May 26, 2012 Source : http://www.mysanantonio.com
At 3:25 a.m. on May 2, Anthony Bartee was eating breakfast, not knowing if it would be his last.
That evening, Bartee, 55, was to be strapped to the gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville for the 1996 robbery and slaying of his friend David Cook, 37.
Bartee’s attorney David Dow started his day scrambling to get his client a second stay — the first was granted within a week of Bartee’s original Feb. 28 execution date. In addition to the usual appellate route, Dow took an atypical one.
He filed a federal lawsuit against the Bexar County district attorney’s office, claiming that Bartee’s civil rights were violated by prosecutors withholding evidence for DNA testing that could prove his client’s innocence.
The DA’s office doubted the attempt would work because Bartee had 15 years to make evidence claims. And besides, he wasn’t convicted based on DNA. But with Bartee’s death imminent, Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery granted the temporary stay to allow more time to examine Dow’s civil rights claims.
The ruling was rare, experts said, and speaks to an ever-increasing scrutiny of death penalty cases as exonerations from post-conviction DNA testing continue to mount.
“The courts are more cautious, and most people think they should be if there is a question about it,” said Cornell University Law School Professor John H. Blume.
Juries, too, are handing down fewer death sentences, nationwide and locally.
Local prosecutors have noted the trend and are taking a harder look at whether to seek death.
“We don’t go get the death penalty just because we can,” First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said. “It’s a very serious decision-making process.”
Dow did not return phone calls or emails.
A majority of Texans, 73 percent, either strongly or somewhat support the death penalty, according to a University of Texas at Austin and Texas Tribune poll published Thursday. The number drops to 53 percent when asked about the option of life without parole.
A majority of Americans also support the death penalty, according to a 2011 Gallup Poll. But at 61 percent, that support is at its lowest point in 39 years, the poll concluded.
Since the state adopted life without parole in 2005 as an alternative to death, it “definitely changed the dynamics” in Bexar County, Herberg said.
Exonerations also have affected the entire criminal justice system, including jurors who must decide if someone lives or dies, said John Schmolesky, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law.
“I think it’s moved the pendulum to at least introduce an element of skepticism in capital cases,” Schmolesky said.
The last death sentence in Bexar County came in 2009, a year when only one person was condemned to die although prosecutors had sought the death penalty more often than that.
Given that at least 24 people were sentenced to die in the 11-year period that ended in 2006, Bartee being one of them, that’s a dramatic decrease.
Death sentences in the United States also have dropped, by 65 percent in the past 12 years, with 78 handed down last year, compared with 224 in 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Prosecutors here, in deciding whether to seek the death penalty, weigh the cost of the litigation, the circumstances of the crime and the accused killer’s history of violence, among other factors, Herberg said.
“The future danger aspect of it has always been an issue with the jury,” he added. “If they can’t get out of prison, (communities) are safer.”
Bartee’s own violent past wasn’t known to Cook, his friends or family.
He was sent to prison for raping at knifepoint a girl, 15, and a woman, 20, in separate incidents in 1983, according to court records. At the time Cook was killed, Bartee had been out on parole for only 15 months.
The DNA factor
At 9:35 a.m. on May 2, Bartee was eating lunch and visiting with family. His father and sister planned to witness his execution. So did the father, two sisters and brother-in-law of Cook.
n San Antonio that day, district attorney’s office investigator George Saidler, a retired homicide detective who worked on Cook’s case, was searching the police property room for glasses and cigarettes collected 16 years ago from Cook’s house.
What prompted him was Dow’s new request for DNA evidence testing. Prosecutors needed to know if authorities still had the evidence, especially if a court ruled in Bartee’s favor.
Biery’s decision to stay the execution was a move in the right direction, said civil rights attorney Jeff Blackburn, who heads the Innocence Project of Texas.
“We have to err on the side of finding out every fact that we can,” he said. “I think that if we’ve learned anything, it’s that it’s hard to trust the government when they say (DNA’s) not involved in this case.”
Nationwide, DNA testing has been instrumental in exonerating more than 280 people, the majority in the past 12 years. Of those, 17 spent time on death row, according to The Innocence Project.
Still, that’s just a fraction of the more than 2,000 people falsely convicted in the past 23 years, according to the first national registry of its kind, which was released last week.
In response to the growing number of exonerations and advances in DNA testing technology, the Texas Legislature made changes regarding DNA evidence that could help someone wrongly convicted prove their innocence.
Two changes occurred late last year. Lawmakers made it less difficult for someone convicted to get DNA testing introduced in court. Also, judges now have the power to order that DNA profiles be sent through national and state databases, presumably to find out whether someone else committed the crime.
Bartee, so far, has benefited from the new laws.
“I think you do see the courts are saying, no matter what let’s test it,” Herberg said. “We’re certainly seeing that. That’s the reason for this delay (in Bartee’s case).”
The new evidence laws have ushered in debates about what to test and when. Advocates of testing argue that every avenue needs to be explored, while some prosecutors contend that more DNA testing can be used as a stalling tactic.
“DNA evidence isn’t the silver bullet that’s going to solve every single case,” Schmolesky said. “If the (person) admits he was present, he may have left fingerprints, saliva on cups for example, or things that result in DNA testing but don’t show he committed a crime.”
Local prosecutors haven’t wavered in their belief that further testing for Bartee’s case is a waste of time.
“He wasn’t convicted with DNA evidence but by his own behavior,” Assistant District Attorney Rico Valdez said.
A cautious approach
At noon on May 2, Bartee finished visitation. He was transferred that afternoon from death row in Livingston to Huntsville. He had his final meal before his scheduled 6 p.m. execution and waited to see if Biery’s stay would be overturned.
Just after 7 p.m., when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Bartee’s execution, he thanked his family, his supporters, God and his legal team.
With the execution stalled, prosecutors also opted for caution. They sent for testing the glasses and cigarettes Saidler had found in the property room, though no court had ordered it.
They didn’t want lingering unanswered questions about a conviction, if it could be helped.
“We don’t want anyone thinking we just want someone executed,” Valdez said.
Last week the Bexar County crime lab’s testing found on the evidence the DNA of three people — two men and one woman so far unidentified. The results will now be sent through the state and federal databases. As prosecutors hunt for DNA matches, the civil rights case lingers in federal court.
To Valdez, the results so far haven’t changed a thing.
And almost three months to the day Bartee was first scheduled to die, he remains on death row with no new execution date set.