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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Texas: Judge refuses new attorney for death row inmate who says lawyers abandoned him 3 years ago

Clifton Williams
A federal judge on Thursday accused lawyers of "interfering" and "gamesmanship" in an order denying their plea to intervene in the case of a death row inmate who says his current attorneys abandoned him 3 years ago.

Earlier this week, the local branch of law firm Hogan Lovells filed a request to let Maryland-based attorney Lee Kovarsky bump the current lawyers off the case of Clifton Williams, an intellectually disabled and schizophrenic death row prisoner scheduled for execution in June.

In a 2-page decision, U.S. District Judge Ron Clark ruled that Texas attorneys Seth Kretzer and Wes Volberding would stay on the case, despite allegations that they hadn't visited or done work on the appeals since 2015.

"The manner and submission of Hogan Lovells' motion for substitution of counsel is indicative of gamesmanship and is not in the interest of justice," Clark wote. "The motion to reconsider reveals that Hogan Lovells has been in contact with Mr. Williams and is interfering with the relationship between an attorney and his client."

Kretzer lauded the decision as clearing a path to move forward and focus "zealously" on the case ahead.

"We did not abandon our client and we're not trying to brag but we're 2 of the most experienced capital habeas lawyers in the country," he said. "We aren't interested in battling off other law firms."

But some legal experts took issue with the court's apparent lack of concern over the abandonment claims.

"Orders like that are indicative of judicial unwillingness to understand reality," said Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "This has happened in other states - it's nothing new - but when courts speak of gamesmanship what they are really talking about is giving up the local culture in which there has not been zealous representation on behalf of the client."

Kretzer and Volberding admitted in filings that they didn't visit their client between 2015 and earlier this month. But, they said, that was because the case was tied up in state court over DNA analysis - and another lawyer was assigned to handle that process. Those proceedings ended in 2017.

After a judge signed off on a June 21 execution date this last month, Kretzer and Volberding filed a request to let Kovarsky and Hogan Lovells take over the case. On April 10 a judge denied that request, and that same day a Hogan Lovells lawyer - with Kretzer's permission - visited Williams on death row and asked him to weigh in.

"I thought Seth and West (sic) were off my case since 2015. I haven't heard from them since then," Williams scrawled in a hand-written note. "They didn't tell me when I got an excution (sic) date, not in 2015, and not this time. I don't want them to represent me now."

Then on Monday, Hogan Lovells attorneys entered a lengthy filing accusing Kretzer and Volberding of abandoning their client when they could have been preparing appeals based on his mental disability.

"With his execution fewer than 65 days away, Mr. Williams is effectively without counsel," they wrote.

Kretzer pushed back, saying he began work on an appeal soon after learning of the execution date, and accusing Hogan Lovells of "moonlighting in death cases."

On Thursday, in addition to tossing the request for a new lawyer, the court threw out Hogan Lovells' plea for a stay of execution.

After the decision, Hogan Lovells issued a statement saying the firm "respectfully disagrees" with the court, and clarifying that they'd been asked to step in by another legal group, the Texas Habeas Assistance and Training Resource Counsel.

"A number of firm attorneys have a long history of acting as pro bono counsel to inmates on death row, so we agreed to help," they said. "The only motivation of our lawyers was to attempt to ensure that someone who is currently scheduled to be executed was given every opportunity to raise his legal defenses under the law."

The East Texas man at the center of the legal fight was originally sent to death row in 2006 for robbing 93-year-old Cecilia Schneider before stabbing her and setting her body on fire.

The legal wrangling over his case mirrors a similar stand-off from 2015, when Kovarsky squared off with Kretzer and Volberding over the death row inmate Robert Leslie Roberson.

In that case, the courts initially refused to let Kovarsky and his team take over, though later they stepped in. Eventually, Roberson was granted a stay and the case sent back to a lower court.

In the Williams case, it's not clear what legal maneuvering lies ahead, though attorneys could potentially appeal Thursday's decision. Both teams have said they plan to raise claims about whether the East Texas man is too mentally impaired to be put to death.

But if the appeals fail and everything moves forward as planned, Williams will be executed June 21 in Huntsville.

Source: Houston Chronicle, Keri Blakinger, April 26, 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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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning