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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: Lubbock's "suitcase killer" fights upcoming execution

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas
Rosendo Rodriguez is set to die for killing a Lubbock prostitute and tossing her body in a dumpster in a suitcase. His final appeals claim the medical examiner's testimony that she was sexually assaulted before her death could be invalid.

The man dubbed Lubbock's "suitcase killer" is set for execution Tuesday evening, 1 day after his 38th birthday.

Rosendo Rodriguez was sentenced to death in the 2005 murder and sexual assault of Summer Baldwin, a newly pregnant prostitute, according to court records. Baldwin's body was found folded inside a suitcase at the city's landfill. Rodriguez was also implicated in the 2004 murder of 16-year-old Joanna Rogers, whose body was also found in a suitcase in the landfill after Baldwin was discovered.

He still has a final appeal pending in the U.S. Supreme Court questioning the credibility of the medical examiner's testimony and arguing that Baldwin wasn't sexually assaulted, but if it is rejected, Rodriguez will become the 4th person executed in Texas this year and the 7th in the nation.

Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney Matt Powell told the Texas Tribune Monday that he finds no joy in the execution but that Rodriguez is a man who deserves the ultimate punishment.

"Who sticks a human being in a suitcase and throws them out with the trash?" Powell questioned. "This was a guy that, left unchecked, was going to hurt somebody else again and was going to continue to terrorize women."

At the time of Baldwin's death, Rodriguez was in Lubbock training for the U.S. Marines, according to court opinions. He was tied to the murder after investigators found the suitcase she was in had been purchased with Rodriguez's debit card. Further investigation found Baldwin's blood and a tag for the suitcase in his hotel room.

Rodriguez told police the 2 had consensual sex but that when he fought with her over her drug use afterward, she lunged at him with knives and he put her in a chokehold, accidentally killing her. But the medical examiner, Sridhar Natarajan, said Baldwin's body showed injuries consistent with sexual assault, upping the charges and making the murder case eligible for the death penalty.

Prosecutors offered to accept a life sentence instead of the death penalty if Rodriguez also confessed to the murder of Rogers the year before and helped authorities find her body, according to court documents. He was already connected to her disappearance before Baldwin's murder based on internet chats and phone records. Rodriguez confessed to Rogers' murder and told investigators he had also put her body in a dumpster in a suitcase. She was eventually found in the same landfill as Baldwin.

But before the court appearance to finalize the plea deal, Rodriguez backed out, claiming he couldn't understand anything he was being told by his attorney. Though they couldn't use the Rogers confession, Lubbock County prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty in Baldwin's case.

He was found guilty of capital murder and, during his punishment trial, though attorneys presented evidence of an abusive, alcoholic father and his family portrayed Rodriguez as a prior Texas Tech student who could have become president, ex-girlfriends and other women said he raped or assaulted them. The jury chose death.

Rosendo RodriguezBut Rodriguez's lawyers haven't given up on his life. His final appeals lay in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court justices. The filing argues that a recent lawsuit calls into question the credibility of the medical examiner's testimony that defined the Baldwin case as sexual assault - which is what made the case a death penalty case. (Prosecutors at trial also argued Rodriguez's case could be death-penalty eligible because Baldwin was pregnant, but the argument was pushed aside in appeals because there was no indication Rodriguez knew she was pregnant.)

Last year, Natarajan and Lubbock County paid $230,000 in settling a wrongful termination lawsuit after a former employee claimed she was fired for speaking out on the medical examiner's habit of leaving the office and delegating autopsies to unqualified staff and then signing off on them. Rodriguez's lawyer, Seth Kretzer, said the lawsuit and settlement raise suspicion of Natarajan's testimony in Baldwin's case and should be evaluated in federal court.

"At the minimum, we should be allowed to take the good doctor's deposition and find out if he actually did the autopsy or not," Kretzer said, adding that he'll fight for his client until the last hour of the last day of his life.

Natarajan, who still serves as the county's chief medical examiner, did not return phone calls Monday. But Powell said the appeal is nonsense, adding that he was there while Natarajan performed Baldwin's autopsy.

"I have no trouble with his lawyers exhausting every avenue that they can, but there's no question that the right guy got the punishment, and he got the punishment he deserved," he said.

Source: Texas Tribune, Jolie McCullough, March 27, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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