A Criminal Enterprise

Autobiography of an Execution

Posted in Uncategorized by Sophie Cull on February 12, 2010

Professor David Dow is the director of the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center and has just released a new book: “Autobiography of an Execution.”

Dow deals with a number of issues in the book – how he reconciles his passion to represent death row inmates with the reality of what his clients have done to victims and their families; how he struggles to balance his emotionally devastating and time-consuming work with his desire to be a good husband and father; and how he battles against a system of courts that overwhelmingly defeats his efforts to save his clients’ lives.

Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of Dow’s book. It’s a good example of the way Dow integrates his personal reflections into an account of his professional life. Though it is unsurprising that he cannot separate the two.

My first client was executed in 1989. Derrick Raymond was an average bad guy who did one very bad thing. He dropped out of high school in tenth grade. Two years later he enlisted in the army to learn a skill. He wound up in Vietnam. He did not talk much to me about the war. I learned about his service record ten years after he was executed, when one of his army buddies tried to track him down but got in touch with me instead. Derrick returned to Houston with a purple heart and a heroin habit that cost him five hundred dollars a week, but still without any job skills. He pumped gas until he got fired for missing too many days. Drug addiction has many consequences. He started robbing convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. After one stickup, which netted him $73 and change, he was running down the street when the security guard gave chase, shooting. One shot hit Derrick in the leg. He fell to the pavement, turned around, and fired five shots at the security guard. The guard took cover, but one shot hit a seven-year-old boy who had just finished having lunch with his mother. There might be nothing sadder than dead children. On top of that, Derrick was black and the boy was white. That’s a bad combination. The jury took less than two hours to sentence him to death.

Derrick’s lawyer fell asleep during the trial—not just once, but repeatedly. The prosecutor was appalled, but the trial judge just sat there. When a new lawyer requested a new trial, the court of appeals said no, because the judges believed Derrick would have been convicted even if his lawyer had been awake. Another court-appointed lawyer represented him for his habeas corpus appeals in state court. That lawyer missed the filing deadline. If you miss a deadline, the court will not -consider your arguments. That’s when I got appointed to represent Derrick in federal court. But the federal courts have a rule: They refuse to consider any issues that the state courts have not addressed first. The state court had said that Derrick’s lawyer was too late and had therefore dismissed his arguments. So the federal court would not hear our appeal either.

My job as a lawyer, therefore, consisted mostly of planning the disposition of Derrick’s estate. Of course, he didn’t have an estate, meaning that my job was to arrange for the disposal of his body. (He did not want to be buried in a pauper’s grave right outside the prison gates in Huntsville, Texas.) Making funeral arrangements didn’t take very long either, so my job was really just to be his counselor, to listen to him, to send him books or magazines, to be sure he would not have to face death alone. My goal is to save my clients, but that objective is beyond my control. All I can control is whether I abandon them.

I would visit Derrick once a week and talk to him by phone another day. He had a son, Dwayne, who was twelve when his dad arrived on death row and nineteen when Derrick was executed. I sat next to them as they struggled to connect. The Internet is ruining society because human relationships are inherently tactile. It’s hard to become close to a man you can’t touch, even (maybe especially) if he’s your dad. I told them I was hopeful that the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor would commute Derrick’s sentence, and I was. I am always hopeful. Nothing ever works out, but I always think that it’s going to. How else could you keep doing this work? I watched his execution because he asked me to.

At 12:37 a.m. on Thursday, March 9, 1989, Derrick was put to death in front of me, Dwayne, and two local reporters. Afterward, I hugged Dwayne, got in my truck, and drove with my dog and a case of Jack Daniel’s to my cabin on Galveston Island. I sat on the deck watching the Gulf of Mexico and drinking. The moon was bright. The mullet were jumping in schools and I could see trout in wave curls feeding. I smelled the rain. I left the front door open so the dog could go outside when she needed to and dumped a week’s worth of food in her bowl. At dawn the sky blackened and the storm rolled in. I made sure my lounge chair was under the eave then closed my eyes and slept. When I’d wake up to use the toilet, I’d drink a shot of whiskey and chase it with a pint of water. I intended not to get dehydrated. Other than the birds and the surf, the only sound I heard was the thump of newspapers landing on driveways every morning. On Monday, I opened four papers, to figure out what day it was. I ran for an hour on the beach with the dog and swam for thirty minutes in the surf while the dog watched. Walking back to the cabin for a shower I said to her, Sorry for being a terrible master. She picked up a piece of driftwood and whipped her head back and forth.

We had lunch sitting on the deck at Cafe Max-a-Burger. I ordered four hamburgers, a basket of onion rings, and a lemonade. The dog ate her two burgers so fast that I gave her one of mine. When I paid the bill the cashier said, That’s one lucky dog.

I said, Thanks for saying so, but you have it backwards. That dog is by far my best quality.

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; Date: February 2010

You can hear an interview with David Dow about the book here (see Feb 9):

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/

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Do People Actually Care If the State Executes Innocent Defendants?

Posted in Uncategorized by Bidish J. Sarma on November 29, 2009

In October, Gallup released figures regarding its most recent poll on the death penalty.  The report is available on the Death Penalty Information Center website here.

The most cited figures from Gallup reflect two continuing trends: (1) “65% of Americans continue to support the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder (show[ing] little change over the last six years);” and (2) when posed with life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty for convicted murderers, “47% said they preferred the death penalty (48% favored life imprisonment).”  While these numbers are obviously important to people who care about the death penalty, I took a particular interest in a somewhat surprising and perverse related Gallup finding.

According to the Poll, “59% of Americans agree[] that within the last five years, ‘a person has been executed under the death penalty who was, in fact, innocent of the crime he or she was charged with.’”  As the report points out:

However, for many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.

In August, the Supreme Court of the United States granted an original writ for habeas corpus and ordered a District Court to hold an evidentiary hearing in Troy Davis’s innocence case.  Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas dissented from the order.  In his dissent, Scalia suggested that the U.S. Constitution may not actually prohibit the execution of an innocent individual:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

Although his statement about the Court’s precedent is legally accurate, that Scalia might not find the execution of an innocent person constitutionally objectionable seemed to shock the consciousness of many members of the legal community (including Alan Dershowitz, Dahlia Lithwick, and other observers).

But, in this instance, the views of those offended in the legal profession may not accurately reflect the views of people in society at large.  Although I thought Scalia’s comments would generate more public outrage on a wide scale, people seemed relatively unmoved.  Could it really be that people who believe that the State executes innocent people support the death penalty nonetheless?  How could one simultaneously hold both beliefs?

Whatever the explanation, the Gallup numbers present anti-death penalty advocates with a serious dilemma.  Many anti-death penalty folks believed that a public understanding that the system fails to ensure that people who are executed were actually guilty of the crime for which they have been convicted would lead to a decline in support for capital punishment.  The Gallup numbers undercut the force of this assumption.  Indeed, the controversy surrounding Texas’s execution of Cameron Todd Willingham – though serious – has not yet generated a societal backlash against the death penalty.  The numbers also partly rebut the Marshall Hypothesis.  Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall speculated that support for the death penalty would decline as people came to understand how the system breaks down at numerous points in the process.  The Gallup poll suggests that he may have been too hopeful.

All things considered, the recent Gallup poll may leave one to wonder what can be done… As always, I look for suggestions…

More Scrutiny Needed in Texas, Where Death Penalty Continues to Run Rampant

Posted in Cases, News by Bidish J. Sarma on November 6, 2009

Sorry for the radio silence the past few weeks.  Things have ramped up at work for all of the bloggers here, but we hope to reconnect with the blog more fully very soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to bring attention to this AlterNet piece.  Most importantly, it points out something about the Willingham saga worth repeating here:

Perry’s role in this continuing injustice should be cause for a national uproar at least as big as the one that attended Mark Sanford’s dalliance in Argentina or Elliot Spitzer’s patronage of prostitutes. What could be more sordid than hushing up an illegitimate state-sanctioned killing? What more obvious abuse of power exists? Yet one can easily read the country’s major papers and faithfully watch TV news and barely hear a word about what’s happening in Texas.

Why this is not an issue of national importance is a question that frustrates me every day.  But, the death machine keeps working in Texas.  Our friend at StandDown notes that:

Texas carried out its 20th execution of 2009, tonight in Huntsville.  It was the state’s 443rd execution since 1982.  Texas has far and away the most active death chamber in America, accounting for more than 37% of the nation’s post-Furman executions.  To date, there have been 43 executions in the nation this year; 1,179 since 1977.

For more on the Willingham/Perry issue, check out our prior post here.

The Governor of Texas, the Execution of an Innocent Man, and the Incomplete Search for Public Accountability

Posted in News by Bidish J. Sarma on October 2, 2009

It is relatively rare for an American politician seeking office or re-election in a State that has retained the death penalty to make a strong statement against capital punishment.  (Ohio’s Jennifer Brunner is a refreshing exception).  However, one might expect a State’s leader to respond to compelling evidence that his government executed an innocent man with measured concern and a desire to uncover the truth.  Not in Texas.

Nearly one month ago, the New Yorker published David Grann’s riveting and alarming piece that suggests that Texas wrongfully executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004.  Despite the compelling expert evidence available in 2004 that indicated Mr. Willingham was convicted on the basis of ‘junk science,’ Texas moved brazenly forward with his execution.  After Grann’s article rocked the nation in September, the Texas Forensic Science Commission prepared to make an official state-sponsored inquiry into Willingham’s conviction and the testimony that led to his death by lethal injection.  Yet, two days before the inquiry was set to begin, Texas Governor Rick Perry sabotaged the effort.  According to this Dallas Morning News article, “The hearing of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, scheduled for Friday in Irving, was abruptly canceled by the new chairman the governor chose, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley. He is considered one of the most conservative, hard-line prosecutors in Texas.”

Though Perry defends his decision to appoint Bradley and railroad the commission as nothing more than a “typical” use of his appointment power and executive prerogative, nobody is buying his line.  There is no such thing as ‘business as usual’ when the State uses its coercive power to execute an innocent man.

For anti-death penalty activists, Perry’s actions represent a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, Perry has exploded the long-held hope that a State would officially recognize that it had mistakenly executed someone who was actually innocent.  On the other hand, Perry has only drawn more attention to the issue.  I find myself a little surprised he didn’t let the hearings proceed as scheduled and then strong-arm the Commission’s members (behind closed doors) to publish an equivocal report that did not firmly accept responsibility for wrongdoing.  Instead, Perry has made a naked attempt to undermine the Commission’s work.  His move seems to emanate from a deep fear that what most of us think is true: Cameron Todd Willingham was an innocent man.

Maybe anti-death penalty advocates have been unrealistic to hope that a State would acknowledge such a tragic mistake.  Maybe we already have all the evidence we need.  Who really needs Rick Perry’s stamp of disapproval, after all?

But, I wonder if other government officials can take action in Texas.  Can the legislature rebuke Perry?  Or, more importantly, can the legislature create a non-executive commission to undertake the task originally charged to the Texas Forensic Science Commission?  If that is too much to hope for, perhaps the judiciary should step in.  Judges and Justices concerned with the fair operation and administration of the Texas criminal justice system are not powerless people.  Why can’t the judiciary establish its own commission to investigate whether any innocent individuals have been executed in Texas?  The judicial branch is certainly empowered to ensure that it is working effectively, efficiently, and, above all, justly.  The appearance of impropriety and injustice can sap the judiciary of its public legitimacy, and undermine people’s faith in the criminal justice system.  The judiciary has an obligation to protect itself.

As advocates, we need not focus only on the Governor, deplorable as his actions may be.  Let us hold the entire government responsible, until someone steps up.  Inaction here is as contemptible as Perry’s bad action.  Once again, who needs Rick Perry?

Devastating Drunk Driving Story Touches Upon Important Sentencing Questions

Posted in Uncategorized by Robert Smith on September 13, 2009

The Austin Statesman leads with this article:  “10 years after accident that disfigured her, Jacqui Saburido says she’s trying to find peace: The life she wants remains out of reach; accepting the life she has is now her goal.”

I’m still processing, and hope to write more later, but the article is a must read for anyone thinking about sentencing issues—especially those that relate to drunk driving (not because the article discusses such issues explictly, but because the article captures the complexity of responding to drunk drivers and their victims).

Here is the backdrop:

Ten years ago, Saburido was a beautiful, 20-year-old woman from a wealthy family, studying English in Austin and taking a break from engineering classes at a Caracas university. On the night of Sept. 19, 1999, she went to a party on Lake Travis. She stayed late, dancing merengue and salsa, and about 4 a.m. she and three friends caught a ride with a young Russian student back into the city.

At the same time, Reggie Stephey, an 18-year-old wide receiver at Lake Travis High School, was driving home from another party in Austin. He had been drinking.

On a curve along RM 2222, Stephey’s 1996 Yukon SUV plowed into the car carrying Saburido and her friends. The crash killed the driver, Natalia Chyptchak Bennett, and Laura Guerrero, a 20-year-old University of Texas student from Colombia. Two other passengers were pulled from the wrecked car as it burst into flames.

Saburido, trapped in the front passenger seat, burned for nearly a minute before paramedics could put out the fire. Horrific burns covered nearly her entire body, except for the bottom of her legs and feet.

Reggie spent seven years in prison for a horrible decision that he made as a teenager. In some real sense, this is a waste. The state pays to warehouse a kid who made a bad decision with deadly consequences, but who seemingly had the ability to contribute to society. Now, a decade behind and an ex felon ….

On the other hand, Jacqui will in all liklihood struggle (mentally and physically) for the rest of her life. So Reggie did the time for his crime, but he moves on (though I’m not doubting that he will carry the burden) as Jacqui continues to suffer. The sense that you can pay for your crime with a fixed term doesn’t add up here.

The story also highlights that Jacqui forgave Reggie, and that the two have worked together on anti-drunk driving campagins, but that she has mixed feelings about his enrollment at UT. He studies, she feels stagnant. This is a reminder that forgiveness is an act that varies in degree and fluctuates over time.  And a reminder that we should be thoughtful about its role in criminal sentencing.

One response is to severely ratchet up drunk driving sentences. But I am very skeptical that this is the right answer. This story emphasizes how the law is unable to make the victim whole and can simulataneously both over-sentence and under-sentence the offender. I think lawmakers, and those who think about public policy, would be wise to meet with people like Jacqui and Reggie when thinking through how drunk driving sentences should operate.

One more thing. Jacqui’s family is wealthy. But what about those who are not? 9/11 victims family fund (for example) and basic public assistance are not equal support schemes. Of course, victim’s compensation (and support) schemes vary widely. But it seems to me that one possible societal response to fill the gap left where our criminal laws inevitably fail, is to use scarce resources to beef up assistance (monetary, emotional, community support) and not to dramatically increase prison sentences. This is not to say that we should be soft on drunk driving, just that we should understand the complexity, and finds ways to respond to drunk drivers that supplement for part (or in some cases all) of prison sentences and attempt to address the gap left open when a prison sentence ends but the impact of the offense does not.