Category: Texas

Michael Morton tells his story

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Michael Morton is a free man.

In a recent 60 Minutes segment, you see footage of Morton being released from prison and stepping out into the warm Texas sunshine for the first time in 25 years.  “The sun felt so good on my face, on my skin,” Morton recalls, “I felt like I was just drinking in the sunshine.”

In 1987, Morton was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, Christine.  He was sentenced to life in prison.

But he was innocent.

Morton’s case gained national media attention last year when he was exonerated based on DNA evidence — a bandana found near the scene of the crime had traces of Christine’s blood and the DNA of another man.  That same man’s DNA matched that found at the crime scene of another murder that happened in 1988 near where Christine was killed.  Morton was in prison when the second murder occurred.

An investigation by the Innocence Project revealed prosecutorial misconduct in Morton’s case.  Key pieces of evidence were withheld by the prosecution — pieces of evidence that would have cleared Morton’s name. The District Attorney at the time of Morton’s trial, Ken Anderson, is now under investigation.

“I don’t have a lotta things really driving me,” Morton says to the 60 Minutes reporter, “But one of the things is, I don’t want this to happen to anybody else. Revenge isn’t the issue here. Revenge, I know, doesn’t work. But accountability works. It’s what balances out. It’s the equilibrium.”

Check out the full 60 Minutes report here.

Innocent man finally exonerated

Richard Miles served 14 years in prison for the murder of one man and the attempted murder of another.

Miles’ guilt rested on the testimony of one eyewitness who claimed that he saw Miles shoot two men in a Texaco parking lot. Similar to the Curtis Flowers case, detectives pinpointed Miles and decided that he was guilty within a few hours of the shootings. Miles had an alibi and several individuals who corroborated his story, but that was irrelevant. 

Despite little evidence, Miles was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

As of yesterday, however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Richard Miles is officially exonerated.

Unlike most of the exonerations thus far, there was no DNA to test. After it was discovered that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense, Miles was released in 2009 (but not officially exonerated). In 2010, the original eyewitness recanted his testimony, claiming that prosecutors coerced him into identifying Miles as the perpetrator.

Miles is one of many men who have recently been exonerated in Dallas, TX. The stories of several of these men are told in the book “Tested: How Twelve Wrongfully Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope” by Peyton and Dorothy Budd. MWN

Two Years After Wrongfully Convicted Richard Miles Was Released, He’s Officially Innocent

by Leslie Minora

Free for two years, Richard Miles has nevertheless waited and waited for today — the official acknowledgement that he did not commit the  murder and attempted murder at a Texaco near Bachman Lake in 1994 for which he was sent to prison. The detailed 52-page opinion handed down from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reads like the outline of a Hitchcock film, detailing two police reports that weren’t disclosed at the time of Miles’s conviction, a 2010 recantation from the only uninvolved eyewitness and the determination that the small amount of gunshot residue on Miles’ hand was inconclusive. All of which amounted to the decision that the wrong man spent 14 years behind bars.

“When we balance the newly available evidence … with other exculpatory evidence and the evidence of guilt presented at trial, we are satisfied that Applicant has shown by clear and convincing evidence that no rational jury would convict him in light of the new evidence,” reads the court’s opinion released today.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s office recommended Miles’s release in 2009 after they determined that flaws in his trial violated his constitutional rights. Since his release more than two years ago, he’s been working, piecing his life back together and finding support in other exonerees as he waited for a decision from the state court, which must rule on all exoneration cases. But finally, as of today Miles can file for state compensation for his years spent locked up.

“This is going to be great for him because now he can do some of the things he wanted to do” like help his mother, said Charles Chatman, an exoneree who was released in 2008. Chatman and the other exonerees, including Miles, meet monthly, and Chatman tells Unfair Park that he and the other guys have given Miles a helping had since his release.

“We have helped him,” Chatman says, quickly adding that Miles isn’t “the kind of person who just depends on nobody.” Miles has been getting by working at a hotel, Chatman said, but even finding a job was difficult without a declaration of “actual innocence.”  (more…)

Victory for immigrant rights advocates: ICE backs away from family detention in Texas

by Melanie Wilmoth

In 2009, immigrant rights activists successfully fought to end family detainment at the T. Don Hutto immigrant detention center in Taylor, Texas. A few weeks ago, Friends of Justice posted a blog about U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) request for 100 new family detention beds in Texas. Many of the same activists who fought against family detention in 2009 joined forces again to keep ICE from opening a new family detention center in the state.

“Last month,” according to Grassroots Leadership, “a broad coalition of more than 65 national, state, and local immigrant, civil rights, and faith organizations called on ICE to end the practice of detaining immigrant families, including small children and infants.”

As a result of these efforts, ICE has decided not to bring family detention back to Texas. Although this is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. “This is a victory for advocacy organizations who did not want to see family detention return to Texas,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership in a press release, “however, the administration should discontinue the practice of detaining families altogether and prioritize non-restrictive alternatives to detention of families.”

Activists praise ICE decision not to open new family detention center in Texas

By  

Prior to 2009, undocumented immigrant families were detained in a private prison facility in Taylor, Texas. The T. Don Hutto Residential Center, owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), profited from a government contract to imprison undocumented families. After the ACLU of Texas sued the T. Don Hutto Center and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2007 for detaining immigrant children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) changed its policy on family detention in Texas.

Since 2009 the only detention center in the country still housing immigrant families is the Berks County Family Shelter in Leesport, Pennsylvania. As KUT radio in Austin reported, however, in November ICE put out a request for proposals for a new 100 bed family detention center in Texas. (more…)

Will Texas return to detaining immigrant families?

In 2006, the state of Texas began detaining immigrant families and children at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, TX. The detention center did not stop housing immigrant children until 2009, after the ACLU of Texas sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Rather than turning to more humane and practical solutions like probation or home-like community shelters, however, Texas may soon reinstate the practice of detaining immigrant families. According to KUT, ICE recently requested 100 new family detention beds in the state.

We need to consider how the criminalization of immigration contributes to mass incarceration. We must also look at the looming possibility of family detention, the effects of which would be devastating to the physical and mental well-being of immigrant children and families in Texas. MW

Immigrant Family Detention Could Return to Texas

by Erika Aguilar

Undocumented families waiting for their immigration status to be determined could soon be held in detention centers in Texas. The federal government is reviewing contracts from companies interested in running them.

Central Texas housed immigrant families in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor from 2006 to 2009, and some immigration rights advocates say they fear the practice of detaining families could return.

The ACLU of Texas sued the T. Don Hutto Center and  Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2007 for detaining immigrant children.

“The ICE field office started using its discretion a little more bit more wisely, allowing some of the bond-eligible families to bond out,” said Lisa Graybill, the legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “Others were placed in shelters like Casa Marianella, which is a shelter for immigrant families and immigrant women, and other sort of community-based alternatives.”

After that, the only detention center in the country still housing families was in Pennsylvania. That center will be closed in March. But last November, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put out a request for proposal for 100 new family detention beds in Texas. (more…)

Texas redistricting case: A challenge to the Voting Rights Act?

The redistricting saga in Texas is causing concern throughout the nation. Not only could the redistricting case severely diminish the impact of minority voters in the 2012 elections, but it will also likely determine which party will take the four additional Congressional seats that Texas gained as a result of population growth.

The Republican-dominated state legislature drew the highly disputed district maps. “At least three of the four new congressional districts were drawn in a way that seemed likely to favor Anglo Republican candidates,” ProPublica reports,” — Even though Latinos and African-Americans accounted for most of the state’s population growth.”

The case is currently being heard by the Supreme Court and Texas is desperately seeking a resolution before the 2012 elections.

The ProPublica report below, offers an excellent overview of the ongoing legal battle and the potential effects that redistricting could have on parts of the Voting Rights Act. MW

Will the Supreme Court strike down part of the Voting Rights Act?

By Lois Beckett, ProPublica

Yesterday afternoon, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Texas redistricting case that could have major implications for minority voters — as well as determine which party is likely to control Congress after the 2012 elections.

Here’s our guide to why the case matters, why it could pose a challenge to part of the Voting Rights Act, and what impact the Court’s ruling could have on voters across the country.

How did this case end up in front of the Supreme Court?

At its most basic, the case is contesting which district maps Texas will use in the 2012 elections.

This seems like a dry question, but it’s not. Thanks to population growth, Texas is gaining four seats in Congress, and how the district lines are drawn is likely to determine whether those additional seats will be won by Democrats or Republicans — and how big an impact minority voters will have in deciding who the new representatives will be.

Because those four seats could help determine which party controls the House of Representatives, the Texas case is being closely watched across the country.

As it has done before, the Republican-dominated state legislature drew maps that heavily favor Republicans.

At least three of the four new congressional districts were drawn in a way that seemed likely to favor Anglo Republican candidates — even though Latinos and African-Americans accounted for most of the state’s population growth. (more…)

Beyond DNA

Dallas DA, Craig Watkins

By Alan Bean

The Dallas Observer recently published Leslie Minora’s extensive piece on the shift to non-DNA exonerations in Dallas County.  DA Craig Watkins has been accused of grandstanding, Minora says, but his ideological opponents usually overlook the unusual context in which the Maverick prosecutor works:

What his critics ignore is Dallas County’s reputation as a place where prosecutors aimed to convict at all costs. Changing that culture in a conservative, law-and-order minded place like Dallas is difficult. What his critics see as media whoring could just as easily be considered the sort of necessary publicity to change the political culture and — not coincidentally — keep Watkins in office. Watkins, a former criminal defense lawyer, Texas’ first black district attorney and the first Democrat to win the Dallas office since 1986, took a political gamble in establishing the unit. As non-DNA cases increasingly become the unit’s focus, the stakes grow higher as the cases lose the protective hedge of objective, science-based evidence. “I’m sure the day will come when there will be political fallout as the result of a decision we make to exonerate someone with no science. That’s inevitable. That will happen,” Watkins says. But as Duke and others can attest, it’s a risk Watkins is willing to take.

The article notes that Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit dealt with the easy, smoking-gun DNA cases first.  But what about the 85% of criminal cases that involve no meaningful DNA evidence?

. . . the sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists. Modern science has shown the justice system the tip of the iceberg, but how many innocent men and women are suffering in prison and likely to stay there because they have no evidence to test? Where do law enforcement and innocence advocates, faced with sorting out the guilty and innocent, go from here?

The move to non-DNA exonerations will be difficult, Minora predicts.  Recanting witnesses, ambiguous evidence and gross prosecutorial misconduct may raise concerns about the legitimacy of a conviction; but there is no real substitute for the slam dunk certainty DNA evidence can provide.  How will the public respond to cases that, although riddled with issues that undermine confidence in a conviction, fall short of the sure-fire proof of actual innocence to which residents of Dallas County have grown accustomed?   

Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System is highly recommended.  In an entertaining and revealing section, Minora puts Craig Watkins (the most progressive prosecutor in Texas) against Williamson County’s John Bradley, arguably the most law-n-order DA in the Lone Star State.  Grits for Breakfast reported this morning that the Texas Bar Association has dismissed the grievance filed against Bradley in connection with the Michael Morton case.  This suggests that, here in Texas anyway, Bradley’s insistence that the guilty remain behind bars still trumps Watkins’ fears about wrongful conviction.