Military Court Dismisses Appeal Of Serial Killer On Death Row


December 12, 2017

Ronald A. Gray has lost another court battle aimed at stopping his execution.

A military appeals court dismissed Gray’s request for extraordinary relief last month.

Gray, a convicted serial killer whose crimes were committed in Fayetteville and on Fort Bragg, had asked the court to review his case as he sought to have his convictions and death sentence vacated.

The Nov. 13 opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces was the latest in a nearly 30-year legal battle over Gray’s case.

On Monday, an Army spokeswoman was not immediately able to comment on whether there are any other pending legal proceedings in the case. The spokeswoman also could not comment on whether an execution date has been scheduled or will be scheduled.

Gray is the longest-serving inmate on the military’s death row and is the only current prisoner whose execution has been approved by a president — a requirement before the military can carry out a death sentence.

President George W. Bush approved Gray’s execution in 2008, but a federal court issued a stay of execution to allow Gray to make an appeal.

Late last year, a federal judge removed that stay, potentially clearing the way for the Army to schedule Gray’s death.

The military appeals court, which has heard numerous appeals as part of the Gray case, ruled last month that it did not have the jurisdiction to provide the relief Gray sought in the form of a writ of error coram nobis, a legal order that allows a court to correct a judgment based on the discovery of a fundamental error, which did not appear in the records of the original trial.

Gray’s legal team has argued he was tried while incompetent to stand trial; that he was denied due process when military authorities failed to disclose evidence about his competency during appeal; that his appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance; that his sentence was the result of racial discrimination; and that the military death penalty violates evolving standards of decency under the Eighth Amendment.

The latest opinion stated that if the court did have jurisdiction, Gray failed to prove those claims and show he is entitled to extraordinary relief.

The court wrote that Gray’s case is final, after years of legal wrangling.

“Appellant has exhausted all of his remedies in the military justice system,” according to the opinion.

Gray has had numerous appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals and various civilian federal courts.

A former resident of Fairlane Acres near Bonnie Doone in Fayetteville, Gray was an Army cook before he was convicted of a series of rapes and murders in Fayetteville and Fort Bragg. His crimes were committed in 1986 and 1987 on Fort Bragg and near Fairlane Acres Mobile Home Park off Santa Fe Drive.

Gray killed cab driver Kimberly Ann Ruggles, Army Pvt. Laura Lee Vickery-Clay, Campbell University student Linda Jean Coats and Fairlane Acres resident and soldier’s wife Tammy Wilson, and raped several other women.

A former Army private, Gray was convicted during two trials. A Fort Bragg court sentenced him to death in 1988, after convicting him of the rape and murder of two women and the rape and attempted murder of a third woman, among other offenses.

A civilian court in 1987 sentenced him to eight life sentences, including three to be served consecutively, after convictions on charges of two counts of second-degree murder, five counts of rape and a number of other offenses all related to different victims.

Gray has been confined at the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, since he was sentenced to death.

If he is executed, it would be the first death sentence carried out by the U.S. military since 1961. An execution would likely take place at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana — the same facility where, in 2001, terrorist Timothy McVeigh was executed for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

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Man convicted 3rd time of killing neighbor sentenced to death


December 11, 2017

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the third time since a woman was brutally killed nine years, a Duval County judge has sentenced Randal Deviney to be put to death for the murder.

In August 2008, when Deviney was 18 years old, he slit the throat of Delores Futrell and beat her during an attempted burglary. He then moved her body and staged the scene to make it appear that she had been sexually assaulted.

 

In October, after two days of testimony from detectives, forensic scientists, family members and psychologists, a jury unanimously recommended he be given the death penalty. On Monday, Judge Mark Borello formally sentenced Deviney to be returned to death row.

On Monday, Judge Mark Borello said that the crime, cruelty of the crime and age of the victim were all factors that led him to give Deviney to the death penalty.

“We’re glad it’s finally over (and) he got the sentencing he deserved,” Futrell’s granddaughter Raqia Blades said after the October hearing. “I’m glad we don’t have to keep replaying the memories of what happened and keep asking the question, ‘Why?'”

It was the third jury that has been asked to sentence Deviney to death for the crime. The first conviction was overturned on appeal and his second sentence was thrown out when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that death penalties are only constitutional if there is a unanimous jury recommendation.

Futrell, a dialysis technician and mother of four, was described in court this week as loving life and having a thirst for knowledge.

“A person like my mom should have died a peaceful death,” said Jacquelynn Blades, Futrell’s oldest daughter.

During the sentencing hearing, the defense presented 37 mitigating factors to try and convince the jury to spare Deviney from the death penalty. It called Deviney’s father and a forensic psychologist to testify an abusive childhood.

Despite Deviney mental, sexual and physical abuse as a child, Borello said Deviney still had a loving family and that abusive history did not excuse Deviney’s actions.

The crime

According to court documents, an officer responding to a 911 call from Futrell’s townhome found her in a “sexual position.” Deviney later told a psychologist that he placed her that way to make it look like someone else killed her. Investigators found no physical evidence that Futrell had actually been raped, court records show.

READ: Details of murder from court documents (Warning: graphic content)

According to detectives investigating the murder scene, evidence showed that Deviney cut Futrell’s throat near a Koi pond in the backyard before dragging her inside the home and trying to cover up the murder by making it appear to have been a sexual assault.

The autopsy showed that Futrell had struggled with her attacker before her throat was cut and that the wound sliced her larynx, preventing her from breathing. She bled to death, according to court records. The Medical Examiner also found evidence that Futrell’s killer had tried to strangle her either after she was dead or while she was still dying from her neck wound.

DNA found under Futrell’s fingernails was matched to Deviney by analysts from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Deviney claimed he just snapped while talking with Futrell one day, but prosecutors argued that the murder was premeditated because Deviney wanted to steal from Futrell.

Court history

Deviney was first convicted of killing Futrell in 2010. The conviction and death sentence were overturned after it was found that detectives had coerced a confession out of Deviney without reading him his Miranda rights.

In July 2015, Deviney was found guilty again, and a jury recommended he be sent back to Death Row with an 8-4 vote.

The state Supreme Court upheld that second conviction, but later ruled the death penalty unconstitutional unless there is a unanimous jury recommendation.

Deviney’s case is one of seven Duval County death sentences overturned this year by the Florida Supreme Court.

Over the years, Deviney’s behavior behind bars came under scrutiny. Before the start of his second trial, Deviney publicly made claims that Donald Smith, the man charged with murdering 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle, had told him about another murder he committed years before. He even attempted to use that information as leverage for a shorter prison sentence. The State Attorney’s Office said Deviney’s claims were not credible.

States to try new ways of executing prisoners. Their latest idea? Opioids.


December 11, 2017

The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been the driving force behind the nation’s opioid epidemic, killing tens of thousands of Americans last year in overdoses. Now two states want to use the drug’s powerful properties for a new purpose: to execute prisoners on death row.

As Nevada and Nebraska push for the country’s first fentanyl-assisted executions, doctors and death penalty opponents are fighting those plans. They have warned that such an untested use of fentanyl could lead to painful, botched executions, comparing the use of it and other new drugs proposed for lethal injection to human experimentation.

States are increasingly pressed for ways to carry out the death penalty because of problems obtaining the drugs they long have used, primarily because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply their drugs for executions.

The situation has led states such as Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma to turn to novel drug combinations for executions. Mississippi legalized nitrogen gas this spring as a backup method – something no state or country has tried. Officials have yet to say whether it would be delivered in a gas chamber or through a gas mask.

Other states have passed laws authorizing a return to older methods, such as the firing squad and the electric chair.

“We’re in a new era,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University. “States have now gone through all the drugs closest to the original ones for lethal injection. And the more they experiment, the more they’re forced to use new drugs that we know less about in terms of how they might work in an execution.”

Supporters of capital punishment blame critics for the crisis, which comes amid a sharp decline in the number of executions and decreasing public support for the death penalty. As of late November, 23 inmates had been put to death in 2017 – fewer than in all but one year since 1991. Nineteen states no longer have capital punishment, with a third of those banning it in the past decade.

“If death penalty opponents were really concerned about inmates’ pain, they would help reopen the supply,” said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates the rights of crime victims. Opponents “caused the problem we’re in now by forcing pharmaceuticals to cut off the supply to these drugs. That’s why states are turning to less-than-optimal choices.”

Prison officials in Nevada and Nebraska have declined to answer questions about why they chose to use fentanyl in their next executions, which could take place in early 2018. Many states shroud their procedures in secrecy to try to minimize legal challenges.

But fentanyl offers several advantages. The obvious one is potency. The synthetic drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“There’s cruel irony that at the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids, that they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone,” said Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty for more than four decades.

Another plus with fentanyl: It is easy to obtain. Although the drug has rocketed into the news because of the opioid crisis, doctors frequently use it to anesthetize patients for major surgery or to treat severe pain in patients with advanced cancer.

Nevada officials say they had no problem buying fentanyl.

“We simply ordered it through our pharmaceutical distributor, just like every other medication we purchase, and it was delivered,” Brooke Keast, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said in an email. “Nothing out of the ordinary at all.”

The state, which last put someone to death in 2006, had planned its first fentanyl-assisted execution for November. The inmate involved, 47-year-old Scott Dozier, was convicted of killing a man in a Las Vegas hotel, cutting him into pieces and stealing his money.

According to documents obtained by The Washington Post, Nevada’s protocol calls for Dozier first to receive diazepam – a sedative better known as Valium – and then fentanyl to cause him to lose consciousness. Large doses of both would cause a person to stop breathing, according to three anesthesiologists interviewed for this report.

Yet Nevada also plans to inject Dozier with a third drug, cisatracurium, to paralyze his muscles – a step medical experts say makes the procedure riskier.

“If the first two drugs don’t work as planned or if they are administered incorrectly, which has already happened in so many cases . . . you would be awake and conscious, desperate to breathe and terrified but unable to move at all,” said Mark Heath, a professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University. “It would be an agonizing way to die, but the people witnessing wouldn’t know anything had gone wrong because you wouldn’t be able to move.”

John DiMuro, who helped create the fentanyl execution protocol when he was the state’s chief medical officer, said he based it on procedures common in open-heart surgery. He included cisatracurium because of worries that the Valium and fentanyl might not fully stop an inmate’s breathing, he said. “The paralytic hastens and ensures death. It would be less humane without it.”

A judge postponed Dozier’s execution last month over concerns about the paralytic, and the case is awaiting review by Nevada’s Supreme Court. In the meantime, Nebraska is looking toward a fentanyl-assisted execution as soon as January. Jose Sandoval, the leader of a bank robbery in which five people were killed, would be the first person put to death in that state since 1997.

Sandoval would be injected with the same three drugs proposed in Nevada, plus potassium chloride to stop his heart.

Even at much lower concentrations, intravenous potassium chloride often causes a burning sensation, according to Heath. “So if you weren’t properly sedated, a highly concentrated dose would feel like someone was taking a blowtorch to your arm and burning you alive,” he said.

Fentanyl is just the latest in a long line of approaches that have been considered for capital punishment in the United States. With each, things have often gone wrong.

When hangings fell out of favor in the 19th century – because of botched cases and the drunken, carnival-like crowds they attracted – states turned to electrocution. The first one in 1890 was a grisly disaster: Spectators noticed the inmate was still breathing after the electricity was turned off, and prison officials had to zap the man all over again.

Gas chambers were similarly sold as a modern scientific solution. But one of the country’s last cyanide gas executions, in 1992, went so badly that it left witnesses crying and the warden threatening to resign rather than attempt another one.

Lethal injection, developed in Oklahoma in 1977, was supposed to solve these problems. It triggered concerns from the start, especially because of the paralytic drug used. Even so, the three-drug injection soon became the country’s dominant method of execution.

In recent years, as access to those drugs has dried up, states have tried others. Before the interest in fentanyl, many states tested a sedative called midazolam – leading to what Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called “horrifying deaths.”

Dennis McGuire, who raped and killed a pregnant newlywed in Ohio, became the first inmate on whom that state’s new protocol was tried. Soon after the 2014 execution began, his body writhed on the table as he gasped for air and made gurgling, snorting noises that sounded as though he was drowning, according to witnesses.

The same year, Oklahoma used midazolam on an inmate convicted of kidnapping and killing a teenager; authorities aborted the execution after Clayton Lockett kicked, writhed and grimaced for 20 minutes, but he died not long after. Three months later, Arizona used midazolam on Joseph Wood III, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her father. Officials injected him more than a dozen times as he struggled for almost two hours.

Like officials in other states, Arizona officials argued that the inmate did not suffer and that the procedure was not botched. Later, they said they would never again use midazolam in an execution.

Joel Zivot, a professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University, called the states’ approach ludicrous. “There’s no medical or scientific basis for any of it,” he said. “It’s just a series of attempts: obtain certain drugs, try them out on prisoners, and see if and how they die.”

The bad publicity and continuing problems with drug supply have sent some of the 31 states where capital punishment remains legal in search of options beyond lethal injection. Turning to nitrogen gas would solve at least one issue.

Nitrogen is literally in the air we breathe – you can’t cut off anyone’s supply to that,” said Scheidegger, who strongly supports the idea.

In addition to Mississippi, Oklahoma has authorized nitrogen gas as a backup to lethal injection. Corrections officials and legislators in Louisiana and Alabama have said they hope to do the same.

And yet, critics note, there is almost no scientific research to suggest that nitrogen would be more humane.

Zivot is among those skeptical that nitrogen would work as hoped.

“There’s a difference between accidental hypoxia, like with pilots passing out, and someone knowing you’re trying to kill him and fighting against it,” he said. “Have you ever seen someone struggle to breathe? They gasp until the end. It’s terrifying.”

Dozier, the inmate Nevada hopes to execute soon with fentanyl has said he would prefer death by firing squad over any other method. In more than a dozen interviews, experts on both sides of the issue expressed similar views.

Of all the lethal technology humans have invented, the gun has endured as one of the most efficient ways to kill, said Denno, who has studied the death penalty for a quarter-century.

“The reason we keep looking for something else,” she said, “is because it’s not really for the prisoner. It’s for the people who have to watch it happen. We don’t want to feel squeamish or uncomfortable. We don’t want executions to look like what they really are: killing someone.”

Salvadoran Man on Texas Death Row Loses Supreme Court Appeal


December 11, 2017

The U.S. Supreme has refused to review an appeal from a 48-year-old Salvadoran man on Texas death row for the slayings of two Houston store clerks during an attempted robbery more than 17 years ago.

The U.S. Supreme has refused to review an appeal from a 48-year-old Salvadoran man on Texas death row for the slayings of two Houston store clerks during an attempted robbery more than 17 years ago.

The high court had no comment in its decision Monday in the case of Gilmar Guevara.

Attorneys for Guevara asked the justices to reverse lower courts’ rulings rejecting arguments that he’s mentally impaired and ineligible for the death penalty.

Guevara was convicted and sentenced to death for the fatal shootings of 48-year-old Tae Youk and 21-year-old Gerardo Yaxon. Youk was from South Korea and Yaxon from Guatemala.

Guevara, identified as the shooter, and two accomplices fled the scene in southwest Houston in June 2000 without any money.

He does not yet have an execution date.

Serial killer : Anthony Allen Shore


Anthony Allen Shore (born June 25, 1962) is a convicted serial killer and child molester who is responsible for the slayings of one woman and three girls. He operated from 1986 to 2000, and was known as the “Tourniquet Killer” because of his use of a ligature with either a toothbrush or bamboo stick to tighten or loosen the ligature. The instrument was similar to a twitch, a tool used by farmers to control horses.

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Shore’s parents were both with the United States Air Force; he was born in South Dakota where his father was stationed. Because of his parents’ enlistments in the military, Shore’s family moved nine times before he entered high school. He has two sisters.[ Although he possessed much musical talent, he did not pursue a career in music, but instead became a telephone lineman. He married and had two daughters Tiffany and Amber, but later divorced and was given custody of his two young girls. He later married and again divorced.

Statement of Facts

Appellant confessed to committing four murders in which he attacked and sexually assaulted, or attempted to sexually assault his victims, an aggravated sexual assault that did not end in murder, and the sexual molestation of two children.

On September 26, 1986, appellant murdered fourteen-year-old Laurie Tremblay while attempting to sexually assault her. In discussing this crime, appellant stated that he was preoccupied with young girls and that he had met Tremblay by giving her rides on a semi-regular basis. During one of these rides, appellant, then twenty-four years old, became sexually aggressive and unhooked the fourteen-year-old’s bra. She demanded that appellant stop, and the two argued. Appellant hit Tremblay in the back of the head and then used a cotton cord to strangle her. According to appellant, the cord kept breaking, and he injured his finger while tightening the ligature; “I tried to make sure that she would never, ever tell anybody.” The strangulation left a knuckle impression on the back of Tremblay’s neck, and the cord itself left two distinct pressure lines. Appellant dumped the victim’s body behind a restaurant. The crime remained unsolved until 2003.

On April 16, 1992, appellant, at twenty-nine years old, gave a ride to twenty-year-old Maria Del Carmen Estrada, the victim in this capital-murder prosecution. Recounting the event, appellant stated that she “freaked out” when he made sexual advances toward her, but he persisted in his attack, using a pair of shears to aid in his attempt to rape her. He ultimately strangled Estrada by twisting a nylon cord around her neck and tightening it with a piece of wood. As in his first murder, appellant dumped the victim’s body behind a restaurant and left. When Estrada’s body was found, signs of trauma were apparent on her face. Her pants had been removed, her underpants and hose had been pulled below her pubic area, her shirt was open, her bra had been cut, and her hose appeared to be cut in the crotch. An examination revealed that Estrada’s vagina had a bloody contusion deep inside. The crime remained unsolved until 2003.

About a year and a half later, at thirty-one, appellant became infatuated with a fourteen-year-old student who was often home alone after school. On October 19, 1993, she came home to find appellant waiting for her. He was wearing baggy clothes, surgical gloves, sunglasses, and a bandana over his face. Appellant bound the girl’s hands with an electrical cord and wrapped her head in duct tape. He took her into the bedroom, took off her pants, and cut her panties off with a knife; appellant then raped the girl as she screamed and cried. He then began choking her, but she managed to escape. Before fleeing the home, appellant threatened that he would return and kill her and her family if she reported the crime. He also told her that he had been watching her and named her school and sports activities. A sexual-assault examination revealed that the victim’s hymen and anus were torn, and that semen was present. DNA recovered from that semen eventually pointed to appellant as its source. Appellant admitted to this crime, saying that he had watched the girl during his work as a “telephone man.” He admitted that he fantasized about her and wanted to rape but not murder her; this depraved desire, he believed, was proof that he could “beat the evilness” by possessing and controlling another human being without killing her. Again, the crime remained unsolved until 2003.

The next year, on August 7, 1994, appellant, at thirty-two years old, abducted, raped or attempted to rape, and killed nine-year-old Diana Rebollar. He recounted that he saw the child walking down the street while he was driving a van. He pulled into a parking lot and began talking to her. Noticing that nobody else was around, appellant grabbed Rebollar, threw her into the van, duct taped her hands and feet, drove behind a building, then attacked her. Her body was later found on the loading dock of a building, naked except for her black t-shirt, which had been pulled up to her armpits, and her vagina and anus were bloody. Appellant admitted to killing her by strangulation; a rope with a bamboo stick attached to it was found around Rebollar’s neck. This crime also remained unsolved until 2003.

On, or soon after, July 6, 1995, appellant saw sixteen-year-old Dana Sanchez at a pay phone; appellant was thirty-three. Appellant stated that Sanchez appeared angry, and he offered her a ride. Sanchez accepted the ride, but soon objected when appellant began touching her. She tried to evade him, but he pulled her into the back of the van and restrained her after she bit his chest. He then removed her clothes. Appellant claimed that he did not sexually assault Sanchez, but admitted that he did kill her. Sanchez’s decomposed body was found after appellant made an anonymous call to a television news station reporting that there was a “serial killer out there” and giving the body’s location and a detailed description of the victim. The nude body was found with a yellow rope wrapped around its neck; a toothbrush was twisted in the ligature with a knot. Like the other murders, this crime remained unsolved until 2003.

About two and a half years after killing Sanchez, appellant plead no contest to two charges of indecency with a child. The two victims were appellant’s children. Appellant was charged with sexually molesting his older daughter from the time she was in kindergarten until she was thirteen. She testified that appellant would touch her breast, vagina, and anus as she pretended to sleep and that “[appellant] would stand unclothed [at the doorway to her and her younger sister’s bedroom] and touch himself inappropriately.” Appellant also began molesting his younger daughter, and both girls eventually informed their aunt of the assaults. Appellant was arrested, and as a result of a plea agreement, he was placed on deferred-adjudication community supervision.

On October 17, 2003, about eleven and a half years after the Estrada assault and killing, Houston homicide detective Robert King forwarded evidence of the unsolved Estrada murder to Orchid Cellmark for DNA analysis. Appellant’s DNA profile, from the sample he had been required to give when he was placed on deferred adjudication for molesting his daughters and which was included in the CODIS data-bank, matched DNA found on Estrada’s body. Appellant was arrested for the murder. He confessed to that crime, as well as to the murders of Tremblay, Rebollar, and Sanchez, and the aggravated sexual assault of the fourteen-year-old student. The state sought a capital-murder conviction against appellant in the Estrada case. After the guilt phase of the trial, the jury found appellant guilty and, at the punishment phase, it learned of the three other murders and the aggravated sexual assault, as well as the details of appellant’s molestation of his two daughters. Additionally, the jury learned that appellant would frequently drug and choke his adult sexual partners and have intercourse with them while they were unconscious or semi-unconscious. The jury answered the special issues in favor of assessing the death penalty, and appellant was sentenced to death on October 21, 2004.

 

SHORE V. STATE, AP-75,049 (TEX.CR.APP. 12-12-2007)

 

For first time in more than 30 years, no Harris County death row inmates executed


December 6, 2017

For the first time since 1985, no Harris County killers will be executed by the state of Texas this year, a landmark shift for a county once known as the “capital of capital punishment.”

Despite a slight uptick in executions nationwide, Harris County’s one execution this year was cancelled after a desperate death row plot led to a last-minute stay for serial killer Anthony Shore in October. Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings spared two other inmates.

“This has been an important year in terms of death penalty litigation,” said District Attorney Kim Ogg. “I view it as a positive thing. I don’t think that being the death penalty capital of America is a selling point for Harris County.”

Nationwide, executions reached a high water mark in 1999, and Texas executions topped out at 40 the next year. But it’s Harris County courts that have kept the death chamber busiest, with 126 executions since the state resumed capital punishment in 1982.

“Harris County has always symbolized America’s death penalty because it has executed more people than any other county and — apart from the rest of Texas — more than any other state,” said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center. “It is both symbolic and emblematic of the change in capital punishment in the United States. For the first time in a generation, the nation’s largest executioner has executed no one.”

STUDY: Conservatives’ distaste for death penalty sends support to 45-year low

In part, that’s due to the long-range impact of the Lone Star State’s introduction of life without parole as a sentencing option starting in 2005. Before that, jurors on capital murder cases had to pick between death and the possibility of eventual release.

But it’s also due to the more immediate impacts of court actions this year. In October, death row inmate Duane Buck was given a life sentence after the Supreme Court granted him a new hearing in light of testimony from an expert who told the jury that Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black.

Then in November, Harris County prosecutors asked for a life sentence for Bobby Moore, months after the Supreme Court determined that Texas did not properly consider whether he was too intellectually disabled to face execution.

Falling murder rates and changing political tides have also contributed to the decline in capital punishment.

“Perhaps the most important change is that the public is substantially less supportive of the death penalty than it has been at any time since 1972,” Dunham said, citing a recent Gallup poll. The research group’s October findings showed that 55 percent of U.S. adults support capital punishment for convicted murderers, a low not seen since March 1972.

Outspoken death penalty supporter Dudley Sharp blamed the drop on the length of time between sentencing and execution.

“At this point it’s more than doubled since the 1980s, which would dramatically lower the execution rate,” Sharp said.

Even without Harris County, Texas regained its spot this year as the busiest death chamber in the nation with seven executions. Nationwide, 23 prisoners were put to death — three more than the year before — amid an otherwise downward trend.

MOORE: Prosecutors ask for life sentence for Texas death row inmate Bobby Moore

A generation ago, it was a different story.

A year before Karla Faye Tucker’s execution grabbed national headlines amid the tough-on-crime efforts of the 1990s, Harris County saw 11 killers in 1997 executed. Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the 1800s, was convicted of a brutal pickaxe slaying; she blamed the killing on drugs.

The next execution in Texas is Jan. 18, when “Tourniquet Killer” Anthony Shore is slated to die by lethal injection.

Shore’s execution on Oct. 18 was halted at the last minute after he told investigators of an abandoned confession plot with fellow death row inmate Larry Swearingen, a Montgomery County killer whose execution was also delayed.

A handful of other Harris County killers who are nearing the end of their appeals process could potentially net 2018 execution dates, including Carlos Ayestas, a Honduran man convicted in a 1995 slaying. The court heard oral arguments in the case in October and is expected to offer a decision next year.

No new death sentences, however, were imposed in Harris County this year — Ogg’s first to helm the district attorney’s office.

“I think it reflects both the new administration and the new skepticism about the death penalty and life without parole all combined with a dash of Harvey,” said local defense attorney Pat McCann. “And then of course there’s the simply bizarre continuing tale of Mr. Shore and Mr. Swearingen and the frankly inexplicable turn of events there.”

Next year could be different, however.

“When you have an historic low one year it’s not surprising to see the numbers rise slightly the following year,” Dunham said.

Death row exoneree Anthony Graves lauded local prosecutors for their role in the shifting tides.

“Kudos to the administration for being out front on criminal justice reform,” he said. “Because this is what it is, this is what it looks like.”

Convicted killer Bessman Okafor to get new sentencing next year


December 6, 2017

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A convicted killer sentenced to death row went before a judge Wednesday as he begins the process to get a new sentence

Bessman Okafor killed Alex Zaldivar, 19, and wounded two others in 2012.

He has to be re-sentenced because the state Supreme Court ordered all death sentence decisions must be unanimous.

Read: Florida Supreme Court overturns death sentence for Bessman Okafor

Rafael Zaldivar, the victim’s father, said reopening this case is painful.

“Everybody has to relive this all over again. It’s like we never moved on. It’s a never-ending story,” he said.

The judge scheduled Okafor’s new sentencing phase for November of next year.

The sentencing should take two weeks, with the first for jury selection and the other for witness testimony.

Photos: Orange County inmates on death row

Okafor will go before an Orange County judge to get an attorney and schedule a new sentencing phase.

“It’s opening up old wounds. It’s terrible for our family,” Rafael Zaldivar aid.

Okafor was sentenced to death in November 2015 for killing Alex Zaldivar and wounding two others during an Ocoee home invasion in 2012.

The three were set to testify against Okafor in a separate home invasion before the killing.

Rafael Zaldivar said he thinks about his son every day.

“He was a good and loving son. Unfortunately, he barely passed his 18th birthday,” he said.

State law has changed since the previous jury voted 11-1 to send Okafor to death row.

Jurors must now all agree on the death penalty.

Rafael Zaldivar believes that will happen.

“I’m very confident they’re going to do it again,” he said.

Months after the Supreme Court ruling, Orange and Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced she would not seek the death penalty during her tenure.

Read: Florida Supreme Court rules against Ayala on Scott’s reassigning of death penalty cases

Gov. Rick Scott then gave Okafor’s case, along with dozens of others, to State Attorney Brad King in Ocala.

“Out of the blue, we had to deal with Aramis Ayala, about her not applying the death penalty to our son’s case. So, it’s been difficult for us and we did not need that with everything going on,” Rafael Zaldivar said. “Thank God Gov. Rick Scott executed that order.”

Wrongly Imprisoned for Killing His Infant Daughter, a Father Could Go Free This Week


December 5,2017

The science on shaken baby syndrome, it turns out, was not actually sound and should not have been used for putting this father behind bars.

This story was originally published by The Chronicle of Social Change, a nonprofit news publication that covers issues affecting vulnerable children, youth and their families, and has been republished here with permission.

There was no doubt about the horror of the situation: A 4-month-old baby girl was dead.

The question facing the jurors was less clear-cut: Was the tiny girl’s death accidental, or had she been murdered by her own father?

On the afternoon of Nov. 24, 2001, in Sacramento, California, 18-year-old Zavion Johnson had called an ambulance. His baby daughter Nadia had been sleepy all day and then had stopped breathing.

Responding paramedics gave her CPR, pushed a breathing tube down her throat, and rushed her to the hospital. There, doctors discovered Nadia had terrible internal head injuries, including a fractured skull. Suspecting abuse, they called the police.

ohnson would later tell his family that earlier that morning, he had accidentally dropped Nadia while showering with her. The girl had hit her head on the back of the cast-iron bathtub but had seemed to recover. Questioned by police, the frightened teenager at first didn’t say anything about the accident. That impulse backfired horribly on him.

Nadia died two days later. On the day of her funeral, Johnson was arrested and charged with her murder.

At trial, Johnson’s lawyer told the court about the fall in the shower, and more than a dozen people testified that he was a gentle and loving father who had never mistreated the baby.

None of the prosecution’s witnesses said anything to the contrary. Instead, the deputy district attorney held up Johnson’s inconsistent statements as evidence of his guilt. The clincher, however, was the testimony of three medical experts, who all declared that the nature and pattern of Nadia’s injuries could not have been caused by a short fall, but only by violent shaking.

“This is a classic case of shaken baby syndrome,” Deputy District Attorney Chris Cosca told the jury. “We know that this little girl lost her life because of a brutally violent shaking, the violent acceleration-deceleration, the rotational injury, and the impact against a hard surface. That’s the only way it can be explained. And there is no way on earth that she suffered these injuries by virtue of a simple drop in the tub. No way.”

Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Sixteen years later, he is still in prison.

But it turns out Cosca was wrong.

In the past year, two of the key medical witnesses who supported the shaken baby diagnosis at Johnson’s trial have disavowed their testimony, and the district attorney’s office now supports Johnson’s attempt to have his conviction overturned. On Dec. 8, Johnson and his legal team are hoping to learn whether he’ll now be able to go home.

There used to something close to a medical consensus that certain patterns of injuries can only be caused by shaking. In particular, a “triad”—swelling of the brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the retinas—was believed to be solid proof that a baby had been abused in this way. The theory was put forward in the early 1970s by doctors trying to explain the deaths of infants and children with no outward signs of abuse. The diagnosis soon became accepted as scientific fact and has since been used to convict hundreds of people of harming or killing children.

But over the past 20 years, a body of new research has shown how diseases, genetic conditions and accidents—including short falls—can produce the same constellation of injuries. As a result, faith in shaken baby syndrome is unraveling.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2009 that doctors stop using the term. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post found at least 16 shaken baby syndrome murder convictions that have been overturned.

Scores of other cases that collapsed before trial because of the doubts around the “triad” as evidence. One of those cases was another Sacramento County father convicted of killing his 4-month-old son.

Dr. Norman Guthkelch, a pediatric neurosurgeon who was one of the first to advance the hypothesis behind shaken baby syndrome, recently stated that it is “high time every case of a parent in [prison] for this had his or her case reviewed” because “we went badly off the rails … on this matter.”

“Our decision … was not a difficult one,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi wrote in an email. “Had the information currently available on the topic been available then, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial could have been different.”

That doesn’t mean Johnson goes free automatically; the DA could still ask for a retrial, though that seems unlikely. Johnson is now awaiting a judge’s order to let him go. After spending nearly half his life behind bars, he is hoping to be back with his family in time for Christmas.

There is no definitive accounting of how many people are prosecuted and incarcerated on the basis of this questionable science, but the number is certainly substantial.

database maintained by the Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, last updated in 2015, includes more than 3,000 shaken baby syndrome criminal cases in the United States over the past 20 years, though not all of them are still current. The Washington Post’s investigation estimated hundreds of parents and caregivers were being prosecuted each year, and tallied 1,600 convictions since 2001. At least three such convictions have landed people on death row, according to a recent New Scientist article.

The Innocence Project, a national network of advocates for prisoners who are wrongfully convicted, is reviewing about 100 cases involving shaken baby syndrome.

Some medical experts still support the use of the diagnosis, now more commonly called “abusive head trauma,” as at least one form of evidence that can help determine whether a child’s death was accidental or the result of violence. Nobody disputes that violently shaking a baby can injure or kill; the tricky part is figuring out whether that actually happened. And once someone has been convicted of lethal child abuse, convincing a court to undertake that task again is not easy.

The collateral damage for mistaking an accident for maltreatment can extend beyond a jail term. Parents accused of contributing to a child’s death can face the removal of all children from the home.

2010 study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect notes that “little data are available about what happens to these siblings after the victim’s death.” Using records from Oklahoma’s child fatality review, the study concluded that the presence of young siblings, previous maltreatment reports and the nature of the fatal incident were predictors of removal after a death.

In an essay published in the in the American Academy of Pediatrics News, two physicians argued that the recent controversy over shaken baby syndrome should not take away from correctly diagnosing cases of child abuse.

“Like the back-and-forth over childhood immunizations, this is a false debate,” Howard Dubowitz and Errol Alden wrote in the 2015 piece. “The truth is that child abuse, including abusive head trauma, is a real problem that terribly injures and sometimes kills children.”

From his cell in a state prison in central California, Johnson struggled for years to get judges to take another look at his case, filing appeal after appeal, to no effect. Finally, in 2014, he got in touch with the Northern California Innocence Project, where attorney Paige Kaneb took the case.

“I’d been on another shaken baby case, so I’m a bit obsessed with the issue,” she said.

Over the next couple of years, she gathered materials and got in touch with the experts whose testimony had sent Johnson to prison. In early 2017, two of them came declared they could no longer stand behind that testimony.

“I was following my training and experience, in conjunction with the consensus opinions at the time, in classifying Nadia’s death as having resulted from abuse,” wrote Dr. Gregory Reiber, the forensic pathologist who performed Nadia’s autopsy, in a letter to the court. “However … because of the significant changes in the understanding of childhood head injury that have developed since trial, my opinion about the cause of Nadia’s injuries has also changed.”

Nadia’s injuries, he now concluded, “are consistent with the accidental fall in the bathtub described by Zavion Johnson.”

University of California–Davis neuropathologist Claudia Greco also walked back her testimony, writing that the damage she focused on “does not prove that Nadia Johnson was violently shaken or that her injuries were intentionally inflicted.” A third expert who didn’t testify at trial but reviewed the case later also stated that Nadia’s injuries could have been caused by the fall Johnson described.

Kaneb and her colleagues filed a petition to have his conviction struck down. On Oct. 31, the district attorney’s office threw their support behind it.

Johnson is still in occasional touch with Nadia’s mother, but she now has two other kids and a fiancée, Johnson told me via a letter from prison. He’s gotten training as an electrician while locked up and wants to do community advocacy when he gets out.

“I’m excited and nervous, but scared of failing,” Johnson writes. “All the people that have helped me, I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

He still thinks often about Nadia, whose picture he has tattooed on his chest.

“I can’t wait to visit her grave,” he writes. “I haven’t been able to do that yet.”

Attorneys seek to ensure Scott Dozier won’t be executed until 2018


December 5, 2017

A judge in Las Vegas kept a condemned prison inmate’s execution on hold Tuesday over concerns about a never-before-tried three-drug combination planned for use during Nevada‘s first execution in more than 11 years.

Clark County District Court Judge Jennifer Togliatti also said Tuesday that she wants to see written filings before she decides several other key issues.

With the Nevada Supreme Court expected to review the case and decide if Scott Raymond Dozier’s execution should go forward, Togliatti took no immediate action on a request by state and local prosecutors to reverse her Nov. 14 order halting the execution, which had been planned the same day.

State attorney general’s office lawyers say they’re drafting an appeal to the state high court of Togliatti’s order that the state Department of Corrections must remove a disputed paralytic, cisatracurium, as the third drug in a protocol using high doses of the sedative diazepam and the potent opioid fentanyl.

“You could have proceeded. He could be dead today,” the judge told attorney general solicitor Jordan Smith on Wednesday, noting that he said the state would appeal instead.

The judge added that she felt Supreme Court review of the three-drug cocktail will be important if the state wants to use it in future executions.

Togliatti canceled a Dec. 7 hearing, and made it clear that Dozier will have to wait at least several months for the execution he has said repeatedly he wants carried out.

She set a Jan. 17 hearing on a bid from the attorney general and Clark County district attorney’s offices to proceed using just diazepam and fentanyl. A medical expert witness called by federal public defenders challenging the case said those two drugs should be enough to kill the inmate.

She also is being asked to decide if federal public defenders should continue to represent Dozier in a review of the state’s proposed execution protocol.

Dozier, appearing by videoconference from Ely State Prison, did not say he wanted attorneys David Anthony and Lori Teicher to stop representing him.

Togliatti barely contained exasperation over what she termed “manipulation of the court process,” and asked the inmate if a flurry of filings in recent days meant he was asking for a “do-over” of the lengthy proceedings that began in July and required almost daily action in the run-up to the scheduled execution date.

Dozier called the months of hearings that made his case a topic of national interest “vital,” noted that they led to revisions of the protocol, and said he feels now “like I had to take a less-than-ideal option because that was the only option available.”

Dozier, 47, has been on death row since 2007 for convictions in separate murders in Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Jonathan VanBoskerck, a chief Clark County district attorney, has said that local prosecutors have an interest in seeing the penalty that Togliatti imposed 10 years ago carried out. He said Tuesday that other arguments are irrelevant since Dozier is not challenging his sentence or the process.

“The bottom line is it’s his choice,” VanBoskerck told the judge.

 

RELATED | Condemned inmate Scott Dozier complains of death penalty delay

 

Shreveport man freed from death row files suit in hopes ‘injustice never happens again’


December 5, 2017

SHREVEPORT — The lawsuit filed by former death row inmate Rodricus Crawford is about more than justice for Crawford; it’s about getting Caddo Parish officials to change their death-penalty-dealing ways, one of the now-freed man’s attorneys said during a recent interview.

“Rodricus seeks justice not only for himself and for all that he lost, but also for people who might – God forbid – face similar circumstances,” Crawford’s attorney David J. Utter, counsel with The Claiborne Firm in Savannah, Georgia, said during a Louisiana Record email interview. “This lawsuit provides parish and city officials do the right thing by examining what went wrong in Rodricus’ case, and instituting checks and balances to ensure such an injustice never happens again.”

Those checks and balances were severely lacking when a Caddo District Court jury handed down the capital punishment sentence the following year against the Shreveport man in the 2012 death of his 1-year-old son Roderius “Bobo” Lott, according to Crawford’s lawsuit.

“Mr. Crawford was convicted and sentenced to death based upon false evidence as a result of the failure of Defendants to conduct an unbiased autopsy based on professional standards of practice, and to properly train and supervise prosecutors in Caddo Parish,” said the lawsuit filed Nov. 16 in U.S. District Court for Louisiana’s Western District.

“Because of the lack of training and supervision and adherence to professional standards, the prosecution was illegally based upon both race and religion, and a complete indifference to the evidence. In addition, Mr. Crawford raises state law negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims; but for the reckless and willful conduct of defendants, Mr. Crawford would not have been prosecuted let alone convicted of capital murder.”

In his lawsuit filed on behalf of himself and his minor daughter, Crawford claims he did not receive his constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial. Named defendants in the case include Caddo Parish Coroner’s Office, Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office, Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart, former Caddo Parish District Attorney Dale Cox, Shreveport Fire Department and Coroner James Traylor. Crawford’s lawsuit asks for a jury trial.

The Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office did not respond to a Louisiana Record request for comment.

“Defendants knowingly participated in the investigation, arrest and capital prosecution driven by Caddo Parish, Louisiana’s well-known history of racism and the arbitrary application of the death penalty,” Crawford’s lawsuit said. “But for Defendants’ actions, no prosecution and conviction of Mr. Crawford would have occurred.”

Crawford was taken into custody after bruises and other injuries were discovered on the child’s body. Crawford reportedly told police his son had fallen in the bathroom and Crawford consistently maintained that he had never harmed his son.

His attorneys also consistently maintained that the jury relied on bad forensic science, and pointed to strong medical evidence that the child was suffering from pneumonia and died of sepsis.

“The conduct of the officials in this case, particularly the coroner Dr. Traylor and the prosecutor, were particularly egregious, outside the norm of a mistake or error,” Utter said. “There was intentional misconduct.”

By the time Crawford’s conviction was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court in November 2016, Caddo Parish juries were widely noted for having sentenced five people to death in six years, 38 percent of the state’s total death sentences.

The state’s highest court ordered a new trial for Crawford after finding serious issues with the case, including unconstitutional exclusion of black jurors. Louisiana prosecutors dropped charges against Crawford this past April and he was freed soon after that.

“As the result of Defendants’ unconstitutional, negligent and intentional acts, Mr. Crawford spent 4 years, 9 months, and 6 days illegally in custody,” Crawford’s lawsuit said.

Utter credited Baton Rouge lawyer Cecilia Trenticosta Kappel, his co-counsel in Crawford’s lawsuit who is active with the Capital Appeals Project and the Promise of Justice Initiative, for much of the work done to exonerate Crawford.

“Cecelia is the real hero amongst the lawyers on the case,” Utter said.

Crawford’s lawsuit is necessary to get defendants and others to do the right thing, Utter said.

“Unfortunately, many innocent people who spent time in jail or prison have to file a lawsuit before officials will do what is right,” Utter said, referring to the overturned murder conviction of Sabein Burgess in Maryland.

“Rodricus only filed because the officials responsible for this miscarriage of justice failed to apologize and offer to discuss a settlement that provided justice to him, his family and ensure something like this never happens again in Shreveport,” Utter said.