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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Texas executes James Bigby

James Bigby
James Bigby
A former Kennedale auto mechanic who killed a father and his infant son in a 1987 Christmas Eve killing spree was put to death Tuesday.

James Eugene Bigby, 61, was pronounced dead at 6:31 p.m. Bigby was the fourth inmate in Texas and the sixth nationally to be executed by lethal injection this year.

“I’m sorry,” Bigby said in part during his final statement, addressing family members of those slain. “I hope that my death will bring you peace and closure.”

Officials said Bigby, who has exhausted all of his appeals, struggled to control his emotions Tuesday as he was moved to a small cell near the death chamber.

Bigby was convicted of capital murder for the two slayings. He shot 26-year-old Michael Trekell and suffocated Trekell’s 4-month-old son, Jayson.

Evidence also showed that Bigby killed two other men — Calvin Wesley Crane and Frank “Bubba” Johnson — later the same day, believing they along with Trekell were conspiring against him in a workers’ compensation case he filed against a former employer. He was not tried in those deaths.

In a foiled escape attempt during his 1991 trial, Bigby grabbed a gun from behind state District Judge Don Leonard’s bench and confronted him with it in the judge’s chambers. Bigby was captured after Leonard, a bailiff and Assistant District Attorney Robert Mayfield wrestled him to the ground and took the gun.

Lawyers had tried to convince jurors that he was insane, calling witnesses who said he was a paranoid schizophrenic. Jurors were also told of the gun incident.

“I don’t think anyone in the courtroom claimed he wasn’t mentally ill, but there were too many dead people and a dead baby,” Wes Ball, one of Bigby’s defense lawyers at the new punishment trial, recalled Monday. “And going up and getting the judge’s gun out of his drawer in court and going at him … is kind of the icing-on-the-cake moment.”

Bigby has been in and out of prison since 1977, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.

In 2005, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Bigby’s sentence, but not his conviction, ruling that jurors were improperly not allowed to consider whether his mental illness was a mitigating factor. The court said that paranoid schizophrenia is a severe mental illness and that Bigby had proved he had it at the time of the crimes.

The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, where executions are carried out.
The Walls Unit, Huntsville, Texas, where executions are carried out.
After hearing testimony and seeing evidence from the initial trial 15 years earlier, a second jury gave Bigby another death sentence in September 2006.

Bigby is one of four Tarrant County Death Row inmates, including one who has already been executed, who were scheduled for execution this year.

Christopher Wilkins, the first to be executed in the United States in 2017, was put to death on Jan. 11. Wilkins was convicted of capital murder for fatally shooting Willie Freeman and Mike Silva on Oct. 28, 2005.

The execution of Paul Storey, 32, is set for April 12. Storey was convicted of killing Hurst Putt-Putt assistant manager Jonas Cherry, who was shot in the head and legs as he begged for his life during a robbery in 2006. Accomplice Mark Porter pleaded guilty to capital murder and received a life sentence.

Tilon Lashon Carter, 37, was scheduled to be put to death in February but received a stay of execution. His new execution date is May 16.

Carter was convicted of the robbery and 2004 slaying of James Tomlin, 89. Prosecutors said Carter and his girlfriend, Leketha Allen, went to Tomlin’s home to rob him and took $6,000. Allen was sentenced to 25 years.

Source: Star-Telegram, Mitch Mitchell, March 14, 2017

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