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Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

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Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Texas to execute man whose DNA tied him to cold case

Death Chamber
at Huntsville Unit, Huntsville, TX
A man who had been paroled for an assault in Michigan when his DNA linked him to a years-old murder in San Antonio is scheduled to be executed in Texas on Thursday.

Rodrigo Hernandez faces lethal injection for sexually assaulting and strangling Susan Verstegen, 38, before leaving her body in a San Antonio trash can. Verstegen, a Frito-Lay worker, was stocking snacks at a grocery store when she was attacked in 1994, according to the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Hernandez's DNA wasn't matched to the crime until 2002, when Michigan officials took a sample from him as he was paroled and put it into a national database.

He is due to die by lethal injection at a prison in Huntsville some time after 6 p.m. local (7 p.m. EST).

If Hernandez's execution is carried out, he would be the second person executed in the United States this year following Gary Welch in Oklahoma in January, according to the National Death Penalty Information Center.

Hernandez would be the first person executed this year in Texas, which executed 13 people in 2011 and has put to death more than four times as many people as any other state since the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the center.

Hernandez, 38, told the San Antonio Express-News in an interview published this month he didn't kill Verstegen and will "take that to the grave."

But Verstegen's mother, Anna Verstegen of San Antonio, said this week she hopes Hernandez will, before he dies, feel sorry for what he did to her daughter, who left behind a 15-year-old son.

"It's never too late," she told Reuters. "We're just praying for him. The kind of God I believe in can forgive."

In 2010, Michigan investigators said DNA evidence linked Hernandez to the 1991 murder of Muriel Stoepker, 77, of Grand Rapids, but that he would not be tried since he was on death row in Texas.

Nationwide, the number of executions fell for the second year in a row in 2011, with 43 inmates put to death compared with 46 in 2010 and 52 in 2009, Death Penalty Information Center figures show. In 1999, a record 98 prisoners were executed.

Source: Reuters, January 26, 2012


Rick Perry Death Watch -- Perry becomes killingest governor tonight

Texas is slated to carry out its 478th execution since reinstatement of the death penalty.

For Gov. Rick Perry, the scheduled execution of Rodrigo Hernandez this evening will mark a milestone: the 239th execution he's presided over, meaning Perry will have overseen half of all Texas executions, securing his spot as the killingest governor in the U.S. 

Hernandez was convicted and sentenced to death for the abduction, rape, and murder of 38-year-old Susan Verstegen, a Frito-Lay saleswoman who disappeared in February 1994 while working a late-night shift. Her body was later found stuffed into a 55-gallon trash can behind a San Antonio church. 

Her murder went unsolved for 8 years until DNA found at the scene was matched to Hernandez, who reportedly supplied the DNA sample to jailers in Michigan, where he was incarcerated on an unrelated charge, as a condition of his release.

Source: Austin Chronicle, January 26, 2012


'Texas 7' Fugitive Gets Execution Reprieve

One of the infamous "Texas 7" fugitive gang has won a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court 1 week before his scheduled execution.

Donald Newbury was to die Feb. 1 for his part in the fatal shooting of a Dallas-area police officer. Justice Antonin Scalia granted the reprieve Wednesday.

Attorneys argued that he should be spared while justices consider an Arizona case that questions whether death row inmates are entitled to better legal help during initial appeals. The court already has heard arguments on that case.

Newbury and 6 other inmates fled a South Texas prison 11 years ago in the state’s biggest prison break. He would have been the 2nd of the gang executed for the Christmas Eve 2000 killing of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins during a robbery.

Source: Associated Press, January 26, 2012

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