Month: July 2013

Judge fires 34-year court veteran for helping man wrongfully convicted of rape


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas City man freed from prison three decades after being wrongfully convicted of rape considers Sharon Snyder his “angel” for giving him a public document that showed him how to properly seek DNA tests. A Jackson County Circuit judge considers the 34-year court employee an insubordinate for offering legal advice and being too chatty about courthouse matters.

Sharon Snyder, a 70-year-old great-grandmother who was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire, sees herself somewhere in the middle and insists she would provide the same help if she had a chance to do it again.

Robert Nelson, 49, was convicted in 1984 of a Kansas City rape that he insisted he didn’t commit and sentenced to 50 years for forcible rape, five years for forcible sodomy and 15 years for first-degree robbery. The judge ordered the sentence to start after he finished serving time for robbery convictions in two unrelated cases prior to the rape conviction.

Those sentences ended in 2006.

In August 2009, Nelson filed a motion seeking DNA testing that had not been available at his trial 25 years earlier, but Jackson County Circuit Judge David Byrn denied the request. Two years later Nelson asked the judge to reconsider, but again Byrn rejected the motion because it fell short of what was required under the statute Nelson had cited.

After the second motion failed in late October 2011, Snyder gave Nelson’s sister, Sea Dunnell, a copy of a motion filed in a different case in which the judge sustained a DNA request.

Nelson used that motion — a public document Dunnell could have gotten if she had known its significance and where to find it — as a guide for a motion he filed Feb. 22, 2012, again seeking DNA testing. That August, Byrn sustained the motion, found Nelson to be indigent and appointed Laura O’Sullivan, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, to represent him.

The Kansas City Police Department’s crime lab concluded last month that DNA tests excluded Nelson as the source of evidence recovered from the 1983 rape scene and he was freed June 12.

“She gave me a lot of hope,” Nelson said of Snyder. “She and my sister gave me strength to go on and keep trying. I call her my angel. She says she’s not, but she truly is.”

Five days after Nelson was released, Court Administrator Jeffrey Eisenbeis took Snyder into Byrn’s office near closing time and told her the prosecutor and defense attorney “had a problem” with her involvement in the case. She was suspended without pay, ordered to stay out of the courthouse unless she had permission to be there and scheduled to meet with a human resources investigator June 20.

“At first I didn’t know if my pension was going to be intact, and all I could do was curl up in a fetal position and cry,” said Snyder, who had been planning to retire in March. She later found out her pension would be just fine.

Byrn fired her June 27, telling her she had violated several court rules by providing assistance to Nelson and talking about aspects of the case, even while under seal, to attorneys not involved in the matter.

The judge’s dismissal letter cites numerous recorded phone conversations between Dunnell and Nelson in which they discussed Snyder’s efforts, including the document she provided that Nelson used in his successful DNA motion.

“The document you chose was, in effect, your recommendation for a Motion for DNA testing that would likely be successful in this Division,” Byrn wrote. “But it was clearly improper and a violation of Canon Seven … which warns against the risk of offering an opinion or suggested course of action.”

Court spokeswoman Valerie Hartman said Byrn and other court officials wouldn’t comment on the story for a number of legal and ethical reasons, in addition to it being a personnel matter. Nelson’s attorney, O’Sullivan, also declined to comment.

“I lent an ear to his sister, and maybe I did wrong,” Snyder said. “But if it was my brother, I would go to every resource I could possibly find.

“I think I might have been the answer to his prayers.”

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UPDATE – FELDMAN ASKS HIGH COURT TO SPARE HIS LIFE


By ExecutionWatch.org
HUNTSVILLE, Texas – Prison workers prepared today for the execution of Douglas Feldman even as he filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court to call it off.

A spokesman for the high court confirmed that it had received the petition. The court’s response could come at any time before Feldman’s 6 p.m. execution hour.

Unless he wins a stay, Execution Watch will go on the air at 6 p.m. Central Time, providing live coverage and commentary on the state killing.

Execution Watch may be heard worldwide at http://executionwatch.org/ > Listen and in the Houston area at KPFT FM 90.1.

Texas: Road rage killer of Marshfield man set for execution Wednesday – Douglas Feldman


15 years after killing a Marshfield man, Douglas Feldman is slated to be put to death by the state of Texas.

His execution has been set for Wednesday evening in Huntsville, Texas.

The 55-year-old Feldman was convicted in the 1999 Dallas-area shootings of Robert Stephen Everett, 36, of Marshfield, and Nicolas A. Velasquez, 62, of Irving, Texas.

Everett, 36, a part-time truck driver and minister, was killed in a drive-by shooting shortly before midnight on Aug. 24, 1998, while driving his tractor-trailer rig through Plano, Texas. He was hauling a shipment of toys.

Everett was on U.S. 75 when a motorcyclist pulled alongside his rig and fired at least 12 shots from a handgun, Plano police said. Everett was hit several times before he managed to stop his truck on the highway. He died a short time later.

Less than 40 minutes later, 10 miles away in Dallas, Exxon truck driver Nicolas A. Velasquez, 62, of Irving, Texas, was shot several times while unloading fuel at a service station.

Family members said Everett, a divorced father of 2, had aspirations to become a traveling evangelist. 2 well-worn Bibles were found in his truck, they said. The Webster County native had worked for RBX Trucking only a few months.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials declined to make Feldman available to reporters as his death date approached after one media session never even got underway because he ripped the telephone from the prison visiting cage.

It’s among 136 disciplinary cases Feldman’s has accumulated while on death row.

Feldman faces lethal injection.

Amnesty International Urges Thorough, Impartial Investigation in Prisoner’s Death in California


Amnesty International USA issued the following comments today from Thenjiwe McHarris, senior campaigner in the U.S. program, in response to the death of a prisoner at the Corcoran State Prison in California:

“The state of California must immediately order a thorough, impartial investigation into the death of prisoner Billy Sell and make the results public” said McHarris. “This case underscores our concerns at treatment of and conditions for prisoners in CA SHUs, whether or not they are participating in the hunger strike. It is imperative that the public know the facts surrounding this death – whether they reveal that Sell was refusing food as part of the hunger strike, and requested medical attention in the days before he died, as prisoners advocates have alleged, or was a suicide, as prison authorities attest and the country coroner ruled. The state is obligated to find the truth in this case and make the facts public. There must be no uncertainty or dispute over how Billy Sell died.”

“Conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement in California are an affront to human rights and must end. No human being should be held under the deplorable conditions we have witnessed in California prisons for prolonged periods, even decades – this amounts to cruel, inhumane and degrading conditions.”

The hunger strike by prisoners in solitary confinement in California entered its 23rd day on Tuesday, with the state reporting about 600 prisoners refusing food. The strike had involved 30,000 prisoners at the start. Amnesty International visited California’s prison isolation units in November 2011 and issued a highly critical report, “The Edge of Endurance“ the following year.

The severe negative psychological consequences of isolation are such that suicides occur more frequently in isolation units than in the general prison population. In California, over a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the average number of prison suicides was 34 a year, with 42 percent occurring in administrative segregation or isolation units.

On July 5, in advance of the hunger strike, Amnesty International issued a full statement calling on California authorities to respond to the planned strike by enacting reforms. Read the statement.

Read Amnesty International’s 2012 report, “The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units“

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Florida’s Narrow Interpretation of Mental Competency Leads to New Date


 

Florida has set an August 5 execution date for John Ferguson, a death row inmate who has suffered from severe mental illness for more than four decades. As far back as 1965, Ferguson was found to experience visual hallucinations. He was sent to mental institutions and was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, delusional, and aggressive. In 1975, a mental health doctor described Ferguson as “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.” Nevertheless, he was released less than a year later. Ferguson believes he is the “Prince of God” and is being executed so can save the world. Ferguson’s attorneys recently filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that Florida courts have applied the wrong standard for mental competency, ignoring the current interpretation of this issue by the High Court, which requires that an inmate have a rational understanding of why he is being executed. An earlier editorial in the Tampa Bay Times opposing Ferguson’s execution, agreed, “Florida is embracing an interpretation of competency for execution so pinched that it would virtually extinguish limits on executing the severely mentally ill. The state says Ferguson is aware that he is being put to death and that he committed murder, and is therefore competent to be executed.”

(“Scott Sets New Date For Executing Mass Killer,” Associated Press, July 24, 2013; Editorial Board, “State shouldn’t execute severely mentally ill killer,” Tampa Bay Times, November 2012; Read Ferguson’s petition to U.S. Supreme Court). See American Bar Association’s amicus brief on behalf of Ferguson.

OHIO: Ohio gov.: No clemency despite DA’s plea


Ohio Gov. John Kasich has rejected clemency for a condemned Cleveland killer despite a prosecutor’s rare plea to commute his sentence to life without parole.

Kasich announced his decision Wednesday not to grant mercy to death row inmate Billy Slagle in his neighbor’s 1987 stabbing death.

Attorneys for the 44-year-old Slagle had long argued he deserved clemency because he was just 18 at the time of the slaying and already a drug addict and alcoholic with a chaotic upbringing.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty had changed his office’s approach to capital punishment and says he doubts it could obtain a death sentence for Slagle under today’s laws.

Friends of victim Mari Anne Pope say sparing Slagle would have dishonored the jury’s sentence.

(source: Associated Press)

COLORADO: Holmes judge upholds law on ‘indifference’ murder


The judge in the Colorado theater shootings has upheld the constitutionality of one of the laws used to charge James Holmes with murder.

The judge on Friday rejected a request by defense lawyers to overturn the law making it a crime to commit murder with extreme indifference.

Holmes is accused of killing 12 and injuring 70 at an Aurora movie theater in July 2012.

He’s charged with 12 counts of murder with extreme indifference and 12 counts of murder with deliberation.

His attorneys argued the extreme indifference statute is vague and, therefore, unconstitutional. The judge disagreed.

Holmes is also charged with multiple counts of attempted murder. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

His trial is scheduled to begin in February.

(source: Associated Press)

Former San Quentin Warden Woodford says death penalty almost dead


To hear former San Quentin State Prison Warden Jeanne Woodford tell it, the death penalty is all but dead in California.

“The political consensus is that California’s death penalty is on its way out,” she told an audience of about 70 people Saturday in the auditorium at the Redwoods in Mill Valley. “The question remains when and how it will go.”

The 61-year-old Woodford, who oversaw four executions during her five-year stint as warden of San Quentin, was a prominent leader in last year’s narrowly defeated Proposition 34 campaign to replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole.

On the eve of the election, a Field Poll showed the Prop. 34 initiative in the lead. It ended up losing 48 percent to 52 percent, a margin of just 500,000 votes.

She pointed out that public opinion has changed drastically since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, when 70 percent of California voters favored it. Since then, it has cost the state $4 billion to administer.

“If 250,001 voters had changed their minds and voted yes, we would have won and no longer have the death penalty in this state,” she said, adding, “We did succeed in forever changing the landscape on this issue in this state. With 48 percent of voters supporting repeal, we have shown that the state is now evenly divided on the death penalty. We have fundamentally changed the conversation.”

In opposing the death penalty, Woodford, who rose through the ranks to become the director of the entire California prison system, says she knows from first hand experience that it wastes money, does not make law-abiding citizens any safer and risks executing death row inmates who may have been wrongfully convicted and are innocent. (Marin Independent Journal)

Obese former death rown inmate dies in Ohio -Ronald Post


CLEVELAND (Reuters) – A convicted Ohio killer who sought to be spared the death penalty because he was obese died Thursday at a Columbus hospital of natural causes, an Ohio prison spokeswoman said.

Ronald Post, 53, who weighed more than 450 pounds, had been scheduled to be executed by lethal injection last January for the aggravated murder in 1983 of motel desk clerk Helen Vantz during a robbery.

The execution was commuted to life in prison by Ohio Governor John Kasich last December, following a recommendation by a parole board panel. The panel had found numerous omissions, missed opportunities and questionable decisions by defense attorneys.

Post had previously appealed unsuccessfully to stop his execution on grounds his extreme weight created a substantial risk that he would have a “torturous and lingering death” if executed by lethal injection.

Post died of undisclosed causes Thursday morning at Franklin Medical Center, Ricky Seyfang, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said on Friday. Seyfang said Post’s death was “medically expected.”

Post had been sentenced to death by a three-judge panel in 1985 for Vantz’s murder after entering a plea of no-contest.

Post’s lawyers argued that previous counsel should not have advised him to enter a no contest plea without assurances he would not face the death penalty.

Post told the clemency board he never confessed to killing Vantz, as prosecutors portrayed, and had only confessed to driving a man who he said committed the crime to the motel and waiting in a vehicle outside. (Reuters)

U.S. assures Russia no death penalty for Snowden


Eric Holder tells his Russian counter party Snowden would be tried in a civilian court.

Attorney General Eric Holder has appealed to Russia to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowed by assuring Moscow that the U.S. would try him in a civilian court, would not seek the death penalty and would not torture him.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, again ruled out extradition for the 30-year-old former defense contractor, RT.com reports.

The promises came in a letter from Holder to his Russian counterpart, Justice Minister Vladimirovich Konovalov.

“The charges he faces do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional death penalty-eligible crimes,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a letter to Russian Minister of Justice Vladimirovich Konovalov.

In addition, Holder said that would be tried in a civilian court and “would not be tortured.”

In the past, Russia has cited the prospect of capital punishment as a factor in its decision not to turn Snowden over to the U.S.

“We believe that these assurances eliminate these asserted grounds for Mr.Snowden’s claim that he should be treated as a refugee or granted asylum, temporary or otherwise,” Holder wrote.

A copy of the letter was released by the Justice Department on Friday.

The letter came amid discussions about the Snowden case between FBI director Robert Mueller and FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov, RT.com reported..

Despite the flurry of activity, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said Friday that “Russia has never extradited anyone, and will not extradite,” according to RT.com.

The spokesman also said he is certain that the former defense contractor, who has applied for asylum in Russia, will stop harming Washington with leaks or new revelations about the National Security Agency if allowed to stay in Russia

Peskov said that if Snowden, through his actions, should undermine Moscow’s ties with Washington, “the head of state (Putin) has expressed strong determination not to allow this.”

Snowden argued in his application for temporary asylum in Russia that he “he faces persecution by the U.S. government and he fears for his life and safety,”according to his lawyer Anatoly Kucherena. (USA Today)