April 8

APRIL 8, 2018:


Man Charged with the Capital Murder of Eric Torrez has a Court Date Monday

2 men charged with capital murder are scheduled to be in court in San Angelo on Monday.

The punishment phase of Isidro Delacruz's capital murder trial is set to resume Monday. District Judge Ben Woodward on Wednesday recessed the trial and sent the jury home until Monday while attorneys work on what the Judge called a "bump in the road." Delacruz was found guilty of capital murder and faces a sentence of life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Also on Monday, 34-year-old Stephen Lynn Jennings has his 1st pretrial hearing. Jennings was arrested in July 2017 in the murder of Eric Torrez. Jennings is charged with capital murder by terroristic threat, aggravated kidnapping and tampering with physical evidence/human corpse.

As we reported back in August, Torrez went missing July 21 from Abilene in what previous reporting suggests was a dispute with his ex-wife. His body was discovered in a pasture 8 miles south of Barnhart Friday. The Sheriff has 3 in custody while the investigation continues, including Torrez's ex-wife, Kristen Jennings, who is held in the Taylor County Jail on charges of breaking and entering with intent to commit another felony. Stephen Lynn Jennings, Kristin Jennings' current husband, and Gary Lynn Jennings, Stephen's father, are being held for the offense of tamper or fabricate with physical evidence with intent to impair.

Jennings' murder charges stem from the July 21 disappearance of Eric Torrez, who was reported missing after leaving the Abilene area for San Angelo. The Sheriff suspected foul play. Last Friday, the Sheriff found Torrez's body in a pasture 8 miles south of Barnhart.

Jennings has a pretrial hearing set for 1:30 p.m. Monday in front of District Judge Jay Weatherby.

(source: sanangelolive.com)


Timeline: Louisiana's split-verdict jury law and its racist, white supremacist roots

The fix was in against black Louisianians when 134 delegates gathered at Tulane Hall in New Orleans in February 1898 to draft a new state constitution.

Their marching orders: whitewash the voter rolls as thoroughly as possible - without running afoul of federal law.

Those rolls had swelled with black voters during Reconstruction. Their numbers had reached 130,000 in Louisiana, rivaling white voters in a state in which about half the population was black.

In Louisiana, there's an unusual and long-standing allowance for non-unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases.

E.B. Kruttschnitt, a lawyer and New Orleans school board president who led the 1898 convention, bluntly described the gathering's purpose.

Voters "have intrusted to the Democratic party of this State the solution of the question of the purification of the electorate. They expect that question to be solved, and to be solved quickly," he announced.

The goal was to eliminate "the mass of corrupt and illiterate voters who have during the last quarter of a century degraded our politics," he said.

Many of the laws of the 1898 convention have been erased over time, chiefly by court rulings and federal legislation during the civil rights era.

But one product of that ugly meeting remains largely intact: a constitutional provision that abandoned Louisiana's long-standing practice of requiring unanimous jury verdicts to send people to jail. After the convention, only 9 of 12 votes would be needed, a practice unique in America.

The measure was one of several designed to speed things along in parish courtrooms and, in Kruttschnitt's words, "relieve the parishes of the enormous burden of costs in criminal trials."

But efficiency wasn't the only goal. As the curtain rose on the convention, the Comite des Citoyens, a mostly black and Creole civil rights group based in New Orleans, was taking aim at so-called "Jim Crow juries" - those that excluded black people.

The group already had become known for championing the cause of Homer Plessy, who challenged the segregation of rail cars in Louisiana. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, legalized the "separate but equal" doctrine in the country for the next 6 decades.

Constrained by rulings Although the Plessy ruling was a victory for white supremacists, the delegates to the 1898 convention knew they couldn't simply ban black jurors, even if that was their aim.

Congress in 1875 had made it illegal to exclude people from jury service "on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude." And in 1880, the Supreme Court for the first time reversed a state conviction because of the exclusion of black jurors when it deemed West Virginia's blanket ban on them to be unconstitutional.

Less than a year before the Louisiana delegates met, a Creole man had been mistakenly seated on a federal jury in New Orleans and then booted off, provoking a fierce response led by New Orleans civil rights attorney Louis Martinet - and just as strident a retort.

On the eve of the 1898 convention, a U.S. senator from New Hampshire - prodded by Martinet - was demanding that the U.S. attorney general account for black participation on state juries.

The Daily Advocate quipped that the Northern senator ought to retire to "a clime hotter than this," in a broadside launched a week before the convention.

"It is unfortunately too true that many negroes serve on juries in this State and the interests of justice are not subserved thereby," the editorial said.

"Even intelligent negroes in this State prefer to be tried by white juries," it went on, because "in the majority of instances the negro juryman is governed by his feelings rather than by the law and the evidence."

Convention delegates were more circumspect as they ratified several changes to jury rules they said were designed to save money and speed the route to trial and conviction.

Misdemeanors now would be tried before judges, not juries. Lesser offenses would be tried by juries of just 5 members. And in the state's guiding document, which went into law without a public vote, the delegates approved 9-3 verdicts for serious felonies.

The court minutes from the February 2013 trial of Jarrell Arline on a charge of dealing cocaine are so cursory they border on cryptic.

Tulane University history professor emeritus Lawrence Powell said the strength of the Afro-Creole movement in and around New Orleans may be why Louisiana, and no other Deep South state, took such a dramatic turn away from centuries of Anglo-Saxon tradition.

But there is no mention of the divided-verdict rule in the convention's official journal, and Powell argued that the delegates were careful to leave little record of their real intentions.

"They were very cryptic, and it was almost self-consciously racially neutral. They had to use stratagems and ruses," he said.

Still, Thomas Semmes, a former Confederate senator who headed the convention's judiciary committee, crowed that the delegates had fulfilled their mission "to establish the supremacy of the white race in this State to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done."

The new constitution

The split-jury law would remain intact, despite countless subsequent revisions to the state constitution, until 1973, when lawmakers altered it after a divided U.S. Supreme Court had validated less-than-unanimous verdicts in state courts but forbade them in federal ones.

10 jurors have since been required for a verdict in serious felony cases in Louisiana, though juries in capital trials must still reach unanimity.

The 1973 constitutional convention was a remarkable moment in Louisiana history: Just a few years after civil rights struggles roiled the South, a biracial group of 132 delegates rewrote the entire Louisiana constitution, simplifying it from some 700 pages to a slim 47. Voters ratified the new constitution in 1974 with 58 % support.

Among the delegates, 11 were black and 11 were women, according to the convention's chairman, E.L. "Bubba" Henry.

"It started off a little bit contentious because we didn't know one another," Henry said recently. "The longer we worked together, we started liking each other."

Though a transcript shows he participated in the debate over jury verdicts on Sept. 8, 1973, Henry said he couldn't recall it.

But the racial origins of the split-jury law never came up that day.

The law's defenders argued a change wasn't necessary. After all, the Supreme Court had approved Louisiana's system just a year earlier. Why risk an increase in hung juries?

Chris Roy, an Alexandria attorney and vice chairman of the convention, ripped the 9-3 verdict rule in effect at the time - noting that it allowed for a conviction even when 1/4 of a jury believed the defendant innocent.

"My point ... is that if the rest of the United States can require unanimous verdicts and the federal system can require unanimous verdicts, why can't we in Louisiana require at least 5/6 verdicts to convict?" he asked his fellow delegates.

Roy proposed a change: require unanimity in all cases where a conviction mandated a sentence with no parole. Armed robbery, with its 99-year maximum sentence, was his case in point.

For all other major felonies, Roy proposed raising the required majority for a verdict to 10 votes.

In pushing for the change, Roy told the delegates it was "generally ugly, poor, illiterate and mostly minority groups" members that get convicted by juries.

"It wasn't a black-white issue, although it was likely to be something that played a part in the decision," Roy, now 82, said in a recent interview.

His proposal met with resistance led by I. Jackson Burson Jr., at the time a St. Landry Parish prosecutor who scorned Roy's view that 9-3 verdicts didn't pass the sniff test for "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"Didn't the U.S. Supreme Court uphold this as constitutional?" Burson asked.

Walter Lanier Jr., a Lafourche Parish attorney who would go on to become a judge, crafted a compromise: unanimous verdicts in capital cases, 10-2 verdicts needed in cases "in which the punishment is necessarily confinement at hard labor."

He maintained the split-verdict system was a laudable "modernization" of criminal justice, a field in which he described Louisiana as a national leader.

In a recent interview, Lanier, 79, said he suspected the split-verdict principle got here in the first place by way of the state's legal roots in the Napoleonic code - a false assumption. He'd been unaware, he said, of its genesis in the racist convention of 1898.

"I don't remember anything about that. I remember just talking about what was on the books," Lanier said.

At the time, his attitude was, "Let's get something reasonable that we could operate with. 9 out of 12, 10 out of 12 - big deal," he said.

"Most of the juries I've seen have been unanimous. I wasn't even thinking in those (racial) terms, or even paying attention to those terms."

Burson, now 79, said recently that he actually favored a change as well, but feared Roy's push for unanimity would draw "opposition we didn't want" to the new constitution as a whole.

"I knew enough about the genesis of most of the laws passed in the earlier constitution," Burson said, but "I felt like if we came and hit people by moving from 9 to unanimous, we were going to have a difficult time. I'd rather make progress than aim for the moon and get nothing."

The modified rule passed with scant opposition - a 99-5 vote in favor of Lanier's compromise. It included one other change: Instead of 5-member juries that needed to be unanimous for lesser felonies, the delegates agreed that those juries would have 6 members and could convict or acquit on the agreement of 5.

The right of a defendant to be judged by "a jury of one's peers" is a bedrock concept in American justice, dating to ancient English common law.

It was seen as a neat parallel to the 5/6 requirement the delegates approved for 12-member juries. But the U.S. Supreme Court didn't see it that way, striking down 5-1 criminal verdicts 6 years later.

Since then, those "6-pack" or "bobtail" juries have been required to return unanimous verdicts.

'Nothing revolutionary'

Thomas Velazquez, of New Orleans, the only known surviving black delegate to the convention, told The Advocate he didn't recall the debate over the verdicts issue. He held a degree in chemistry and sat on the committee for the environment

But Velazquez, 78, said he does recall a racial dynamic to the proceedings.

"You got to remember, it's almost a light year from 1973 to today. Anything you think about, there was a flavor of it there," he said.

"Every effort was made to kind of iron it out," he added. But "it would seem an advancement in the struggle could have been greater. People were there to protect certain things. I think a great step forward was made in many ways, but you got to realize, Louisiana is a conservative state. There was nothing revolutionary going to take place at the convention."

Edwin Edwards, who convened the 1973 convention in the 1st of his 4 terms as governor, initially defended the split-verdict compromise in an interview with The Advocate last summer.

"I like the rules. At some point, you've got to decide where the line of demarcation is," said Edwards, now 90.

"Now, there are some people who think that in all trials, there should be a 12-person jury and a unanimous verdict. But that would burden the legal system a great deal and add greatly to the expense of people who are charged with crimes."

Edwards then went on to complain bitterly about his 1999 federal trial, in which he was convicted 11-0 on charges of extorting nearly $3 million from casino license applicants. He served 8 years and was released in 2011.

The unusual outcome came after U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola, in Baton Rouge, removed a juror - thought to be pro-Edwards - after deliberations had begun. Federal trials require unanimous jury verdicts.

???It's the only time in federal jurisprudence in Louisiana that 11 people on a jury convicted someone of a federal crime,??? Edwards said, boasting ruefully. After reflecting on his own case, Edwards told The Advocate that perhaps it is time to require unanimous verdicts in state trials in Louisiana as well as federal ones - at least when a lengthy prison sentence is in the offing.

"I would require it in any case as serious as the one I was facing," he said. "There's a saying in Louisiana that you'll never find 12 people on a jury to convict Edwin Edwards. And in 4 trials, they didn't do it."

'They covered their bases'

Following the changes in 1973, defenders of today's split-verdict system in Louisiana view its racist history as a mere historical footnote.

But to Calvin Duncan, the rule's inception in the late 19th century was the original sin. "The racial intent of it never went away. That's still there," Duncan said. "The intent was to make sure African-American votes are not counted."

Duncan, 54, learned about the state's unusual jury system from behind prison walls, during more than two decades as an inmate lawyer at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

His own conviction, for the 1986 murder of David Yaeger in New Orleans, came in a capital trial in which the jury rejected a death sentence.

Decades later, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for Duncan based on an apparently false statement made by law enforcement. Prosecutors then agreed to let him plead guilty to manslaughter and armed robbery in 2011 in exchange for his immediate freedom.

While in prison, Duncan knew nothing about the genesis of Louisiana's split-jury law as he sought avenues to attack the convictions or sentences of his fellow prisoners.

"I just knew the Supreme Court said it was OK," Duncan said. "I never tried to rationalize why. The reasons that came behind it, that way of thinking, didn't come until years later."

What he would learn, once freed, spurred Duncan on a mission to abolish a century-old staple of Louisiana justice.

From an office in New Orleans, Duncan scours state court rulings, mails appeal
packages to inmates and works with Ben Cohen, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, to file petition after quixotic petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Duncan counts 21 such petitions filed since 2013, each one arguing that the nonunanimous jury rule, born in white supremacy, retains its racist stench.

To Duncan, it's black and white.

The court minutes from the February 2013 trial of Jarrell Arline on a charge of dealing cocaine are so cursory they border on cryptic.

"The odds of getting a black person on a jury back then was hard. Getting 1 was hard. If a miracle happened, you get 2," he said. "So they covered their bases."

But the high court so far has declined to revisit the 1972 ruling that critics describe as a constitutional hangnail - an anomaly of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

The U.S. Constitution does not say how large juries should be or what vote is needed for conviction. The Sixth Amendment says only that "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."

The 'one exception'

The Supreme Court's decision came in a pair of challenges from Oregon and Louisiana, the only states to allow split verdicts in felony trials.

8 justices agreed that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a right to a jury trial applies to federal and state courts equally. They fell into 2 camps: 4 justices said juries must be unanimous at both levels, and four others said unanimity was optional at either level.

Justice Lewis Powell broke the tie, casting jury unanimity as an indispensable feature of America's federal trial system "on the basis of history and precedent" but declaring it optional for states.

By then, the court already had ruled that juries with fewer than 12 members were allowed, at least in lesser cases. The tradition of 12 people on a jury was "a historically accidental figure ... wholly without significance 'except to the mystics,'" Justice Byron White wrote.

Neither the size of the jury nor its unanimity is fundamental to the jury trial's purpose of protecting defendants from overly zealous prosecutors or judges, White concluded. Rather, community participation and the freely applied "common sense judgment of a group of laymen" are what do it.

The Supreme Court has since recognized the peculiarity of that 1972 decision, describing it in 2010 as the "1 exception" to a general rule that rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution apply equally to states and the federal government.

But for nearly 46 years, the high court has refused to tamper with it, even as it ruled in 1979 that Louisiana's allowance for dissent on 6-member juries - in other words, 5-1 verdicts - was unconstitutional.

And the Louisiana Supreme Court has repeatedly followed suit.

Someday, Duncan insists, he'll prevail.

"I (keep filing challenges to split verdicts) because the law is wrong, and someday, some judge is going to have the courage to say it's wrong," he said.

"The government has the burden of proof: You relieve them of that burden. The government's obligation ain't to convince 10 people; it's to convince the jury that a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

A signal of change?

Duncan said he sees a glint of hope in a recent request by the U.S. Supreme Court for Louisiana to spell out its opposition to a legal challenge to the law - the 1st such request in 8 years.

It came in a petition filed last year on behalf of David Wayne Sims, who was convicted in 2015 of aggravated rape in Calcasieu Parish on a 10-2 vote and was sentenced to mandatory life in prison. The same jury unanimously found him guilty of sexual battery as well.

Critics of split verdicts in state courts have argued that the framers of the Constitution didn't enshrine unanimity in the Sixth Amendment because it went without saying. Such a requirement had been passed down from the Middle Ages, they say: Jury verdicts and unanimity were synonymous.

But in the state's response, filed March 23, Attorney General Jeff Landry's office argued that unanimity isn't mentioned in the Constitution because it didn't make the cut.

James Madison, the "father of the Constitution" who would become the country's 4th president, had proposed an explicit requirement for unanimity. It was "considered and rejected" by the Senate, Landry's office wrote.

Landry's office also argued that the 1898 Louisiana Constitution is "long defunct," and that the "suggestion that Louisiana's rule 'disenfranchises African-American jurors' is unfounded."

At the top of the state's case against changing Louisiana's law is the legal principle of "stare decisis," the idea that courts generally shouldn't mess with laws that repeatedly have been upheld.

Dumping the law now would "bring great instability and unpredictability to Louisiana and Oregon," Louisiana Assistant Attorney General Colin Clarke wrote - particularly if the court were to make such a change retroactive and open the floodgates to legal challenges of decades-old convictions.

Angela Allen-Bell, a Southern University law professor and critic of the split-verdict rule, argues that mounting research on its racist origins - along with The Advocate's research on its effects today - puts the lie to any justification for the law to remain.

She said the 1973 convention didn't "sanitize" the law simply because the delegates debated it in nonracial terms.

"There has been no moment in the state of Louisiana that we have sat down and been honest about why this got started," she said. "At no point did Louisiana voters get a memo saying, 'We did this for racist reasons.'"

(source: The Advocate)


Lawyers: Prosecutors withheld evidence of teen's innocence

A legal team has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its claim that Louisiana prosecutors withheld evidence for a murder trial that ended in a guilty verdict against an intellectually disabled teenager accused of killing a pizza deliveryman.

Corey Williams was 16 years old when police arrested him in the shooting death of Jarvis Griffin 2 decades ago in Caddo Parish, where prosecutors have been widely criticized for their aggressive approach to seeking the death penalty.

Earlier this week, a group of 44 former prosecutors and Justice Department officials - former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey among them - filed a brief in support of a petition by Williams' lawyers asking the court to review and reverse his murder conviction.

Before the shooting, Williams was hospitalized for extreme lead poisoning, still sucked his thumb and frequently urinated on himself, according to his lawyers. A district court judge overturned Williams' death sentence in 2004 on the basis of his disabilities, one of his attorneys said.

Lawyers for Williams say there wasn't any physical evidence linking him to the January 1998 death of Griffin, who was killed and robbed while delivering a pizza to a Shreveport home.

The petition claims "staggering" evidence of Williams' innocence was suppressed by prosecutors before his trial.

Caddo Parish prosecutors haven't filed a response to the petitions yet, but they have denied violating their duty to disclose evidence favorable to Williams.

Witnesses saw several older men steal money and pizza from Griffin and saw Williams running from the house alone with nothing in his hands after the shooting, according to his lawyers. One of the older men, Chris Moore, was the only witness who identified Williams as the shooter.

Fingerprints found on the murder weapon belonged to one of the other older men, and the victim's blood was found on clothing worn by a 3rd older man, according to Williams' lawyers.

Police officers found Williams hiding under a sheet on a couch at his grandmother's house. He initially denied killing Griffin but changed his story after police questioned him through the night.

"His confession was brief, devoid of corroborating details," his lawyers wrote in their March 2 petition to the Supreme Court. "Having just assumed responsibility for a homicide, Corey told the officers, 'I'm tired. I'm ready to go home and lay down.'"

Williams' lawyers say his conviction was based primarily on that confession and the testimony of Moore. Only after Williams' trial did his attorneys obtain recordings of witness interviews pointing to his innocence. The withheld recordings showed police had suspected the older men were plotting to frame Williams for the killing, according to Williams' lawyers.

Supreme Court justices expressed concern about the suppression of evidence in a different Louisiana case it decided in 2012. The court voted 8-1 to reverse a conviction in a case in which New Orleans prosecutors similarly withheld a witness statement from the night of a murder because they decided it wouldn't alter the trial's outcome.

Dale Cox, Caddo Parish's former acting district attorney, said in a 2015 court filing that Williams hasn't proved the recorded witness statements contained "exculpatory" evidence or that withholding them deprived him of a fair trial.

"The State presented to the jury a confession that was wholly corroborated by eyewitness testimony," he wrote.

Cox, who once told a reporter he believes the state needs to "kill more people," personally prosecuted one-third of the Louisiana cases that resulted in death sentences between 2010 and 2015, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In a 4-2 vote last October, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hold a hearing on Williams' claims. His attorneys are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision.


Judge denies new trial for man convicted of triple slaying

A judge has denied a request for a new trial for a Louisiana man convicted of killing a woman and her 2 daughters in 2012.

The Courier reports that David Brown's defense attorneys had argued that Brown was not mentally equipped to represent himself during the penalty phase of the 2016 trial when he waived his right to counsel.

Lafourche Parish District Court Judge John LeBlanc ruled in favor of the state on Thursday, concluding that Brown's competency had never come into question during the trial.

A jury in 2016 decided that Brown should get the death penalty for the 1st-degree murders of 29-year-old Jacquelin Nieves, 7-year-old Gabriela Nieves and 1-year-old Izabela Nieves. Brown stabbed all 3 victims, raped Jacquelin and Gabriela, and set the family's Lockport apartment on fire.

(source for both: Associated Press)


Death penalty critics use man's sentence to push law change

Death penalty opponents have cited a Missouri man's recent sentence in efforts to change state law regarding capital punishment.

Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is pushing state lawmakers to prevent judges from sending criminals to death row without a jury's approval. The group cited the case of Craig Wood, who is currently on death row, the Springfield News-Leader reported .

Wood was convicted of 1st-degree murder in November for the 2014 abduction, rape and killing of a 10-year-old girl. The jury couldn't agree on Wood's punishment after the guilty verdict, but a judge still gave him a death sentence in January. The other option was life in prison without parole.

Wood's case was 1 of 2 that Missourians for Alternatives used to advocate for a bill that would take away the capital punishment option if juries can't agree. A legislative committee unanimously approved such a bill in March.

The other case the group cited was related to Marvin Rice, a former sheriff's deputy and prison worker accused of killing his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. A lone juror advocated for capital punishment in Rice's case, putting the decision in the hands of a judge who agreed on the death penalty.

"In both of these cases, 2 individual judges imposed death an undermined the role of the juries," the advocate group said this week. "Both Wood and Rice's death sentences raise questions about judicial override in Missouri and its constitutionality under the Sixth Amendment."

Missouri is 1 of only 2 states where judges can give death sentences if a jury deadlocks, according to the group. Other states in such a situation choose a sentence of life in prison.

(source: Associated Press)


Determined mother went to law school to try to save her son from death row and prove his innocence----Keith Zon Doolin has spent 20 years on death row in California for the murder of 2 women and the attempted murder of 4 others. But for the last 23 years, his mother Donna Larsen, 76, has been trying to save him

Donna peered out through the hospital doors, leaning on her crutches as her eyes scanned impatiently for her son Keith. He'd just nipped out to bring the car round, so that she wouldn't have to walk too far on her recently operated knee. But he'd been gone for what seemed like an age, and a strange worry had begun to creep over her.

"I'll go and see where he's got to," Donna said over her shoulder to her elderly mother-in-law, who was also starting to fret. As she hopped towards the exit, she saw a sight that would shatter her life forever - Keith was pinned to the floor of the car park, surrounded by FBI officers, as a police helicopter circled overhead.

Moving as quickly as her crutches would allow, Donna made her way over to where her son lay, face down on the concrete.

"I just kept asking, 'What's happening? Why are you doing this to my son?' But no-one would tell me anything. I watched as he was shoved into the back of the police car and driven away."

Frantic with worry, Donna waited several agonising hours with no idea what Keith had been accused of. It wasn't until she turned on the news that she found out just how serious the situation was: Keith had been charged with the murder of 2 women - 30-year-old Inez Espinoza and 27-year-old Peggy Tucker, who both worked as prostitutes.

Living in fear

"There was no doubt in my mind that the police had caught the wrong man, and that he'd be freed as soon as they realised," says Donna.

"I went into rescue mode and panic mode. I grabbed my calendar and worked out a timeline of when these murders had taken place, and I don't believe that Keith had even had the opportunity to be in that area at that time."

Before Keith's arrest, the family led an ordinary life. Keith, 22, was a long-distance truck driver who still lived at home with Donna and her husband Charlie. Keith was close to Charlie, calling him Dad, and had a tight bond with his older sister Shana.

"We were just living our happy lives and suddenly boom - it ended. Keith has always been a very gentle guy," says Donna.

"He loved animals - we had a bird rescue for years, and a rabbit and a dog. All these creatures he'd care for - he'd make little beds for them and would protect them. As a teenager and adult, he'd always been really kind to his girlfriends. So, when I found out he was accused of these things, I knew he couldn't have done them."

After several hours of interrogation, Keith used his one phone call to ring his mother, telling her, 'It's true, that's what I've been arrested for - but I didn't do it, Mom.'

But it wasn't long before Keith had another charge brought against him: 4 new counts of attempted murder against 4 more women, who'd been shot and left for dead in the local area.

Keith was linked to the crimes by ballistics evidence, and each of the surviving victims positively identified him as their attacker.

As Keith waited for trial, Donna was sick with worry.

"He'd never even been arrested before and he was very stressed," says Donna.

"There was 1 episode where some other prisoners tried to throw him over a rail, but Keith was very strong at that time and he managed to save himself. But I lived in constant fear of something happening to him in jail. He hardly slept at first, because he was too afraid - I was and still am terrified."

When the trial came around, it became increasingly clear that Rudy Petilla, the attorney appointed to defend Keith, was incompetent.

"One day he just didn't show up to court. No-one could find him. But we discovered he'd been up all night gambling, and that he was pocketing money from the case because he was in so much gambling debt. The bankruptcy court told him not to practise law until his case was over," says Donna.

"We told the judge this, but he just overlooked it. 3 times we tried to get rid of this attorney, but the judge just wouldn't allow it. It felt like a set-up. When you look back through the case, it's hard not to believe in conspiracy."

The lawyer has now been disbarred after allegations of misconduct in another case. Court officials later found that Rudy had promised to spend 42,500 pounds of his 57,000 pounds fee on investigators and experts, but instead he'd pocketed over 50,000 pounds to pay off his gambling debts.

But there was evidence against Keith: he was linked to the crime scenes by shell casings and tyre impressions that were similar to the tread on his truck tyres. Donna began to realise that, without a decent lawyer, her son might be found guilty. She felt her whole life rushing towards an outcome that she couldn't control, but she didn't for a moment believe that Keith was guilty.

"I was labelled the mother from hell, because I was fighting so hard for my son," Donna remembers sadly.

"On the day he was sentenced, I could tell it was coming. I was shaking and shaking. I can't explain in words how much pain I felt, it was a nightmare. Thank God I had family and friends around me that day, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to cope."

When Keith was found guilty and sentenced to death, Donna's whole world collapsed. It was a few days before she was able to see Keith again, and when she did, she felt a heartbreaking mix of emotions.

"I was so glad to see he was OK physically, but I was devastated to see him on death row," says Donna.

"I made a promise to him right there that I would never give up the fight."

Donna had been off work recovering from her knee operation, and when it was time to go back, she was told she no longer had a job. She'd been teaching special high-school classes for students who wanted to study medicine.

"I loved my job with all my heart and I loved my students. It was heartbreaking," she explains. "That's when my whole focus changed: I signed up for law school so that I could fight the broken justice system and free Keith."

For 2 years, Donna worked hard at her studies, searching desperately for any cases that she could use to help her son. She became a paralegal, pushing the courts to speed up Keith's appeal cases and campaigning endlessly against the death penalty.

Now, 23 years later, Keith is still on death row. This isn't unusual in California, where prisoners can be on death row for up to 35 years. Donna has never given up hope of freeing her son, investigating the case endlessly and following any new leads she comes across.

Life hasn't been kind to Donna. In 2010, her husband Charlie collapsed in front of her and died of a brain aneurysm, and their beloved black Labrador lay on his body and died of a stroke.

"I still can't believe these things have happened," she says.

"I'm still mad at Charlie for dying and leaving me, and I'm sad he won't be there to see Keith freed."

For years, Donna saw Keith every weekend, sitting with him in the visitors' room and buying him treats from the vending machine. But financial difficulties meant that she took the decision to move in with her daughter, a 4-hour drive from the prison.

"I see Keith every 3 or 4 weeks now, and it's hard not to see him more. Sometimes I visit on a Saturday, sleep over at a hostel and then see him on the Sunday, too."

Donna plans to continue to campaign to prove Keith's innocence.

"Before I'd even unpacked my own things at my new home, I set Keith's bedroom up ready for him. His clothes are washed, his bed is made," she says.

"It's time for him to come home. At some point I believe he'll be freed. I don't know if I'll be alive to see it, but he will be a free man one day."

20 Years on Death Row, a 4-part documentary investigating Keith's case, starts on Really 19th April at 10pm

The facts - Death row in California

-- More than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978, but only 13 have been executed.

-- It's been 9 years since the last execution, and during that time, 49 inmates have died of natural causes, overdoses or suicide.

-- 20 women await death at Central California Women's Facility.

-- Executions in California were halted in 2006, after a court ruled against its 3-drug lethal-injection method. Authorities have so far failed to agree on an alternative.

-- 32 US states still have the death penalty.

-- Texas is the most prolific death penalty state, with more than 160 executions in the last 12 years.

-- America's 2nd-largest death row is in Florida, with 400 inmates.

(source: mirror.co.uk)
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