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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…

Las Vegas jury sentences man to death for murders of wife, hit man

Thomas Randolph
Thomas Randolph
For more than nine years, she waited for punishment for the man who ordered her mother dead and executed the hitman.

“It’s been way too long,” Colleen Beyer said. “And it’s hurt every day.”

On Wednesday, a jury decided that Thomas Randolph, 62, should be put to death for having a handyman kill his sixth wife, Sharon Causse, and fatally shooting Michael James Miller, the man he had kill her.

Beyer cried and embraced friends after the sentence was announced.

“I feel that’s really what he deserves,” Beyer said. “He’s a monster. He’s one evil, evil monster.”

A panel of eight women and four men handed down two death sentences, one for each victim. Randolph showed no emotional reaction, but turned and gave a thumbs up to a television news producer as he walked out of the courtroom.

Last week, the same jurors convicted Randolph of two counts of first-degree murder with a deadly weapon and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.

Randolph had told police that he noticed a man in a black ski mask after finding his wife shot in the head in an entrance hallway of their home in May 2008. He brushed up against the man and shot him five times, he said.

But prosecutors said Randolph’s story did not make sense, and they pointed to similarities between the two killings and the death of his second wife.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson praised prosecutors and detectives who peeled back layers of Randolph’s version of events.

“I hope the family and friends of the two people who lost their lives get some comfort and some satisfaction,” Wolfson said. “I think justice was done. A death verdict was justice in this case.”

Randolph was arrested in the double homicide in January 2009, and it took more than eight years for the case to go to trial.

Prosecutors say Randolph was motivated by greed and stood to gain upward of $360,000 in insurance money from Causse’s death. That was less than the roughly $500,000 in insurance money he collected after the 1986 death of his second wife, Becky Gault.

Defense attorneys had argued that Randolph’s last marriage was going well before Causse died, and they called Gault’s death a “red herring.”

A coroner ruled that Gault died by suicide. Randolph ultimately was acquitted after being tried for murder, but he pleaded guilty to tampering with a witness for offering an undercover officer posing as a cellmate a car title and cash to kill the star witness in the Utah case.

In the Las Vegas case, Chief Deputy District Attorney Jacqueline Bluth called Randolph the “worst of the worst” criminals, adding that he poses a danger even from behind bars.

“Shouldn’t the death penalty be about the worst of the worst?” the prosecutor said. “It should be saved for those human beings in society who are the worst of the worst.”

Randolph’s defense attorneys said they plan to appeal the case.

Jurors who convicted Thomas Randolph on two counts of first-degree murder in the killing of his wife and the man he ordered to execute her found three aggravating factors and two mitigating factors in deciding that he should die for his crimes.

Aggravating factors

— Randolph was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Sharon Causse

— The murder was committed to receive money

— The killing of Michael James Miller was committed to receive money

Mitigating factors

— Randolph had an opiate addiction

— His life had value to his family

Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal, David Ferrara, July 5, 2017


Nevada death sentence over 1982 murder is thrown out


An inmate who has spent nearly 35 years on Nevada's death row for a 1982 murder outside Reno had his sentence overturned on Wednesday by a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called it a "flagrant violation" of Tracy Petrocelli's constitutional rights to a lawyer and against self-incrimination when a psychiatrist who examined him at the behest of prosecutors was allowed to testify during his trial's penalty phase.

By a 3-0 vote, the San Francisco-based court also upheld Petrocelli's conviction for first-degree murder and robbery, rejecting his claim that statements he made to detectives after his arrest were admitted improperly.

Petrocelli, 65, had been sentenced for the March 29, 1982 shooting death of used car salesman James Wilson during a test drive of a Volkswagen pickup. Wilson's body was found in a remote area about 35 miles (56 km) north of Reno.

The defendant first sought a federal writ of habeas corpus challenging his detention in 1988, court records show. He had been one of Nevada's longest-serving death row inmates.

A spokeswoman for Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt, whose office defended the death sentence, had no immediate comment. A. Richard Ellis, a lawyer for Petrocelli, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The psychiatrist, Lynn Gerow, had testified that Petrocelli had a rare, incurable "psychopathic" personality, suggesting he could have a "quite high" propensity for further violence and would not learn from punishment.

But in Wednesday's decision, Circuit Judge William Fletcher noted that Petrocelli already had a lawyer by the time Gerow interviewed him in jail, three days after his arrest, to help prosecutors determine his competence to stand trial.

He said the psychiatrist's testimony, combined with a jury instruction raising the prospect of Petrocelli's eventual parole, "had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict," and therefore was not harmless.

The 9th Circuit returned the case to Nevada's state courts, which can resentence Petrocelli or open a new penalty hearing.

The case is Petrocelli v. Baker, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-99006.

Source: Reuters, Jonathan Stempel, June 5, 2017

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