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
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
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.
Timeline: Louisiana's split-verdict jury law and its racist, white supremacist
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
-- 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.
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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