In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many reasons to justify intervening. Billy Ray Irick suffered from psychotic breaks that raised profound doubts about his ability to distinguish right from wrong. Edmund Zagorksi’s behavior in prison was so exemplary that even the warden pleaded for his life. David Earl Miller also suffered from mental illness and was a survivor of child abuse so horrific that he tried to kill himself when he was 6 years old.
Questions about the humanity of Tennessee’s lethal-injection protocol were so pervasive following the execution of Mr. Irick that both Mr. Zagorski and M…

Texas: Harris County killer taken off death row, given two life sentences

Michael Wayne Norris
After more than three decades on death row, a Houston man convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her 2-year-old son was resentenced to life following a federal appeal over flawed jury instructions that failed to consider mitigating evidence.

Michael Wayne Norris last week became the fourth Harris County killer taken off death row under the tenure of District Attorney Kim Ogg. With a new plea deal in place, the 60-year-old will serve two back-to-back life sentences - one for each victim.

"We decided that justice could be served by making sure he never saw the light of day," said Tom Berg, the county's first assistant district attorney.

The complications of decades-old evidence, the uncertainty of going before a jury again, questions about Norris's future dangerousness, and the survivors' consent all factored in the decision not to seek death again.

"This is how this case should have resolved," said Norris's attorney, Allen Isbell. "It's taken three decades to get here, but I'm just glad that eventually it did."

The former truck driver had already served one prison term for murder when he was originally sentenced to die for the 1987 killing of Georgia Rollins and her infant son.

After years of appeals, his case was ultimately bounced back to a lower court in 2015 after Houston attorney Patrick McCann won him relief as one of the so-called "Penry cases" named for Johnny Paul Penry.

Penry - a former Texas death row inmate now serving multiple life sentences - was spared the ultimate punishment after his case twice went to the U.S. Supreme Court, netting a pair of decisions that touched on flawed jury instructions. During the punishment phase of a capital trial, the courts said, juries needed to be specifically instructed on the role of mitigating evidence.

"It's not enough that a defendant be permitted to present evidence that could spare his life," said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center. "The jury has to know what it can do with that evidence."

As with the other Penry cases, Norris won a new punishment phase. Since life without parole wasn't an option when he was first sent to death row, he wasn't eligible for it the second time around. Instead, prosecutors stacked two life sentences, then added in three 20-year sentences for aggravated assault.

"From the very first, Mr. Norris wanted something that would enable him to stay in prison but not be on death row," Isbell said. "He owes Pat McCann his life."

The killings came hours after Rollins incurred her ex's wrath by telling him he couldn't take care of the child during church, according to court records. Norris stormed home angrily, then began calling Rollins repeatedly.

When she hung up on him time and again, Norris headed over to her apartment with a high-powered deer rifle.

Family members who were home at the time later testified that Norris appeared outside the victim's window, broke the glass and fired a shot into the woman's bedroom before climbing inside and firing again.

"I hate to do this Georgia, but I told you. I told you you couldn't mess me over," he reportedly said. "I told you you couldn't leave me."

Norris then opened fire at his ex, left and went to another room, then came back and continued shooting, according to court records. Four shots - including the first one from outside the window - hit the child, though Norris later said he never intended to kill the boy.

Afterward, he came back to his mother's house in tears, then called his pastor before phoning police to turn himself in.

At the time of his original trial, a jury found him to be a future danger - one of the requirements for a death sentence in Texas. Since then, he hasn't caused problems in prison, the assistant district attorney said.

"If the guy has been in prison 30 years and behaved himself that's a pretty compelling argument against future dangerousness," Berg said. In deciding not to seek death again, prosecutors also considered the wishes of the surviving family members, who didn't necessarily want to deal with the stress of another long trial and subsequent appeals.

"What is essentially life without parole means closure," Berg said.

Since Ogg took office in 2017, she's seen four men removed from death row.

First, in June 2017, Robert Campbell was given a life sentence after courts decided he was too intellectually disabled to execute. Then in October, Duane Buck was resentenced to life in prison after a Supreme Court decision reversed his punishment in light of allegations of racist expert testimony

The following month, Calvin Hunter was spared as well, over claims of false expert testimony.

"The whole climate in which we manage our capital cases and in which we evaluate our capital cases has changed," Berg said. "Cases in which might have thought death 30 years ago we might not today."

Source: Houston Chronicle, Keri Blakinger, June 5, 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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