The Spotlight on Texas

Credit: Matt Beamesderfer
By: Lily Hughes

A series of mistakes in death penalty cases in Texas—including some where executions were carried out—continues to expose the injustice of the Texas death penalty.           

Claude Jones was executed in 2000 in Texas--just one of 152 people put to death during George W. Bush's reign as governor.          

This fall, the case made headlines again when testing of the DNA evidence used to convict Jones was found not to match him. A single hair found at the crime scene, supposedly proven to belong to Jones, was the key piece of evidence in his conviction. The new testing was requested by the Innocence Project and the Texas Observer magazine.    

Sadly, when Jones was approaching an execution date in 2000, his appellate attorneys applied for new DNA testing, but were denied. When the case came across Bush's desk during the clemency process, the application for DNA testing was left out of the file and Bush denied relief.           

Meanwhile, another case of an executed prisoner continues to garner headlines. Cameron Todd Willingham was killed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three children. Several arson experts have reexamined the evidence and concluded that the original fire investigators who testified at the trial were incompetent, didn't follow standards protocol of that time and ignored details that could have exonerated Willingham.           

Despite the existence of a report challenging the arson findings, Perry and the courts both refused to stop the 2004 execution. After Willingham was put to death, a new report prepared for the Texas Forensic Science Commission by arson expert Craig Beyler accused the initial investigators of ignoring current scientific methods and basing their finding of arson on "folklore" and "myths."           

Perry's response? In October 2009, he removed three of the commission's board members--including the chair--two days before they were scheduled to review Beyler's report on the case. Perry appointed a strongly pro-death penalty district attorney, John Bradley, as the head of the commission.           

However, Bradley's subsequent efforts to squash the investigation weren't successful, and Beyhler and other experts finally presented their findings at a meeting in early January this year. Now the Commission must determine whether there was negligence on the part of the initial investigators, which should not have resulted in a finding of arson as the cause of the fire.           

In a bright spot here, Anthony Graves was freed in October 2010 after serving 18 years in prison--14 on Texas’ death row--for a crime he didn't commit. Anthony spent the last four years in a Burleson County Jail awaiting a new trial in the murder of six people, when the prosecutor's office suddenly decided to drop all the charges.           

"He's an innocent man," said District Attorney Bill Parham. "There is nothing that connects Anthony Graves to this crime. I did what I did because that's the right thing to do."           

There was not a shred of physical evidence linking Graves to the crime. The only witness against Graves had recanted his testimony years before, including to the prosecutor just hours before Anthony's trial. Robert Carter, who was executed for his role in the crime, had written at least half a dozen people over the years, declaring that Anthony was innocent.           

Despite this, Anthony was repeatedly denied relief in the Texas courts. A federal appeals court finally overturned his conviction—it took 4 years for the DA in the case to finally drop the charges.           

The revelations about the evidence in these cases seem to be par for the course in Texas. It is because of cases like these that Houston Judge Kevin Fine last spring ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in a capital murder case he is presiding over.        

After a firestorm of criticism, Fine rescinded the ruling but ordered hearings to explore the issue. The hearings finally commenced in December last year and were to include expert testimony from all sides of the issue. The first day of the hearings, the prosecution sat silently, refusing to participate in the proceedings. They then rushed to file an appeal with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the hearings. The CCA suspended the proceedings, and then issued a ruling in mid-January permanently stopping the hearings.

 The court’s decision to once again suppress a legal challenge to the death penalty in Texas was no surprise. The CCA declined to grant an appeal to Anthony Graves after all—it was federal court that eventually granted relief. Combined with the actions of various authorities in the Cameron Todd Willingham case, and it is clear that the state of Texas cannot be trusted when it comes to the use of the death penalty. It's time to SHUT IT DOWN!