to stand trial, his
defense counsel portrayed McWilliams during the penalty phase of his trial as
someone who grew up with significant psychological problems. McWilliams and his
mother testified that he sustained head injuries as a child and had a history
of blacking out and hallucinating.

An expert appointed by the trial judge reported his findings simultaneously to
the court, the prosecution and the defense 2 days before McWilliams' sentencing

The expert diagnosed McWilliams with organic personality syndrome, but defense
counsel did not have a chance to discuss the findings with the expert or learn
what the diagnosis meant for the purposes of mitigation.

Last year, McWilliams petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of
certiorari, arguing he was "precluded from meaningfully participating in the
judicial sentencing hearing and did not receive a fair opportunity to rebut the
state's psychiatric experts."

His case is nested inside the high court's 1984 decision in Ake v. Oklahoma,
which held that poor criminal defendants using a defense of insanity are
entitled to an expert to help support their claim.

McWilliams was charged by Alabama just a month after Ake was decided. His
appeals over the years have been unsuccessful, with the 11th Circuit affirming
the lower courts' denial of relief.

5 months after agreeing to take up the case, the Supreme Court reversed the
11th Circuit and ruled 5-4 Monday that McWilliams did not receive the
assistance he was entitled to under Ake.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that Ake does not
require just an examination, but also requires the state to provide the defense
access to a competent psychiatrist who will also help in evaluation,
preparation and presentation.

"We are willing to assume that Alabama met the examination portion of this
requirement by providing for Dr. [John] Goff's examination of McWilliams. But
what about the other 3 parts?" Breyer wrote. "The dissent emphasizes that Dr.
Goff was never ordered to do any of these things by the trial court. But that
is precisely the point. The relevant court order did not ask Dr. Goff or anyone
else to provide the defense with help in evaluating, preparing, and presenting
its case."

McWilliams' requests for additional assistance under Ake were rejected by the
judge in his case, according to the ruling.

"Since Alabama's provision of mental health assistance fell so dramatically
short of what Ake requires, we must conclude that the Alabama court decision
affirming McWilliams's conviction and sentence was 'contrary to, or involved an
unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,'" Breyer said.

The Supreme Court said the 11th Circuit should determine on remand "whether
access to the type of meaningful assistance in evaluating, preparing, and
presenting the defense that Ake requires could have made a difference" in
McWilliams' trial.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonio Sotomayor and Elena Kagan
joined Breyer in the majority.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissenting opinion, and was joined by Chief
Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

Alito said Ake "did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an
expert who is a member of the defense team."

"In Ake, we held that a defendant must be provided 'access to a competent
psychiatrist' in 2 circumstances: 1st, 'when [the] defendant demonstrates to
the trial judge that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a
significant factor at trial,' and, 2nd, at the sentencing phase of a capital
trial, 'when the State presents psychiatric evidence of the defendant's future
dangerousness,'" Alito wrote.

"The question that we agreed to review concerns the type of expert that must be
provided. Did Ake clearly establish that a defendant in the 2 situations just
noted must be provided with the services of an expert who functions solely as a
dedicated member of the defense team as opposed to a neutral expert who
examines the defendant, reports his or her conclusions to the court and the
parties, and is available to assist and testify for both sides? Did Ake speak
with such clarity that it ruled out 'any possibility for fairminded
disagreement'? The answer is 'no.' Ake provides no clear guidance one way or
the other."

(source: courthousenews.com)


U.S. Supreme Court reinstates convicted Cleveland killer's death sentence

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned a lower court's ruling that vacated
a convicted Cleveland killer's 1986 death sentence.

Judges at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati erred last year
when they found a Cuyahoga County judge gave faulty jury instructions and
ordered Percy Hutton re-sentenced, the Court found in a per curium decision
released Monday morning.

The decision reinstates Hutton's death sentence, and allowed him to continue
the appeals process on other grounds.

Hutton was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1986 in a case
stemming from an argument over a missing sewing machine.

Hutton had hidden $750 inside the machine, which he then accused 2 men of
stealing, according to court records.

Hutton lured the men into his car and drove them around at gunpoint, demanding
the machine's return. Hutton was convicted of shooting 1 man twice and killing
the other, whose body was found more than a week later.

The same jury found Hutton guilty of specifications that made him eligible for
the death penalty, and recommended it during the penalty phase of the trial.
The judge then imposed and sentenced Hutton to death.

After losing appeals through state courts, Hutton took his case to federal
court on the grounds that the judge overseeing his trial gave the jurors
improper instructions about what to consider during the penalty phase.

Judges at U.S. District Court declined to consider the argument because
Hutton's lawyers did not object to the jury instructions during the trial, and
he did not raise the issue on his initial appeals.

But Sixth Circuit judges took up the argument and held that the jury did not
make the necessary findings of aggravating circumstances that would have made
Hutton eligible for the death penalty, and their decision to recommend death
was based on faulty instructions that violated Hutton's constitutional rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and reversed that decision, holding that, not
only should the lower court not have entertained the argument in the first
place, but the jury did find proper aggravating circumstances and that another
jury that had been given proper instructions would have likely reached the same

(source: cleveland.com)


Adelanto man sentenced to death for 2009 double murder

An Adelanto man with gang ties has been sentenced to death in connection to the
2009 double murder of 28-year-old Ealy Davis, Jr. and 26-year-old Shameka
Reliford perpetrated during a drug deal.

A jury found James Ellis, 28, guilty of 2 counts of 1st-degree murder and
criminal street gang activity last October, according to a previous Daily Press

A statement released Monday by the San Bernardino County District Attorney said
jurors found true multiple special circumstances - lying in wait, murder during
a robbery, murder while an active participant in a criminal street gang and
multiple murders - that "made Ellis eligible for the death penalty."

On Friday, based on the jury's recommendation and evidence presented during the
penalty phase of the trial, Judge Eric M. Nakata sentenced Ellis to death, the
statement shows.

Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes, who prosecuted the case, described seeking
"the ultimate punishment" as "a tough decision for all," adding he was
"pleased" the jury provided victims with "some sense of justice."

"(Ellis) has demonstrated a desire to continue a life of violent gang behavior
up to and through the prosecution of this case," Imes said.

Attorney George Wright, who defended Ellis, described Imes' contention as "not
at all" accurate.

"Mr. Ellis has been remorseful about the whole situation," Wright told the
Daily Press. "At the sentencing hearing, he gave a statement in which he
expressed an apology to the Reliford family. Not a day goes by where he doesn't
think about that ... I had to keep him from crying at times during the trial."

Neither the DA's office or Wright disclosed the name of the gang with which
Ellis was affiliated; however, Wright described it as a "neighborhood gang from

On Nov. 23, 2009, Ellis, Forrest Taylor, William Jacobs, Joseph Bowen and
Sandra Smith were gathered at Smith's residence in Adelanto where a discussion
was had on how to acquire drugs and money.

The DA's statement said Ellis plotted with the others to rob Davis, a drug
dealer from Long Beach. During the planning, Ellis produced a handgun and
showed it to the others. Smith then suggested they rob Davis, who she knew
because he was dating Reliford, her half-sister.

Wright, however, said Ellis was "not privy to the conversation" that hatched
the plan.

"Our position was Ellis was with a young lady at the house," Wright said.
"Taylor and Smith planned to rob Davis, and then they brought Ellis in and,
because of certain pressures, he went with them."

According to Imes, Smith provided Taylor with Davis' cellphone number. Several
phone calls were made to lure Davis to a secluded area near Westside Park
Elementary School. At the meeting place, Ellis approached Davis' car. Reliford
was in the passenger seat. 2 other passengers were in the backseat.

After a short exchange, Ellis stepped back, pulled a handgun and fired 4 to 5
rounds into the vehicle. Davis was killed immediately. Reliford was taken to
Victor Valley Community Hospital where she later died.

Prior to Ellis' sentencing, Wright said he introduced 2 motions before Nakata
and argued for life without the possibility of parole.

"There were 2 murders, but the intent was to only shoot one," he said. "The
facts showed there was no actual intent to kill 2 people. 1 of the bullets went
through (Davis) and struck (Reliford)."

Wright said Ellis' age at the time of the murders - he was 21 - played a role,
as well.

"He was not an old person with a criminal personality that was solidified,"
Wright said. "He was born in a hotbed of gangs in Compton. Nobody has a choice
where they're born. Gangs was the lifestyle there. I believe if you would have
put him in a different environment this would have never occurred."

Both motions were denied. Wright said the case will be appealed to the state
Supreme Court.

"We're hopeful that he'll be given a new trial," he said.

Ellis, Taylor, 30, of Los Angeles, and Jacobs, 30, of Adelanto, were all
arrested in December 2009, according to a previous Daily Press report.

Taylor was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2013. Jacobs
received 13 years, 8 months in 2016.

Smith, 37, of Adelanto, was sentenced to 18 years in 2012, and Bowen, 22, of
Victorville, received probation in 2012 for being an accessory.

Some 749 inmates awaited execution on California's death row as of December
2016, according to a Los Angeles Times report. 13 men have been put to death
since the death penalty was restored here in 1978.

The state has not executed a prisoner since 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, who
received a lethal injection in 2006, according to an Associated Press report.

(source: Daily Press)


Divided California Supreme Court upholds death sentence

In an unusual outcome, the California Supreme Court split Monday over whether
to uphold the death sentence of a man convicted of killing a jewelry store
owner during a 1996 robbery in Fresno

The court generally reaches unanimous decisions in death penalty cases.

With Associate Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuellar and Goodwin Liu dissenting,
the court ruled that defendant Vaene Sivongxxay chose not to have a jury decide
his case at the outset of his trial and had no right to be advised specifically
that a judge would also decide the allegation that he committed murder during
the course of a robbery.

That allegation made Sivongxxay eligible for the death penalty.

The trial court did not ask Sivongxxay separately whether he waived his right
to a jury trial on the robbery and murder allegation. But the 5 justices in the
majority said the error did not taint the trial since there was no evidence
Sivongxxay would have chosen to have a jury decide the allegation.

The ruling upheld Sivongxxay's death sentence.

Kirk Jenkins, an appellate lawyer who studies the California Supreme Court,
said it reached unanimous decisions on death penalty cases more than 75 % of
the time in 2015 and an even higher % last year.

Still, Jenkins said there was evidence that the court was scrutinizing death
penalty cases more closely in the past few years.

Cuellar and Liu said the trial court failed to explain to Sivongxxay that he
was entitled to have a jury decide the allegation that he committed murder in
the course of a robbery.

Cuellar and Liu also said the trial court failed to ask Sivongxxay separately
whether he waived his right to a jury trial on the allegation.

Liu said the majority opinion "undermines an important safeguard of
California's death penalty scheme."

Cuellar and Liu are relative newcomers to the court. Gov. Jerry Brown nominated
Liu to the court in 2011. Cuellar joined in 2015.

(source: Associated Press)


Why plummeting public support for the death penalty doesn't mean it's going

Support for the death penalty is at a 4-decade low among the American public,
but that may be of little consequence in the struggle over the future of
capital punishment. That's because the death penalty is the practice not of the
nation, but rather of a handful of states.

The federal government is a minor player in criminal justice, housing just 1 in
8 inmates. The federal government executed 2 prisoners on the same day in 1957,
but implemented capital punishment only four times in the 60 years since. It's
states that charge and sentence almost all the individuals who commit the
crimes that lead to capital sentences (e.g., murder). And, more specifically,
it's just 5 of those states that are the true force behind capital punishment,
accounting for 90 % of the 122 executions carried out in the past 3 years.

[source: Bureau of Justice Statistics]

Texas stands out for its particularly outsized role, accounting for over 1/3 of
capital punishment. Florida, Georgia and Missouri each account for about 1 in 7
executions, and Oklahoma accounts for about 1 in 12. The other 45 states
collectively account for only 10 % of prisoner executions, even though the law
in 30 of those states allows capital punishment.

Rather than ask "why does the United States have capital punishment," it makes
more sense to ask why these particular 5 states apply it so often. Obviously,
all are politically conservative states within or bordering the South. But this
is also true of Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina and
Tennessee, none of which has put a prisoner to death in recent years (indeed,
Louisiana came close to abolishing the death penalty in this year's legislative

Stanford Law School Professor Robert Weisberg points to state-specific
processes and incentives as drivers of the death penalty in a subset of
conservative states. Most notably, he says, "Texas has elected judges. It is
also located in the prosecutor-friendly 5th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.
Although the Supreme Court occasionally slaps down the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals and its federal accomplice, the Fifth Circuit, for allowing egregiously
unfair capital trials, on the whole those lower courts have been happy to give
Texas prosecutors a generously wide berth."

Most states have abandoned the death penalty de jure or de facto. But in the
absence of change in the handful of states that combine punitive views on crime
with legal processes that facilitate capital punishment, the practice will
remain a part of the criminal justice system.

(source: Opinion; Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford
University and is an affiliated faculty member at Stanford Law School and the
Stanford Neurosciences Institute----Washington Post)


US Supreme Court death penalty decision could be victory for due process

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a defendant has a right to a mental
health evaluation independent of the prosecution, which could have wide-ranging
implications for the justice system.

"This is a very important decision," Robert Dunham, executive director of the
Death Penalty Information Center, told CNA of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision
in McWilliams v. Dunn.

"A mental health expert helps the defense investigate mental health defenses in
the case," he explained June 19. "Although most states already routinely
provide independent mental health experts for the defense, this decision makes
clear that this type of expert has always been required by due process," he

The defendant in the case, James Edmond McWilliams, was convicted in 1985 in
Alabama of robbing, raping, and murdering a store clerk. He was sentenced to
death the following year.

A 3-member "lunacy commission" was organized by the state to evaluate his
condition, and they concluded that McWilliams had not been significantly
impaired by mental illness at the time of his crime. McWilliams was convicted
of capital murder.

Before his sentencing hearing, his defense had requested a mental health expert
to conduct neurological and neuropsychological tests, as he had previously
suffered serious head trauma.

However, the mental health expert was provided by the state. The
neuropsychologist Dr. John Goff concluded that McWilliams had exaggerated his
condition but nevertheless showed signs of neuropsychological problems.

However, the results of McWilliams' evaluation were not given to his lawyers
until two days before the sentencing hearing. They reportedly did not receive
his mental health records until the day of the hearing.

At the hearing, his lawyers requested more time to review the report and the
records, as well as a mental health expert to help interpret those records, but
their request was denied by the judge, who promptly sentenced McWilliams to

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that the decision did not
manifest the "substantial and injurious effect or influence" required for
relief in the case, and denied McWilliams' request for relief.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling and sent it back to the
circuit court. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion, wrote that
Ake v. Oklahoma, a 1985 Supreme Court decision, "does not require just an
examination" of a defendant's competency.

"Rather, it requires the State to provide the defense with 'access to a
competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate [1] examination and
assist in [2] evaluation, [3] preparation, and [4] presentation of the
defense'," he continued.

Alabama failed to meet this standard in McWilliams' case, he said, as
"petitioner in this case did not receive that assistance."

The availability of a mental health expert independent of the prosecution was
critical to the case, Dunham argued.

"An independent mental health expert would have been able to explain that
McWilliams had brain damage and other serious mental health impairments,"
Dunham said, "but without an independent mental health expert, the Alabama
trial judge who imposed the sentence found no mitigating evidence at all."

"It's not unusual that the prosecution will present a mental health expert or a
forensic expert who offers unscientific or even junk science testimony," he
added. "We've had dozens of cases where prosecutors have presented junk science
testimony about bite marks" or "microscopic hair comparison."

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Clarence
Thomas, John Roberts, and Neil Gorsuch. The question at hand, he argued, was
whether the defense is entitled to a mental health expert that it can select.

"We granted review in this case to decide a straightforward legal question on
which the lower courts are divided: whether our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma,
470 U. S. 68 (1985), clearly established that an indigent defendant whose
mental health will be a significant factor at trial is entitled to the
assistance of a psychiatric expert who is a member of the defense team instead
of a neutral expert who is available to assist both the prosecution and the
defense," he wrote.

"The answer to that question is plain: Ake did not clearly establish that a
defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team," he

Ultimately, the decision will have wide-ranging effects in the justice system,
Dunham said, affecting more inmates than McWilliams.

2 inmates in Arkansas, Bruce Ward and Don Davis, recently received stays of
execution based on the outcome of the McWilliams case. Their scheduled
executions were 2 of 8 that were planned by the state in the span of 10 days in
April, and because of Monday's decision they now have "an opportunity to get
relief," Dunham said.

Monday's decision is also significant because the Supreme Court found precedent
in the case. Thus, it was able to apply the 1985 Ake decision to McWilliams'
case, which began shortly after that decision was issued.

Dozens of inmates have been executed, Dunham said, because "the courts have not
applied the Constitution to their cases." Now, this precedent can apply to all
cases dating back to 1985.

McWilliams' counsel of record Stephen Bright stated that the decision is
ultimately "about fairness."

"The adversarial process cannot function properly if the prosecution can retain
mental health experts, but the defense is not even allowed to consult with an
expert," he stated. "James McWilliams could not have a fair trial without a
mental health expert to assess his brain damage and other mental impairments
and to help his counsel present that information to the sentencing court. He
was denied such assistance."

(source: Catholic News Agency)

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