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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Supreme Court to hear another Texas death penalty case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the Texas death penalty case of a Honduran national who was convicted for his role in a 1995 murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque during a Houston home invasion.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the Texas death penalty case of a Honduran national who is arguing that a federal appeals court wrongly denied him resources to investigate and provide evidence of substance abuse and mental illness.

Advocates for Carlos Ayestas believe that if a jury had heard he had a history of cocaine addiction and mental illness, they may not have sentenced him to death for his role in a 1995 murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque during a Houston home invasion. State officials have dismissed such speculation.

Ayestas and two others bound Paneque with duct tape before beating her and strangling her to death, according to the state's brief to the Supreme Court. Ayestas was found guilty and sentenced to death two years later.

Controversially, a memo discovered in 2014 showed the Harris County District Attorney initially listed one reason to pursue the death penalty in Ayestas’ case was his immigration status: he was living in Houston illegally.

Now, after almost 20 years on death row, 47-year-old Ayestas' case will be reviewed by the nation’s highest court. In the case, Ayestas claims the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals wrongly denied him resources to investigate and produce evidence that his previous lawyers failed to raise in trial and state appeals. (In his petition to the high court, he also raised the issue of the Harris County memo, but the court denied it a hearing.)

"Mr. Ayestas’s case is about the right to be fairly charged and defended. From the charging decision through the federal habeas process, Mr. Ayestas has been denied his constitutional right to nondiscriminatory treatment and effective representation," Ayestas’ lawyers Lee Kovarsky and Callie Heller said in a statement after the court's decision. "...We look forward to appearing before the Supreme Court and have faith that the Fifth Circuit’s decision denying him a meaningful opportunity to be heard will be reversed."

The Texas Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the case.

During his trial in 1997, Ayestas’ lawyer provided little evidence to try to persuade jurors that her client should be spared from a death sentence, according to Ayestas’ petition to the Supreme Court. His lawyer brought forth only positive recommendations from his prison English teacher.

“Despite her awareness of a history of substance abuse and red flags for mental health problems, trial counsel’s preparation was delayed, rudimentary, and proceeded on a timeline inconsistent with her explanation that she throttled investigation on Mr. Ayestas’ instruction,” Kovarsky wrote in the petition.

The state has argued this lack of evidence is Ayestas’ fault alone, since he instructed his lawyer not to contact his Honduran family until jury selection began.

Click here to read the full article

Source: Texas Tribune, Jollie McCullough, March 3, 2017

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