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Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Texas death row inmate Raymond Martinez found dead in cell

Raymond Martinez
Raymond Martinez
After three decades on death row, the Harris County killer who left a trail of bodies across Texas in 1983 finally got his way.

Raymond DeLeon Martinez died Wednesday of natural causes. He never saw the inside of Huntsville's death chamber.

A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with an IQ of 65, Martinez was one of the state's longest-serving death row prisoners.

The erstwhile prison gang leader narrowly avoided an execution date in 2006, kept alive only by his attorneys' ferocity in fighting his case - which was awaiting a decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in light of the 71-year-old's intellectual disability.

"I think there was a decent chance that the ruling would have gone in his favor," said attorney Kenneth Williams, who represented Martinez toward the end of the decades-long appeals process.

"It was pretty obvious to me that he was a seriously mentally ill person so I think that it's unfortunate that the system doesn't deal with a person like him better," he added.

"It's a sad, tragic story."

The summer of 1983 was Martinez's reign of terror.

Just months after he finished a 14-year prison sentence, Martinez and two accomplices kicked off a three-bar robbery spree. At Don Ramon's Lounge, the trio killed a patron, Moses Mendez. Two days later, they slaughtered Long Branch Saloon bar owner Herman Chavis, shooting him repeatedly in the back at his Houston establishment.

Afterward, Martinez and one of his confederates fled to Fort Worth, where Martinez shot and killed his sister Julia Gonzales and her boyfriend, Guillermo Chavez.

On July 21, while staying at the Big State Motel in Houston, then 37-year-old Martinez killed prostitute Tracey Pelkey because he didn't like her attitude, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.

But when he was found guilty and sent off to death row in July 1984, his case was only just beginning.

In 1988, the court overturned his capital murder conviction for the saloon slaying, ordering a new trial in light of jury selection problems.

During a retrial the following year, prosecutors alleged that the string of brutal killings was intended to enhance his status in the Texas Syndicate, a notorious prison gang.

In March 2006, Martinez was slated to meet his fate in Huntsville. But a last-minute stay bought him more time, and the following year the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals invalidated Martinez's death sentence, unanimously deciding the trial court judge had failed to let jurors consider mitigating evidence like the killer's history of mental illness.

In 2009, a Harris County jury sent Martinez to the death house for a third time.

"It does not speak well of the system that he had death sentences overturned so frequently," Williams said. "I think it's another indication of the flawed death penalty system here in Texas and the United States."

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit, asking the lower court to reconsider their ruling in light of a decision regarding fellow death row inmate Bobby Moore.

Though Moore had been given a capital sentence decades earlier for a 1980 grocery store slaying, in March a five-justice majority ruled that Texas courts had used an outdated and "unacceptable method" for determining his intellectual disability.

That decision overturned the state's method for evaluating intellectual disability and gave new life to appeals like Martinez's.

"We were sitting here waiting (for a decision), any day now," Williams said.

Martinez had a fifth-grade education and a long history of mental health problems and criminal convictions.

"It was pretty obvious to me that he was a seriously mentally ill person," Williams said.

Death row cells, Polunsky Unit, Texas
Death row cells, Polunsky Unit, Texas (more photos here)
In 1964 he served a two-year prison sentence for burglary, and starting in 1966 he had three stays at the Wichita Falls State Hospital. In 1967 a Comanche County jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity for a burglary charge.

But two years later he went back to prison, this time for armed robbery and jail breaking.

He was released in December 1982, seven months before his bloody crime spree across the Lone Star State.

Toward the end of his life, Martinez became hard of hearing and had difficulty communicating with his attorney in person. Six months before his death, Martinez detailed his health ailments, including heart problems, in a letter to his lawyer.

"He just had such a long, very sad history of mental illness that the system was never able to handle," Williams said.

"I am glad that he was able to die a natural death and not be executed."

It was during a routine 11 a.m. security check on Wednesday at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston that guards found Martinez unresponsive in his cell. He was taken to the infirmary, where he was pronounced dead, according to a TDCJ spokesman.

Respected death penalty lawyer Patrick McCann, who represented Martinez earlier in the appeals process, laughed upon hearing of his former client's death.

"He won then," he said.

Source: Houston Chronicle, Keri Blakinger, August 9, 2017

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Comments

  1. What a very sad indictment of the judicial system in Texas. His ex-attorney apparently said that Raymond won in the end, but if that was the case, his was a hollow victory. Injustice prevailed. May he now rest in peace.

    ReplyDelete

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