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2009-10-27

Will Texas Execute Another Innocent Man? The Case of Reginald Blanton

Topics

Guests

Carter Pagel, member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. His article "Innocent Until Proven Dead" first appeared online at SocialistWorker.org

Andre Bios, Reginald Blanton’s older brother. He is an Iraq war veteran.

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A controversial death row case is unfolding in Texas today. Twenty-eight-year-old Reginald Blanton is set to be executed tonight for the 2000 killing of Carlos Garza. Blanton was convicted of breaking into Garza’s apartment and shooting him in the head. But Blanton has maintained his innocence, and his lawyers have said the case has been tainted by prosecutors’ attempt to exclude African Americans from the jury and by the initial mistakes of a court-appointed defense attorney. The scheduled execution comes as the Texas capital punishment system is under increasing scrutiny. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For our first segment, a controversial death row case unfolding in Texas today. Twenty-eight-year-old Reginald Blanton is set to be executed tonight for the 2000 killing of Carlos Garza. Blanton was convicted of breaking into Garza’s apartment and shooting him in the head. But Blanton has maintained his innocence, and his lawyers have said the case has been tainted by prosecutors’ attempts to exclude African Americans from the jury and by the initial mistakes of a court-appointed defense attorney.

The scheduled execution comes as the Texas capital punishment system is under increasing scrutiny. Last month, Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced the chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and refused to reappoint two of its members. The move came just days before the panel was to hear from an independent expert who has cast serious doubts on the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was put to death in 2004 after being found guilty of causing a 1992 fire that killed his three daughters. Three separate independent investigations conducted since have challenged the prosecution’s case against Willingham.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Andre Bios is Reginald Blanton’s older brother. He joins us on the phone from Huntsville, Texas. He’s about to go meet with Reginald. And joining us in a studio from Austin is Carter Pagel. He is a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Carter, welcome to Democracy Now! Start off by talking about Reginald’s case, why we’ve come to the final day and the appeal is now at the Supreme Court, and then put it in the context of Texas and Governor Perry.

CARTER PAGEL: Well, thanks, Amy.

There’s a lot of focus, as you mentioned, on Texas right now because of the Cameron Todd Willingham case. Governor Perry refused to look at the evidence in that case, went ahead with the execution, and he’s under heavy scrutiny. And he’s participated in a cover-up, basically, by shaking up the Forensic Science Commission.

Right now, he’s threatening to do the same again: ignore the evidence with Reginald Blanton. There’s no — Reginald was convicted for the 2000 murder of Carlos Garza. There’s no physical evidence linking him to the crime. There were no eyewitnesses, no DNA, no fingerprints. No murder weapon was ever found. All they had was coerced testimony from Reginald’s twin brother and his girlfriend at the time, and they later recanted that — or it wasn’t testimony, I’m sorry — statements from them. They recanted it in sworn testimony, saying they were coerced and basically that Reginald didn’t do it. And there was even physical evidence that should have ruled out Reginald altogether. There was a footprint on the door of the victim from it being kicked in, which didn’t match the size shoe that Reginald wears.

So, how we’ve gotten to this point is basically there was racial discrimination. They did this thing in Texas called the jury shuffle, where the prosecutor can basically — well, the defense attorney can do it, too, but in this case it was the prosecutor, who can look at the pool of jurors on physical appearance alone, meaning if they don’t like the fact that they’re — in this case they were — Reginald is a young African American male. In this case, there were a handful of blacks in the front of the jury pool. They called for these shuffles, moved them to the back. There was not a single African American in the first sixty-three jurors to be questioned. So, basically, they systematically excluded African Americans, and Reginald ended up with an all-white jury, not a jury of his peers. So, as I said, they — that he was convicted not by a jury of his peers.

The appeals process was messed up. Reginald’s appellate attorney ignored him, filed something incorrectly, basically procedurally barring his innocence claim. And now there are appeals in the Supreme Court and in the — with the Court of Criminal Appeals right now. But, you know, time is running out, and we really need to put the pressure on Governor Perry to halt this execution. He’s already got innocent blood on his hands with Cameron Todd Willingham, and he really, you know, can’t afford to do it again with Reginald, and this case needs to be looked into.

AMY GOODMAN: Go back for a moment to Cameron Todd Willingham. Explain —

CARTER PAGEL: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: — the significance of this case and how explosive it is for what we’re talking about today.

CARTER PAGEL: For sure. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. Hours before the execution, an independent fire scientist, Gerald Hurst, had issued an affidavit and a report raising serious questions that the fire was not arson. Most signs pointed that it wasn’t arson, in his investigation. Perry presumably ignored that. We really don’t know. That’s another thing. He’s refused to release the document saying how they dealt with that affidavit. So that’s suspicious right there, in and of itself. He’s refused to release the document saying how they dealt with it. He went ahead with the execution.

Now, there was a Forensic Science Commission who — the first case that they took up was this Willingham case. They hired their own independent expert fire scientist, Craig Beyler, who also issued a report saying — his was more definitive, saying it definitely was not arson, there was no basis for arson.

If there was no arson, there was no crime, and Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent, an innocent man executed in the state of Texas. And that’s been a huge rallying cry. I mean, we’ve had Antonin Scalia say that if there was an — excuse me, there was an innocent man executed in the United States, that we would be shouting it from the rooftops. And that’s what we’re doing, as much as we can. We had a rally of 450 people this past weekend here in Texas at the State Capitol, protesting the death penalty.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that — and I quote — "The execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.” And that’s the significance around this case of Cameron Todd Willingham. And now Governor Perry is overseeing possibly the execution tonight of Reginald Blanton. This would be over his 200th execution that he’s overseen. The significance of Cameron Todd Willingham’s case? And put it in the context of Blanton’s case right now. We have another case where there’s no physical evidence. There’s a lot of questions raised about the trial, about the efficacy of his court-appointed lawyer. I understand Blanton had to file his own appeals in some cases, because his lawyer wouldn’t on his behalf?

CARTER PAGEL: Yeah, he’s a self-taught law student, and he filed — he did. He filed his own appeals, because his appellate attorney wouldn’t file the innocence claims, wouldn’t file the claims of perjury and prosecutorial misconduct. But they basically ignored his claims, sent him back to the court that had ignored him in the first place. He filed grievances with the state bar.

Yeah, I mean, as you said, Perry — right now it’s an election year. He can’t afford this. This is more than a political thing for Governor Perry; this is possible criminal charges he’s dealing with. He’s, you know, executed an innocent man in 2004 and is threatening to do it again.

AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t his rival, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who’s running for governor of Texas now, raised this, saying that — or accusing him of trying to cover up a critical investigation? Now, she certainly is also pro-death penalty.

CARTER PAGEL: Yeah, that’s true. She is pro-death penalty. She’s been very careful to not come out and say that we’ve executed an innocent man, but saying that he — that Governor Rick Perry hasn’t handled it correctly, has participated in this cover-up by — two days before the meeting with fire scientist Craig Beyler, where he was scheduled to present his report to the Forensic Science Commission, he shook up the panel, removed three members, including the chairman, and replaced him with a district attorney from the very conservative Williamson County, and later replaced another member, and has basically said that — this is Governor Perry — has said that, you know, that was normal operating — standard operating procedure and there’s nothing to see, and has thrown out these red herrings by saying that Willingham was a monster who beat his wife. Well, I mean, you know, that’s not — we don’t execute people for spousal abuse. He’s not looking at the facts. And the facts are that over a half a dozen fire scientists have come out and said that there’s no basis for arson in this case.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And on the case of Reginald Blanton, what can people do right now? His execution is scheduled for tonight, barring a last-minute reprieve from Governor Perry.

CARTER PAGEL: Right. Really, it, for the most part, rests in the hands of Governor Rick Perry. And as I said, this is an election year for him, so — and as you mentioned, his rival, Kay Bailey Hutchison, in the Republican primary. So we can call his office — the number there is (512) 463-2000 — and demand that he stop this. Really, he needs to stop all executions. When there’s an investigation underway that he may have executed — overseen the execution of an innocent man in 2004, really there needs to be a moratorium on all executions, until this can be done, you know, correctly. We support the abolition of the death penalty altogether, but at the very least things need to be looked into when you’ve got the execution of an innocent man.

AMY GOODMAN: Well —

CARTER PAGEL: So, call — I’m sorry, I was going to say you can also call the Criminal Court of Appeals in Texas and the Supreme Court and the President of United States. Nothing hurts. And we have a rally at 5:30 today at the Texas Capitol for Blanton. I’m sorry, go ahead, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Carter Pagel is speaking to us from the Texas capital, from Austin, member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. His article "Innocent Until Proven Dead" is on AlterNet. Thank you, Carter, for joining us.

As we turn now to Andre Bios, Reginald Blanton’s older brother. He’s an Iraq war veteran. He’s in Huntsville right now, which is why he’ll join us on the phone and not in studio.

Andre, you’re about to visit your brother. Are you going to be, if in fact he is executed, one of the witnesses to the execution?

ANDRE BIOS: Yes, I am. It was one of the things that I did not want to do, but he has been requesting over and over again for me to be there. I’m one of those who’s been carrying out the marches in San Antonio and Austin, and he felt that by me being there, seeing what the justice system is doing to him, would give me more fire to go fight with the rest of the activists against Rick Perry, of what he’s doing.

And the reason why I didn’t want to witness what was getting ready to happen to my brother is because it’s like a slap in my face from my own country, you know? His constitutional rights were violated, but yet I can go overseas and fight in another country to uphold peace, liberty, for them to have, but I can’t uphold peace, liberty and equality for my own brother.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you return from Iraq?

ANDRE BIOS: I went to the first war, which was Desert Storm, Desert Shield, came back, and it really changed my life, because when we went over there, it wasn’t what everybody thought it was going to be. You know, it was hard that —- you know, I would tell my brother, when I came back, it’s like if somebody was to come into your backyard and tell you, “You need to stop this, or else,” you’re going to stand your ground, and you’re going to fight for what you believe in. And that’s what they were doing over there, you know? And when I started noticing this, it changed my life. I was going to make the military as a career and decided not to, because the life of people that we was taking away.

Reginald comes from a background of family members that are all military. His father was a master chief petty officer in the Navy, retired. He passed away in 2006 with a massive heart attack, knowing that Texas was going to execute his baby son. His uncles, one was a helicopter pilot in the Cuban Missile Crisis, one was a major in the Army with me in Iraq. And dozens of cousins that served in Vietnam. So we have to raise a question: If Reginald has a background of families with military history, where did he drop off at? Why did he turn to a life of crime? You know, I -—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Andre, you — just minutes after this broadcast, you are going to go visit your brother on death row along with your mother. She is not witnessing the execution. She has chosen not to. But you’ve met with him. What has he been saying in these past few weeks? And also, your mother has not been able to meet with him for over a year. She only met with him recently. Talk about that, as well.

ANDRE BIOS: My mother wasn’t able to meet with Reginald over a year because of the phone incidents that happened a year ago. Reginald was one of the inmates that had a phone in his cell. He was constantly calling my mom, because he wasn’t able to make his phone call in over seven years. He felt that people had turned their back on him. His defense attorney wasn’t doing anything for him. So this was his way of reaching out to his mom, give her information to find some attorneys, find activists that knew people to look into Reginald’s case. Well, the warden of Huntsville barred my mom from coming to Huntsville to visit with her son, and it destroyed my mom, because then the communication line was broke down, and she wasn’t able to fight for her son and get the information that Reginald was providing to her to other people so they could look into his case.

Well, she had gotten a call Thursday of last week, she can come see her son. And I explained to my mom, Reginald had told me about a two-man panel from the Boards of Pardon and Parole questioning Reginald as if, you know, they were on the prosecution’s side. So Reginald kept reading certain things or stating to them about his constitutional rights, what was taken away, what he wasn’t allowed to do. Then they started backing down, and they started listening to Reginald’s story. At the end of this interview, the man that was in charge of interviewing Reginald winked at Reginald. Reginald assumed that it was a good sign.

Well, it wasn’t a good sign. To me, to Mary Felps, which was one of the attorneys who was trying to help Reginald, thought that that wink was to let Reginald know that “We’re going to still execution — execute you, even though you pleaded a good plea, you pleaded a good innocence plea.” Well, my mother shows up Friday, for the first time in a year to be able to visit with her son, happy to see him, and that’s when they came down with the paper stating that they denied it. So, to me, it was all planned, it was all staged. It was a tormenting-type torture for Reginald and for my mom, because they didn’t know how this case was going to sway. They didn’t know if Reginald was going to be granted a stay of execution, somebody was going to call it in and say, “Hey, we need to do a retrial.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andre Bios, we want to —

ANDRE BIOS: But I guarantee —

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us. The execution slated for tonight, a protest in the State Capitol in Austin will take place. And, of course, Rick Perry or the Supreme Court can weigh in to the very end. Andre Bios is the older brother of Reginald Blanton. He’s twenty-eight years old, Reginald Blanton, and he’s scheduled to die tonight.

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