Tag Archives: Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Lucio deserves new trial

I cannot overstate the significance of the support that a woman condemned to die in Texas prison execution chamber is receiving from both sides of the great political divide in this state.

Melissa Lucio has received a stay of execution from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She was slated to die on Thursday for the death of her 2-year-old daughter 15 years ago.

I believe she deserves a new trial, given all the doubt about her conviction and the allegation that the state withheld evidence from her defense team.

What continues to amaze me is the support she is getting from tough-on-crime conservatives in the Legislature, led by Plano Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, who had the honor of telling Lucio this week about the CCA decision to forestall her execution. Lucio’s reaction was to sob uncontrollably.

Leach is a former member of the ultra-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus; he resigned from the caucus a while ago, citing some issues with the hardline positions it was taking. He still is a conservative, but he appears to be a man with an actual heart.

I applaud the leadership he is taking in fighting for Melissa Lucio.

I happen to oppose capital punishment, but you likely know that already. I also oppose the partisan divide that too often splits politicians along party lines even when the issue compels them to seek common ground.

One of those issues is seeking justice for a prison inmate who might have been convicted wrongly.


Condemned woman might get a new trial

It surely isn’t every day that someone convicted of a capital crime wins bipartisan support in her quest for a possible new trial to see if the individual is truly guilty of the crime for which the state has leveled a charge.

Melissa Lucio is that rare case.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today blocked her scheduled execution in a move that has drawn widespread praise across the vast political landscape. Republicans and Democrats alike are hailing the CCA’s decision, given that the state’s highest criminal appellate court isn’t known as being “defendant-friendly” in its handling of these matters.

What’s more, one of the legislators most adamantly in Lucio’s corner happens to be a Republican from Plano, state Rep. Jeff Leach, who next year will become my state representative in the Texas Legislature. OK, that last part doesn’t mean a damn thing, other than my recognition of Leach’s possible impact on my life.

Leach told Lucio the court had granted her the stay, prompting her to cry out and, yes, to cry.

Why the stay?

A court convicted Lucio in 2008 of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah Alvarez, who had fallen down some stairs. The little girl went to sleep a couple of days later and never awoke.

Lucio’s trial reportedly was fraught with vague testimony from key witnesses. The defense team reportedly was denied access to information acquired by state prosecutors. Lucio, of course, denied harming her daughter.

The defendant has drawn support on both sides of the political aisle, an event I find to be remarkable, given the great divide that exists in this state, with liberals seen as “soft” on crime and conservatives seen as those who want to “throw the book” and everything else at criminal defendants.

Melissa Lucio’s execution halted by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals | The Texas Tribune

And so, does Lucio deserve a new trial? It looks as though there well could be enough doubt cast on her conviction to warrant a judicial do-over.

I mean, if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — inhabited entirely by Republican judges — thinks there is merit to those questions, then by all means let’s try this case again … and do it right!



Another GOP pol abandons the party because of POTUS

We’ve been hearing this sort of thing over the past couple of years.

Republican politicians are leaving their party because it has been hijacked by an individual who prior to assuming public office had no discernible relationship with the Republican Party.

Members of Congress have bolted their party. State legislators have done the same. This politician, though, deserves a brief mention here.

A Texas judge — a former member of the state’s highest criminal appellate court — has quit the GOP because she says Donald Trump has turned the party into an organization that believes in “racism” as an ideology.

Elsa Alcala, a Houston resident who has retired from the bench, blistered the president because of his recent Twitter tirade against four Democratic members of Congress.

According to the Washington Post: “Even accepting that Trump has had some successes (and I believe these are few), at his core, his ideology is racism,” the 55-year-old retired judge wrote Monday in a Facebook post. “To me, nothing positive about him could absolve him of his rotten core.”

Ouch. Are you feeling the burn?

Also, from the Post: “Trump speaks about brown people like me as lesser beings. It’s cliché to say, but the Republican Party left me.”

Yes, Alcala is a Latina. Alcala retired from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Alcala takes personal offense at the sound and tone of Trump’s tweets against the four Democratic members of Congress. To her, the president symbolizes racism.

That is what she heard. It is what many millions of Americans are hearing as well. Something tells me Judge Alcala is far from the final Republican politician to sever ties with a once-great political party.

By all means, change the Texas judicial election system!

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has just elevated himself greatly among those of us who detest the way the state elects its judges.

Chief Justice Hecht wants the Legislature to do away with partisan election of judges. He wants a total overhaul of the judicial election system. He has called on merit selection and retention elections to replace the ghastly status quo in which highly qualified judges are tossed aside on a strictly partisan basis.

Hecht has walked this path before. I suppose I just haven’t been paying careful enough attention until now.

To be clear, the chief justice was stung by the loss of key Republican judges in the 2018 midterm election. Appellate courts flipped from GOP to Democratic control, which I guess alarms the Republican chief justice.

Whatever the case, or his motives, I totally support his call for judicial election reform.

Hecht made his remarks in his State of the Judiciary speech. He said, “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

So it happened in 2018. And so it has gotten the attention once again of the state’s top civil appellate court’s chief justice.

I long have bemoaned the partisan election of judges in Texas. I have sought over the course of many years in Texas to get judges and judicial candidates to explain to me the “difference between Democratic and Republican justice.” Not a single one of them ever explained the difference in any fashion that made a lick of sense.

To be clear about another point as well, not all judges want the kind of reform that Hecht has proposed. I remember asking the late state Sen. (and later a Supreme Court justice) Oscar Mauzy of Dallas whether we should go to a form of merit selection for judges. He came unglued. Mauzy, a ferocious, partisan Democrat, said appointing judges was akin to a “communist” system of justice. He loved running as a Democrat and wasn’t about to support any change in the Texas judicial election system.

Texas Republicans long have prospered in these judicial contests. The Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals — the state’s two highest appellate courts — comprise 18 GOP jurists. Thus, to hear a Republican chief justice call once again for this significant judicial reform is, well, the rarest of calls.

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, for trying to pound some sense into the state’s political power structure.

Texas capital punishment law needs reform

law of parties

Jeffrey Wood has become a poster boy … of a sort.

No, he won’t be showing up on a beefcake calendar. His name, though, could become part of an effort to provide significant improvements to Texas’s laws governing capital punishment.

This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Wood’s scheduled execution for a crime he didn’t commit. It sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether he was tried properly.

Beyond that, Wood’s case has brought to light a dubious provision in a state law that allows juries to convict someone of a capital crime — even if they don’t commit the actual act.

In 1996, Wood was sitting in a truck in Kerrville while his friend, Philip Reneau, was inside a convenience store committing a robbery. Reneau demanded the store clerk turn over the safe; when the clerk refused, Reneau shot him to death.

Meanwhile, Wood’s presence in the truck made him — under state law — culpable for the capital crime. They call it the “law of parties,” and it creates a form of criminal equality among those who commit these dastardly crimes.

The state executed Reneau in 2002. Wood’s turn was coming up. State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano — a staunch supporter of capital punishment — has asked Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Pardons and Parole Board to commute Wood’s sentence. He doesn’t think the death penalty in this case is right and just.

There ought to be a more permanent and comprehensive solution to this matter. The Texas Legislature ought to rewrite the law to separate the person who commits the crime from an individual who accompanies the individual.

The state argued at trial that Wood knew Reneau would kill the individual if he didn’t obtain the money. That knowledge made him equally responsible for the capital crime, prosecutors said.


In my quest for a perfect world, I would prefer that Texas not even have a death penalty statute. I know, though, that a majority of Texans support capital punishment. Indeed, the state has become the all-time champeen among all the states in executing those convicted of capital crimes.

If we’re going to continue killing criminals, though, the very least we can do is focus more sharply on those who actually commit the crimes.

Jeffrey Wood did not kill that store clerk. Philip Reneau did. Reneau paid the price as authorized under Texas law. Wood does not deserve to pay the same price.

Gov. Abbott should commute Wood’s sentence and spare his life.

Meanwhile, the governor — who’s also a former trial judge — ought to invite the Legislature to improve what looks to me to be a serious flaw in the state’s criminal penal code.

Get rid of the law of parties.

Court shows rare compassion, halts execution


Jeff Wood isn’t going to die in the Texas execution chamber — at least not yet — thanks to a ruling from the state’s highest criminal appellate court.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — which I guess you can call the Killin’ Court — has sent the case of Jeff Wood back to a lower court.

Wood was scheduled to die because he was in a pickup truck while his friend actually killed someone while committing a robbery. But under Texas law and a provision called the “law of parties,” Wood was deemed as guilty as the shooter for the capital crime.


It amazes me that the CCA would halt the execution. This is the same body of jurists that at times has shown a remarkable lack of compassion for capital criminals. Sure, the criminals are bad guys and there are those who contend they don’t deserve anything from the state.

A trial jury sentenced Wood to death for the murder that was actually committed by Daniel Reneau, who was executed in 2002, just six years after committing the crime.

Wood’s role in the crime and the sentence he received has drawn national attention. Wood also drew support from an unlikely source, a conservative Republican lawmaker — state Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano — who intervened on Wood’s behalf while asking his sentence is commuted to life in prison.

The law of parties is an unreasonable provision in Texas law that needs to be removed.

That’s a fight for another day in another venue — which would be the Texas Legislature.

As for Wood, he’s been given a chance to defend himself once again. It fascinates me in the extreme that it would be the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that has exhibited a healthy dose of fairness.

‘Law of parties’ may kill the wrong man


AG’s case takes interesting turn


Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s journey through the state’s judicial system has taken another interesting turn.

The 5th Court of Appeals, based in Dallas, has rejected Paxton’s request that the securities fraud case against him be tossed out. According to the appellate court, the case should go to trial and Paxton should have to make the state prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he broke securities law by failing to properly report income he received while providing financial advice to clients.

Paxton has pleaded not guilty to the charges brought by — get this — a Collin County grand jury, which happens to be in Paxton’s home county.

This case ought to be settled by a trial court.


What’s next? Paxton’s legal team is considering whether to take it to the state’s highest criminal appellate court, the Court of Criminal Appeals. The special prosecutor’s office assigned to this case said it is confident the CCA will uphold the lower court ruling against the AG.

I understand fully that Paxton is “innocent until proven guilty.” He has tried all along the way to get the case thrown out. The courts have ruled repeatedly against him, saying the charges against him have merit.

Will the Republican AG prevail if he takes it to the all-GOP Court of Criminal Appeals? That might be his best shot at getting it thrown out.

The Texas Tribune reported: “During a hearing before the court last month, Paxton’s lawyers most prominently argued that the grand jury that indicted him was improperly selected. The court rejected that argument in its ruling Wednesday.

“‘After reviewing the record and, in particular, the process used by the district judge, we conclude the complained-of method of selecting the grand jury is not a complaint that would render the grand jury illegally formed,’ Chief Justice Carolyn Wright wrote.”

The way I look at it, if he’s innocent of the charges brought against him by the grand jury — and by the complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission — then he ought to make the case in court.

Make the state prove its case and let a jury of his peers decide.


Perry IDs critical '16 campaign issue

It’s always a cold day in hell when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry draws praise from anyone on the left end of the political spectrum.

He’s done it, though, with an observation about what he believes is the most critical issue of the 2016 campaign for the presidency.

It involves the Supreme Court.


Steve Benen, writing a blog for lefty commentator Rachel Maddow’s blog, notes:

“But over at Bloomberg Politics, Sahil Kapur reported over the weekend on a South Carolina event, where former Gov. Rick Perry (R) highlighted a central national issue that doesn’t generally get as much attention.
“Something I want you all to think about is that the next president of the United States, whoever that individual may be, could choose up to three, maybe even four members of the Supreme Court,” he said. “Now this isn’t about who’s going to be the president of the United States for just the next four years. This could be about individuals who have an impact on you, your children, and even our grandchildren. That’s the weight of what this election is really about.”
“That, I will suggest to you, is the real question we need to be asking ourselves,” he continued. “What would those justices look like if, let’s be theoretical here and say, if it were Hillary Clinton versus Rick Perry? And if that won’t make you go work, if I do decide to get into the race, then I don’t know what will.”
The next president likely is going to get a chance to appoint several justices to the highest court in the land. And those appointments always seem to outlast the presidencies of those who select them.
Perry knows a thing or two about these kinds of legacies. He built one himself as the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He appointed several justices to the state Supreme Court and judges to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
As Benen states: “Purely on institutional grounds, Perry is absolutely right – the makeup of the high court will likely give the next president a unique opportunity to shape much of American public life for a generation.”

This guy is a goner

Scott Panetti is as good as dead, sad to say.

He’s a Texas death row inmate who’s set to be executed Wednesday for the horrific deaths in 1992 of his mother- and father-in-law. His guilt is not in question. His mental state, though, is at the heart of a dispute over whether he deserves to die for his crime.


The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has ruled against granting him a delay in his date with death. That means it’s now up to outgoing Gov. Rick Perry and the Court of Criminal Appeals to determine Panetti’s fate.

Panetti is diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. He didn’t even get a fair trial, as he represented himself and sought to call as witnesses Charles Manson and Jesus Christ.

Texas law, though, allows loony defendants to engage in such nonsense, even when it appears to impinge on their rights to fair and impartial justice.

Panetti never should walk free. He doesn’t deserve to be put to death for this crime.

Do not expect Gov. Perry or the state’s highest criminal court to spare him. The Texas criminal justice system just isn’t built for compassion.


Panetti deserves to be executed? No way!

Some time back, I declared my opposition to capital punishment.

Scott Louis Panetti offers a textbook example of why the punishment as applied in Texas is barbaric.

Panetti committed an awful crime in the early 1990s. He shot his in-laws to death. His guilt is beyond doubt.

But it gets a whole lot trickier from there.


He represented himself during his 1995 trial and during testimony he sought to call — get ready for this — John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ as witnesses.

Panetti, you see, is a lunatic. He suffers from acute schizophrenia. He’s nuts. Panetti doesn’t deserve to die for this crime because he quite likely didn’t know what on God’s Earth he was doing when he killed his mother- and father-in-law.

He’s set to die in Dec. 3 in the death chamber in Livingston, Texas.

Some officials, including former Gov. Mark White, have written a letter asking for clemency. “We are deeply troubled that a capital sentence was the result of a trial where a man with schizophrenia represented himself, dressed in a costume,” the letter stated. “We come together from across the partisan and ideological divide and are united in our belief that, irrespective of whether we support or oppose the death penalty, this is not an appropriate case for execution.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, isn’t known for exhibiting compassion regarding capital punishment cases. My guess is that the court will dismiss the request, perhaps suggesting that Panetti was faking his lunacy.

Panetti’s craziness appears real to me. He shouldn’t die for the crime he committed.