Upcoming Executions
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Innocence
The death penalty puts innocent people at risk of execution.
Todd Willingham
Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed under Governor Rick Perry on February 17, 2004.

David Spence

There is a new development in the effort to get evidence back for DNA testing in the case of Anthony Melendez, the only living defendant in a case of possible innocence. One of the other defendants in this case, David Spence, was executed by the state of Texas on April 3, 1997 while George W. Bush was governor. For background information read this article from May 15, 2011 that starts out:

Nearly 30 years after a grisly crime known as the Lake Waco murders rocked the city and drew national attention, efforts are under way to exonerate the only living defendant through DNA testing of shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims.

If the testing were to show the wrong people were convicted in the 1982 slaying of three teenagers, the ramifications could be much greater than simply freeing a man from prison.

Because one of the four defendants in the case, David Wayne Spence, was executed, exoneration also could constitute the first proof of wrongful execution in modern U.S. history.

From KWTX.com:

A state district judge Friday gave Walter “Skip” Reaves, the attorney representing Anthony Melendez, 52, the last surviving defendant in the Lake Waco triple murder case, an OK to proceed with an effort to have further DNA tests performed on evidence collected during the investigation of the 1982 slayings of three teenagers.

Reaves and author Fredric Dannen arranged on their own for a private lab in California to do DNA testing, but that lab now refuses to allow them to transfer testing to another facility where different methods could produce better results.

The ruling Friday clears the way for Reaves proceed with an effort to try to compel the transfer of testing.

McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna didn’t oppose the motion Friday, but said he reserves judgment about whether he’ll fight additional testing.

Reaves has said he hopes the evidence will ultimately exclude Melendez and perhaps identify the real killer.

Melendez was one of four men charged in the July 1982 murders of Raylene Rice, 17, Jill Montgomery, 17, and Kenneth Franks, 18, in what prosecutors say was a murder-for-hire scheme gone wrong.

Fishermen found the bodies of the three teenagers at Speegleville Park on Lake Waco.

They had been stabbed repeatedly and the two girls had been raped.

Melendez and his brother Gilbert were sentenced to two life terms after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the murders.

Gilbert Melendez died in prison in October 1998.

David Wayne Spence, who prosecutors said was hired by Waco store owner Muneer Mohammad Deeb to kill a female employee, Gayle Kelley, in order to collect on her insurance policy, but who mistook Montgomery for the woman and killed her and the other two teenagers in a case of mistaken identity, was executed in April 1997.

Spence was twice convicted of capital murder in trials in 1984 in Waco and the next year in Bryan.

After the first trial, the Melendez brothers agreed to a plea deal that would spare them from the death penalty in exchange for their testimony against Spence in the second trial.

They both later said they had nothing to do with the murders of the teenagers and pleaded guilty because they believed they would have been sentenced to death if they had gone to trial.

Deeb was also convicted and sentenced to death, but won a new trial and was acquitted in 1993.

He died in Dallas County in November 1999.

There is a new development in the effort to get evidence back for DNA testing in the case of Anthony Melendez, the only living defendant in a case of possible innocence. One of the other defendants in this case, David Spence, was executed by the state of Texas on April 3, 1997 while George W. Bush was governor. The new development is detailed below in an article from today’s Waco Tribune-Herald, but for background information first read an older article here from May 15, 2011 by the same reporter that starts out:

Nearly 30 years after a grisly crime known as the Lake Waco murders rocked the city and drew national attention, efforts are under way to exonerate the only living defendant through DNA testing of shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims.
If the testing were to show the wrong people were convicted in the 1982 slaying of three teenagers, the ramifications could be much greater than simply freeing a man from prison.

Because one of the four defendants in the case, David Wayne Spence, was executed, exoneration also could constitute the first proof of wrongful execution in modern U.S. history.

Coincidentally, the attorney for the sole surviving defendant who is trying to get the evidence to have the DNA tested is Walter Reaves, the last appellate attorney for Todd Willingham before his execution.

The article is behind a pay wall, so we paid. We reproduce it here because it contains important news that impacts a case of possible wrongful execution of another defendant in the case and because the public needs to demand that the DNA be tested. Remember the recent case of Michael Morton, whose exoneration was delayed by years because John Bradley, the prosecutor fought DNA testing. Anthony Melendez should not have to wait any longer for DNA testing that could prove his innocence.

Judge paves way for DNA hearing in Lake Waco murders 

By Cindy V. Culp
Tribune-Herald staff writer

Saturday January 7, 2012

An order issued Friday by a Waco judge could facilitate new DNA testing in a decades-old crime known as the Lake Waco murders.

Local attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr. asked Judge Matt Johnson of the 54th State District Court for the order, which is aimed at compelling a California DNA scientist to turn over evidence related to the case. The scientist has ignored repeated requests to return the evidence and Reaves thinks he found a legal mechanism to get it back.

Reaves represents Anthony Melendez, the only living defendant in the 1982 slayings that claimed the lives of three teenagers.

Local attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr. is asking for an order to mandate the release of evidence related to the case.

Walter Reaves

Photo by Duane A. Laverty / Waco Tribune-Herald

The 52-year-old is serving two life sentences after pleading guilty to the murders, but he has since recanted.

“It’s a step closer to getting (the evidence) back so we can at least try to do some additional testing,” Reaves said. “I’m hoping we’re going to be able to obtain actual DNA evidence and that it excludes (Melendez), as well as the other (defendants).”

Previous tests

Reaves and a writer named Fredric Dannen have been trying to prove Melendez’s innocence for more than a decade.

They subjected some evidence to DNA testing. But it either didn’t yield anything or the process was cut short because of a dispute with a private lab hired to do the testing.

That lab, Forensic Science Associates of Richmond, Calif., claims biological samples it extracted from evidence are its work product and refuses to relinquish them, despite repeated requests by Reaves and Dannen that the extracts be sent to another lab.

They think newer types of testing Blake’s lab does not perform could provide usable evidence.

The process of trying to get the evidence back is complicated by the fact that the lab is in another state.

Reaves said he is getting assistance from an attorney associated with the California Innocence Project.

But to take the matter further, that attorney needed an order from the court here, which will trigger a hearing in California.

At the California hearing, a judge will decide whether the head of the lab, Ed Blake, should be required to come to Waco.

As part of that appearance, he would be required to bring the evidence with him, Reaves said.

The California attorney hopes to have the hearing there sometime in February, Reaves said. Ultimately, Reaves plans to ask Johnson to order new DNA testing on the returned evidence.

The McLennan County District’s Attorney Office told Johnson it did not oppose the idea of requiring Blake to appear here and return the evidence.

But prosecutor Alex J. Bell said Friday’s hearing was not meant to determine the merits of new DNA testing.

McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna previously said his office will not support DNA testing in an old case unless it meets a rigorous set of requirements.

The Dallas Morning News Editorial Board has named their top priorities for 2012 and one of them is to “push for a moratorium on executions, (and) study the capital punishment system”. The Dallas Morning News consistently gets it right on strategy regarding the death penalty. In Texas, seeking a moratorium on executions is the best way forward for people against the death penalty to achieve their goals of stopping executions as soon as possible. The Dallas Morning News has since 2007 endorsed abolishing the death penalty. With a concerted effort of everyone interested in criminal justice reform, Texas could have a moratorium on executions. If Texas had had a moratorium as early as 2001, when Texas Moratorium Network first lobbied the Texas Legislature for a moratorium and when 54 Legislators (including one Republican) voted on the floor of the Texas House for a moratorium, then it is likely that some of the controversial executions that have occurred since then could have been prevented, including the execution of Todd Willingham.

“From the Dallas Morning News “Editorial: The issues we’ll push in 2012“:

Two celebrated murder cases have disintegrated in the past two years, both freeing wrongly convicted men — Anthony Graves in 2010, Michael Morton in 2011 — and allowing the real killers to go free. Both involve serious, credible accusations of prosecutorial misconduct; both point to the need for reform. So might the Hank Skinner murder case out of West Texas. His execution was postponed last month pending a ruling on whether he could have untested evidence subjected to DNA exams. That access was the intent of a newly passed law, and if courts aren’t reading it as such, further legislative action is needed. Lawmakers should launch their research now.

Scheduled Executions in Texas

To express your opposition to any execution, you can contact Governor Rick Perry’s office at 512 463 2000. If you call after business hours, you can leave a voice mail message. During business hours, someone should answer the phone. You can also send a message using a form on Perry’s official website.

Rodrigo Hernandez January 26, 2012 EXECUTED
TDCJ Info on Rodrigo Hernandez

Donald Newberry, February 1, 2012 STAYED
TDCJ Info on Donald Newberry

Anthony Bartee, February 28, 2012
TDCJ Info on Anthony Bartee

George Rivas, February 29, 2012
TDCJ Info on George Rivas

Keith Thurmond, March 7, 2012
TDCJ Info on Keith Thurmond

Jesse Hernandez, March 28, 2012
TDCJ Info on Jesse Hernandez

Beunka Adams, April 26, 2012
TDCJ Info on Beunka Adams

In Texas it is apparently ok for a Republican judge to say that they are “pro prosecution”, as Judge Sharon Keller has done, and not have to recuse herself from any cases, but if a Democratic judge expresses any doubts about the constitutionality of the death penalty, then she must recuse herself. If Teresa Hawthorne must recuse herself from the current death penalty case because of “bias”, then Judge Sharon Keller should recuse herself from all cases before her court.

Prosecutors, with the help of a judge appointed by Rick Perry, may have been successful today in forcing Judge Hawthorne to recuse herself (just as other prosecutors were successful in shutting down the 2010 hearing in Judge Charlie Baird’s court on the Todd Willingham case), but as we said in an earlier post “these type of rulings are likely to continue as more and more judges reach the same conclusion. One day, we expect it will be the U.S. Supreme Court that will rule the death penalty unconstitutional, but until then we are happy to see lower level courts build momentum towards the day when the death penalty will be rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

From the Dallas Observer:

Teresa Hawthorne, the Dallas County judge who ruled that the state’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional, must recuse herself from a capital murder case, a judge ruled today.

and

Assistant District Attorney David Alex argued that Hawthorne’s bias against the death penalty was clear from statements she made during a December 19 pre-trial hearing. He quoted, in bits and pieces, things the judge said in open court that day, such as: “I remember when women and blacks could not vote. I remember when so-called witches were burned. I remember when gays had to hide to be in the military.” Hawthorne said then she wasn’t trying to engage in judicial activism; she insisted last month that she was not trying to “buck the system or stir the waters.” Alex vehemently disagreed.

“The judge analogized the death penalty to some very heinous times in our American history,” Alex told the court. It’s obvious, he said, that she has “very strong emotional, personal feelings against the death penalty. … But none of these things have anything to do with legal precedent.”

 

Judge Sharon Keller

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