Nov. 20

TEXAS:   High court oversight is vital in death cases

Once again, the U.S. Supreme Court has rebuked the criminal justice system
in Texas, which refuses to reform the way the death penalty is recklessly

Last week, an overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court overturned the
death sentence of LaRoyce L. Smith, who was convicted of murdering a
co-worker at a Taco Bell restaurant in Dallas. Smith was 19 at the time of
the murder. He had an IQ of 78 and had reached the ninth grade in special
education classes.

A state court in Texas sentenced him to death under a procedure that the
Supreme Court had previously ruled unconstitutional. In 1989, the Supreme
Court ruled that jurors had to be given the chance to consider mitigating
factors such as, in this case, Smith's low IQ and troubled family

In the past few years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly overturned
death sentences in Texas and at this point shows no signs of letting up on

This time, Smith's death sentence was so clearly unconstitutional that the
high court did not even hear arguments - they decided in his favor in a
12-page opinion. Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas

As a result of this decision, the lives of a handful of inmates who were
sentenced to death without jury consideration of mitigating circumstances
will probably be spared.

However, Texas - which has carried out 335 executions since 1976 - has
already executed dozens of others who were young and had low IQs and
extremely abusive family backgrounds.

Until the Texas Legislature assumes the responsibility of reforming the
way the death penalty in Texas is carried out - including the possibility
of offering jurors the option of life without parole - the U.S. Supreme
Court remains the only hope for reform of a broken system.

(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News)


Accused may get more aid----Much-criticized state court wants claims of
innocence investigated

Texas' highest criminal court, branded by critics as pro-prosecution and
hostile to claims of innocence, is asking lawmakers to establish legal
clinics that would investigate such inmate claims.

Judge Barbara Hervey, who is meeting with lawmakers to discuss the plan,
said the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is concerned that not all claims
of innocence are getting proper scrutiny. She wants to ensure there are
enough properly trained lawyers engaged in helping them.

There are two legal clinics in the state that investigate inmates' claims
of innocence. Both are privately funded and staffed by university

Texas prisons hold 151,000 inmates, including 445 on death row.

Speaking generally, Judge Hervey said, she is concerned.

"I personally believe there are some people there [in prison] who should
not be, but numbers, I don't know," she said Friday.

Judge Hervey did not specify how much money she believes the clinics would

In addition, she said, perhaps another "couple hundred thousand dollars"
is needed to educate lawyers who investigate claims of innocence.

Judge Hervey and other jurists said they are acting now because forensic
advances, such as DNA testing, have led to more claims of innocence from
inmates. And numerous witnesses in sexual-assault cases have recanted
testimony that put someone in prison.

"We can either get on the train or get run over by it," she said. "We are
trying to create an additional safety net."

Lawyers have criticized the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because of
cases like that of Roy Criner, sentenced in 1990 to serve 99 years on a
Montgomery County rape conviction.

Mr. Criner had always maintained his innocence. He obtained a DNA test in
1997, which showed that biological evidence at the crime scene did not
belong to him. A state district judge found the new evidence compelling
enough to order a new trial.

But the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the lower court in May 1998.
The court ruled that Mr. Criner's involvement in the crime couldn't be
ruled out just because the DNA turned out not to be his.

His lawyers were forced to petition for clemency, and Mr. Criner remained
in prison for 2 ? more years until granted release by Gov. George W. Bush.

Several lawyers Friday called the court's move toward state-sponsored
innocence projects a good step.

Already happening

"Even within that court there has been some persistent call for examining
the system," said Steve Hall, project director for Stand Down Texas, which
advocates a moratorium on the death penalty. "This is a new step but part
of a continuum that has been happening."

The innocence clinics would resemble those already operated at the
University of Houston and the University of Texas.

The Innocence Project at the University of Houston helped exonerate James
L. Byrd and Josiah Sutton. Mr. Byrd served five years for a robbery in
Fort Worth that his older brother later confessed to doing.

Mr. Sutton served 4 ? years of a 25-year term for a sexual assault in
Houston before DNA tests showed he could not have committed the crime.
Gov. Rick Perry granted him a pardon this year.

David Dow, the director of the Innocence Project, said the judges have not
approached him about funding. His team could use more money, he said. The
project operates on a budget of $150,000 a year and mostly uses law and
undergraduate students to examine claims.

"I would certainly be happy to take some money from them," Mr. Dow said.
"Every year we are strapped."

Hopeful of support

Judges said they are optimistic the project will receive support from
lawmakers during next year's session. Judge Hervey has met with Lt. Gov.
David Dewhurst and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the
Senate criminal justice committee.

Mark Miner, a spokesman for Mr. Dewhurst, said the innocence project "is
something he [the lieutenant governor] is looking at very closely." Mr.
Whitmire could not be reached for comment Friday.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, introduced a bill in 2003 that would have
created an Innocence Commission to examine wrongful convictions and find
ways to prevent them in the future. The measure failed.

"I plan to reintroduce this bill in the upcoming legislative session and
hope to work closely with the Court of Criminal Appeals to secure some
funding and support for this legislation," Mr. Ellis said in a statement

Mr. Dow said he believes the appellate judges are moving now because they
are concerned with the raft of police scandals and resulting exonerations.
In addition to Dallas' fake-drug scandal, Houston's crime lab has been
plagued by mislabeled evidence and flawed science.

"I would not be surprised if part of the impetus was the revelations about
mistakes the crime lab has made," Mr. Dow said.

Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the court, said the Houston
controversy did not affect the court's decision. The court wants to insure
that innocence projects share information about cases and avoid
duplication of work.

Judge Keller said the court would not get involved with the innocence
projects if it winds up funding them.

"That would not be appropriate," she said.

(source: The Dallas Morning News)



Tyler attorneys set to go to trial on a capital murder case in two weeks
still have not received important ballistic tests results, they said

Darwin Hale, 19, of Tyler was indicted in August for the shooting death of
Felix Nwanonhiri.

Judge Jack Skeen Jr., of the 241st District Court, set the defendants
trial for Dec. 6.

But defense attorneys Robert Perkins and Ken Hawk still have not received
the important test results from the state, which has not gotten back from
the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab in Austin.

Tyler police said 2 groups of people were involved in the disturbance
outside Club Alize, 4300 Watson Road, at about 1 a.m. June 13 that
resulted in Nwanonhiri's death.

Perkins said some witnesses have said they heard shots from 2 different
kinds of guns.

He said his client had been in jail for 157 days awaiting trial and it
looked as though it might take a long time to get results from the
ballistics testing and the distance determination on clothing analysis. He
asked that they address the possibility of lowering Hale's bond so he
could be released from jail until he goes to trial.

Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said the gun was taken to the
DPS lab on June 30 and the bullet recovered from the body during autopsy
was taken to the lab on July 8.

First Assistant District Attorney Brett Harrison is also prosecuting the

Skeen read aloud a letter Bingham received from the lab stating that the
analysis would be complete in a proper time for the scheduled trial date.

He said he has seen the tests completed in a fairly short amount of time
and they should be ready soon. He asked Bingham to contact the lab and
said if the analysis is completed in time, the trial date will not be

Hale was arrested later the day of the shooting and led authorities to the
.22-caliber handgun he had hidden outside of the house, authorities said.

Nwanonhiri, 17, was shot in his upper torso and Nakeldrick Erskine, 21,
was shot in his back, said Chris Moore, Tyler police public information

Both were transported to a Tyler hospital where Nwanonhiri was pronounced
dead. Erskine survived the shooting.

Erskine, along with Demarcus Russeau, Demetrius Erskine and Colby Walker,
have been charged with their alleged involvement in a drive-by-shooting
that prosecutors said could have been done in retaliation to the previous

They are expected to plead guilty to tampering with physical evidence,
possession of a prohibited weapon, engaging in criminal conduct and deadly
conduct for shooting at a group of people outside a convenience store.
Walker, who was driving the vehicle, was also charged with evading arrest.

(source: Tyler Morning Telegraph)


Man indicted in Round Rock murder

Authorities say one person has been indicted by a grand jury in the murder
of a Round Rock woman.

Michael Keith Moore, 30, was indicted on charges of capital murder,
aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping for the 2003 murder of
Christina Moore.

Her husband Robert found Christina stabbed to death inside the master
bedroom closet of their Round Rock home. She was 4 months pregnant.

Police say Michael Moore is not related to the victim, but they won't say
if they knew each other.

Christina Moore, 35, was a Dell employee, as is her husband.

The crime shook residents of the upscale Forest Creek neighborhood where
homes range up to $400,000.

Michael Moore was indicted in August on an unrelated aggravated robbery
charge, and that indictment is still pending.

Police say he was already in jail when he became a suspect in the murder.

The district attorney says the case should go to trial within a year.

Moore could face the death penalty because of the capital murder charge.

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley and Round Rock Police
chief Bryan Williams made the announcement Friday afternoon.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Moore's record in
Williamson County dates back to a criminal mischief charge in 1992.

Recent offenses include credit card abuse and theft.

He last entered the jail system in August of 2002.

He was released early in March of 2003 and remained on parole for the 1992
criminal mischief charge.

Authorities say Moore has been in the Williamson County Jail since
February 26, 2004 for parole violation.

(source: KVUE News)


Murder suspects awaiting trials

4 suspects of murder cases that occurred in Calhoun County remain in
custody awaiting trials, according to District Attorney Dan Heard. Harry
Anthony Bargas, 43, of Port Lavaca, remains in jail charged with capital
murder in the death of Georgina Villegas on March 13, 2004. Bargas' bail
was originally set at $1 million but since a hearing has been held and his
bond has been reduced to $500,000.

Heard said his office received the results of tests from the Department of
Public Safety Crime Lab in Corpus Christi the first week in November.

"We will now be able to evaluate whether to seek the death penalty," Heard
said. "The crime labs in many areas of Texas have not had adequate staff
and facilities to provide quick testing of evidence and that has been a
problem in the Bargas case as it is in a great number of cases around the

Raymond Paul Saenz of Victoria, remains in jail under a $250,000 bond.
Saenz, age 16 at the time of the murder of Ruben Villarreal on June 26,
has been certified by the county court at law to stand trial as an adult.
He was indicted on Aug. 16 by the grand jury.

Heard said district court has ordered a psychiatric exam to allow the
court to determine Saenz' competence to stand trial.

"The case can not be set for trial until the psychiatric report is
received," Heard said.

Passengers in the vehicle with Saenz, Kathryn Ann Uresti, 20, of Port
Lavaca and Christopher George Vega, 22, of Victoria, were also arrested.
Heard said the grand jury no billed Uresti and Vega for the murder charge.

"In the event new evidence becomes available, the grand jury could
reconsider the cases. A no bill does not necessarily close the books,"
Heard said.

Chris Rogers, charged with the Nov. 10 murder of Daniel Heysquierdo, is
being held in lieu of a $1 million bail bond.

Heard said the Rogers case will be presented to the Calhoun County Grand
Jury within the next 60 days.

Ezequiel Cedillo Vallejo remains in jail, 18 months after being arrested
as the principal suspect of the murder of Benigno Munoz. He was
re-indicted 2004.

Vallejo remains in jail in lieu of a $1 million bail bond.

Vallejo is charged with causing the death of Munoz by hitting him on the
head with a board following an argument involving a truck being late to
pick up sacks of oysters from the Miller Seafood dock.

(source: Port Lavaca Wave)

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