Texas Schedules One Execution, Tries To Forget Another

Hank Skinner, who resides on death row in Texas, won a case at the U.S. Supreme Court recently.  He got the right to sue, in federal court, for access to DNA evidence he says would exonerate him.  Officials in Gray County, Texas, are in possession of the evidence in question (including vaginal swabs, fingernail scrapings, hairs, and two bloody knives), but have refused to either test it or hand it over for testing.

So, a civil case is now pending in the Northern District of Texas, Amarillo Division.  But that hasn’t stopped Texas from going ahead and setting an execution date anyway.  Skinner is now scheduled to die on November 9.  His lawyers believe the date has been set as “an effort to put pressure on the federal court to act quickly.”

Why not just let the untested evidence be examined?

Perhaps for the same reason the Texas Attorney General recently ruled that the Texas Forensic Science Commission can’t look at any evidence collected before September 2005.  The Commission had been investigating the bogus fire science used to facilitate the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, which took place in 2004.

Apparently, the best way to avoid errors or mistakes (or worse) in Texas justice is to not look for them.

Experts Exclude Man As Killer, Execution Set Anyway

UPDATE: Larry Swearingen has been given a stay of execution! His case has been sent back to the trial court “to review and resolve the claims made” in a couple of habeas corpus applications.  In this case, the main claim raised is one of “actual innocence”.  Four of the court’s judges would have voted to dismiss Swearingen’s applications and allow the August 18 execution to proceed.

I have written a few times about the weird relationship between Texas and Science.  As those of you who watch any of the 10,000 CSI programs know, science is playing an increasingly central role in our criminal justice system.  But from proposing scent lineups, to carrying out executions based on discredited fire forensics, to refusing to test available DNA evidence, to acting on tips from psychics, Texas seems routinely to be behind the curve.

Now, Texas has set August 18 as the execution date for Larry Swearingen.  Swearingen was sentenced to death for the murder of Melissa Trotter, but he had been in jail for 23 days when the body of the victim was found.  Five separate forensic experts, including four current or former Chief Medical Examiners from Texas, have determined that Melissa Trotter died very close to the date her body was found.  That is, the crime occurred when Larry Swearingen was in jail.  This contradicts the trial testimony of Dr. Joye Carter who had said the death occurred 25 days prior to the body’s discovery.  But she herself has recanted that testimony and now agrees with the other forensic experts.

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Will Texas Ignore Victim's Rights?

Update: Despite the efforts of Rais and Amnesty activists to stay the execution of Mark Stroman, he was executed last night by the state of Texas. But there is more work to be done in the fight against the death penalty. Learn more and take action on our website.

Mark Stroman is set to be executed in Texas on July 20, despite the best of efforts of his one surviving victim to try to spare his life.  As readers of this blog will know, Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim from Bangladesh, was shot and left for dead during Stroman’s series of attacks on Middle Eastern looking men after September 11, 2001. Bhuiyan’s efforts to halt the execution now include a lawsuit against the Lone Star State alleging that his rights as a victim have been violated.

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Who Cares About Treaty Obligations? Not Texas.

Can the United States find a way to respect a simple treaty obligation?  One of such obvious importance for protecting Americans traveling abroad?  We’ll find out within a week.

Under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, foreign nationals who are arrested while abroad have the right to contact their consulate “without delay” for legal assistance. However, Texas authorities never informed Mexican national Humberto Leal of this right.

Now, the case of Humberto Leal, due to be executed on July 7 for the 1994 murder of a 16-year-old girl in San Antonio, has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Government of Mexico has filed an amicus brief in support of Leal’s Supreme Court petition, noting that the United States has continued to be a “forceful advocate” for Americans detained in Mexico, and urging the U.S. government to uphold its end of the treaty.

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Live Facebook Chat With 9/11 Hate-Crime Victim On The Death Penalty

Rais Bhuiyan

Update: Thanks to everyone who participated in our Facebook chat! If you weren’t able to make it, the transcript of the chat is now available.

Just ten days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree in Dallas, Texas targeting anyone who appeared to be Middle Eastern.

In the end, two men were left dead and a third man named Rais Bhuiyan would live to fight back.

For one of the two murders, the state of Texas sentenced Stroman to death. His execution date is next month on July 20.

But there’s a catch: Rais is now fighting to save the life of Mark Stroman — the man who tried to kill him. Rais’ message:

“I strongly believe executing him is not a solution. We will just simply lose a human life without dealing with the root cause, which is hate…”

Rais Bhuiyan will be joining us on Facebook to answer your questions on his mission to stop the cycle of killing.

Brian Evans, Amnesty’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaigner will also be participating to answer your questions about capital punishment in the US and beyond.

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Illegal Execution Of Mexican National Pending In Texas

Humberto Leal faces execution on July 7 in Texas for the 1994 murder of a 16-year-old girl in San Antonio.  As a Mexican national, Leal was supposed to be informed that he could contact his diplomatic representatives for legal assistance, but he was never told this.

The Vienna Convention of Consular Relations (VCCR) is a treaty that requires any foreign national arrested outside their own country to be notified of their right to contact their consulate or embassy for help.  This applies to US citizens traveling in Mexico (or anywhere else) just as much as to Mexican citizens inside the USA.  Obviously for Americans abroad this is a pretty important protection. Unfortunately, US authorities don’t always respect this right when arresting non-US citizens; and some, like Leal, have ended up on death row.

Leal was one of 51 Mexican nationals on US death rows who challenged this pattern of neglect in the US, and in 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in Mexico’s favor.  Executing Humberto Leal now would be a flagrant violation of international law.

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9-11, The Death Penalty, And Breaking The Cycle Of Violence

While states like Georgia have worked tirelessly to switch drugs so they can resume killing their prisoners, and while many celebrate the “justice” they see in the killing of Osama bin Laden, something radically different is happening in – of all places – Dallas, Texas.

Shortly after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, a man named Mark Stroman roamed the Dallas area committing a series of hate crimes that in his mind constituted retaliation. He murdered two men he thought were Middle Eastern (one was a Hindu from India the other a Muslim from Pakistan) and attempted to kill a third, a Muslim from Bangladesh named Rais Bhuiyan.

For the two murders, the state of Texas sentenced him to death, and he is now scheduled to be executed on July 20. Yet more killing. But Rais Bhuiyan (who is blind in his right eye because of the shot that was meant to kill him) is opposed to the execution and is campaigning to stop it. He has the support of the Dallas Morning News which wrote in its Sunday editorial:

We wish to give that campaign voice. It delivers a potent message to a nation still torn by the loss of 9/11. It resists the cycle of revenge that doesn’t stop until someone has the courage to say enough.

As Bhuiyan himself said a few days earlier: “… hate doesn’t bring any good solution to people. At some point we have to break the cycle of violence. It brings more disaster.”

Exactly. Enough.

Anthony Graves, Troy Davis and Innocence

Anthony Graves spent 12 years on death row in Texas for a crime he didn't commit.

The story of Anthony Graves illustrates how a particularly heinous crime can lead to an emotional response and a tunnel-visioned investigation, and how the result can be that someone ends up on death row based on nothing more than flimsy physical evidence (later discredited) and dubious witness testimony (later recanted).

Anthony Graves, it turns out, was innocent, and was set free from Texas death row late last year.  CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery did a good job of telling the story this weekend, and you can watch it below.

Troy Davis, who was also sentenced to death despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, and who remains on death row in Georgia despite recantations from most of the witnesses who testified against him, has so far been unable to exonerate himself.

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Denmark Company Supplies Major U.S. Executioners

“It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” – Hamlet

The European nation of Denmark is about to embark on executions in a big way.  Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck has sold pentobarbital to four of the most prolific executing states in the U.S.: Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.  These states already have, and will continue to use Lundbeck’s product for executions.  Pentobarbital is emerging as the replacement for sodium thiopental, which was once the drug used in all lethal injections in the U.S., but now has become increasingly hard to get.

Campaigners in Europe have attempted to convince Lundbeck to prevent the drug from winding up in U.S. execution facilities.  Lundbeck has objected, verbally, to the use of its product in executions, telling the New York TimesThis is fully against what we stand for.  We are in the business of improving people’s lives.” But so far Lundbeck has not taken any effective action.

Campaigns to limit exports of sodium thiopental, the drug pentobarbital is replacing, have been successful, albeit after several states already acquired a supply (one state, Georgia, has had its supply confiscated by the DEA).   The UK has banned the drug’s export to the U.S. for executions, and an Italian factory ceased production of the drug entirely.  Governments in Austria and Germany have preemptively warned pharmaceutical companies in their respective countries not to allow sodium thiopental to be exported to the U.S. for executions.

It remains to be seen if Denmark and Lundbeck will ultimately restrict the export of pentobarbital.

Sodium thiopental is a general anesthetic  used in surgical procedures.  Pentobarbital is used for controlling epilepsy.  Life-saving, life-improving drugs, in both cases.  Restricting their availability will do harm to the quality of legitimate health care in the U.S.

I’ve written before about the degrading nature of the death penalty; about how deliberately killing human beings violates our most basic values and thus degrades and damages everyone involved.  That ordinary Americans in need of medical care might suffer because some states insist on killing prisoners is yet more evidence of that.

Jurors, Family Members Oppose Texas Execution

The family of Timothy Adams does not want the state of Texas to execute him on February 22.  That is not too surprising, but is a good reminder that those on death row have families who love them, and that the loss of a loved one through the instrument of state killing can be every bit as painful as the loss of a loved one to murder. 

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

The family of Timothy Adams knows this because they are also the family of the victim.  Timothy Adams shot and killed his 19-month-old son, TJ Adams, during a standoff with Houston police 9 years ago.  As heinous the killing of little TJ was, the loss of another family member, this time to execution, will only amplify the pain caused by this crime.

Timothy Adams’ father (and TJ’s grandfather):

“Losing TJ was especially hard for me… However, I cannot imagine losing my son to this tragedy as well… I do not know what I will do if we lose Tim.”

Timothy Adams’ brother (TJ’s uncle):

“It’s hard to explain why Tim did what he did… It was totally out of character… I still have a strong relationship with him. I often break down when I leave the prison after our visits. I cannot imagine losing my brother.”

Timothy Adams’ sister (TJ’s aunt):

“It’s going to affect my family in a bad way if he is executed. I would never wish this on anyone, even my worst enemy… This would just be another huge loss to our family.”

Three jurors from the original trial are also seeking to stop this execution, saying that they felt pressured by other jurors into voting for a death sentence they didn’t believe in.  

One juror said she changed her vote from life to death under pressure, and “carried the guilt around for years knowing that I sentenced Adams, a man who had done wrong but who was otherwise a good, religious, and hard-working person, to death”; while another said: “Adams was so remorseful during the trial, and I could tell that he was hurting a lot.”

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles can recommend that Texas Governor Rick Perry grant clemency in this case, and commute Timothy Adams’ death sentence to life without parole. Please join these jurors and family members in calling for clemency in this case.