Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

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…

U.S.: Austin bomber a ‘geek’ who backed the death penalty, opposed gay marriage

Mark Anthony Conditt. Picture: Facebook.
A 23-year-old suspected of planting the deadly bombs that terrorised Austin for three weeks was described yesterday by his uncle as a smart and kind “computer geek” and a friend said he was an assertive person who would end up being “kind of dominant and intimidating in conversation”.

Neither had any idea what motivated Mark Anthony Conditt, who authorities say died after detonating a bomb in his ute as officers moved in to arrest him near Austin. The attacks in the Texas capital and suburban San Antonio killed two people and wounded four others.

“I mean, this is coming from nowhere. We just don’t know what. I don’t know how many ways to say it but everyone is caught off guard by this,” said Conditt’s uncle, Mike Courtney of Lakewood, Colorado.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said he considered a 25-minute recording on mobile phone found with Conditt a “confession”.

On the recording, Conditt describes seven explosive devices, and “we have accounted for the devices that we have known about”, Mr Manley said. Conditt talks in great detail on the recording about the differences among the bombs he built.

Mr Manley said that in the video, Conditt “does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate”.

“Instead, it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point,” he said.

Mr Manley said investigators had yet to find Conditt’s motive, suggesting there might not be one. He said the placement of the packages seemed random.

Conditt grew up in Pflugerville, a suburb northeast of Austin, where he was still living after moving out of his parents’ home. Authorities recovered homemade explosives from inside the residence, which he shared with roommates and is a few kilometres from his parents’ home.

Conditt’s family said in a statement they had “no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in”. Conditt was the eldest of four children who were all home-schooled.

Jeff Reeb, a neighbour of Conditt’s parents for about 17 years, said he watched Conditt grow up and he always seemed “smart” and “polite”. Mr Reeb, 75, said Conditt and his grandson played together as boys and that Conditt regularly visited his parents, whom Mr Reeb described as good neighbours.

Conditt attended Austin Community College from 2010 to 2012 and was a business administration major, but he did not graduate, according to college spokeswoman Jessica Vess. She said records indicate no disciplinary actions were made against Conditt.

Although Conditt had worked at a manufacturing company, Governor Greg Abbott said he was apparently unemployed and had no criminal record.

Conditt left little trace on social media. Aside from a few photos of him on his family’s Facebook pages, he addressed a range of topics in a blog he created in 2012. Ms Vess said the blog was part of a class project on US government.

In the blog, titled “Defining my Stance”, he gives his opinion on several issues, often in response to commentary by someone else. Conditt wrote that gay marriage should be illegal, argued in favour of the death penalty and gave his thoughts on “why we might want to consider” eliminating sex-­offender registries.

“Homosexuality is not natural,” he wrote. “Just look at the male and female bodies. They are obviously designed to couple.”

"To defend my stance as well as it should be defended"

In the “about me” section of the blog, Conditt wrote that he was not “that politically inclined”, saying he viewed himself as conservative but did not think he had enough information “to defend my stance as well as it should be defended”. He said he hoped the class would help him do that.

A friend described Conditt as smart, opinionated and often intimidating. Jeremiah Jensen, 24, told the Austin American-­Statesman he was close to Conditt in 2012 and 2013. Mr Jensen said he would often go to the Conditt home for lunch after church on Sundays and they attended Bible study and other activities together.

“I have no idea what caused him to make those bombs,” Mr Jensen told the newspaper, adding that Conditt was a “deep thinker”.

“When I met Mark, he was really rough around the edges,” Mr Jensen said. “He was a very assertive person and would end up being kind of dominant and intimidating in conversation.

“A lot of people didn’t understand him and where he was coming from. He really just wanted to tell the truth. What I remember about him, he would push back on you if you said something without thinking about it.”

He said “the kind of hate that he succumbed to” was not what Conditt believed in during his school years. “I don’t know what happened along the way.”

Mr Jensen said Conditt had attended regular church services at Austin Stone Community Church but he did not know if he “held on to his faith”.

Source: The Australian, AP, March 23, 2018 (local time)

Police: Austin bomber’s motive still unknown, despite video

Austin bomber surveillance video
PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (AP) — A 25-minute cellphone video left behind by the bomber whose deadly explosives terrorized Austin for weeks details the differences among the weapons he built and amounts to a confession, police said. But his motive remains a mystery.

Mark Anthony Conditt, an unemployed college dropout who bought bomb-making materials at Home Depot, recorded the video hours before he died after detonating one of his own devices as SWAT teams closed in. It seemed to indicate the 23-year-old knew he was about to be caught, said Austin Police Chief Brian Manley.

“It is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his own life,” Manley said of the recording, which authorities declined to release amid the ongoing investigation.

Conditt was tracked down using store surveillance video, cellphone signals and witness accounts of a customer shipping packages in a disguise that included a blond wig and gloves. Police finally found him early Wednesday at a hotel in a suburb north of Austin.

Officers prepared to move in for an arrest. When the suspect’s sport utility vehicle began to drive away, they followed. Conditt ran into a ditch on the side of the road, and SWAT officers approached, banging on his window.

Within seconds, the suspect had detonated a bomb inside his vehicle, blasting the officers backward, Manley said. One officer then fired his weapon at Conditt, the chief said. The medical examiner has not finalized the cause of death, but the bomb caused “significant” injuries, he said.

Law enforcement officials did not immediately say whether Conditt acted alone in the five bombings in the Texas capital and suburban San Antonio that killed two people and badly wounded four others. Fred Milanowski of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said investigators were confident that “the same person built each one of these devices.”

Investigators released few details about Conditt , except his age and that he was white. Neighbors say he was home-schooled. He later attended Austin Community College from 2010 to 2012, according to a college spokeswoman, but he did not graduate.

In a 2012 online blog that the college spokeswoman said Conditt created as part of a U.S. government class project, he gives his opinion on several issues, often in response to someone else’s commentary. Conditt wrote that gay marriage should be illegal, argued in favor of the death penalty and gave his thoughts on “why we might want to consider” eliminating sex offender registries.

In the “about me” section of the blog, Conditt wrote that he wasn’t “that politically inclined” but did view himself as conservative.

Jay Schulze, who lives in Pflugerville, said he was jogging Tuesday night when he was stopped by police and asked about the bombings. He said police flew drones over Conditt’s home for about six hours between Tuesday evening and early Wednesday morning.

Schulze described the home as “a weird house with a lot of people coming and going” and a bit rundown.

A neighbor who watched Conditt grow up said he always seemed smart and polite. Jeff Reeb said he has lived next to Conditt’s parents for about 17 years and described them as good neighbors. Conditt had visited his parents regularly, he said.

 The scene where the Texas bombing suspect blew himself up.Conditt’s family released a statement saying they had “no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in.” His uncle, Mike Courtney, said his nephew was a “computer geek” who was intelligent and kind.

Austin was hit with four bombings starting on March 2. The first explosions were from packages left on doorsteps. Then a bomb with a tripwire was placed near a public trail. A fifth parcel bomb detonated early Tuesday at a FedEx distribution center near San Antonio.

Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Austin, said Conditt’s “fatal mistake” was walking into a FedEx store to mail a package because that allowed authorities to obtain surveillance video that showed him and his vehicle, along with his license plate number. From there, investigators could identify the suspect and eventually track him using his cellphone .

Police warned of the possibility that more bombs had yet to be found.

“We don’t know where this suspect has spent his last 24 hours, and therefore we still need to remain vigilant to ensure that no other packages or devices have been left to the community,” Manley said.

By late afternoon, federal officials had a “reasonable level of certainty” that there were no more package bombs “out in the public,” said Milanowski, the agent in charge of the Houston division of the ATF. But authorities urged continued awareness just in case.

“We think we’re on top of this, but we just don’t know,” FBI agent Chris Combs said.

Homemade explosives were recovered from Conditt’s home in Pflugerville, a community where portions of “Friday Night Lights” were filmed. His two roommates were detained for questioning. One was later released.

Investigators said one room in the home contained bomb components and explosive materials but no finished bombs. They were analyzing Conditt’s internet history to find out how he learned to make bombs .

Isaac Figueroa said he and his brother heard sirens and helicopters around 2 a.m. Wednesday in the area and drove toward them, then cut through nearby woods on foot after they hit a police roadblock.

The 26-year-old said they saw an SUV that was pinned between large vans and “looked like it had been rammed off the road.” He said police later deployed a robot to go examine the vehicle.

The suspect’s death followed a day of rapid-fire developments in the case. On Tuesday, the bomb at the FedEx shipping center in suburban San Antonio exploded on a conveyer belt.

Later, police sent a bomb squad to a FedEx facility outside the Austin airport to check on a suspicious package. Authorities subsequently said that package contained an explosive that was tied to the other bombings.

Officers then recovered footage of Conditt wearing a blond wig and gloves as he turned over packages to send at a FedEx store in south Austin. That was enough to set in motion the manhunt that ended with Wednesday’s fatal explosion.

Source: kotaradio.com, March 22, 2017

Forensics Searches Reveal Anti-Gay Austin Terrorist Mark Anthony Conditt Was a Grindr User

Mark Anthony Conditt, the 23-year-old terrorist behind the bombings that killed two and injured four in Austin, Texas, had used Grindr to exchange messages with gay men according to forensics searches. Investigators are struggling to understand what motivated Conditt to commit the bombings.

You may recall that after Conditt killed himself with his own bomb, it was revealed that he had written a series of blog posts on a site called ‘Defining My Stance’ in which he committed his feelings about homosexuality, abortion, the death penalty and other issues.

The Austin Statesman reports:

During the race to stop the attacks and in the weeks after, investigators also obtained information indicating that Conditt was questioning his sexuality. As a 17-year-old, he had written that homosexuality is “not natural,” echoing the teachings of his religious education, and raising the prospect of inner turmoil in his final months…

…“Just look at the male and female bodies. They are obviously designed to couple,” he wrote. “I do not believe it is proper to pass laws stating that homosexuals have ‘rights.’ What about pedophilia or bestiality?”

But two men who lived with him told detectives they thought Conditt might have been gay, and forensic searches uncovered evidence that he used Grindr to exchange messages with gay men.

If he were gay, Conditt would have struggled with coming out, given his family and social circles, said Sierra Jane Davis, a transgender woman who also grew up in the Pflugerville home-school community and knew Conditt.

“It’s not something we talked about, but I do know that it would have been difficult for him and his family,” Davis, 23, said.

There’s no evidence that his sexual orientation or struggle with it had anything to do with his motivations, and it’s unclear what, if anything, will be learned of them. It does appear he weighed religious issues, having “turned against his family’s devout Christianity and declared himself an atheist” several years before the bombings.

Often those with the most aggressive opinions against homosexuality, particularly those with devoutly religious backgrounds, assert those opinions in a reaction against that desire within themselves, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that someone who had written the things Conditt wrote also engaged with men on Grindr.

Source: Towleroad, Andy Towle, May 11, 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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