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Todd Willingham
Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed under Governor Rick Perry on February 17, 2004.

Texas Moratorium Network looks back on the top Texas death penalty news stories of 2015.

1) Alfred Dewayne Brown was exonerated and released after more than ten years on Texas death row for a crime he did not commit. Hwalked free and into the loving arms of his family and friends on June 8, 2015. “I went in an innocent man and I came out an innocent man,” said Brown.  He has been placed on the Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence List as Exoneree #154.

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Alfred Brown reaches out to hug Houston Chronicle columnist, Lisa Falkenberg after his release from the Harris County jail on Monday, June 8, 2015, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / © 2015 Houston Chronicle

Lisa Falkenberg, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, took notice of Dewayne and wrote a series of articles concerning Dewayne Brown and the Harris County grand jury system. On April 20, 2015, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her series.

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Dewayne Brown and his daughter soon after his release.

Dewayne has flourished since his release. He has re-united as a free man with his daughter. He has a job now. He enjoys taking care of his horses. He has traveled to speak about his case in Washington, D.C and in Austin at a press conference we held on October 24.

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Dewayne Brown at press conference at Texas Capitol October 24, 2015.

 

 

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Dewayne enjoying the country life with his horses.

 

 

 

 

Dewayne spent 12 years, 2 months and 5 days behind bars for something he had no part in. That is 4,449 days or 106,776 hours of his life that was stolen from him. Nearly every one of those days were spent in solitary in a cell no larger that a small bathroom.

Together with other friends, Texas Moratorium Network created a fundraising campaign for Dewayne and raised a total of $6,775 to help him readjust to life in freedom .  The donation page is still active, if anyone would like to donate to him. He has not received any compensation from Texas and it may be a long time, if ever, that he gets compensation from Texas.

This is a typical cell on Texas death row where Dewayne lived in solitary confinement.

This is a typical cell on Texas death row where Dewayne lived in solitary confinement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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2) There were only three new death sentences in Texas in 2015. In 1999, there were 48 people sentenced to death in Texas (“Where is the Texas death row class of 1999 now?” by Eric Dexheimer , Austin American-Statesman, September 9, 2015). Texas went all the way into October before anyone was sentenced to death in 2015. It is remarkable that death sentences in Texas have gone from 48 in 1999 to only 3 in 2015. It shows that more and more Texans are rejecting the death penalty, not only in their private opinions but in their capacities as members of juries who vote against death sentences and as prosecutors who decide not to seek the death penalty in specific cases. If we can cut death sentences down from 48 to only 3, then we can eventually cut them down to zero. As the number of new death sentences continue to decline, the day is coming when the U.S. Supreme Court will step in and decide that the death penalty is unconstitutional because of the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Death sentences have been steadily declining in the U.S. over the past 15 years. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, Death Penalty Information Center’s Executive Director.

While new death sentences declined in Texas to only three in 2015, the state continues to lead the nation in the number of annual executions with 13 in 2015.  Yet, only six states in the entire nation conducted any executions in 2015. Eighty-six percent of executions this year were concentrated in just three states: Texas (13), Missouri (6), and Georgia (5). Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 531 people (as of the end of 2015), more than the next six states combined — Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama. Executions have become a predominately Southern punishment, which bolsters the argument for the Supreme Court to rule it unconstitutional.

11-Eddie-Lucio-MUG_1176019a (1)3) Texas State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr files historic first-ever bill in Texas Senate that would completely abolish the Texas death penalty. 

This was the first time a state senator has ever filed legislation in the Senate to completely abolish the death penalty in Texas. It happened because organizations in Texas held the Statewide Texas Lobby Day to Abolish the Death Penalty on March 3 and death row survivors Ron Keine and Sabrina Butler from Witness to Innocence and Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network met with Senator Lucio’s general counsel and requested that Senator Lucio file abolition legislation.

(There was an abolition bill filed in the Texas Senate in 1969, but it would not have completely abolished the death penalty.)

Here is a report from the Austin American-Statesman on the lobby day, which was widely covered in the media, including the Dallas Morning News, potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of people in Texas with our message.

Last summer, Senator Lucio attended the Democrats Against the Death Penalty caucus at the Texas Democratic Party state convention. The caucus has been held every year since 2004 when it was started by Scott Cobb. The caucus has proven to be an effective method for persuading Texas Democrats to make abolishing the death penalty a higher priority among both elected officials and ordinary people in the Texas Democratic Party.

Here are links to the two pieces of legislation filed by Senator Lucio. One is a regular bill (SB 1661) and the other is a proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 54).

Many groups and people from across Texas participated in the Statewide Lobby Day to Abolish the Death Penalty, including Texas Moratorium NetworkTexas Death Penalty Abolition MovementCampaign to End the Death PenaltyStudents Against the Death Penalty, and Witness to Innocence.

State Rep. Harold Dutton has filed an abolition bill in the Texas House of Representatives every session since 2003. In addition, State Rep. Jessica Farrar began filing a separate abolition bill several years after Rep Dutton led the way.

lester_bower4) Lester Bower, who had a strong case of innocence, was executed on June 8, 2015  after 31 years on Texas death row. He spent more time on death row than any other person executed in Texas. Bower maintained his innocence to the end. According to Jordan Smith of The Intercept, “serious questions remained about the state’s investigation and prosecution of Bower. Indeed, in 1989, some five years after Bower was sentenced to death, the conviction began to unravel. Documents challenging the state’s case surfaced — thanks to the dogged work of Bower’s pro bono attorney team — and a woman came forward to say that she knew who killed the four men, and that it wasn’t Bower. She has maintained her story — corroborated by others — for nearly 26 years. (For more background and recent revelations, read The Intercept’s earlier story on the case.)”The potential for an innocent person to be executed is far from remote — and not just in Texas. Also see, “Did Texas Execute an Innocent Lester Bower?” in Politico.com. The judge who heard the new evidence said in 2012 said “…the new evidence produced by the defendant could conceivably have produced a different result at trial,”, but he said it did not warrant a new trial, because “…it does not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is actually innocent”. The ruling illustrated the dilemma for defendants. “He [Judge Fallon] points out in pretty clear terms that this guy probably would have been found not guilty had this evidence been available at trial,” Maurice Possley said. “But now, all these years later, he can’t meet the new standard, which is actual innocence. That was not the standard at trial. Then it was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Bower joins a disturbingly long list of people executed by Texas who may have been innocent, including Todd Willingham, Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, David Wayne Spence, Shaka Sankofa (born Gary Lee Graham), as well as others (DPIC list).

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Anthony Graves

5) Rising awareness of the effects of solitary confinement on Texas death row, as shown in 2015 media articles on the issue. Everyone on death row lives in solitary confinement, confined in their 6 x 10 foot cells 23 hours a day, allowed one hour of recreation, which is often suspended by the prison or voluntarily skipped by the inmate. On June 10, 2015, Time Magazine published an article by Anthony Graves I Spent 16 Years in Solitary Confinement Hell. It Needs to End.” He spent 16 years in solitary confinement, 12 of them on Texas death row before his release and exoneration in 2010. He wrote, “solitary confinement plays tricks on your mind. You’re bound by four walls, you’re cut off from society, and you’re left with just your own thoughts. Sometimes you start to feel like, if they treat me like this, I’m going to act like this. And then you risk becoming the kind of person that it seems like they’re trying to tell society that you are. Human contact was what I missed most—something that told me that I was still loved, and that I was still able to love. We don’t realize how important human contact is. When we give hugs and shake hands, it’s because we need to. I don’t know how to explain the emptiness it leaves when you are not allowed human contact anymore. It felt like they were starving me to death.”

The Texas Observer also took up the issue of solitary confinement in an article on March 16, 2015, “Letters from Death Row: Alone on the Inside“. In that article, Texas death row inmate Thomas Whitaker is quoted saying that long periods of solitary confinement can result in loss of speech. “When you live in an environment where nearly everyone is hostile to you, you learn to say less and less until you arrive at the point where vocalization seems increasingly odd to you,” he wrote.  The article says that “depression and other forms of mental illness are not unusual for inmates on death row. In Texas, a quarter of inmates facing execution, and therefore held in solitary confinement, have been diagnosed with either a serious mental illness or intellectual disability. But the Observer found that prisoners often choose a life of permanent isolation, refusing to leave their cages. It’s a catch-22: Mental illness can lead inmates to never leave their cells, never leaving their cells can exacerbate—or even cause—mental illness.
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, death row inmates are offered an hour of recreation each day, alone, in a separate area of the prison. But many refuse and are instead confined to the same 12-by-6 feet cell for decades. Others are abandoned by family and friends—either because they no longer stand by them or because they simply cannot afford to make the sometimes hundreds of miles visit to the prison.”
Anthony Graves Foundation: http://www.anthonygravesfoundation.org.
John Jackson, the prosecutor in the 1992 trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, poses for a photo on Oct. 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, W. Gardner Selby) AUSTIN CHRONICLE OUT, COMMUNITY IMPACT OUT, INTERNET MUST CREDIT PHOTOGRAPHER AND STATESMAN.COM

John Jackson, the prosecutor in the 1992 trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, poses for a photo on Oct. 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, W. Gardner Selby)

6) Todd Willingham’s prosecutor John Jackson was accused of misconduct that led to wrongful conviction and execution of innocent man. In a major turn in one of the country’s most-noted death penalty cases, the State Bar of Texas on March 5 filed a formal accusation of misconduct against John Jackson, the county prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters. The Marshall Project reported that “following a preliminary inquiry that began last summer, the bar this month filed a disciplinary petition in Navarro County District Court accusing the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense.” It accuses Jackson of having intervened repeatedly to help a jailhouse informant, Johnny E. Webb, in return for his testimony that Willingham confessed the murders to him while they were both jailed in Corsicana, the Navarro county seat.

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Todd Willingham

New evidence emerged that indicates that a key prosecution witness testified in  return for a secret promise to have his own criminal sentence reduced. “In a  previously undisclosed letter that the witness, Johnny E. Webb, wrote from prison  in 1996, he urged the lead prosecutor in Willingham’s case to make good on what  Webb described as an earlier promise to downgrade his conviction. Webb also  hinted that he might make his complaint public, reported the Washington Post.

 

 

rodney-reed7) Rodney Reed was issued a stay of execution on February 23 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, less than ten days before his scheduled execution date of March 5, so new evidence can be considered that Reed’s attorneys say proves their client’s innocence. So far, no new execution date has been scheduled. Rodney’s father, Walter Reed, a Bastrop native and retired Air Force veteran, died March 27. He was 72. Later in October, Reed’s attorneys filed a motion in Bastrop district court stating they have found new evidence of a previously undisclosed investigation of the fiancé of murder victim Stacey Stites. They say the new evidence points to Stites’s fiancé Jimmy Fennell as the killer.  Rodney’s mother and brother, Sandra and Rodrick spoke at the 16th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on October 24. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty continues to organize events to help Rodney’s family prove his innocence. Keep up to date on the We Demand Justice: Free Rodney Reed Facebook page.

sebesta6308) Charles Sebesta, a former Texas district attorney, was stripped of his law license in June after a panel of the State Bar determined he withheld evidence and used false testimony to win a capital murder conviction against Anthony Graves, a now-exonerated former death row inmate. Graves, who faced two execution dates and spent more than 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, including more than 12 on death row, said the ruling against Sebesta was vindication and quoted Shakespeare. “The worm has finally turned,” he said. “And it’s pointing toward justice now. It’s a good day.” As part of announcing the action, the State Bar also offered a statement on the egregiousness of Sebesta’s behavior. “Mr. Sebesta’s disbarment cannot begin to make up for what happened to Anthony Graves, but we hope it can bring him some sense of justice,” Laura Popps, deputy counsel for the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, said in a news release.

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9) Raphael Holiday executed in Texas on November 18 after appeals lawyers who were appointed to his case unilaterally decided not to seek clemency or pursue additional appeals and then opposed Holiday’s efforts to replace them with lawyers who would.  A month before his execution his lawyers sent him a letter informing him: “This marks the end of work for your appeals I regret.” The letter acknowledged the option to submit “a clemency petition to the Texas governor,” but they did not recommend that because, in their view, “a clemency petition just gives an inmate false hopes.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent that she agreed that the federally appointed lawyers had abandoned their client (pdf), saying that Holiday had been left to navigate the clemency process from his jail. Holiday’s clemency application may have benefited from “more zealous advocates,” she wrote. Read more at The Marshall Project from Gretchen Sween, an Austin lawyer who tried to help him after his lawyers had forsaken him.

 

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10) Antonio Williams committed suicide in February. He became the 13th Texas death row inmate to commit suicide in the modern era. He had been sent to death row in 2007. Two witnesses whose testimony helped send him to death row had recanted their statements, saying they were pressured to lie by prosecutors and investigators. He was back in Houston to attend hearings for his appeals and was found dead in his Harris County jail cell early in the morning. His lawyer said an outside agency is needed to properly investigate the death.

1508038_10153572220479473_2617047975453744469_nSuccess! We have reached and surpassed our initial fundraising goal of $5,000. Generous people around the world have so far donated $6,775 to the effort to help death row exoneree Alfred Dewayne Brown, who spent more than ten years on Texas death row before his release in June 2015.

Although the 30 days we set for the campaign have passed, people can still donate on the Generosity page at:

https://www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/help-texas-death-row-survivor-alfred-dewayne-brown
We expect as people continue to find out about Dewayne’s story they may want to donate to help him, so we are leaving the page live to accept donations.

Every donation helps Dewayne rebuild his life and readjust to life as a free person.

Thank you to everyone who has donated or helped spread the word to others.

At the 16th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on October 24, 2015 we presented Dewayne a giant check to represent all the donations received up to that point.

Matt Ramos of The Huffington Post wrote an article about our campaign, “Freed death row survivor gets crowdfunding help“:

Alfred Dewayne Brown spent 12 years imprisoned, including a decade in a solitary cell no bigger than the average bathroom, waiting for Texas to put him to death for the 2003 murder of store clerk Alfredia Jones and police officer Charles Clark. The case garnered worldwide attention when Lisa Falkenberg, a columnist for The Houston Chronicle, told the story of the corrupt justice system that put Brown away. The Indiegogo Life campaign for Brown set a 30-day goal of $5,000, and hit it with 57 hours to go.

The march is still on as planned. If it is raining very hard Saturday in Austin, then we will move inside the capitol to a room we have reserved courtesy of State Rep Harold Dutton. Right now, meet on the South Steps at 2 PM as planned. If it is stormy, we will all go inside to the backup room, which is on the first floor of the capitol. It is called the Agricultural Museum, and the room number is 1W.14. Everyone please come!

We have six death row exonerees coming, including Dewayne Brown, so come out to meet them all! This will be a great event, outside or inside!

Six exonerated death row survivors will lead the 16th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on October 24, 2015 at the Texas Capitol at 2 PM: Alfred Dewayne Brown, Ron Keine, Shujaa Graham, Sabrina Butler, Gary Drinkard, and Edward Mpagi. Come to the march and hear how the death penalty puts innocent people at risk of execution.

In addition to these six living, breathing survivors of death row, some people at the march will carry photos of Cameron Todd Willingham, an innocent person executed by the State of Texas in 2004.

Alfred Dewayne Brown

Alfred Dewayne BrownAlfred Dewayne Brown was released on June 8, 2015 after more than 10 years on Texas Death Row for a crime he did not commit. This will be Dewayne’s first time to participate in a march to abolish the death penalty. Come to the march and welcome him back to freedom with a warm collective embrace.

 

 

 

Ron Keine

Ron KeineRon Keine is an Assistant Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence. Ron was one of four men convicted of the murder, kidnapping, sodomy, and rape of a University of New Mexico student in 1974. He and his co-defendants were sentenced to death, before an investigation by The Detroit News uncovered a bizarre campaign by prosecutors to coerce testimony from a motel maid named Judy Weyer, whom they wanted to be their star witness.

After prosecutors reneged on all their promises to Weyer, she fully retracted her story in a set of taped newspaper interviews. The story broke in January 1975, and a hearing for a new trial was held. Unbelievably, the judge refused to grant a new trial, and then the taped interviews with Judy Weyer mysteriously disappeared. Ron and his co-defendants remained on death row.

Ron was finally released in 1976, after the murder weapon was traced to a law enforcement officer who admitted to the killing.

Shujaa Graham

Shujaa GrahamShujaa Graham was born in Lake Providence, Louisiana, and grew up on a plantation in the segregated South of the 1950s. After moving to Southern California, Shujaa experienced the Watts Riots and police occupation of his community. In and out of trouble, he spent much of his adolescence in juvenile institutions, and when he turned 18 he was sent to Soledad Prison.

Within prison walls, Shujaa came of age, taught himself to read and write, and studied history and world affairs, mentored by the leadership of the Black Prison movement. He became a leader of the growing movement within the California prison system, as the Black Panther Party expanded in the community.

But then Shujaa was framed for the 1973 murder of a prison guard at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Stockton, California, and was sent to San Quentin’s death row. Because the district attorney had systematically excluded all African-American jurors, the California Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in 1979. Yet it wasn’t until 1981 that he was found innocent and released from prison. Rather than being protected by the United States’ criminal justice system, Shujaa often points out that he won his freedom and affirmed his innocence “in spite of the system.”

Shujaa lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, with his partner, Phyllis Prentice, and both are active members of Witness to Innocence’s Board of Directors. Shujaa gives lectures on the death penalty, the criminal justice system, racism, and gang violence to people around the world. Not surprisingly, one of Shujaa’s favorite audiences is American youth. “I’m filled with ideals for a better future,” he says. “I may never enjoy the fruits of this labor, but our children will.”

Sabrina Butler

Sabrina ButlerSabrina Butler was a Mississippi teenager who was convicted of murder and child abuse in the death of her nine-month-old son, Walter. She was later exonerated of all wrongdoing. She is the only woman in the United States exonerated from death row.

On April 12, 1989, teenage mother Sabrina rushed Walter to the hospital after he suddenly stopped breathing. Doctors had attempted to resuscitate the child for thirty minutes, but failed, and Sabrina’s baby died the next day. The very day of her son’s death, Sabrina was arrested for child abuse due to the bruises left by her resuscitation attempts.

Sabrina’s murder trial commenced in March 1990. At the trial, prosecutors sought to prove that Sabrina’s account of the events leading to her son’s death were false, and that she had inflicted the fatal wounds intentionally. Sabrina did not testify at her trial, and was convicted of both murder and child abuse, becoming the only woman on Mississippi’s Death Row at the time.

Following her conviction, Sabrina filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Mississippi. The courts reversed and remanded her convictions in August 1992, declaring that the prosecution had failed to prove that the incident was anything more than an accident.

In 1995, Sabrina’s case went to retrial. At the trial, one of Sabrina’s neighbors had come forward with evidence that corroborated her account that the injuries to her son occurred during the course of an unsuccessful attempt to administer CPR. In addition, the medical examiner changed his opinion about Walter’s cause of death, which he now believed occurred due to a kidney malady. On December 17, 1995, Sabrina was exonerated after spending more than five years in prison and 33 months on death row.

Today, Sabrina still lives in the same town where she was convicted, with her husband Joe Porter and three children. She speaks as often as she can to the public and media about her heartbreaking and moving story, and has recently published a memoir, The Sabrina Butler Story. You can order a copy of Sabrina’s book here: sabrinabutler.webs.com

Gary Drinkard

Gary DrinkardGary Drinkard spent close to six years on Alabama’s death row before being exonerated in 2001. He was sentenced to death in 1995 for the robbery and murder of a 65-year-old automotive junk dealer in Decatur, Alabama. Unable to afford an attorney, he was assigned two lawyers with no experience trying criminal cases. Despite being at home at the time of the murders and suffering from a debilitating back injury, Gary was convicted and sentenced to death.

Yet Gary maintained his innocence, barely believing his sentence. Amazingly, the conviction rested primarily on testimony by Gary’s half-sister and her common-law husband, both facing charges for unrelated crimes. In exchange for testifying, all the charges against Gary’s half-sister were dismissed.

In 2000, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct, and with the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights, Gary won an acquittal in 2001. The Center later represented Gary before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee to illustrate the urgent need for competent lawyers for those facing the death penalty.

“The system is broken,” he says. “I don’t think the death penalty is appropriate for anyone. God is the only one who has the right to take a life.”

Today, Gary lives and works in Alabama, and is active in the movement to abolish the death penalty. He enjoys speaking to audiences of all kinds, from colleges to churches.

Edward spent over 18 years on death row, accused of killing a man who was later found to be alive. His family successfully campaigned for his release, providing evidence that the alleged victim was still alive. Sentenced to death for murder in 1982, the Attorney General proved that the man Edward was accused of murdering was still alive in 1989. However it was not until 2000 when a nine member presidential committee released Mr Mpagi, deciding he was innocent. Held for many years in the Luzira Upper Prison Edwad taught his fellow inmates to read and write. He became one of the longest serving inmates and a prison elder. Mr. Mpagi is now an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and is a committed religious leader. A graduate from a Catholic Diocese he regularly tours prisons providing inspiration and hope toprisoners.

He connected with Kathy Ozzard Chism at the all-volunteer nonprofit Dream One World, and together they are building a school compound for 150 of these orphans in Uganda, with the help of volunteer workers and donors from around the world.

Witness to Innocence is the nation’s only organization dedicated to empowering exonerated death row survivors to be the most powerful and effective voice in the struggle to end the death penalty in the United States. Through public speaking, testifying in state legislatures, media work, and active participation in our nation’s cultural life, our members are helping to end the death penalty by educating the public about innocence and wrongful convictions. WTI also provides an essential network of peer support for the exonerated, most of whom received no compensation or access to reentry services when released from death row.

Todd Willingham

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Todd Willingham was an innocent person executed by Texas in 2004.

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