Innocent on Death Row? New Evidence Casts Doubt on Convictions

Rodney Reed’s death sentence was suspended. But researchers say other current cases raise similar doubt about the guilt of the accused.
The number of executions in the United States remains close to nearly a three-decade low. And yet the decline has not prevented what those who closely track the death penalty see as a disturbing trend: a significant number of cases in which prisoners are being put to death, or whose execution dates are near, despite questions about their guilt.
Rodney Reed, who came within days of execution in Texas before an appeals court suspended his death sentence on Friday, has been the most high-profile recent example, receiving support from Texas lawmakers of both parties and celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, who urged a new examination of the evidence.
Mr. Reed has long maintained that he did not commit the 1996 murder for which he was convicted. And in recent months, new witnesses came forward pointing toward another possible suspect: the dead…

Texas death row inmate Robert Roberson III granted stay of execution

Robert Roberson
Robert Roberson III
There is breaking news in the case of Texas death row inmate Robert Roberson, who had a June 21 execution date. 

Mr. Roberson received a stay of execution today, after the Court of Criminal Appeals found that the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs had presented compelling evidence that his capital murder conviction was based on flawed science.

The CCA has stayed the execution and sent the case back to state district court for a hearing.

You can read the CCA order in Ex Parte Roberson at: http://bit.ly/2613syW.

Texas is scheduled to execute this man in six days—but four experts say he was convicted based on junk science

UPDATE: On June 16, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Roberson’s execution, sending his case back to a trial court for a hearing on the new scientific evidence.

The scientific evidence was conclusive, doctors told a Texas jury in 2003: capital murder defendant Robert Roberson had violently shaken his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to death.

Thirteen years later—and just days before Roberson is scheduled to be executed—four medical experts are now claiming that the scientific theory used to convict him has been thoroughly debunked.

Roberson, 49, is the next death row inmate in America scheduled to be executed, and will go to the death chamber June 21. He was sentenced to death in 2003 for the murder of his daughter, Nikki Curtis.

At the time of Roberson’s trial, doctors believed that certain symptoms in a child could conclusively prove they were violently shaken or abused, based on a theory known as Shaken Baby Syndrome. But in the last decade, the four experts who submitted affidavits as part of his appeal say, there’s been a sea change in the scientific understanding of the issue.

Roberson, whose lawyers say suffers from “severe limitations in intellectual functioning,” was Nikki’s biological father but essentially shared custody with the parents of Nikki’s mother, whom she had lived with for the first two years of her life. He brought her home from her grandparents house in Palestine, Texas, on the evening of January 30, 2002, and put her to bed. Early the next morning, he was woken up by her crying, and found that she had fallen on the floor. She seemed OK, he told investigators, so he put her back in her bed and went to sleep. When he woke up again a few hours later, she was blue and barely breathing. Roberson rushed her to the hospital, and she was declared dead the next day.

Prosecutors dismissed Roberson’s account, his lawyers say, and instead charged him with murdering his daughter by shaking or beating her. At the time, most doctors believed that they could determine that a child could be diagnosed with Shaken Baby Syndrome based on three symptoms: retinal hemorrhaging, subdural hematoma/hemorrhaging, and edema, or brain swelling. Roberson’s jury was told that because Nikki had signs of all three, she must have been abused.

The defense didn’t contest that explanation or call any medical experts. On February 14, 2003, the jury convicted Roberson and sentenced him to death.

Now, however, a growing group of scientists disagree with this method of diagnosing Shaken Baby Syndrome. Research has shown that the same symptoms can be caused by other natural or accidental causes, the four experts who reviewed Roberson’s case write. They present a range of possible causes for Nikki’s death that were not explored during the trial: meningitis due to an ear infection; an injury before Roberson arrived; a short fall like the one he described or a congenital condition.

Source: Fusion, June 16, 2016 (updated)

Death Watch: Shaken Science -- Appeal rests on new research into Shaken Baby Syndrome

To have his federal habeas attorneys tell it, Robert Roberson is "dim-witted" and "mentally ill." The 49-year-old, sentenced to death in 2003 for the 2002 death of his 2-year-old daughter Nikki Curtis, was a "drug abusing petty criminal with a long family history of serious mental health issues," attorneys James Volberding and John Wright have said. But did that make him a ruthless killer? No, Volberding and Wright argued in a Sept. 2010 application for habeas relief made to the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Texas. Their client "probably did contribute" to the death of his daughter: "Just not knowingly or intentionally. Roberson is not the worst of the worst. Not even close." The 2 attorneys suggested a modified conviction of manslaughter, and a sentence of 20 years.

Much of the old argument hinged on the manner in which Nikki is believed to have died, and the way Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe manipulated the trial process to elevate the jury's belief in the ruthlessness of the crime. According to Roberson, Nikki died during a night when he was left alone with her and was high on drugs. Prosecutors said he shook her, hard, when he was angry with her - hard enough that she slipped into a coma. When that happened, they said, he put her in bed, and left her there for hours. Nikki was only taken to a hospital after being checked on 5 hours later, at which point it was discovered she was not breathing.

Roberson has maintained his innocence since the day he was arrested, saying that Nikki died after landing on her head during a fall from her bed. Medical professionals who testified at his trial quickly dismissed his claims as unlikely.

An examination of Nikki's body by a nurse upon her arrival at the Palestine Regional Medical Center revealed a "superficial tear to Nikki's anal cavity" and a rate of dilation to the anal canal that was considered faster than usual, suggesting what Roberson's attorneys described as "theoretical sexual penetration." Dallas pediatrician Dr. Janet Squires found no evidence of any sexual abuse, however - no deformities to her anal cavity, bruises, or markings on her vagina. Squires testified at trial that she found no semen or traces of sexually transmitted bacteria. She noted that the anal cavity usually dilates in the comatose state due to the nervous system shutting down.

The notion that Roberson sexually abused his daughter that night ultimately became irrelevant during trial. Lowe ultimately even attempted to have that charge dismissed. (Capital murder indictments can be secured in cases in which a murder occurs during a felony, is premeditated, or involves a victim who is younger than 6, making Roberson a candidate under 2 circumstances.) In appeals, Volberding and Wright argued that the notion of sexual abuse was only important to Lowe at the beginning of the trial: By securing an indictment of sexual assault from the grand jury, Lowe would have an easier time turning the jury against Roberson, thus making a death sentence - a more appropriate penalty, he considered, for the high-profile death of a small girl in a small town - a more likely outcome. Roberson's trial attorneys John Vanmeter and Steve Evans used a strategy that pointed to Roberson's longstanding mental illness, though they never actually argued that their client was insane, which would have raised questions of cruel and unusual punishment.

Since a final judgment was rendered in federal court in Sept. 2014, Roberson's effort has shifted away from the mental illness angle and instead toward the argument that "Shaken Baby Syndrome" (aka "Abusive Head Trauma") is a phenomenon rooted in junk science. Much of that shift has been Roberson's doing. In 2014, after learning of a Houston case involving a newfound understanding of SBS, Roberson wrote a letter to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals asking that he be granted new counsel. That request eventually led to the Texas Defender Service taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it ultimately failed.

On June 8, 2 weeks before his pending execution, Gretchen Sween, an attorney with the Office of Capital Writs, filed 2 applications for relief (1 in Roberson's trial court and another with the Court of Criminal Appeals) as well as a motion with the trial court for a stay of execution. In each application, Sween argues that new forensic science could rebuke previous theorems of SBS, and corroborate Roberson's claims that Nikki - who had a temperature of 104.5 degrees only 2 days before her death - did fall from her bed. Among the claims, Sween has argued that Nikki's lack of any serious neck injuries indicates that she was not in fact shaken, and that the science surrounding SBS has evolved enough to change the course of Roberson's case.

"The prior medical understanding was that a specific set of symptoms could be viewed together as categorical proof of SBS/AHT," Sween wrote. "More specifically, in 2002-2003, when Robert was tried, the medical community invited doctors to infer conclusively that a child had been violently shaken from the presence of 3 symptoms: retinal hemorrhaging, subdural hematoma/hemorrhaging, and edema or brain swelling."

Roberson is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday, June 21. As we go to press, he's still awaiting a response from the trial court and CCA. Should his latest efforts be denied, Roberson will be the 7th Texan executed this year and the 538th since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Source: Austin Chronicle, June 11, 2016

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