Day: September 19, 2012

Death row inmate cites brain damage while seeking new trial for killing 6-year-old Mo. girl- Johnny Johnson

September 19, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A man sentenced to death for murdering a 6-year-old he abducted from her father’s St. Louis County home sought a new trial Wednesday, claiming his attorneys should have pursued a defense that he suffered from brain damage.

Johnny Johnson has admitted that he killed Cassandra “Casey” Williamson in July 2002, though attorneys at his trial said mental illness made him incapable of acting with “cool reflection” and he thus shouldn’t have been eligible for the death penalty.

During appeal arguments Wednesday to the state Supreme Court, a new attorney for Johnson argued that his trial attorneys were negligent for not hiring a neuropsychologist who could have testified that Johnson suffered from brain damage in addition to his mental illnesses. Johnson is seeking a new trial, or at least a new sentencing hearing.

“The jury heard only half the story — the mental disease. There was nothing about the mental defect,” said Bob Lundt, an attorney in the St. Louis public defender’s office who is representing Johnson.

He told the Supreme Court that Johnson suffered three head injuries as a child and two more as an adolescent. Lundt said those made it difficult for Johnson to deliberate about his actions.

But under questioning from the judges, Lundt said no brain scan could show the injury and no scientific evidence could specifically say such brain injuries cause people to commit murder.

Assistant Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang argued that Johnson’s trial attorneys made a logical and strategic decision in focusing on the mental illness as a defense. He said neurological tests conducted on Johnson after his conviction were subjective and Johnson could have intentionally performed poorly in hopes of winning a new trial.

Among those watching the Supreme Court arguments were Casey’s mother, aunt, grandmother and several other relatives or family friends.

Della Steele, who said she was Casey’s great-aunt, said she also had watched Johnson’s original trial and believes he is mentally ill. But she said she still believes he made a choice to kill Casey and should bear the consequences.

“Him being executed is not going to bring Casey back, but what it can do is protect the children of our society — to make sure he never has access to a child again,” Steele said.

Johnson, who was 24 at the time of the crime, admitted he took Casey on a piggyback ride from the home where he had been staying as a transient guest for a few days and then crushed her heard with bricks and rocks after she resisted his attempts to rape her. The killing happened at the ruins of an old glass factory in the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park.

Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder, armed criminal action, kidnapping and attempted rape. In addition to the death sentence, he received three consecutive life prison terms.

Since Casey’s death, her family has undertaken various initiatives in her memory, including a safety fair for parents and children and fundraisers for college scholarships. Steele said the family’s goal is to raise enough money to give a scholarship to each of the graduating members of what would have been Casey’s senior class from Valley Park in 2014.

GEORGIA – Golden gun’ killer Burgess dies on death row – Raymond Burgess

September 19, 2012


A man who had been on death row for an infamous 1990 Douglas County “Golden Gun” murder has died of natural causes just months before he was scheduled to be executed.

Convicted murderer Raymond Burgess was taken “to a local area hospital for an unspecified health related issue where he was pronounced dead on Sept. 16th,” according to Georgia Department of Corrections Public Affairs Officer Gwendolyn Hogan. Hogan would not address information that Burgess had suffered a stroke.

Burgess was scheduled for lethal injection after the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that “the evidence of Burgess’ guilt was overwhelming and five different statutory aggravating circumstances supported the death sentence,” just three months ago and upheld the death sentence.

According to District Attorney David McDade McDade, Burgess and co-defendant Norris Young met while both served prison sentences in the 1980s and after being paroled in 1989 reunited and began committing a series of violent armed robberies throughout metro Atlanta.

The pair became known as the “Golden Gun Robbers” because in each instance they subdued their victims using a distinctive gold-plated revolver. McDade described the crimes as “vicious and violent attacks on innocent victims.”

He said Burgess and Young traveled around metro Atlanta interstates confronting and robbing families that were staying in hotels near highway exits. Burgess’ crime spree involved brutal attacks on at least four other victims at four separate motels prior to the brutal murder of an Alabama man staying at a Douglasville motel in July 1990, as the victim and his family were traveling to visit Six Flags.

Evidence at the murder trial established that Burgess and Young first attacked, tied up and robbed a young couple staying at the motel and held them at gunpoint until Liston Chunn and his family pulled into the parking lot and were confronted by Burgess with the “golden gun.”

Chunn was then shot and killed in front of his family by Burgess after the convicted killer demanded that the victim take his hands out of his pockets. After robbing the victims, Burgess and Young fled.

At trial Burgess was identified as one of two men who attacked and robbed victims at seven separate hotels and motels in the summer of 1990 using the gold-plated revolver in every attack. Several attacks occurred before Chunn’s murder and several in the weeks following.

Following his conviction in February of 1992 for the murder and armed robbery of Liston Chunn and his family in Douglasville, Burgess was sentenced to death and had been on death row ever since, appealing his conviction and sentence.

Killing Time: Resurrecting Death Row’s Exonerated – John Thompson

September 19, 2012

NEW ORLEANS – When a criminal leaves prison, there are often social programs to help him return to society. But that is not the case for the 140 death row inmates whose convictions have been overturned.

John Thompson is number 108. The Louisiana man spent 14 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

He is now using lessons he learned first-hand to help others who have been exonerated.

Death Row Tales

In an interview with CBN News, Thompson recounted the nights of executions at Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary.

“On the night of an execution, you can see all these people gathering outside the prison,” Thompson said. “Lighting candles, some doing the candle lighting. On the other side, people saying, ‘Kill, kill, kill.'”

Thompson’s personal death row tale began in 1984 after the robbery and murder of a New Orleans hotel executive.

Author Ronald Gauthier chronicles the case in his book Killing Time.

“New Orleans was a very high crime city. The murder rate was just sky-rocketing at that time,” Gauthier described the time period of the crime.

“Ray Liuzza was from a wealthy family, hotel executive. So it was a high profile case from the very beginning, so the pressure was on the district attorney’s office to get this case solved and solved quickly,” he explained.

New Orleans police quickly arrested a man who pointed the finger at Thompson. Five months later, the 22-year-old father of two sat in jail. A jury convicted of him of murder and an unrelated car-jacking.

“When the judge sentenced me to death, he tells you about how he is going to kill you,” Thompson said. “How much electric volts are going to run through your body.”

“I wasn’t ready for what was ahead of me,” he said.

Innocence Irrelevant

Thompson spent the first four years of his incarceration at the Orleans Parish Prison. But the true reality of his death sentence didn’t hit him until guards moved him to Angola.

He arrived at his cell to find the clothes of man who had just been executed, still inside.

“That really blew me away,” Thompson recalled. “I started throwing the stuff out in the hallway. They were laughing at me, saying, ‘You better get used to that little brother.'”

However, there was not much laughter during his 14 years of solitary confinement.

John Thompson, while he was on death row, had seven stays of execution,” said Gauthier, recounting some of his research for the book. “That means he had the death warrant brought to his cell. He was prepared for execution seven times.”

“It’s not about whether you did it or not anymore,” Thompson said. “It’s irrelevant. It is totally irrelevant whether you are innocent or not because they are here to kill you. So you have one common goal and that is to try to stay alive by any means necessary.”

That included finding high-powered Pennsylvania attorneys Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney to take his case. By 2003, they had exhausted every appeal.

Thompson recalled the final days before his scheduled execution.

“They were going to execute me May 20. My son was going to graduate May 21,” he said. “So the next day after I was executed, my son was going to graduate from right around the corner.”

Before Thompson could be executed, a death bed confession from an original prosecutor led investigators to uncovered evidence: blood test results, testimonies, and conflicting eyewitness accounts.

“He was actually re-tried and it took the jury less than 35 minutes to acquit him of the murder,” Gauthier said. “So John was freed.”

Helping the Exonerated

Thompson wouldn’t be alone. The cases of seven inmates he met on death row saw their convictions eventually overturned as well.

John was on death row for 10 years when a 16-year-old black boy from New Orleans was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death and placed in a cell directly next door to John Thompson,” Gauthier told CBN News. “And the first thing he said to John was, ‘I didn’t commit this murder.'”

That 16-year-old was Shareef Cousin. His story inspired Thompson to start RAE, Resurrection After Exoneration.

It’s a facility and a program to help exonerees with housing, job training, and medical help. He’s also pulled the community together to support their cause.

“I think we are supposed to have big dreams and big ambitions, but I believe we are supposed to have love and we are supposed to have compassion,” Thompson said. “I think that is what our life is supposed to filled with.”

RAE’s walls are lined with faces of those who’ve experienced that compassion. That includes exoneree number 91, Michael Ray Graham, Jr., who spent 14 years on death row.

Graham shared his story with CBN News in an interview at RAE’s headquarters.

“I believe what my father told me when I was young that the truth will set you free,” Graham said. “But in Louisiana it is a little different. You sweat here.”

A photograph of Derrick Jamison, number 119, is also on the walls. He lost 20 years of his freedom.

Jamison recalled the day he walked out of an Ohio jail.

“The day I came home from death row it felt like, you know how a kid feels that day before Christmas,” he said. “If I could bottle that feeling up and sell it, I’d be a billionaire.”

A Resurrected Life

The justice system dealt Thompson one blow since his 2003 release. A jury had awarded him $14 million in a civil suit against the New Orleans district attorney.

But a divided U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2011, saying while prosecutors admittedly failed to carry out justice, the district attorney was not ultimately responsible.

Thompson is still not bitter.

“When I think about what God has allowed me to do so far with my freedom and the help that He has allowed me to provide for others, I can’t complain, you know,” he told CBN News.

He’s now happily married. And together, he and his wife have seven children and 12 grandchildren.

He often jokes the prosecution may rest, but he won’t. That is, until his work is no longer needed.

CALIFORNIA – Death penalty ban seeks to answer doubts

September 19, 2012

It’s the nightmare of capital punishment, for supporters and opponents alike – an innocent person condemned to death and executed.

As Californians prepare to vote in November on Proposition 34, which would reduce all death sentences to life in prison without parole, both sides on the issue agree that the state has never executed a prisoner who was later proved to be innocent.

Still, doubts persist about the guilt of an inmate who was put to death in 1998. And five men sentenced to death under current California law were later cleared of the murder charges that put them on Death Row.

Those five cases illustrate “how easily someone who did not commit the murder could have been executed,” said John Cotsirilos, lawyer for Lee Farmer, who was freed in 1999 after 17 years in prison.

Farmer was convicted of murdering a Riverside teenager during a 1982 burglary, based largely on a description by the dying victim. His death sentence was overturned in 1989 when the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the prosecutor had wrongly told jurors they could disregard their feelings about whether he should live or die, because the voters had approved the death penalty.

Acquitted at retrial

Resentenced to life without parole by another jury, he won a new trial in 1997 based on newly disclosed evidence that an accomplice had admitted killing the teenager in a separate burglary. Farmer was acquitted of the killing at his retrial.

Farmer’s case is far from unique, Cotsirilos said, because convictions are often based on human observations that may convince a jury but can’t be scientifically verified. In California and other states, he asserted, “people have been executed whose cases had as much doubt as Lee’s.”

The outcomes of questionable cases like those should lead to the conclusion that “it’s just a bridge too far for human beings to try to make that judgment” between life and death, said Charles Bonneau, lawyer for an inmate who was released after 14 years on Death Row.

Troy Lee Jones was convicted of the 1981 murder of his girlfriend in Merced County, allegedly to prevent her from implicating him in an earlier killing that was never charged. A neighbor said she had seen Jones beat the victim and heard her promise to keep quiet, but there were no eyewitnesses to the murder and, according to a court ruling, there were other possible suspects.

The state Supreme Court overturned Jones’ conviction and death sentence in 1996 because of incompetent representation by his trial lawyer, who did little preparation, hired no investigators, and asked questions that led to incriminating testimony by witnesses, including the victim’s 8-year-old daughter.

Charges dismissed

Rather than retrying Jones, prosecutors dismissed the charges. By then, Bonneau said, he and a colleague had discovered that one prosecution witness had been mentally ill, and the victim’s daughter – tracked down, after an exhaustive search, in a small town in Arkansas – had recanted her testimony.

The opposing sides in the Prop. 34 debate take different lessons from cases like these.

“We know that we make mistakes,” said Natasha Minsker, director of the Yes on 34 campaign. By eliminating the death penalty, she said, “we will prevent making the ultimate mistake.”

But Mitch Zak, spokesman for the No on 34 campaign, which is backed by prosecutors and law enforcement groups, said the five reversals reflect a legal system that has the necessary safeguards against injustice.

Death penalty supporters favor “an efficient appellate process that guarantees due process but that also guarantees justice for victims’ families and the people of California,” Zak said.

Doubt after execution

California has the nation’s largest Death Row, with more than 720 inmates. Of the 13 who have been put to death since 1992, when executions resumed after a 25-year halt, little doubt was ever raised about the guilt of 12 of them. But one man, Thomas Thompson, was executed for a killing he may not have committed.

Thompson was convicted of raping and fatally stabbing Ginger Fleischli in 1981 in the Laguna Beach (Orange County) apartment he shared with Fleischli’s ex-boyfriend, David Leitch.

Both men were tried separately. The prosecutor in Thompson’s trial argued that Thompson had been alone with Fleischli and had the sole motive for killing her. Later, at Leitch’s trial, the same prosecutor argued that Leitch had been there and had ordered Thompson to kill Fleischli.

Leitch was convicted of second-degree murder. At a 1995 parole hearing, he said he had seen Thompson and Fleischli having apparently consensual sex that night. If jurors had heard that testimony and believed it, they could not have convicted Thompson of the capital charge of rape-murder, and because rape was the alleged motive for Fleischli’s murder, they might have cleared him altogether.

Jurors also weren’t told that two inmates who said Thompson had admitted the murder were informants with questionable records.

‘Haunted to this day’

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited those omissions in voting to overturn Thompson’s death sentence but was overruled in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision on procedural grounds – the appeals court had acted after its own deadline had expired. Thompson died by lethal injection in July 1998, declaring his innocence to the end.

His appellate lawyer, Andrew Love, said he remains “haunted to this day that my client was executed despite the possibility that he was innocent.” The case shows, he said, that innocent people may die when “a system of justice puts finality and expediency over fairness and reliability.”

Zak, of the No on 34 campaign, countered that Thompson “more than had his day in court” and also had his claims thoroughly reviewed by Gov. Pete Wilson, who denied clemency. “Justice was served,” Zak said.

Spared execution

Besides Farmer and Jones, the previously condemned prisoners who were released are:

— Patrick “Hooty” Croy, convicted of murdering a police officer during a July 1978 shootout in Siskiyou County.

The state Supreme Court overturned Croy’s conviction and death sentence in 1986, saying the jury was never asked to determine a crucial element of the capital murder charge: whether Croy had intended to take part in his friends’ robbery of a store for its ammunition, an act that led to the shootout.

His retrial was transferred to San Francisco, where a jury acquitted him of all charges in 1990 after hearing Croy, a Shasta-Karok Indian, testify about local bias against American Indians and his belief that he would be killed if he surrendered. He had been wounded twice in the gunbattle and said he fired the fatal shot in self-defense.

— Jerry Bigelow, convicted of kidnapping, robbing and murdering a man in a Merced cornfield in 1980.

The state Supreme Court overturned his convictions and death sentence in 1984, saying his trial had been a “farce” because Bigelow had been allowed to represent himself and was denied the assistance of an attorney to advise him. A jury acquitted him of murder in a 1988 retrial after hearing evidence that he had been asleep in a car while an accomplice killed the victim. He was released in 1989.

— Oscar Lee Morris, convicted of murdering a man in a Long Beach bathhouse in 1978.

The state Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in 1988, saying the prosecutor had withheld evidence of favors provided to Joe West, the witness who implicated Morris in the killing. The court upheld Morris’ conviction, but West recanted his testimony just before he died in 1997, and prosecutors later decided to drop the case. Morris was freed in 2000.

Delaware Supreme Court overturns death sentence – LESLIE SMALL

September 17, 2012

DOVER — The Delaware Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence of a taxi driver who murdered a 78-year-old Lewes woman in her home in 2009.

Leslie Small was sentenced last year to death by lethal injection after a Sussex County jury found him guilty of stabbing June McCarson to death with a pair of scissors on the floor of her mobile home, then stealing her Social Security money to buy crack cocaine.

Small’s defense attorneys appealed the decision and argued prosecutors tainted the sentencing process by describing Small’s defenses as “excuses.”

To avoid the death sentence, Small’s lawyers presented a list of mitigating factors for jurors to weigh when deciding if his life should be spared. The factors included Small’s strained relationships with his family, his drug addiction and his HIV-positive status.

The Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution unfairly characterized them as “excuses” several times in remarks to the jury, which could have led jurors to believe the defenses stated by Small’s lawyers were not to be taken seriously.

“A penalty hearing conducted without the prosecutorial misconduct may have led to the jury’s vote being split or in favor of life imprisonment,” wrote Chief Justice Myron T. Steele in an opinion released Tuesday. “Although Delaware law would have permitted the trial judge to impose the death penalty even if the jury had voted differently, we cannot be confident that the trial judge would have done so.”

The Attorney General’s Office would not say if prosecutors will try again for a death sentence.

Small will, at the very least, remain in prison for the rest of his natural life,” read a statement released by AG spokesman Jason Miller.

“The ultimate decision regarding further sentencing proceedings will be made after a full examination of the matter and discussion with those the closest to Ms. McCarson.”