Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday news roundup: playing the death lottery

Three articles from around the US today can best be summed up by the title above "playing the death lottery." Be forewarned the first story is potentially heartbreaking. The second story is baffling. The third story is that of life after death row, the Kerry Max story.

The Dothan Eagle has the story of a capital murder case in Alabama where the "victim" may have been a stillborn child and where the autopsy is inconclusive as to the cause of death.

David Brown believes his stepdaughter, Shakira Thomas.
He believes what she told him on a warm July day in 2005, that scared and nervous, the 19-year-old girl walked into the bathroom at her residence and gave birth to a baby girl. She told him the baby died naturally moments later, and out of fright and confusion, she put the baby in a garbage bag and placed it in the woods behind their home.
District Attorney Doug Valeska believes what Thomas told investigators. After Brown found the baby and called police, Thomas was interrogated and told police she birthed the baby in the bathroom toilet and left it there around five minutes. She told police she could hear the baby crying, that it was alive. She told the police she didn't want the baby, that she picked the girl up out of the toilet and held it close to her and heard the baby cry and felt it kick until the baby stopped breathing, then put the baby in a garbage bag and placed it in the woods behind their home.
A grand jury indicted Thomas for capital murder. Her trial is scheduled for later this year.
Brown believes his stepdaughter, still scared and confused, told the investigators what they wanted to hear so she could go home. He believes she was coerced by police and made the story up about the baby being alive.
Valeska believes Thomas made up the story about the baby dying naturally in order to avoid punishment.
Brown cites an autopsy report that lists the cause of death as undetermined, and that there was no indication of external injuries. He also cites the age of the baby, believed to be between 24 and 30 weeks. He and Thomas' attorneys, Tom Brantley and Billy Joe Sheffield, believe Thomas has been overcharged. Brown said the only legitimate charge his stepdaughter should face is desecration of a corpse.
"My daughter is not a murderer and the facts will speak for it," Brown said.

The Roanoke Times looks at the death lottery in Virginia:

A death sentence last week shows how the decision is full of variables, experts say.

8 months pregnant, Tammy Lynn Baker died from the blast of a pipe bomb rigged outside her Louisa apartment by a boyfriend who didn't want to pay child support. The killer was sentenced to life in prison.

Hiding in a closet after his parents were shot to death at their Tazewell County home, 14-year-old Bobby Hopewell suffered the same fate. The killer was sentenced to life in prison.

Serving time in a maximum-security prison in Lee County, Robert Sandoval was strangled by his cellmate after the two criminals bickered over one eating the other's breakfast. But this time, the killer was sentenced to death.

A jury's decision last week to condemn Carlos Caro for the prison killing of Sandoval marked the 1st time federal prosecutors in the Western District of Virginia obtained a death sentence since Congress reinstated capital punishment for some federal crimes nearly 2 decades ago.

Perhaps the chief reason I am a criminal defense lawyer is the hatred of the word "kafkaeque." When I saw this story in the Austin American Statesman with that word in you could almost bet the story would end up here. Kerry Max Cook sums up his ordeal on death row that it was "as Kafkaesque as it could ever get in America. A man was railroaded here."That story begins:

Beginning in the summer of 1977, when Linda Jo Edwards was found raped, murdered and mutilated in her Tyler apartment, Smith County fought hard to kill Kerry Max Cook for the deed.

Tried, convicted, sentenced to die and sent to the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Cook was raped shortly after his arrival and made a sexual slave, a commodity to be traded like cigarettes in the death house economy. Over more than 2 decades he endured 3 trials, appeals that raised his hopes and dashed them again, brutal assaults and suicide attempts, the last of which, in August 1991, included nearly severing his penis. He dipped a finger in his own blood to scrawl a final message on the wall of his cell: "I was an innocent man." The organ was reattached and Cook recovered.

Over and over, his lawyers argued that Cook had gotten a raw deal, railroaded to death row by prosecutors and police. Finally, the appeals court agreed with them and ordered a new trial, his fourth. At the 11th hour, prosecutors offered a deal, and Cook walked out of the Bastrop County Courthouse a free man.

That was 8 years ago. But to borrow from Faulkner, the past is never in the past for Kerry Max Cook.

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