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Entries in Death Row (14)

Thursday
May242012

Death Row Woman Could Get New Trial Over 'Dropped Baby' Evidence

(TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas) -- A Texas woman who was convicted of killing a 3-month-old baby but claimed she merely dropped him could be released from her cell on death row and receive a new trial.

Texas Judge Jon Wisser has submitted a formal recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to toss the conviction of Cathy Lee Henderson for the murder of 3-month-old boy in 1994.

Henderson, now 55, was found guilty of killing her infant neighbor, Brandon Baugh, while she babysat, and then burying the body in a wine cooler box 60 miles from the home and fleeing the state. Henderson maintained throughout her trial that she accidentally dropped the boy on her concrete floor, from four-and-a-half feet in the air, while swinging him around to try and calm him.

Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the Travis County, Texas, medical examiner, refuted that claim, saying that the injuries sustained by the baby would not have been possible from that height.

"The infant would have had to fall from the height higher than a two-story building," he concluded, and ruled the death a homicide, according to brief filed in the Criminal Appeals Court by Wisser.

But new research suggests that Bayardo's conclusion may not be accurate, and Bayardo testified at a 2007 hearing that he would not have ruled the same way if he had details on the new research at the time of the trial.

"I think if you took away Dr. Bayardo's testimony at the first trial that the jurors would not have convicted Ms. Henderson," Wisser told ABC News affiliate KVUE.

"I believe it was very difficult for the jurors to separate the death of the infant from Ms. Henderson's subsequent behavior," said Wisser.

Henderson came within two days of her death sentence in 2007 before receiving a last-minute reprieve based on the new scientific evidence and Bayardo's change of opinion. In the intervening years, Wisser has toiled over whether Henderson's verdict should be tossed, he told KVUE.

"In the 16-17 years (since), things have changed," Wisser said. "We have more scientific proof and evidence that I thought a jury should have the opportunity to consider."

Wisser's recommendation will land on the desks of the nine Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges, who will issue a ruling sometime in the "next few months," according to the court.

The judges will either deny Wisser's recommendation or set a date for a hearing on the matter, in which prosecutors and defense attorneys could argue for a new trial. The court can either release Henderson from prison immediately while the two sides prepare for the hearing, or continue holding her in jail until a final decision is reached.

Eryn Baugh, the father of the infant that was killed, is dismayed at the development, according to KVUE.

"It is extremely difficult," Baugh told the station. "We came within two days of having this over with and having her executed and getting on with our lives. Now we are back in a courtroom and hearing what is basically a bunch of junk science that is basically going on over the death of my son."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Mar212012

Tennessee Death Row Inmate's Escape Plot Foiled

Tennessee Department of Correction(KNOXVILLE, Tenn.) -- Authorities in Tennessee have foiled an escape plot by the state's only female death row inmate.

Two men, including one former prison guard, have also been arrested in connection with the plan.

Justin Heflin and Donald Kohut were arrested this week and charged with planning the escape of Christa Gail Pike.

Pike, 36, was sentenced to death in March of 1996 for murdering 19-year-old Colleen Slemmer in Knoxville, in 1995. She is also serving time for attempting to murder a fellow inmate in 2004, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Today, all three are behind bars.

"Interrupting a plot like this before the escape is attempted is crucial to keeping Tennesseans safe," the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Mark Gwyn said in a news release. "The last thing law enforcement wants is a dangerous fugitive on the streets."

Heflin, 23, worked as a correctional officer at the Tennessee Prison for Women until he was terminated on March 5, 2012. In February, a grand jury indicted him on charges of bribery, official misconduct, conspiracy to commit escape and facilitation to commit escape. Heflin is currently being held in Davidson County Jail on a $75,000 bond.

The third member of the alleged escape-planning trio was Kohut, 34. He met Heflin on one of his frequent trips to the prison to visit Pike. He was arrested Monday morning and is being held at the Hunterdon County Department of Corrections on a $250,000 bond. He has been charged with counts of bribery and conspiracy to commit escape.

Authorities initiated the investigation after receiving information about the escape plan. They found contraband evidence within the jail and discovered that Heflin might be involved. The investigation revealed that he had been receiving gifts and money for his assistance in plotting the escape, the release said.

"Our mission of operating safe and secure prisons is our main focus and we will continue to examine and follow every lead to accomplish our mission," Commissioner Derrick D. Schofield said in a statement.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Thursday
Dec082011

Former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal No Longer Facing Death Penalty

David J. Sams/Getty Images(PHILADELPHIA) -- Mumia Abu-Jamal is off death row for good.

The former Black Panther was convicted of the December 1981 slaying of a white Philadelphia police officer after Abu-Jamal's brother was stopped for driving down a street the wrong way.

His case became a cause célèbre over the years for death penalty opponents who have insisted that Abu-Jamal was innocent of the murder.  The death row inmate, whose executions were put off in 1995 and 1999, helped lead his own movement from his jail cell.

On Wednesday, Seth Williams, the district attorney for Philadelphia, decided that Abu-Jamal will no longer face capital punishment but instead will spend the rest of life behind bars without the chance of parole.

Williams contends that the punishment meted out to Abu-Jamal was just but that carrying out the execution had become too arduous, especially after a judge ruled earlier this year that Abu-Jamal was entitled to a new sentence hearing because instructions presented to a jury in 1982 may have been flawed.

Maureen Faulkner, the widow of slain police officer Daniel Faulkner, also said that she no longer had the fortitude to see Abu-Jamal pay for his crime because of the physical and emotional toll the efforts have taken on family members.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Nov232011

Girl, 9, Tries to Save Dad from Death Row

Connecticut State Police(NEW HAVEN, Conn.) -- The 9-year-old daughter of convicted killer Joshua Komisarjevsky testified via videotape Wednesday in a bid to save the violent Connecticut home invader from the death penalty.

Jurors in the death penalty phase of Komisarjevsky's trial watched the 20-minute videotape and listened as the girl laughed, and talked about a best friend and how much she loved animals.

She also discussed her father, who she referred to as Josh, not "dad," saying he was a man she used to play with at her grandparents' home. She said he had gone to jail for "something he had done at work."

The girl lived with her grandparents at the time of the 2007 murders. She is not being identified to protect her privacy.

The videotaped testimony was shown over the objection of Komisarjevsky, himself, who addressed the court for the first time during his trial, though his voice was heard previously during a taped confession.

Komisarjevsky, 31, has been convicted of 17 counts including the murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, Hayley Petit, 17, and Michaela Petit, 11, during a brutal invasion of the family's Cheshire, Conn., home in 2007.

The verdict included six aggravating factors including that Komisarjevsky and his accomplice Steven Hayes committed the murders in "an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner." The mother was raped and strangled. The girls were tied to their beds and the house and their beds were splashed with gasoline.

Hawke-Petit's husband, Dr. William Petit, testified that he was bound and badly beaten separately in the home's basement, but managed to escape.

Hayes has already been sentenced to death and is on Connecticut's death row.

Komisarjevsky's daughter was interviewed by Caroline Burry, a social worker, last weekend, but did not know she was being taped.

Burry took the stand after the videotape was played and testified that if Komisarjevsky was executed it could be "very damaging" to the girl, who is currently living with her maternal aunt. Her name has been changed and it is believed that none of her friends knows about her father's crimes.

The girl's testimony has been a point of contention for weeks as an attorney for the girl's guardian sought to prevent the interview, citing the possible psychological repercussions and a fear that her identity could become known.

But Jeremiah Donovan, one of Komisarjevsky's attorneys, said that showing the videotape was important because it would allow the jurors to see his client as a loving father who, records show, has seen his daughter 55 times during his incarceration -- instead of seeing him as just a cold-blooded killer.

But Wednesday, Komisarjevsky went against his own attorney's wishes. He addressed the judge in an attempt to prevent the videotape from being shown to the jury.

Komisarjevsky, who wore a dark suit and tie, read in a low voice from a piece of paper -- a prepared statement that his defense attorneys insisted he prepared on his own.

"Among many other considerations, I have carefully come to the overwhelming opinion that I am not at all comfortable putting my daughter in a position wherein she may feel that she has to explain or justify herself to anyone who perceives her statements to somehow help one of the most hated people in America," Komisarjevsky said.

"She's 9 years old. Had this interview been her decision to make, and she was old enough to understand that decision, that would be one thing. However, that is not the case in this situation. The decision has been made for her," he said.

Komisarjevsky went on to say that his daughter's words had been coached and that her current guardian punishes the girl if she mentions his name.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Monday
Oct242011

Petit Family Murderer Confesses to Killing 17 Women

Kevin Horan/Stone(NEW HAVEN, Conn.) -- A death row inmate has written a series of letters bragging that he has killed 17 women, made a snuff film documenting one of his alleged murders, and often kept their shoes as morbid trophies.

The letters were written by Steven Hayes, convicted last year of murdering Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, during a Connecticut home invasion that turned into a gruesome rape and triple murder. The only person to survive the 2007 attack was Dr. William Petit, who was beaten with a baseball bat and tied to a pole in the basement.

The letters came to light when lawyers for Hayes' accomplice Joshua Komisarjevsky argued that the existence of the letters were grounds for a mistrial. Komisarjevsky was convicted earlier this month of taking part in the Petit murders.

Judge Jon C. Blue, who denied the request for a mistrial, has presided over both Hayes' and Komisarjevsky's trials and expressed some skepticism about the veracity of the claims in Hayes letter. If true, they would make Hayes responsible for 17 unsolved murders in New England between the early 1980's and 2007.

The prosecutor's office did not immediately respond to calls from ABC News about the supposed 17 murders.

The letters, written to a woman named Lynn in Wilson, N.C., were intercepted by the Connecticut Department of Corrections in early October and handed over to prosecutors.

In the letters, according to the New Haven Register, Hayes also claimed to have raped dozens of women after using a date-rape drug to knock them out.

Hayes claimed his victims were all between the ages of 14 and 25.

Hayes also claimed to have "trophies" from all of his 17 victims.

It is possible the letters could be heard in court this week during the death penalty phase of Joshua Komisarjevsky's trial which begins Tuesday. The defense has argued that Komisarjevsky does not deserve the death penalty because it was Hayes who was responsible for the grisly crimes.

If sentenced to death, Komisarjevsky would join Hayes on Connecticut's death row.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Monday
Oct242011

Texas Death Row Inmate Wants Access to Untested DNA

David J. Sams/Getty Images(AUSTIN, Texas) -- A Texas death row inmate who was hours from execution in 2010, now finds himself with two new avenues of appeal to attempt to prove his innocence through DNA testing.

For years since his murder conviction, Henry “Hank” Skinner had unsuccessfully sought access to untested DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime.

Last year, hours before his scheduled execution, a final appeal to the Supreme Court went in Skinner’s favor.  The justices halted the execution and eventually ruled that he could go back to court and argue his case.

The ruling from the Supreme Court, coupled with a new DNA law passed in Texas last month, have given Skinner new hope that he might one day be found innocent of the death of his girlfriend and her two sons.

Skinner’s girlfriend, Twila Busby, was bludgeoned to death with an axe handle in 1993 and her sons were stabbed.  Skinner was found nearby with his clothes soaked in the victims’ blood.

Skinner claims that he could not have committed the crimes because he was incapacitated by alcohol and codeine.  At his trial, his lawyers chose not to ask for additional testing of knives found at the scene, the axe handle, vaginal swabs, fingernail clippings and additional hair samples.  Skinner was convicted and sentenced to death.

While the Supreme Court did not weigh in on his guilt or innocence it said he could go to federal court and attempt to sue state officials under federal civil rights law.

At the same time, Skinner’s lawyers are pursuing a separate appeal in state court.  Just last month, Texas revised its DNA law to ensure that procedural barriers do not prevent prisoners from testing biological evidence that hadn’t been tested.  Skinner’s lawyers have filed papers asking the court, pursuant to the new law, to compel the DNA testing.

But the State of Texas believes that Skinner is abusing the system. In court papers, Jonathan F. Mitchell, the Solicitor General of Texas, argues that at the time of his trial Skinner’s original attorneys made an “informed, tactical” decision to forego the testing because they feared it would further implicate their client.  Mitchell notes that Skinner was convicted on an “overwhelming evidence of guilt” tied to physical evidence as well as his own statements.

Mitchell argues that if the state allowed Skinner access to the materials he initially declined to test, it would set a dangerous precedent.

On Monday, the parties will appear in federal court to address the changes in Skinner’ case and the fact that a new date for his execution -- Nov. 9 -- is quickly approaching.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Oct042011

Death Row Inmate Says Lawyers from Elite Firm Abandoned Him

Comstock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday centering on a death row inmate’s claim that his lawyers from an elite law firm abandoned his case without notice, causing him to miss a critical deadline for appeal.

The case centers on Alabama death row inmate Cory Maples, who was convicted of murdering Stacy Alan Terry and Barry Dewayne Robinson II in 1995.

After his conviction Maples thought he had won the lottery when two out-of-state lawyers from an elite New York law firm offered to represent him in post-conviction proceedings. Maples hoped for a new trial based on claims that his trial lawyers had been ineffective for failing to present evidence of his history of mental health problems as well as his intoxication at the time of the crime.

After months of hearing nothing on his case Maples learned that he’d missed an important appeals deadline. Worse, he learned that the two lawyers he thought were representing him had left their top shelf firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, and failed to properly notify the court or their client.

Maples later learned that the clerk of the court had sent the lawyers a notice of the deadline, but the notices had come back unopened in the mail with the words “return to sender” and “left the firm” written on the envelope.

Upon learning that his lawyers had missed the deadline Maples scrambled to have the deadline extended, given the circumstances. But the courts rejected his request for an extension and reaffirmed their dismissal of his case.

Maples’ new attorney, former Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre, told the justices on Tuesday that his client’s case should not have been dismissed.

Garre said that the former lawyers actions rose “to the level of abandonment” and called the facts of the case “shocking” and “extraordinary.”

Garre pointed out that not only did the two lawyers abandon their client and fail to notify the court that they were no longer following the case, but when the Clerk of the Court received both notices back marked unopened he did nothing to follow up the issue.

Garre acknowledged that there was a local counsel assigned to the case, but he said that the lawyer was merely serving as a liaison to the New York lawyers as was then required by Alabama law. Garre said that the local attorney had no real role in the case and when he received notice of the appeals deadline he took no action because he believed the matter was being handled by the New York lawyers.

All the while Maples had no idea that his case had fallen through the cracks.

But in court, John C. Neiman Jr., the Solicitor General of Alabama, seized upon the fact that there was indeed a local lawyer involved who had been notified of the appeals deadline. He argued the lower courts had fulfilled their obligation to inform the counsel and that once the clerk of the court saw that the local counsel had received notice of the pending deadline, the clerk had no reason to pursue the fact that he had received the “return to sender” letters back in the mail.

Nieman’s suggestion seemed to irritate Justice Elena Kagan.

She asked Nieman if he had been involved in a similar case where a letter was sent off to the principal adversaries and was returned unopened he might not ask himself, “Huh, should I do anything now?”

Chief Justice John Roberts asked for evidence from Neiman that the local counsel had actually done anything pertinent to the case. “You still haven’t told me one thing he did,” Roberts said.

And Justice Samuel Alito asked why Alabama would not have consented to Maples’ attorneys filing an out-of-time appeal, given the circumstance of the case.

“The holding of the Alabama courts here,” Nieman said, “was that this would not be an appropriate circumstance for an out-of-time-appeal.”

Alito broke in: “Is that a discretionary matter or is that a flat rule, once you passed a certain time deadline, you are out of luck. There is no opportunity where there’s good cause for an extension?”

Justice Antonin Scalia was the only justice who seemed to speak up in support of Alabama. He attacked the notion that the local attorney had no responsibility to watch over the client. “You want us to believe that the local attorney,” Scalia asked, "has no responsibility for the case at all?”

In briefs filed with the Court Neiman acknowledged that “On the face of it, it is hard not to feel a little sorry" for Maples. But he reiterated the fact that Maples does not deny killing two people and that he received a “full determination of the merits of his claims" in state court.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Thursday
Sep222011

Petit Murder Trial Confession: Girls Didn't Deserve to Die

Connecticut State Police(NEW HAVEN, Conn.) -- The man on trial for the death of a mother and her two daughters was heard on a taped confession Thursday saying he argued with his accomplice that the girls -- tied to their beds -- should be allowed to live. However, he also admitted he did nothing to save them as he raced out of the house after it was set ablaze.

For a second day in a row the family of Dr. William Petit -- the sole survivor of the horrific crime -- endured the excruciating confession of Joshua Komisarjevsky who was captured by police as he tried to flee from the burning house on July 23, 2007.

The home invasion by Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes left Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, raped and strangled. Her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, died in the fire.

Dr. William Petit was beaten with a bat and tied up in the basement. He escaped and went to a neighbor's house for help.

On the tape, Komisarjevsky admits to beating Dr. Petit and sexually assaulting Michaela, after cutting off some of her clothes with scissors, but denies killing the mother or starting the fire that killed Hayley and Michaela.

He blames Hayes for those deaths. Hayes was convicted and sentenced to death last year. He is currently on Connecticut's death row.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Thursday
Sep012011

Questions Raised About Innocence of Death Row Inmate Anthony Porter

Darrin Klimek/Thinkstock(CHICAGO) -- A man serving a 37-year double murder sentence in an Illinois prison may be doing so despite his innocence, according to a new complaint that alleges his lawyer helped put his own client behind bars in order to release the real killer from death row just hours before his execution.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bill Crawford filed a formal complaint Wednesday claiming lawyer Jack Rimland was part of a complicated conspiracy to release Anthony Porter -- who was originally convicted of the 1982 double homicide -- and imprison his own client, Alstory Simon, for the same crime. And a new eyewitness says he saw Porter commit the crime.

"I have no doubt that Alstory Simon is innocent," said Crawford, whose complaint was first reported by ABC News' Chicago affiliate, WLS-TV. "He was absolutely coerced through an unbelievably brilliant charade."

Simon is now serving his sentence in Illinois' Danville State Penitentiary for the double murder in Chicago's Washington Park, while Porter, who had served 17 years on death row before his release just two days before his scheduled execution in 1999, is a free man.

But Crawford says this is all wrong -- and is at least partially due to Rimland's failure to disclose information during Simon's sentencing that would have proven his client was forced into confessing to the crime he didn't commit.

Porter's high-profile 1999 exoneration and release was one of the lynchpin cases cited by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan when he enacted a moratorium on the state death penalty in 2000, citing systemic problems with the state's capital punishment program. Illinois later abolished the death penalty.

According to Crawford's complaint, filed to the Illinois Supreme Court's attorney disciplinary body, Rimland's representation of Simon "amounted to a wanton derelicition of his sworn obligations and duties."

Rimland did not immediately return repeated requests by ABC News for comment for this story.

Crawford claims that Rimland was working in conjunction with private detectives associated with then-Northwestern professor David Protess, who headed the university's Medill Innocence Project, which investigated cases of people suspected of being wrongly convicted.

Protess was let go by the university earlier this year after questions were raised by Illinois' Cook County state's attorney into his and his students' conduct while investigating another suspected wrongful conviction.

According to the complaint, Rimland was aware that armed private investigators working for Protess coerced Simon into confessing, but he never mentioned it to the judge presiding over the case.

Following Simon's conviction, Crawford says Rimland went as far as to present an award to Protess for "their help in freeing Porter and their help in convicting Simon."

Also included in the complaint is sworn testimony by Ray Brown, an eyewitness to the 1982 murders who says he saw Porter shoot the victims and then run away.

Brown told WLS that he never came forward at the time of the crime because Porter was sent to prison. It wasn't until Porter's release that he began thinking about telling his story.

"The police locked him up for it so I thought it was a done deal till I seen him on the news getting out and I'm like, 'How'd he get out when he killed them?' And they showed another guy's face and that wasn't the guy who killed him," said Brown.

WLS also caught up with Porter, who is currently living on Chicago's southside and is unemployed.

"I'm just tired of this stuff, ya know, that I'm innocent, and these people just keep coming and bringing this stuff up like a ransom, putting my life in danger, my family in danger, ya know like saying people don't know nothing about the case. People know that I'm innocent," said Porter.

Crawford claims that Rimland was motivated by the desire to cash in on some of what he believed would be Porter's multi-million dollar payout from a civil case lodged against the state after his release. Porter ended up losing the case, and was never given any money.

Protess did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story but told WLS-TV in a statement, "These are the same bogus claims that were twice brought before a criminal courts judge and the Illinois court of appeals -- and twice rejected. Having lost before every judge who has reviewed this matter, Alstory Simon's advocates are now reduced to file a bar complaint against an honorable lawyer who got Simon 37 years for a crime that had landed Anthony Porter on death row."

Regarding the allegations about the armed private investigators, Protess wrote, "Further, the brief passage about me is factually inaccurate. [The investigator] was not 'working' for me when he went to Milwaukee to interview Simon, and Simon's advocates incorrectly identified the other person who accompanied him."

Jim Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel of the Illinois ARDC, declined to comment on the request for an investigation against Rimland and would only say that a response to the filing could be expected within a few days.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jul062011

Man Set for Execution in Texas Despite Obama's Pleas for Delay

David J. Sams/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Lawyers for the Obama administration are taking the unusual step of asking the Supreme Court to delay the execution scheduled for Thursday of a Mexican national who is on death row in Texas.

Humberto Leal, who has lived in the United States since he was 2 years old, is set to be executed for the 1994 kidnapping, rape and murder of Adria Sauceda, a 16-year-old girl.

But Leal's case has been complicated by the fact that he and other Mexican nationals on death row across the country were never informed of their right to seek legal assistance from the Mexican consulate.  Such a failure of notification is a violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations -- a treaty that the United States is a party to -- which says that foreigners in custody have the right to consular notification, communication and access.

"The violation of the Vienna Convention in Mr. Leal's case was no mere technicality," said Sandra Babcock, who serves as Leal's lead counsel. "The Mexican consulate would have provided experienced and highly qualified attorneys who would have challenged the prosecution's reliance on junk science to obtain a conviction and would have presented powerful mitigating evidence at the penalty phase, including expert testimony regarding Mr. Leal's learning disabilities, brain damage, and sexual abuse at the hands of his parish priest."

The case is generating interest at the highest levels of the U.S. government from officials who do not want to send a message abroad that foreigners in custody have no right to consular notification.  But it also has stirred a debate about the role of international courts and state death penalty convictions.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial body of the United Nations, determined that Leal and some 50 other Mexican Nationals on death row in the United States were entitled to judicial hearings to determine whether there had been a breach of their rights.

After the ruling, then President George W. Bush directed state courts to review the cases.  But Texas pushed back, arguing that U.S. state courts were not subject to the rulings of an International Court.

In 2008, the issue reached the Supreme Court, which said that Congress would have to pass legislation in order for the ICJ decision to be enforced.

But it was only last month that Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the Consular Notification Compliance Act, which was meant to facilitate U.S. compliance with consular notification and provide judicial review for these particular foreign nationals who were denied access to their consulate.

As things stand now, the law has no chance of passing before the planned execution of Leal.  Only the Supreme Court or Gov. Rick Perry of Texas have the power to delay the execution and Perry has indicated that he is not sympathetic to the international court's finding.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio