Two stories dominated death penalty news in Texas in 2009, Todd Willingham and Sharon Keller. We will call it a tie for top Texas death penalty story in 2009, at least according to amount of media coverage. Well, the Willingham case received more media coverage, but we still call it a tie for top story.
Other important Texas death penalty stories of 2009 in no particular order were:
the 200th execution under Governor Rick Perry;
the fact that only nine people were sentenced to death in Texas in 2009;
the approval of the Law of Parties bill in the Texas House only for it to be killed in the Senate by a veto threat from Rick Perry;
the Charles Dean Hood case, in which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that it was ok for the judge and prosecutor to sleep together without biasing the outcome of the trial enough to warrant a retrial;
the Texas Legislature passed and Rick Perry signed into law a bill to create a new capital writs office to handle indigent habeas appeals in death penalty cases;
all charges were dropped against Robert Springsteen and Michael Toney and both were released from prison after having been sentenced to death in Texas in 2001 (Springsteen) and 1999 (Toney).
Finally in October 2009, hundreds of people converged on the Texas capitol in Austin to call for abolition of the death penalty in Texas. The 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty included the delivery of a petition to Rick Perry signed by more than 6,000 people calling for a complete investigation into the case of Todd Willingham and a moratorium on executions. The march was the largest rally against the death penalty in Texas since 2000.
Three innocent, exonerated former death row prisoners were among the special guests at the Tenth Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty October 24, 2009 at 2 PM in Austin, Texas at the Texas Capitol on the South Steps at 11th and Congress. Also attending was the penpal of Todd Willingham, Elizabeth Gilbert, who first investigated his innocence. Plus, Todd’s last lawyer Walter Reaves.
One of the most moving moments of 2009 was when the mother of Reginald Blanton spoke at a rally at the Texas Capitol on Sept 26 pleading for Rick Perry to stay the execution of her son, who maintained his innocence from his arrest until his execution on October 27. Watch video of Blanton’s mother here, but be forewarned, if you have tears, prepare to shed them.
Todd Willingham – the Texas Forensic Science Commission received a report from Dr Craig Beyler, a national fire expert who examined the case of Todd Willingham and who wrote in his report that “a finding of arson could not be sustained” by a scientific analysis. The New Yorker published a 16,000-word article by David Grann that examined all the evidence in the Willingham case and found nothing that should have led to Willingham’s conviction and execution. Willingham was executed in 2004. Rick Perry raised the profile of the case even higher by replacing all of his appointees to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, including the chair. The new chair, prosecutor John Bradley, canceled a meeting at which the commission was scheduled to discuss the report by Dr Craig Beyler and shut down the commission’s proceedings. Rick Perry had effectively covered up the investigation of whether Texas had executed an innocent person until after the March 2010 primary election.
Sharon Keller was charged with incompetence and misconduct by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for saying ‘”we close at 5″, effectively blocking the submission of an appeal in 2007 by lawyers for Michael Richard on the day of his execution, and for breaking the execution day procedures of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. A resolution to impeach Keller was introduced in the Texas House of Representatives and given a hearing by the chair of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.
Keller’s trial on the SCJC charges was held in San Antonio before a special master, Judge David Berchelmann, who by the end of the year had still not issued his findings.
TMN had submitted one of the complaints against Keller to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2007. The TMN complaint was signed by about 1900 people. Watch video of CNN coverage of first day of trial, including our demonstration outside the courthouse.
Death sentences decline, but Texas still leads U.S. in executions. Only nine people were sentenced to death in Texas in 2009. Harris County sent zero people to death row in 2009. In 2008, Harris County had also sent zero people to death row. 24 people were executed in Texas in 2009. Texas conducted almost 50 percent of all executions in the U.S. in 2009.
More than 200 executions under Rick Perry.
On June 2, 2009, the 200th person was executed in Texas since Rick Perry became governor in December 2000. TMN coordinated protests in Texas and cities in Canada and Europe, including Austin, Houston, Huntsville, Montreal, Brussels, Leipzig Germany, Albuquerque and Paris France.
Williams’ sister was brutally murdered and her killer only spent 15 years in prison. He explains why he doesn’t believe in execution. “I hated him. I wanted to see him die. I wanted to see him suffer in prison. And I thought justice would be done only in the way, but what I realized over time was that my hate really diminished me. It damaged me and did nothing for him,” explained Williams.
The Law of Parties Bill
The Texas House passed a bill that would have banned executions of people convicted under the Law of Parties who did not actually kill anyone. Rep Hodge and Rep Dutton both filed Law of Parties bills in response to the cases of Kenneth Foster, Jeff Wood and other people who have been sentenced to death despite not having killed anyone. Prior to the start of the session, we had lobbied legislators looking for a sponsor for the Law of Parties bill, so we were happy when both Rep Dutton and Rep Hodge filed bills.
We held a press conference with Rep Dutton and Kenneth Foster’s and Jeff Wood’s family to explain the law of parties bill. Watch video of press conference TV coverage.
We held a lobby day in March during which we met with legislators about the Law of Parties bill. It was the largest lobby day against the death penalty ever held in Texas. We lobbied 90 legislative offices. People came from all over Texas to participate, including the father and grandfather of Kenneth Foster, and family members of Jeff Wood, Randy Halprin and several other families of people convicted under the Law of Parties. In addition to building support for the law of parties bill on the lobby day, we found additional legislative sponsors for a bill to abolish the death penalty and the moratorium bill.
We followed up in April with a second mini-lobby day after the law of parties bill had passed the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. We lobbied for passage by the full House. Watch Rep Hodge urging people to call their legislators about her bill.
On May 2, there was a second rally for the law of parties bill. Watch video here.
On May 15, the bill passed the full Texas House and was renamed the “Kenneth Foster, Jr Act”. We live blogged and issued a press release. After passing the House, the bill died in the senate after Governor Rick Perry threatened to veto it.
The bill died in part because of false information given out by prosecutors such as Williamson County Attorney John Bradley, who said in the Austin American-Statesman: “To exempt all defendants in capital cases because they didn’t pull the trigger “is irrational. Under that reasoning, Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson could never get the death penalty. You have to look at the facts of each case … whether their participation merits holding them culpable”.
HB 2267 said
(b) A defendant who is found guilty in a capital felony case
only as a party under Section 7.02(b), Penal Code, may not be
sentenced to death, and the state may not seek the death penalty in
any case in which the defendant’s liability is based solely on that
People like Hitler, Manson and Osama bin Laden would not have been prosecuted under Section 7.02(b), but prosecutors used that scare tactic to help kill the bill.
Largest Anti-Death Penalty Rally in Texas Since 2000 Held in October 2009
Protesters march to call for an end to executions
Recent remarks by Perry fuel anti-death penalty rally.
By Joshunda Sanders
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Death penalty opponents rally at Capitol
Supporters: Innocent put to death in 2004
Published : Saturday, 24 Oct 2009, 9:03 PM CDT
Hundreds Attend Death Penalty Rally at Texas State Capitol
KVUE, October 24, 2009
Hundreds March in Austin calling for a stop to the death penalty
CBS KEYE TV News
October 24, 2009