Texas prison officials blame influx of cellphones on poor staffing,
Poor surveillance, inadequate staffing and underpaid, easily corrupted
corrections guards have allowed Texas prison inmates to easily obtain
phones and other contraband, criminal justice officials acknowledged
Tuesday, the day after 3 cellphones were recovered from death row.
A convicted murderer had been using a cellphone to make threatening calls
to state Sen. John Whitmire. One of these phones logged 2,800 calls over
the last month and was used by a convicted murderer to make threatening
calls to state Sen. John Whitmire, who said at an emergency hearing
Tuesday that he was "disgusted" with top prison officials.
"We're talking about life and death, about a death-row inmate calling me
and talking about my daughters," said Mr. Whitmire, D-Houston. "It is more
secure at the Harris County Courthouse, in Houston traffic court, than it
is" on death row.
Texas' 156,000 inmates remained on lockdown Tuesday after Monday's
revelation that a guard had accepted a bribe to get murderer Richard
Tabler a cellphone.
Mr. Tabler and at least nine other death row inmates, most of them
affiliated with violent gangs, made more than 2,800 calls over 30 days.
The calls to Mr. Whitmire referenced the names of his daughters, their
ages, and where they live in Houston.
Wardens from Texas' death row testified at the hearing that their
surveillance cameras don't record footage, and that metal detectors often
don't detect cellphones that are predominantly plastic. Only 22 of the
state's 112 units have walk-through metal detectors.
The wardens said the units are understaffed. And they said guards are so
poorly paid that they can be bribed to bring in contraband everything
from cellphones to tobacco and narcotics. Mr. Tabler allegedly paid more
than $2,000 to get his cellphone.
"The same staff bringing the phone in might be allowing offenders to trade
it back and forth," said Billy Hirsch, the assistant warden at the
Polunsky Unit in Livingston, which houses death row. "If we paid them
enough money, they might not be liable to take that bribe."
Sneaking contraband into prisons is not a new phenomenon. Smuggled
cellphones have been used in lockups across the country to negotiate drug
deals and to order hits on gang rivals.
So far this year, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Office of
Inspector General has recovered 700 cellphones, phone chargers or phone
data chips across the prison system 21 on death row alone.
Mr. Whitmire promised immediate action, from pat-downs to drug dogs to
rewards for information and better surveillance. Long term, he said,
staffing improvements are a necessity.
But he expressed outrage Tuesday that prison officials, who were aware of
the problem, didn't act before it got out of hand. And he demanded answers
for why they hadn't yet asked the Federal Communications Commission for
permission to use cell-signal blockers which would make the phones all
but useless. The blockers require government approval.
On Monday, a weeks-long investigation by the inspector general ended with
Mr. Tabler's arrest while he was talking on the phone in his prison cell.
Authorities also arrested his mother who is accused of arranging for the
phone and paying for the minutes as she arrived from Georgia at
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. She was on her way to visit Mr.
"It's unbelievably difficult to locate those phones, because they move
them around so well and hide them so well," Inspector General John
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry ordered a lockdown and sweep of Texas' entire
prison system, and all visitations have been suspended. More arrests are
Mr. Moriarty said Texas' cellphone problem is worse than most because the
state is the only one in the nation that doesn't have a land-line phone
system for inmates. The phone system has been approved but not yet
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Lowering odds that innocents end up in prison
The Dallas Morning News did the state a great service by investigating the
causes of Dallas County's 19 DNA exonerations. While the cases involved
men of different races and backgrounds, one thing remained the same in 95
% of the cases a mistaken eyewitness identification was the primary cause
of the wrongful conviction.
Dallas isn't so different from the rest of the country. Of the 220 DNA
exonerations nationally in the past two decades, 75 % were due in part to
Who is responsible? Victims aren't. In the Dallas County cases, sexually
assaulted women had the difficult task of identifying their attackers.
These assaults may have occurred in the dark, by masked men or someone
with a weapon. Under such terrifying conditions, "all of the mind's energy
is channeled into the survival instinct," as psychologist Gary Wells noted
in the series.
Police officers, in many cases, can't be blamed either. They have a tough
job getting criminals off the streets as quickly as possible. Detectives
may unintentionally provide cues to eyewitnesses or provide positive
feedback when an identification is made.
Ultimately, the Texas Legislature, courts and local governments should
take responsibility for wrongful convictions. We elected officials to
ensure that police departments are adequately funded and officers are
properly trained. We also must guarantee that impoverished people accused
of crimes receive a quality defense. And the courts are ultimately
responsible for ensuring that evidence is reliable, the innocent are freed
and defendants' constitutional and due process rights are protected.
The legislature has made some progress in tackling wrongful convictions
and bringing justice to the innocent. I authored, and the Legislature
passed, the Texas Fair Defense Act in 2001 to improve legal representation
for the poor. That same year, the Legislature gave inmates the right to
request DNA testing to prove their innocence and increased compensation
for the wrongfully incarcerated.
Unfortunately, further reforms I've advocated have been opposed. But I'm
optimistic about the coming session.
This year, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey formed the Texas
Criminal Justice Integrity Unit to examine wrongful convictions and make
recommendations for reform. The Integrity Unit including Dallas County DA
Craig Watkins, who must be commended for his efforts to improve his
office's work has examined various causes of wrongful convictions. As a
member of the integrity unit, I am hopeful that the interests represented
can agree on meaningful improvements.
I will introduce a package of legislation in 2009 to reduce the chances
that another innocent Texan is sent to prison while the true criminal
remains at large. As evidenced by The News' series, eyewitness
identification procedures must be overhauled, with the goal of making
evidence as reliable as possible. Under my proposal, police departments
must adopt procedures based on science and proven best practices and train
detectives in these methods.
I also will re-introduce legislation to require videotaping of custodial
interrogations to prevent false confessions (and false claims of police
brutality) and disclosure of deals made with informants for their
Finally, if the integrity unit cannot advance these reforms, I will
re-introduce legislation to establish an Innocence Commission to
investigate exonerations and solutions to prevent similar injustices.
I cannot guarantee that these reforms will prevent another innocent person
from being sent to prison. But they will go a long way toward restoring
Texans' faith in the criminal justice system's integrity. And we could all
use a little faith in the system right about now.
(source: Op-Ed; State Sen. Rodney Ellis represents District 13, including
parts of Harris and Fort Bend counties, and is the board chairman of the
national Innocence Project----Dallas Morning News)
22 October 2008
UA 291/08 - Death penalty / Legal concern
USA (Texas) Gregory Edward Wright (m), white, aged 42
Gregory Wright is scheduled to be executed in Texas on 30 October. He was
sentenced to death in December 1997 for a murder committed nine months
Donna Vick was killed in her home in DeSoto, near Dallas, in the early
hours of 21 March 1997. Later that day, John Adams entered a video store
in Dallas and told the shop assistant to call the police because there had
been a murder and he wanted to turn himself in. Adams was arrested and
gave a statement to the police that he and Gregory Wright had been at
Donna Vick's house and that Wright had stabbed her to death.
Gregory Wright was tried first. Adams did not testify, but the prosecution
used the statement he had given to the police that Wright was the actual
murderer. The statement was a detailed account of the stabbing that was
highly prejudicial to Wright. Wright was tried as the primary actor in the
murder. The trial judge instructed the jury that it could convict Wright
only if it found that he had actually attacked Donna Vick. The court did
not instruct the jury on the "law of parties", the Texas law under which
the distinction between principal actor and accomplice in a crime is
abolished and each defendant may be held equally culpable. Wright was
convicted and sentenced to death. John Adams was tried some six months
later under the law of parties. He too was sentenced to death, and he
remains on death row without an execution date.
On 21 June 2008, John Adams signed a statement that "I want the record
clear that Greg Wright is innocent of the crime he's here on death row
for. If you kill him your [sic] killing a innocent man. Greg Wright was
used as a scapegoat. I'm doing this because I'm tired of seeing innocent
people being killed for murders they've not done. The statement I made is
a lie the one that I made at the first of our arrest. Greg Wright is
innocent! I was there and know better." In follow-up statements signed on
6 August 2008, Adams said that he had placed the murder on Wright "because
I was trying to get it off my hands". He said that he, not Wright, had
killed Donna Vick, indicating that it was because of his newly found
religious conviction that he was coming forward now. Adams has not
testified to the truth of his declarations in open court. Another Texas
death row prisoner has signed a statement that Adams "has told me several
times that he panicked and was scared [after the crime] and that [Gregory
Wright] did not kill the lady".
Wright's clemency petition also raises other issues. One relates to
statements made by Daniel McGaughey, the shop assistant who was told by
Adams to phone the police after the murder. A written statement that
McGaughey gave to police on 25 March 1997 stated that Adams had approached
him at the store and told him that "there was a murder and he wanted to
turn himself in", because he "could not live with himself any longer".
However, prior to giving this statement, McGaughey apparently told an
investigator that Adams had said "I murdered someone in DeSoto and I can't
deal with it. I want to turn myself in". The inconsistency between the
statements attributed to McGaughey could render any tape recordings of his
phone call to the police crucial. In a pre-trial hearing the prosecution
informed Wright's lawyers that there were no tapes, but after the trial
began the defense learned that there was a tape of a call made by
McGaughey. Questioned by the judge, the prosecutor said that a tape "did
exist at one point", but that he did not know where it was. The tape
remains missing and has never been provided to Wright's legal counsel.
According to the clemency petition, Wright's trial lawyers did not learn
of McGaughey's earlier statement until after Wright's trial had started,
when the prosecution provided them with documents pertaining to the case.
Wright's lawyers attempted to locate McGaughey, but were unsuccessful and
the prosecution claimed not to know his whereabouts. McGaughey signed an
affidavit in December 2001 that the authorities investigating the case
knew where he was living in 1997. He further stated that in early 1998,
after Wright's trial, he received a number of visits from the prosecution
authorities preparing for the trial of John Adams. He was subpoenaed to
testify at the trial, and spent two days at the courthouse, but he was
never called by the state.
Wright's trial lawyers signed affidavits in 2002 that the prosecution
failed to disclose to them the existence of a witness, Jerry Causey, who
subsequently testified at Adams' trial that he had been in Donna Vick's
car with John Adams hours after the murder, and that Adams had told him
that he had killed Vicks. In 2001, Causey signed an affidavit restating
this claim and adding that he had been contacted by the prosecution in
"approximately November of 1997", i.e. before Wright's trial. The trial
lawyers' affidavits assert that if they had known about Causey they would
have called him at trial.
The prosecution linked Wright to the murder via articles found in a shack
that Wright was said to sometimes stay in. Among the articles seized was a
pair of jeans and a knife. DNA testing established that the blood on them
was Donna Vick's. The 2002 affidavits of Wright's trial lawyers state that
they had not learned until the third day of the trial that letters
belonging to Adams had also been found in the shack. Each asserts that if
he had known this he "would have used the letters to impeach the State's
evidence that the "shack and its contents were solely my client's
property". At Adams' trial six months after Wright's, the prosecution
emphasized to the jury that the shack was shared by Adams and Wright.
Wright's current lawyers state that preliminary DNA testing on the jeans
found at the shack indicate Adams' DNA on the inside thigh.
In its closing argument at Wright's trial, the prosecution emphasized to
the jury that Wright's "bloody fingerprint is on the pillowcase that is
right next to the head of the deceased". According to the clemency
petition, this partial fingerprint is the only physical evidence directly
linking Wright to the victim's body or the room in which the murder
occurred. The reliability of this fingerprint evidence has been called
into question. Before the trial, two detectives had failed to identify the
print as Wright's, and were not called to testify by the state. Instead
the prosecution chose a retired print examiner to testify that there was a
positive correlation. The clemency petition accuses the state of having
"witness shopped" until it found an expert who would testify in this way.
Two forensic scientists have signed affidavits since the trial that the
fingerprint lacked sufficient detail or clarity to be identifiable to
Wright or any other person.
Amnesty International unconditionally opposes the execution of Gregory
Wright and John Adams, as it does all use of the death penalty. Executions
resumed in the USA in 1977, and 1,127 inmates have been put to death
nationwide since then, 417 of them in Texas. There have been 28 executions
in the USA this year, 12 of them in Texas.
Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible (please include
Wright's prisoner number, #999253, in appeals):
- expressing sympathy for the family and friends of Donna Vick and
explaining that you are not seeking to condone the manner of her death or
to downplay the suffering caused;
- noting the doubts that have been raised about Gregory Wright's
participation in this crime, pointing out that he was tried as the primary
actor in the murder;
- calling for Gregory Wright's death sentence to be commuted, or at a
minimum that he be granted a 180-day reprieve so that he can pursue his
claims of innocence in the courts
Rissie L. Owens
Presiding Officer, Board of Pardons and Paroles
Executive Clemency Section
8610 Shoal Creek Boulevard
Austin, TX 78757
Fax: 1 512 463 8120
Salutation: Dear Ms Owens
Governor Rick Perry
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, TX 78711-2428
Fax: 1 512 463 1849
Salutation: Dear Governor
PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY.
Tip of the Month:
Use shortcuts: Do whatever is necessary to make your letter writing as
quick and easy as possible. This way, letters will not be put off and they
can be sent out sooner. Start by making a generic file for each type of
concern; paragraphs on torture, the death penalty, disappearances, denial
of medical care and so on, can be copied into your working file and edited
** POSTAGE RATES **
Within the United States:
$0.27 - Postcards
$0.42 - Letters and Cards (up to 1 oz.)
To Mexico and Canada:
$0.72 - Postcards
$0.72 - Airmail Letters and Cards (up to 1 oz.)
To all other destination countries:
$0.94 - Postcards
$0.94 - Airmail Letters and Cards (up to 1 oz.)
Amnesty International is a worldwide grassroots movement that promotes and
defends human rights.
This Urgent Action may be reposted if kept intact, including contact
information and stop action date (if applicable). Thank you for your help
with this appeal.
Urgent Action Network
Amnesty International USA
600 Pennsylvania Ave SE 5th fl
Washington DC 20003
Email: uan at aiusa.org
END OF URGENT ACTION APPEAL