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Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles

Jon Buice granted parole

This stirs up a lot of emotions.

Paul Broussard

Jon Buice, serving 45 years in state prison for the 1991 gay-bashing murder of Houston banker Paul Broussard, has been granted parole.

Buice, 42, was one of 10 youths from The Woodlands who assaulted Broussard, 27, in the Montrose nightclub district.

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles spokesman Raymond Estrada said a three-member paroles committee Friday voted 2-0 to grant parole. The vote was made by the department’s Angleton office, Estrada said, noting that cases occasionally are assigned to offices with no direct connection to the case.

Buice previously was granted parole in 2011, but subsequent protests led to its reversal.

[…]

Estrada said factors leading to the parole included Buice’s “satisfactory institutional adjustment,” including no major disciplinary cases, loss of time or demotion in classification since his last review. Buice also had successfully completed one or more vocational or academic programs while confined. Lastly, Estrada said, Buice was only 17 at the time of his crime.

He will remain under parole supervision until April 9, 2037.

I said my piece on this in 2013. Rereading what I wrote then, I still feel that way. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith on the role of punishment in our criminal justice system, and how much of it is enough, in general and in a particular case. In this particular case, I don’t think there was enough. The Press and Lisa Gray have more.

On the death penalty

Most of what you need to know about this story concerning Wendy Davis, the death penalty, and the Governor’s race can be found at the end of it.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

In July 2000, when she was a relatively new member of the Fort Worth City Council, Wendy Davis voted for an open-ended moratorium on the death penalty, a move that would have closed the nation’s busiest death chamber in Texas at a time when such a position was a political lightning rod in most of the state.

The resolution never passed.

Now, as the 51-year-old Democrat state senator ramps up her campaign for governor of Texas, her support for the resolution 14 years ago is attracting new attention, even though she publicly supports the death penalty.

Davis says her support for a moratorium in 2000, in a state that has executed more criminals than any other, was presaged on national questions at the time over whether innocent people were dying by lethal injection, at a time when DNA testing that had exonerated several convicts in Texas was just coming into vogue, and over whether juveniles and mentally disabled convicts, even foreign nationals, should face capital punishment.

Through a spokesman, Davis said the questions she had in 2000 have been addressed, by changes in law and by the courts.

“Senator Davis supports the death penalty and as governor will enforce it,” Zac Petkanas, her campaign communications director, said Friday. “In fact, she voted (as a senator in 2011) to expand the death penalty to those who murder children under the age of 10. … Senator Davis remains a proponent of the death penalty as ultimate punishment.”

[…]

In Texas, where overwhelming public support for the death penalty caused three Democrats vying for governor in the 1990s to run attack ads accusing each other of not being tough enough on murderers and other criminals, public support for capital punishment remains strong, though polls show that support has declined in the past 20 years.

“In 2000, as a new Democrat city council person in Fort Worth, given that Texas was far and away the most frequent user of the death penalty in the nation, her vote probably made sense,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has followed Texas gubernatorial politics for years. “Now, she’s running for statewide office in a state where the death penalty has support levels 10-12 points above the levels nationally, so it makes sense that she’s supporting the death penalty now. That’s not surprising.”

What will make a difference in whether Davis’ change of heart becomes an issue in her race is whether Abbott can make it one, he said.

“This apparent inconsistency is not a problem, but the problem will be if Abbott turns it into an issue, saying she does not support the death penalty … and that criminals will be running in the streets,” Jillson said. “If you pressed her, you might find there’s a Democrat city council woman still below the surface.”

To William “Rusty” Hubbarth, an Austin lawyer who is vice president of the Houston-based Justice for All victims-rights group, Davis’ view of the death penalty is a curiosity. Twice in January, he said he wrote Davis asking where she stands on the issue. He said she has yet to respond.

“Considering her past position, does she support it or does she support the platform of the Texas Democratic Party that calls for the death penalty to be abolished?” he said. “Will this hurt her? Probably not. People who love her will love her more, and people who don’t probably won’t care what she did in 2000.”

I’d say Mr. Hubbarth is spot on. There are certainly people that wish Davis were forcefully against the death penalty, but that position is clearly at odds with public opinion in Texas and would be quixotic at best given that she couldn’t do anything to change the law as Governor anyway. What she can do is appoint members to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that would be more than rubber-stampers, and support legislation that makes the process more just and transparent, which is what her support for a moratorium in 2000 after the execution of Gary Graham was about and which is consistent with her legislative record. For what it’s worth, while Texas remains the capital punishment capital of the world, our death row population has declined rapidly in the last decade and is at its lowest point since 1989. This is due in large part to a steep decline in the number of death sentences being meted out in the past decade. People may support the death penalty in Texas, but they’re getting a bit more reluctant for the state to use it, especially with “life without parole” as a sentencing option. All of this is a longwinded way of saying again that I agree with Rusty Hubbarth on the likely effect of this attempt by Greg Abbott to distract from Davis’ TV ad or whatever else he wants to distract attention from. EoW, Texpatriate, and Erica Greider have more.

Tim Cole officially pardoned

This is a small bit of good to come out of a great injustice.

The [Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles] sent a letter to Tim Cole’s attorney at the Innocence Project of Texas on Friday saying that it had voted to recommend clemency and forwarded its decision to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

It would be the state’s first posthumous pardon, and Perry has indicated that he would sign an order clearing Cole’s name if recommended by the board.

“Gov. Perry looks forward to pardoning Tim Cole pending the receipt of a positive recommendation from the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Saturday.

Perry has now fulfilled that promise. Good on him for taking care of it quickly.

Cory Session, who has been fighting to clear his brother’s name for years, said he anticipates that the governor will sign Cole’s pardon in March during a ceremony in Fort Worth.

“To say that the wheels of justice turn slowly would be an understatement,” Session said Saturday.

“The question is: How many more Tim Coles are out there?”

Grits tries to quantify that question. All I know is that if we lived in a society that valued justice more than it valued keeping score, we would have a criminal justice system that went to much greater lengths to prevent this sort of tragedy from happening, and worked proactively to fix the mistakes that did happen. I hope someday to live in that kind of society, but I don’t expect it.

The case against Willingham

Most of the pushback against the criticism of the Cameron Todd Willingham investigation and conviction has so far been of the form of “He was a bad guy!” and “We did too use science to prove arson!”, neither of which has been the least bit convincing. The DMN has a story that does a much better job of creating doubt about any claims of innocence. Basically, Willingham made a lot of inconsistent statements over time, the Beyler report never concluded that the fire was not arson, just that arson could not be proven, and some media reports of one juror’s doubts about her guilty vote were overblown. It does not change the nature of the problem with his case, which is that the forensic techniques used to convict Willingham were bunk, and that many other people have been convicted on similar “evidence”, but it was still a bit bracing to read. I know I for one had held some incorrect beliefs about the case based on previous reporting, and it was good to get set straight on a few points.

But again, this doesn’t change the fundamentals of the case, which still all boil down to this:

Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist from Austin, began researching the fire evidence after being recruited in January 2004 by Patricia Ann Cox, a Willingham cousin. Hurst finished his report four days before the scheduled execution on Feb. 17.

His affidavit, filed in the trial court, said “most of the conclusions” reached by fire marshal Vasquez “would be considered invalid in light of current knowledge” in the fire investigation field. It said the finding of multiple origins – a persuasive sign of arson – “was inappropriate even in the context of the state of the art in 1991.”

Hurst did not express an opinion about what caused the fire in the affidavit. However, in a letter sent to Perry on Feb. 13, 2004, requesting a 30-day reprieve for his client, Willingham’s attorney stated “Dr. Hurst’s opinion is that the fire was not intentionally set.”

[…]

Beyler delivered his report in August. In it, he said “a finding of arson could not be sustained” based upon current standards of fire investigation or those in place in 1992. He did not say what caused the fire, as Corsicana Fire Chief Donald McMullan pointed out in a response.

In an interview Friday, Beyler said that he had no theory about what actually happened and that the cause of the fire is undetermined.

His report did not try to explain Willingham’s inconsistencies and adopted at least one of his claims as fact: that Amber was in her own bed right before the fire. He said he didn’t realize until The News told him that her body was found with the sheet pulled up near her shoulders, raising the question whether she was tucked in her parents’ bed all along.

Ultimately, he said, the conclusions he reached didn’t depend on Willingham’s statements. Beyler said he focused on the science.

“I do recognize that he said many different things to many different people,” Beyler said of Willingham.

At the end of the day, if the investigation of the Willingham fire had been done correctly, there likely never would have been charges filed. The evidence does not support a conclusion of arson. You can’t be certain what a DA might do, but if the one in this case had proceeded he might well have lost. We almost certainly would not be where we are right now had the fire marshal at the time done the right thing. That’s what it’s all about.

By the way, Cameron Willingham isn’t the only one who has given conflicting statements about what did or did not happen. So has his ex-wife Stacy, who is now claiming that he did in fact confess to her, despite saying the opposite in years past.

In a brief interview at her home in 2004, Kuykendall told the Tribune Willingham never made [a confession]. She confirmed that this year to a reporter from the New Yorker magazine.

Her statement that he confessed — and that he said he set the fire because she threatened to divorce him — also conflicts with other accounts that she has provided.

Eight days after the fire, in an interview with fire investigators and police, Kuykendall said that she and Willingham had not argued for at least two weeks and she made no mention of a threat the night before the fire to divorce him.

On that night, she told authorities, the couple went to a Kmart and picked up family photographs that she intended to give as Christmas presents.

She failed to mention a threat of divorce in a second interview as well, and under oath at the punishment phase of Willingham’s trial said he never would have hurt their three girls.

I’m no more inclined to believe what Stacy Kuykendall says now than I am to believe her brothers. The science is the key, as this Star Telegram article admirably reports (hat tip: The Contrarian). Everything else is a distraction.

Perry sneers at Willingham evidence

This is exactly what I expect from Rick Perry.

Governor Rick Perry today strenuously defended the execution of a Corsicana man whose conviction for killing his daughters in a house fire hinged on an arson finding that top experts call junk science.

“I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” Perry said, making quotation marks with his fingers to underscore his skepticism.

Even without proof that the fire was arson, he added, the court records he reviewed before the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 showed “clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children.”

These were the governor’s first direct comments on a case that has drawn withering criticism from top fire experts.

Death penalty critics view the Willingham case as a study in shoddy – or at least outdated – science, and they consider it the first proven instance in 35 years of an executed man being proven innocent after death.

“Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch. Literally all of the evidence that was used to convict Willingham has been disproven – all of it,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York that has championed the case. “He is clearly refusing to face reality.”

Well, yeah. He has a Republican primary to win, you know, and reality is a hindrance in that race. Seriously, this is all classic Perry: the arrogance, the disdain for anything remotely intellectual, the refusal to consider the possibility of error, the bizarre belief that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles actually plays a role as reviewer of the evidence, the “jury’s verdict is final” mentality – if only he felt that way about civil verdicts as well. The one thing I find curious about this is the contrast to the case of Timothy Cole. I guess that bandwagon was big enough that he felt it necessary to hop aboard. I just hope that the Texas Forensic Science Commission is sufficiently independent that the Governor’s opinion in the Willingham case won’t affect their final report. We’ll see what he’ll have to say about that if they do the right thing. The Contrarian has more.

UPDATE: Grits has a good question for Perry.

The New Yorker on Todd Willingham

If you haven’t done so already, you really need to read this in-depth story, as well as the brief followup, on the Cameron Todd Willingham case. Author David Grann gives a thorough overview of the case, and gets into why the “science” that the arson investigators used to build a case against Willingham was complete bunk. I realize that for some people there is no amount of evidence that will convince them that this was a horrible miscarriage of justice, but I do hope they’re in a small minority. It should be clear from reading this that we need more rigor in our forensics, and safeguards in the system that are actually used (the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is a sick joke) if we care about preventing another Todd Willingham. Better judges, especially on the appeals courts, are also a key ingredient. But making sure everyone knows about this case is a start. Read it and see for yourself. Thanks to Greg for the link.