Panel of Scientists Finds Houston Crime Lab Official’s Testimony to be False
5 August 2004
A panel of six independent forensic scientists will file a report in Texas state court today, stating that a Houston crime lab official’s testimony in a 1987 rape case was either scientifically unsound, or an outright lie.
James Bolding, who was the head of the lab’s serology unit in 1987, gave testimony that helped convict George Rodriguez of raping a fourteen year-old girl.
At the time of the crime, the victim stated that two men had kidnapped and raped her. One man, Manual Beltran, confessed, and named Isidro Yanez as the second perpetrator. Initially unable to locate Yanez, police investigated Rodriguez, who occasionally associated with Beltran. During Rodriguez’ subsequent trial, Bolding testified that Yanez’ blood type categorically excluded him as the rapist, leading jurors to convict Rodriguez. According to the expert panel, Bolding’s statement conflicted with the basic principles of serology, and was “either the result of perjury, or gross incompetence.” [Cited from: HoustonChronicle.com].
The court sentenced twenty-six year-old Rodriguez, who was innocent, to sixty years in prison. Now forty-seven, Rodriguez has finally been cleared by court-ordered DNA tests. These tests revealed that Yanez was, in fact, the second rapist.
Beyond Rodriguez’ release, attorneys are now seeking an independent forensic audit of thousands of cases the lab has investigated over the last twenty-five years. According to the expert panel, “a serious danger exists that [lab officials] may have offered similarly false testimony” in some of these cases. The former director of the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 cases at a minimum will need to be reexamined.
The city is already investigating 360 cases involving the lab’s DNA unit, which was shut down after a 2002 state audit. Auditors discovered that poorly trained DNA technicians were misinterpreting data, keeping poor records, and in some cases using up all available evidence, which made double-checking their work impossible. So far, this investigation has led to the exoneration of one man, and has revealed serious problems in at least forty other cases.
Now faced with reexamining thousands of additional cases in which innocent people may have been convicted upon false information from the lab, Harris County is in the midst of a serious crime lab scandal. According to Rodriguez’ attorney, Harris County is one of the worst places for such a scandal, because the jurisdiction has executed more people than any other county in the United States. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 73 people have been executed for crimes in Harris County.
Compiled from: Ralph Blumenthal & Adam Liptak, New Doubt Cast on Crime Testing in Houston Cases, N.Y.Times.com; Steve McVicker & Andrew Tilghman, More Crime Lab Troubles Possible, HoustonChronicle.com.
NCADP Launches New Blog
6 August 2004
The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty (NCADP) has launched a new blog, "Abolish the Death Penalty."
The purpose of Abolish the Death Penalty is to "tell the personal stories of crime victims and their loved ones, people on death row and their loved ones and those activists who are working toward abolition. [Visitors] may, from time to time, see news articles or press releases here, but that is not the primary mission of Abolish the Death Penalty. [NCADP's] mission is to put a human face on the debate over capital punishment."
NCADP affiliates may post to the blog by sending submissions to [email protected].
Alabama Executes 74 year-old Man
6 August 2004
At 6:30 p.m. on 5 August 2004, Alabama executed James Hubbard, a 74 year-old man who had been on death row for over twenty-six years. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Hubbard is the oldest U.S. inmate to be put to death since before World War II.
At the time of his execution, the elderly man was in very poor health, suffering from ulcers, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and other infirmities. Moreover, Hubbard was recently diagnosed with dementia - a condition which could have caused confusion, and interfered with Hubbard’s ability to understand his legal options prior to execution.
According to the Alabama Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty, “simple decency” demanded mercy in this case. Defense attorneys argued Hubbard’s advanced age and mental incompetence made the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in his case, and joined advocacy groups in urging Alabama’s Governor Riley to grant clemency. In a letter to the Governor, attorneys stated: “Rather than put him, his family and the state of Alabama through the ordeal and spectacle of an execution, we humbly and respectfully suggest... to let Mr. Hubbard, who has already served the equivalent of a life sentence, simply die in prison.” (cited from: SunHerald.com).
Not persuaded by these arguments and appeals, both the courts and the Governor refused to stop Hubbard’s execution. In arguing that the elderly man should be executed, Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw asserted: “[E]ven if [Hubbard] suffered from dementia, that doesn’t necessarily make him incompetent.” [Cited from: SunHerald.com].
In a final attempt to stop Hubbard’s execution, on 4 August 2004 the defense appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 against a stay. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg, and Breyer would have granted the elderly man a stay of execution.
Prison Talk Online, Alabama - Protest James Hubbard's Execution.
No stay for 74-year old man, Associated Press, CNN, 4 August 2004.
Too Old to be Executed?, Samira Jafari, Sun Herald, 31 July 2004.
Alabama Executes 74-Year-Old for 1977 Murder, Oldest Inmate Put to Death in Decades, Samira Jafar, 5 August 2004.
115th Death Row Inmate Released on Innocence
10 August 2004
On 9 August 2004, Louisiana death row inmate Ryan Matthews was cleared of all charges against him for a crime he did not commit. Matthews was arrested at the age of seventeen years for the murder of a grocery clerk on , Matthews was arrested for the murder of a grocery story clerk on 7 April 1997. He was convicted and sentenced to death two years later. DNA tests on the mask, shirt and glove worn by the gunman excluded Matthews from the crime. Matthews, who spent nearly five years on death row, is Louisiana's seventh exonerated death row inmate, as well as its third black juvenile to be exonerated from death row.
115 and Counting: Ryan Matthews is Latest Death Row Inmate to Be Freed Due to Actual Innocence, Press Release, National Coalition to Abolition the Death Penalty, 10 August 2004.
Cases of Innocence - 1973 to Present, Death Penalty Information Center (last updated 28 May 2004).
India: First Execution in 13 Years
14 August 2004Dhananjoy Chatterjee, convicted of a rape and murder of a 14-year old girl. Hetal Parekh, was hanged to death. This is the first execution in India for 13 years. He was hanged outside of the Alipore Central Jail and his body was left hanging for 30 minutes, which was the execution procedure. APJ president rejected Chatterjee's family's third clemency appeal the night before Chatterjee's execution. The police had created a circle surrounding the jail as a prevention measure for any procession or demonstrations. The road outside of the jail was barricaded at both ends.
Compiled from: India: First Execution in 13 Years, Press Trust of India and National Coalition Against the Death Penalty (NCADP), 14 August 2004.
New Book about Kirk Bloodsworth, First DNA Death Row Exoneree
16 August 2004
A new book about Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate to be exonerated using DNA, will be released on 9 September 2004. The book, Bloodsworth, The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA, is authored by Tim Junkin and tells the compelling story of Bloodsworth's experience.
Kirk Bloodsworth will be in Minnesota on Monday, September 27th, to discuss his wrongful conviction and his new book. Bloodsworth will be speaking at the next Death Penalty Project lunchtime speaker series on 27 September 2004.
For more information, please contact Rosalyn Park at [email protected] or Kate Krisik at [email protected].
Death Penalty Debate Shrills in India
19 August 2004
NEW DELHI - Debate on the death penalty in India has thickened after the country's Supreme Court repealed the death sentence on a rapist-murderer, days after another man was hanged to death for the same crime.
Less than a week after Dhananjoy Chatterjee was executed for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Hetal Parekh, the court modified the sentence of Rahul, accused of violating and then slitting the throat of a four-year-old girl in Pune, from death to life imprisonment.
"One expects consistency from the highest court in the land," said Anand Chakravarti, professor of sociology at Delhi University. "The confusion of judgment in apparently identical cases affects the credibility of the courts."
Chatterjee was executed in Kolkata after more than a decade-long legal battle in several courts and after he was refused the presidential pardon twice.
Even after the pardon appeal was refused for the second time, his lawyers went to the Supreme Court pleading that the accused had already spent 13 years on death row. A life sentence in India is for 14 years. The Supreme Court refused to modify the judgment.
"The judiciary would probably have been lynched if they modified Dhananjoy's sentence," said Supreme Court lawyer Meenakshi Rani.
"There was a huge public pressure and mass hysteria against Dhananjoy Chatterjee. Also the fact that his appeals for presidential pardon had been rejected meant that his case for repeal of judgment was weak."
Rahul's lawyers argued that his case was not "the rarest of rare cases" where the death penalty is given, that he was drunk during the crime and was only 24 years old at the time (1999) and had no previous criminal record.
Many say these issues ring true about Chatterjee too. "The definition of rarest of rare seems to be a little vague," said Mrinmoyee Ghosh, a former telecommunications executive.
"Why is Dhananjoy's crime rarest of rare and Rahul's not? Rahul actually killed a much younger girl. And as far as I know, even he (Dhananjoy) didn't have any previous criminal record."
Activists against the death sentence argue that irrespective of the crime, no one should be executed.
"In the modern world, the death sentence is a grisly reminder of the barbarian within us," said Priyanka Sinha, one of those who held candle vigils outside Chatterjee's jail in Kolkata.
"It in no way is a deterrent for crime. We've had it for so long - has crime stopped? No. It has just surged."
Death Penalty Debate Shrills in India, Kerala Online, available at National Coalition Against the Death Penalty (NCADP), 19 August 2004.
Across New York, a Death Penalty Stuck in Limbo
21 August 2004
On 24 June 2004, New York ruled that the state’s law on capital punishment was unconstitutional. The deadlock instruction in New York’s death penalty law states that if a jury cannot unanimously agree to either a capital punishment or life without parole, then the court will need to apply the statutory sentence to the defendant. This sentence is “life imprisonment with parole eligibility after serving a minimum of 20-25 years.” The court decided that giving the jurors these instructions created a coercive situation. The idea that if all jurors failed to agree on one of the two choices, then the defendant could be released in twenty to twenty-five years, or face even a lesser sentence, possibly influenced many jurors to choose capital punishment.
The judges concluded that this deadlock instruction violated New York’s due process clause. Since the June ruling, New York’s capital cases have been suspended because “under the present statute, the death penalty may not be imposed.” There are differing views on the future of the suspended cases. Some New York prosecutors feel that depending on how the legislature acts, it could be possible to still demand the death penalty. While other prosecutors and defense attorneys feel that since the New York Court of Appeals decided that the law was defective, then capital punishment is not an option for those cases.
Complied from: William Glaberson, Across New York, a Death Penalty Stuck in Limbo, New York Times, also available at National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP); New York’s Death Penalty Declared Unconstitutional DPIC Summary: People v. Stephen LaValle, available at Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
NCADP Launches Seven-State Tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities Across the South
24 August 2004
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty next week will embark on a seven-state tour of historically black colleges and universities aimed at promoting student involvement in civil and human rights issues as well as voter registration and turnout.
The tour, which will run from Labor Day Weekend through Thanksgiving, will visit HBCUs during classic football games and homecoming events and will provide a fun and educational mix of hip-hop culture, student activism and education. The tour will visit North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana and Washington, D.C.
“The tour comes at a time when the issue of race and the death penalty is moving to the forefront of the debate over capital punishment in the United States,” said Jotaka Eadddy, NCADP’s lead organizer. “Human rights and the death penalty are issues that spark the interest of today’s generation of black college students. These students will help influence determine the outcome of the November elections in the short term and the death penalty over the longer haul. It is time for our voices to be heard and it is time for our votes to be counted.”
Eaddy added that the issue of the death penalty has gained prominence in recent years. Courts and legislators have narrowed the circumstances when the death penalty may be applied and the U.S. Supreme Court this fall will examine the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty, which disproportionately affects people of color. In addition, 115 people have been freed from death row after new evidence of innocence emerged.
The tour will include music, parties and educational panels featuring experts on the death penalty, human rights and civil rights. Tour dates include:
- Sept. 2-4, North Carolina Central, Raleigh, North Carolina, “Aggie-Eagle Classic.”
- Sept. 17-19, Atlanta University Center, Atlanta, Georgia, “March on AUC.”
- Sept. 30-Oct. 2, Paul Quinn College, Dallas, Texas, “State Fair Classic.”
- Oct. 14-16, Hampton University, “Battle of the Bay Classic.”
- Oct. 21-23, Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Homecoming.
- Oct. 28-30, Howard University, Washington, D.C., Homecoming
- Nov. 4-6, Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tennessee, Homecoming.
- Nov. 25-27, Grambling University, New Orleans, “Bayou Classic.”
NCADP has joined with BE Magazine in organizing the tour. BE Magazine is distributed to 50,000 students at historically black colleges and universities, and is written and produced by HBCU students.
Founded in 1976, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is the only fully-staffed national organization devoted specifically to abolishing the death penalty and is comprised of more than 100 local, state and national affiliates.
Press Release: National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Contact: David Elliot
202-543-9577 ext. 16
Life Sentences Given in Four States
26 August 2004
Death sentences have declined across the country. The following four cases are recent illustrations of this trend:
- In Cook County, Illinois, a judge sentenced Ronald Hinton to life without parole, citing abuse in the defendant’s background and his remorse for the crimes. Hinton admitted to three murders. (Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2004).
- In Butler County, Ohio, a three-judge panel sentenced Tom West to life without parole for a shooting spree at a trucking company in which two people were killed and three others wounded. Costs of the trial, the agreement of the victims’ families, and the defendant’s mental illness were cited as reasons for the plea agreement. (Cincinnati Enquirer, August 24, 2004).
- In Crown Point, Indiana, Stephen Richards pleaded guilty and will be sentenced to life without parole for the shotgun slaying of two people over a sack of coins. Victims’ family members agreed to the plea arrangement. (NWITimes.com, August 24, 2004 (Munster Times)).
- In San Mateo, California, prosecutors announced that they would not seek the death penalty against Seti Scanlan despite Scanlan’s begging the jury to sentence him to death. Prosecutors cited costs and the uncertainty of getting a death verdict. A victims’ family member was quoted as agreeing with the decision. (See above, San Jose Mercury News, August 24, 2004).
Cited from: Life Sentences Given in Four States, Death Penalty Information Center, posted 26 August 2004, last visited 31 August 2004.
Discovery of Lost Evidence Is the Latest Embarrassment for Nation's Leading Death Penalty Jurisdiction
30 August 2004
The discovery of 280 unopened and mislabeled boxes of evidence found in the Houston Crime Lab's property room could impact as many as 8,000 cases, including many cases where defendants have sought evidence to prove their innocence. Investigators began sorting through the boxes this month, finding an array of evidence that ranged from a fetus and human body parts to clothes and a bag of Cheetos. Although the boxes were located nearly a year ago, the cataloging of their contents has just begun and could take up to a year to complete. Some of the evidence may be linked to the 379 cases in which prisoners convicted in Harris County have requested the retesting of DNA evidence to establish their innocence. If new evidence in these cases is found, prosecutors will have to go back to court and admit that some of the evidence previously determined to be lost or destroyed is available after all. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal is now seeking a full-scale independent investigation of the lab, an action he had previously resisted. Houston Mayor Bill White noted, "It's hard to get away from the fact that sloppiness in anything of this matter is inexcusable." Barry Scheck of the New York City-based Innocence Project added, "This is in a league by itself...(it's) unparalleled in the Houston police lab's legacy of fraud, incompetence, and confusion." The Crime Lab's toxicology division, which tested DNA, blood and hair evidence, was shut down in January 2003 for poor work habits and inaccurate findings determined by an unskilled staff. The investigation of that department has led to at least one exoneration on the basis of DNA evidence retesting. (New York Times and Houston Chronicle, August 27, 2004). The discovery of this lost evidence is the latest development in an on-going investigation of the Houston Crime Lab and Police Department in Harris County, Texas, the nation's leading jurisdiction in executions.
Cited from: Discovery of Lost Evidence Is the Latest Embarrassment for Nation's Leading Death Penalty Jurisdiction, Death Penalty Information Center, posted 30 August 2004, last visited 31 August 2004.