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Monday, June 26, 2006

Texas killed an innocent man

Statement by Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty on the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham:

Members of the Austin chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a national organization whose aim is the abolition of the death penalty, are horrified and saddened by the recent conclusion of a panel of prominent fire experts convened by Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project that a 1991 house fire in Corsicana, Texas could not have been intentionally set.

A Texas jury at the time found based on mistaken testimony of officials who had investigated the scene that the fire was indeed arson. It convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, owner of the home and father of the three children that died in the fire, of capital murder. He received the death sentence for these crimes. Throughout the trial and subsequent appeals, Willingham adamantly maintained his innocence, yet the highest judges in the state of Texas and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his wrongful conviction and death sentence. This ordeal culminated in Willingham’s execution in 2004.

The Texas Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Rick Perry received a report written by another arson expert commissioned by Willingham’s defense team detailing the exact same conclusion, that the fire could not have been intentional and therefore Willingham was innocent, in the days leading up to Willingham’s execution. The majority of the Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Perry rejected the findings of this report and allowed Willingham’s execution to proceed. Only now, two years after the execution when proper reparations are not possible are state officials recognizing that this execution was in error.

The panel’s findings mean one thing: Texas executed an innocent man. Willingham was telling us the truth when he repeatedly claimed that he was innocent, that he had not intentionally set his home on fire, and that he had not murdered his children. The report received by the Pardon and Parole Board and the Governor before the execution took place surely raised a significant doubt about Willingham’s guilt. This should have been enough to get this innocent man a reprieve from execution until all questions were settled regarding his case. Instead, the state chose to allow a man to die that should not have.

This is the first instance in the history of the nation in which we can be as certain as possible that the state executed an innocent man. CEDP of Austin calls for immediate action on the part of officials in the state of Texas to ensure that an error of this gravity is never committed again.

We call on the state of Texas, including Governor Rick Perry, the newly formed Forensic Science Commission, and the Texas legislature, to readily undertake a full investigation of Willingham’s case and ensure that every error in the case is uncovered and made public. If the commission finds that any of these errors were the product of willful neglect or malicious wrongdoing, we must hold those responsible, including members of the Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Perry, accountable and remove them from any position of power that would allow them to influence the course of a criminal case again. We also demand a public apology from the Texas Pardon and Parole Board and Governor Perry for failing to stop the execution of an innocent person. Willingham’s family should also receive compensation for their loss if appropriate.

The Texas legislature must fully fund the Forensic Science Commission and empower them to investigate the evidence used to convict the other 666 people incarcerated in Texas for arson crimes. The commission must have the power to determine if the same errors that wrongfully sent Cameron Todd Willingham to the death chamber in Huntsville were factors in other arson convictions.

Further, we call on the Texas legislature, Governor Perry, and all Texas citizens to reexamine the application of the death penalty in Texas. The most poor, abused, and ill members of society have shouldered the consequences of error in the administration of the death penalty. Cameron Todd Willingham was only one of many uneducated, poor people executed by the state of Texas. The overwhelming majority of those executed by Texas were low-income people who had little access to the excellent legal representation and resources at trial needed to avoid a conviction and a death sentence.

Cameron Todd Willingham was one also of many death row residents whose claims of innocence went unheeded. All those in power who heard his claims of innocence thought that the physical evidence collected from the fire was unquestionable proof that a crime had been committed. Willingham’s case teaches us that physical evidence, however convincing at the time, might not be completely conclusive. Rodney Reed, who now resides on Texas death row and continues to maintain his innocence, was convicted of the murder of Stacey Stites based on one single piece of physical evidence. There was other existing physical evidence pointing to other suspects collected from the crime scene. This evidence, however, was not introduced at trial, and serious questions of egregious error remain about the forensic evidence used to convict Reed. It would be tragic if the state executed Reed and other men and women in his situation only to find out later that they were indeed, like Willingham, innocent.

We must implement needed reforms to our criminal justice system. However, no matter how close the state of Texas reaches to near perfect administration of the death penalty, a chance will always exist that the state could execute an innocent person. However small that chance becomes, it will always carry huge consequences. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty finds that these brutal consequences far outweigh any possible benefit a reasonable person could find in continuing executions. One innocent person’s life is too high a price to pay to continue the use of this outdated, inhumane punishment. This system has claimed the life of one innocent person already, and it would be an embarrassment and a source of shame to let this happen again.

Besides the actions it must take on Willingham’s case specifically to rectify their errors, the state of Texas must proceed quickly and in a manner most likely to protect all innocent life. The safest and most reasonable action the state can take is to declare a moratorium on executions now. During the moratorium, the state would suspend all executions and an independent panel would thoroughly investigate the death penalty’s administration in Texas in order to uncover injustices in its application.

In spite of any support a particular legislator or state official might have for the death penalty, CEDP expects them to support an investigation into its application in order to find existing errors and injustices. This could save the lives of innocent persons who are still on death row. Cameron Todd Willingham cannot be brought back to life, but his memory can propel us to justice for others. We must together send our state a message: no more wrongful executions!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Remembering Shaka Sankofa (Part 2)

Here is an excerpt from the Last Statement of Shaka Sankofa, an innocent black man, who was executed on June 22, 2000.

    Take your message to the people. Preach the moratorium for all executions. We're gonna stop, we are going to end the death penalty in this country. We are going to end it all across this world. Push forward people. And know that what ya'll are doing is right. What ya'll are doing is just. This is nothing more that pure and simple murder. This is what is happening tonight in America. Nothing more than state sanctioned murders, state sanctioned lynching, right here in America, and right here tonight. This is what is happening my brothers. Nothing less. They know I'm innocent. They've got the facts to prove it. They know I'm innocent. But they cannot acknowledge my innocence, because to do so would be to publicly admit their guilt. This is something these racist people will never do. We must remember brothers, this is what we're faced with. You must take this endeavor forward. You must stay strong. You must continue to hold your heads up, and to be there. And I love you, too, my brother. All of you who are standing with me in solidarity. We will prevail. We will keep marching. Keep marching black people, black power. Keep marching black people, black power. Keep marching black people. Keep marching black people. They are killing me tonight. They are murdering me tonight.

    Read the full statement here.

We have a lot of work to do!

Remembering Shaka Sankofa

Shaka Sankofa was executed on June 22, 2000. The CEDP was intimately involved in protesting his execution. Below is a letter from Howard Guidry in memory of Shaka, his friend.

    I met Shaka Sankofa face to face for the first time in the winter of 1998. It was a bitterly cold and oppressive morning on death row. Two nights before, I and 6 six other men had been captured during a failed escape attempt and as a result the prison was under a system wide security lockdown. There would be no recreation and no hot meals for the indefinite future.

    The cage that I was place in was without a mattress and my clothes were effectively stripped away. I paced back and forth for most of that night to stay warm but by dawn I was so utterly exhausted that I laid down on the cold steel bunk. With a toilet paper role as my pillow, I slept until the next day.

    When I finally came to, a Black man in handcuffs was standing in front of my cage arguing with a group of guards. By the way the guards kept anxiously look into my cage, they were obviously talking about me. I got up to listen.

    After a better look, I realized the Black man was Shaka. He was spitting out a fiery lecture on the constitutional rights of prisoners, demanding my bare necessities and refusing to return to his cage until they allowed him to speak with me. I, on the other hand, was getting in the best position to reach through the bars and grab one of the guards. It was all that I could do to help the brother. I knew he was soon to get jumped on. But to my surprise, the guards conceded. I was brought a pair of boxers with the promise of a mattress and a blanket later in the day.

    Shaka was facing a pending execution date at that time. But when the brother stepped to the bars to speak with me, his concern was entirely about MY well-being. Shaka Sankofa was willing to sacrifice himself for me. We became friends in that moment and remained so until his final execution date.

    Shaka Sankofa was a leader. A father. A student of revolutionary ideology. A strong, analytical, intelligent Black man with the heart of a lion.

    But above all, Shaka Sankofa is a selfless spirit, a constant flame in the struggle, reminding us all of our right to stand strong and our duty to fight relentlessly.

    As we celebrate Shaka’s life today, may we also embrace and carry on his fight against injustice.

    Long live that African! Long live Shaka Sankofa!

    Written by Howard Guidry on June 22, 2005, from the Harris County Jail.

Howard Guidry is an innocent man who has spent the last decade on death row in Texas after being forced into confessing to a crime he knew nothing about. In September, 2003, Federal Judge Vanessa Gilmore threw out the forced confession, overturned his conviction and ordered Harris County to release or retry him in 180 days. Texas appealed her ruling but lost, so in April of this year Howard was sent from the Polunsky Unit to the Harris County Jail. He is now set to be retried on July 17. Without the coerced confession, the Houston DA has no evidence on Guidry. Support this young man's fight for freedom!

(Special thanks to Gloria Rubac and TDPAM for passing this along.)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Rodney Reed Update

District Judge Reva Towslee Corbett, the daughter of the judge who presided over the trial that sent Rodney Reed to death row, has recommended that the Texas Court of Appeals not grant Rodney a new trial. The case will now go before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who can agree or disagree with Corbett's decision and determine if Rodney deserves a new trial.

While this was not a suprise to any of us who attended the hearing, as Corbett had a clear pro-prosecution bias, this is nonetheless a sad and frustrating setback. However, the fight to save Rodney's life is by no means over. This unjust decision demands that we move quickly to mobilize and act.

Rather than holding our traditional Monday meeting at 7pm at the Kasbah coffeehouse, our membership will be attending a special screening of State vs. Reed at the Alamo Drafthouse, downton at 4th and Colorado. We will have a table set-up with copies of the New Abolitionist and fact sheets on Rodney's case and the many others we are working on. Admission is the standard $7 ($5.50 for students) and half of the proceeds will go to the Reed family, who are facing considerable financial difficulties in the midst of this nightmare.

We may have lost this battle, but the war for Rodney is far from over. The Rodney Reed case, unique in several respects, is also a prime example of what is the norm in Texas and throughout the country when it comes to capital punishment. Now is the time to raise our voices and let the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals know that we DEMAND a new trial for Rodney Reed!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Support for D.R.I.V.E.

The Austin chapter of the CEDP has recently sent the following out to several activist organizations around Texas. To learn about the individuals in D.R.I.V.E., visit this site.

    The D.R.I.V.E. Movement: Resources for Education and Action
    Prepared by the Austin Campaign to End the Death Penalty


    What follows is a discussion of facts and strategy associated with the horrific conditions on Texas’ death row at the Polunksy Unit in Livingston. The men warehoused at this unit, aside from being sentenced to death by an unjust system, are living in conditions that, by any decent standards of human rights, constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Several of these inmates have heroically launched a non-violent protest against these conditions and have been met with a disproportionately violent response from the Polunsky administration and staff. It befalls all abolitionists and others committed to justice to stand in solidarity with these brave men. What follows, we hope, will serve as tools toward that end.


    From 1965 to 1999, Texas’ death row was housed in the Ellis Unit. Inmates were allowed group exercise time and had access to the same resources as other prisoners. However, in 1999, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) voted to move all condemned male inmates to Livingston. The official rationale for this decision was overcrowding at the Ellis Unit, as several death row inmates were sharing single occupancy cells. However, there was also considerable political motivation. In 1998, seven men attempted to escape the Ellis Unit and one, Martin Gurule, succeeded (though he was found drowned shortly thereafter). This was the first successful escape on death row in 64 years. While a prison board investigation blamed negligent correctional officers, they also commented that group recreation and work time provided opportunities to plan such escapes. The TBCJ subsequently voted to make the move to Livingston.

    Life on the Polunsky Unit

    After being moved to Polunsky, the men on Texas’ death row lost virtually all the privileges they enjoyed at the Ellis Unit. The new facility keeps the inmates in 23-hour administrative segregation inside 60 square foot cells with sealed steel doors. They have lost all group recreation, work programs, television access (some inmates are allowed radios), and religious services. There are no contact visits allowed at Polunsky, meaning that the men on death row will never make physical contact with anyone other than prison staff as they move toward their execution date. Inmates are only allowed one five minute phone call every six months, their mail is often censored, the quality of food is particularly low, and they are given inadequate health and dental services.

    The fact that such conditions can have profoundly negative psychological impacts on inmates is well-documented. Many of these men are losing their minds, attempting suicide, and abandoning appeals. Such conditions also set a bad precedent for conditions across the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

    The D.R.I.V.E. Movement

    The Death Row Inner-Communalist Vanguard Engagement (D.R.I.V.E.) consists of several (approximately seven) men housed on death row at the Polunsky Unit. Through a variety of non-violent strategies, they have begun launching protests against the conditions at Polunsky, in particular, and capital punishment, in general. The following is taken from the D.R.I.V.E. website (http://www.drivemovement.org) and summarizes the strategy the inmates have been using:

      * Actively seek to consistently voice complaints to the administration
      * Actively seek to organize grievance filing to address problems
      * Occupy feeding slots when feeding procedures are improperly done (Lack of sanitation by officers) and when food is improperly prepared (meager, malnourished portions: under cooked, spoiled) until changed
      * Occupy day rooms when there is an act of abuse of authority by guards (verbal abuse; physical abuse; meals/recreations or showers being wrongly denied; unsanitary day rooms and showers being allowed to persist; medical being denied; paper work being denied; refusing to contact higher rank to address the problems and complaints) and when retaliation (thefts, denials, destruction of property; food restrictions; wrongful denials of visits; abuse of inmates) is carried out in response to our grievances, outside support and collective protest:
      *Initiate sit-ins in visiting rooms, hallways, pod runs and recreation yards (when the above takes place)
      *Deploy the use of Polunsky Unit video cameras so that protest may be documented (which can be accessed by the public)
      *Non-violently refuse to evacuate cells when the above mentioned problems occur. Occupation will persist until change is implemented
      *Seek to organize supporters on the outside to write petitions, letters, make phone calls, e-mail and send faxes to address problems and abuses at hand (and protests in front of the prison when possible)
      *Educate prisoners to intelligently handle cases of abuse, attacks and oppression

    Barriers to Victory

    The D.R.I.V.E. movement constitutes a bold challenge to the powers-that-be in the TDCJ and the Texas state government as a whole. However, these men face significant repression and other barriers, making it absolutely crucial that activists on the outside mobilize around this important cause.

    Officials at the Polunsky Unit have reacted harshly to these protests. When the D.R.I.V.E. activists occupy a space in protest of a fixable problem, they are often met by a SWAT team and tear gas. Often, when gassed, the men are not allowed to shower until a number of days after the incident, allowing the gas to corrode their skin. Other forms of repression include seizing of clothes, bedding, and other possessions from cells. A particularly disgusting punitive measure practiced in administrative segregation units throughout Texas is the food loaf. Rather than a standard meal, the inmate is given a baked lump of the day’s cafeteria leftovers. By all accounts, it is inedible.

    Beyond these direct acts of repression, the TDCJ continues to turn a deaf ear to these protests. Officials are quick to claim that the D.R.I.V.E. protest has little to do with the conditions on the Polunsky Unit and essentially amount to nothing more than an anti-death penalty protest. TDCJ employees are also stubbornly committed to their job descriptions, drawing a very clear line between the issues they are qualified to address and those they are not. Throughout the Texas state government, one finds a number of convenient escape routes for officials, elected and otherwise, who would rather not address such uncomfortable issues. Diffusion of responsibility is common practice throughout the power structure in the state of Texas.

    Toward Solidarity

    So, what is to be done? The anti-death penalty movement has a significant interest in challenging the horrendous conditions at Polunsky and the violent repression taking place there. The period leading to execution is a part of the death sentence and, thus, demands our attention. Furthermore, any demand for the rights of the condemned affirms what the state of Texas wishes to deny, the humanity of the people they have chosen to kill. Solidarity with D.R.I.V.E., thus, becomes an important intervention in the prevailing discourse surrounding the death penalty. Moreover, the conditions on death row are symptomatic of a broader prison industrial complex that is rotten to its very core, both in Texas and nationally.

    The first step we can all take is to build a coalition around living conditions on death row. The Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) invites all Texas anti-death penalty groups, as well as other organizations interested in human rights, criminal justice reform, racial equality, and other struggles for justice to join us in voicing our outrage at what the condemned are forced to withstand on a daily basis. It is crucial that we begin organizing and communicating in the interest of challenging this grotesque expression of state power. If you are interested, please contact the CEDP at cedpaustin@gmail.com.

    Both as a coalition and as individual groups, we must put the TDCJ and Texas state government on notice. Nothing will change at Polunsky as long as those in power are convinced they can continue in this fashion with impunity. Individuals worth contacting include TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston, Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chair Christina Melton Crain, Correctional Institutions Division Director Doug Dretke, the Correctional Institutions Division Ombudsman, Polunsky Senior Warden, Lloyd Massey, and elected officials. While most of these people will deny it, they are all in positions to influence Texas’ policies and are, therefore, all viable targets for protest. We have provided specific contact information in an attached appendix.

    Exploiting media resources is also important. Write letters to the editor to your local newspaper and encourage the editors to cover the horrors at Polunsky. As our coalition will ideally organize a number of events in solidarity with the D.R.I.V.E. movement, we should begin building good relationships with the media now.

    Finally, we must work with the men inside Polunsky. Establishing pen-pal relationships with and visiting the men of D.R.I.V.E. is not only a welcome reminder to these brave activists that they are not alone in their struggle, but also allows us to join minds and strategies toward forming a broad movement that challenges injustice within the TDCJ. If you are interested in getting a pen-pal and/or visiting a D.R.I.V.E. inmate, please contact CEDP member Randi Jones at RandiJ42@satx.rr.com.


    The conditions on the Polunsky Unit are unacceptable and should concern all activists committed to human rights. The anti-death penalty movement, in particular, is well-positioned to challenge an apathetic TDCJ and state government, joining in solidarity with the man of D.R.I.V.E. and letting the powers-that-be know that we will not sit idly by as they mock the very notion of justice.

    Appendix: Contact Information

    Brad Livingston, Executive Director
    Texas Department of Criminal Justice
    P.O. Box 99
    Huntsville, Texas 77342-0099
    936-437-2123 (Fax)

    Christina Melton Crain, Chair
    Texas Board of Criminal Justice
    P. O. Box 13084
    Austin, Texas 78711
    512-305-9398 (Fax)

    Doug Dretke, Director
    Texas Department of Criminal Justice
    Correctional Institutions Division
    P.O. Box 99
    Huntsville, Texas 77342
    936-437-6325 (Fax)

    Correctional Institutions Division Ombudsman Office
    Texas Department of Criminal Justice
    P.O. Box 99
    Huntsville, TX 77342-0099
    936-437-6668 (Fax)

    Lloyd Massey, Senior Warden
    Polunsky Unit
    3872 FM 350 South
    Livingston, Texas 77351
    936-967-8082 Ext. 054

Monday, June 05, 2006

Execution Alert 6/6/06

Texas has plans to execute Timothy Titsworth, a white male from Randall County, on Tuesday, June 6, at 6pm. CEDP members, along with others, will be gathering in protest behind the governor's mansion on Lavaca Street, in between 10th and 11th Streets, from 5:30-6:30pm. Join us.

Below is a brief statement we've prepared about Timothy:

    Timothy was convicted in October 1993 for the murder of Christine Sossaman, his girlfriend with whom he shared a trailer in Amarillo, TX. He was twenty years old at the time of the crime. According to the report on the TDCJ website, Timothy murdered Christine with an axe while she was sleeping. The couple had a fight earlier that evening. Timothy left, got high on cocaine, then came back home. He killed Christine after he returned home. He then took some of her stuff and left in her car, returning back to the house over the course of the next couple of days to get more of her stuff. Christine was found dead by her mother On July 26, 1992. Timothy was arrested while found driving Christine’s car the same day.

    Timothy was eligible for the death penalty because the crime was officially ruled a robbery-homicide. Timothy supposedly confessed to the murder; however, The NCADP website reports that:

      Soon after being arrested, Titsworth made a confession to the police, describing the events listed above. However, just before the confession, when Titsworth was being booked at the police station, the sheriff’s deputy processing him, Cindy Risley, commented to other officers how intoxicated Titsworth appeared. She testified: “‘[He] would laugh, he’d nod off. I had to wake him up a couple of times during the booking process. He didn’t seem to understand at the time what he was being brought in for.’” Furthermore, “[Risley] recalled that [Titsworth] answered questions as if the victim were still alive.” The prosecutor in the case argued that Titsworth could not have been intoxicated when his confession was made, saying that it fails to fit within the timetable of Titsworth’s drug or alcohol use and arrest. Yet even if this were true, Titsworth clearly seems to have been exhibiting some mental disturbance when he was confessing.

    There are also some issues regarding his legal representation at the time of the trial. The Canadian Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has a webpage set up for Timothy where he has written that there was some confusion about who his lawyer was. Timothy says that the original lawyer appointed to him dropped out of the case after six months. No one notified Timothy that this was the case, and so he assumed that his lawyer was just really busy. New lawyers were appointed for Timothy in August 1993, only two months prior to his trial, thus not giving them sufficient time to prepare. Timothy was found guilty and has lost every appeal since. He last appealed to the US Supreme Court, where he was denied a review of his case on January 9 of this year.

    Timothy has only an eighth-grade level of education and was in trouble with the law throughout his teens. At age 13 he was arrested and sent to counseling for breaking into a shed. He was then arrested at 15 for drugs and placed on probation. At the time of the Sossaman’s murder, Timothy had a warrant out for his arrest for unauthorized use of a vehicle. While awaiting trial, Timothy and some other inmates escaped from jail and were re-captured after a high-speed chase.

    A quote from Timothy: “If one has a look into the cells of US Prison[s], one will see that there are mostly ethnic [minorities] and poor people on Death Row. And they call it justice!”