Murder Archives | Fort Worth Criminal Defense, Personal Injury, and Family Law

Cell Phone Text Message Search Love 2016

Police Must Obtain Search Warrant to See Content of Text Messages

By | Search & Seizure

Cell Phone Text Message Search Love 2016From call logs, to cell tower info, to sent and received text messages, many criminal investigations involve the contents of a defendant’s cell phone.  Under the Stored Communications Act, cell phone providers can provide a users cell phone data to police during an active criminal investigation with a simple court order (like a subpoena).  But what about the actual content of text messages?  Can the police or the prosecutor get the actual content from those text messages with the same court order?

Capital Murder Conviction Gained After Judge Admits Content of Text Messages

Recently, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considered a capital murder (death penalty) case in which the State relied on text message evidence during trial. During the trial, the state admitted (over defense objection) the contents of text messages sent and received by the defendant. The messages established the defendant’s presence at the scene of the murder and implied his direct involvement. The state leaned on this evidence during both its opening and closing statements in the case. The defendant was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

The Content of Text Messages are Not Covered by the Stored Communications Act

The appellant argued on appeal that while the Stored Communications Act allows the state to gain evidence of text messages sent and received, it does not allow the dissemination of the content of those messages. The appellant argued that the State should have obtained a search warrant backed by probable cause in order to get these records. The CCA agreed, drawing comparisons to the contents of letters sent in the mail and email stored on a server. Text message enjoy the same reasonable expectation of privacy and should be protected.

The Question in Love v. State is Whether Appellant had an Expectation of Privacy in his Service Provider’s Records

LOVE v. STATE (Tex. Crim. App – 2016), Majority Opinion

Judge Yeary penned the majority opinion in Love. The following excerpts are taken from the opinion:

Many courts have treated text messages as analogous to the content of an envelope conveyed through the United States mail…Admittedly, the analogy is not a perfect one…A letter remains in its sealed envelope until it arrives at its destination, and the telephone company does not routinely record private telephone conversations. But internet and cell phone service providers do routinely store the content of emails and text messages, even if they do not necessarily take the time to read them…[E]mpirical data seem to support the proposition that society recognizes the propriety of assigning Fourth Amendment protection to the content of text messages…All of this leads us to conclude that the content of appellant’s text messages could not be obtained without a probable cause–based warrant. Text messages are analogous to regular mail and email communications. Like regular mail and email, a text message has an “outside address ‘visible’ to the third-party carriers that transmit it to its intended location, and also a package of content that the sender presumes will be read only by the intended recipient…Consequently, the State was prohibited from compelling Metro PCS to turn over appellant’s content-based communications without first obtaining a warrant supported by probable cause.

Finding that “the probable impact of the improperly-admitted text messages was great,” the CCA then reversed the conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.

TAKEAWAY: Not all records can be gained so easily through a court order. Some require a probably cause warrant.  Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy in the message? It might take a new analysis as our media is changing daily, but it can be worth the fight.

Note: Presiding Judge Keller dissented. She did not believe that the appellant preserved this issue for appeal.

Hernandez Racial Slur Error 2016

Murder Conviction Reversed for Prosecutor’s Use of Racial Slur

By | Jury Trial, Trial Advocacy

Texas Prosecutor Uses the “N” Word During Closing Argument. Court of Appeals Reverses the Conviction.

Hernandez Racial Slur Error 2016In December of 2014, Appellant Luis Miguel Hernandez was convicted of the murder of Devin Toler, an African-American man. During the trial, Appellant claimed self-defense, arguing that Toler attacked him and that by killing him, he was defending himself from the attack. The prosecution, however, presented evidence that Appellant provoked Toler by his words, some of them racial slurs. The actual words of the alleged racial slurs were never presented to the jury in the testimony of any witness or otherwise. However, during closing argument, the prosecutor said the following:

“What were the words of provocation? I’ll tell you what the words of provocation were. [Appellant] called Devin and his family ‘niggas.’ That’s what it was.”

The defense attorney promptly objected to the prosecutor’s use of the racial slur as it was inflammatory and outside the evidence in the case. Ultimately, (after a heated bench conference) the judge sustained the objection and instructed the jury to disregard the counsel’s comment, but did not specify which counsel or what comment the jury was to disregard. The defense did not move for a mistrial. The jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced Appellant to 14 years in prison.

See the majority opinion in Hernandez v. State (2nd Court of Appeals – Fort Worth, 2016)

What is a Proper Jury Argument?

On appeal to the Second Court of Appeals (Fort Worth), the Appellant challenged the judge’s failure to declare a mistrial after the prosecutor’s use of the “N” word. The court explained:

Proper jury argument falls into one of four areas: (1) summation of the evidence; (2) reasonable deduction from the evidence; (3) an answer to the argument of opposing counsel; and (4) a plea for law enforcement. Generally, error resulting from improper jury argument is subject to a harm analysis.

The appellate court held that not only were the prosecutor’s comments in using the “N” word error, but that the prosecutor’s comments constituted an “incurably prejudicial argument;” one that required a mistrial.

Is the “Incurably Prejudicial Argument” Waived if the Defendant Does Not Move for a Mistrial?

Texas courts have consistently held that to preserve error for an improper argument, the defendant must do 3 things:

  1. Make a timely and specific objection;
  2. Request and instruction to disregard if the objection is sustained; and
  3. Move for a mistrial if the instruction to disregard is granted.

Cockrell v. State, 933 S.W.2d 73, 89 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1173 (1997)

In this case, the defense satisfied 1 and 2, but did not move for a mistrial. The appellate court was then presented with the issue of whether the improper jury argument objection is waived if the defense does not move for a mistrial.  Texas precedent says the issue can be waived for failure to move for a mistrial. But the court does not find this to be wise.

“Logically, this position makes no sense. An incurably prejudicial argument requires a mistrial. If the trial court does not grant the mistrial, the court has committed error that requires setting aside the conviction and re-trying the case. Respectfully, if the argument is so prejudicial that it has deprived the defendant of a fair trial, the injury is fundamental.”

The court provides further reasoning to depart from precedent, citing the tenuous political atmosphere surrounding race relations in America at the time of the trial.

The impact of the improper statement by the prosecuting attorney must be viewed in the context of the political atmosphere at the time of trial. The trial took place in early December 2014. On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, whose mother was from Peru, killed Trayvon Martin. Emotional discussions of Zimmerman’s ethnicity filled news commentary. Other killings made headlines. Among them was the death of Eric Garner while he was selling loose cigarettes in New York on July 17, 2014. The officer who killed him was Daniel Pantaleo. On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. On August 11, 2014, Ezell Ford was killed in Los Angeles by two police officers, one of whom was Hispanic. And on November 23, 2014, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter organization was formed in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in his trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin and was actively involved in protests nationwide.

With that, the Second Court held that the improper jury argument was not cured (and could not have been cured) by the judge’s “perfunctory” instruction to disregard and that the error was preserved for appeal. The court then reversed the case and remanded back to the trial court.

Dissent Agrees that the Error Was Prejudicial, But Would Not Depart From Precedent

Justice Sudderth dissented. She is not willing to depart from Court of Criminal Appeals’ precedent regarding the formal requirement to move for a mistrial. She writes:

Of all of the words in modern American English usage, including the slang and the vulgar, the “n-word” is of such infamy that it is generally referenced and understood only by its first letter. And with very few exceptions, such racially charged inflammatory language has no place in jury argument.

This is certainly the case when a prosecutor, using that language to secure a conviction, goes outside of the record to introduce it. Therefore, I agree with the majority that the prosecutor’s behavior was improper. It was inexcusable. It cannot be condoned. And the trial judge committed error in permitting it. Nevertheless, because we are constrained by precedent of the court of criminal appeals requiring preservation of this type of error, I am compelled to dissent.

It will be interesting to see whether the Court of Criminal Appeals will stick to their previous precedent or take this opportunity to change the law when it comes to an “incurably prejudicial argument” involving racial slurs.

OJ Simpson Knife Double Jeopardy

Double Jeopardy, OJ Simpson and the New Knife

By | Double Jeopardy

OJ Simpson Knife Double JeopardyMany of you have heard of the new development in the OJ Simpson case, the discovery of a knife that was found on Simpson’s property sometime around 2002 or 2003 (interesting that this is coming to light during the airing of the OJ Simpson TV drama on FX). A construction worker, who gave the knife to a former LAPD officer that was working as a security officer, reportedly uncovered the knife on or around Simpson’s property. For reasons that are unclear, the knife was just recently turned over to LAPD in early March. This is big news because the knife used in the murders of OJ’s wife, Nicole Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, was never found and Simpson was ultimately acquitted in 1995 for their murders. So what does this discovery mean for OJ Simpson and the murder charges that of which he was acquitted back in 1995? LAPD is testing the knife for DNA and hair, and it has been unofficially reported that no DNA exists, but if they find something, what can they do?

Can Simpson be retried for the murder of his wife and her friend?

No, he cannot be retried. Jeopardy has attached and Simpson is protected from being retried on the same offense after being acquitted. The 5th Amendment of the United State’s Constitution provides that no person shall be “subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” In other words, a person shall not be put on trial for the same offense after receiving a not guilty verdict. This is commonly known as the protection again Double Jeopardy. Further, the Doctrine of Res Judicata (claims preclusion) bars relitigation of a claim that has been validly and finally adjudicated.

Because OJ Simpson was acquitted for the murder of his wife and her friend, this means that he is protected by the Constitution from Double Jeopardy and cannot be taken to trial for their murders again even if new “evidence” is discovered. This answer would not change even if DNA evidence came back showing a link to one of the victims. Further, under the Doctrine of Res Judicata, since there was a valid and final judgment in regards to the guilt of Simpson in these murders, the State of California is barred from reopening Simpson’s case.

Is there any way around Double Jeopardy?

The only way around double jeopardy is to be federally indicted for some other offense arising from the same events. The state and federal authorities are separate sovereigns. Here, it would not be a Double Jeopardy violation for Simpson to receive a federal indictment for violation of the victims’ civil rights, but it would be incredibly unlikely.

Takeaway: If you have already been found not guilty for an criminal charge, the 5th Amendment and Doctrine of Res Judicata protect you from being brought to trial on that same charge.

Cell Tower Records Criminal Defense

Murder Case Hinges on the Privacy of Cell Tower Records

By | Murder

Was it an Unlawful Warrantless Search Under the 4th Amendment for the DA to Obtain Cell Tower Records From a Third Party and Use Them Against a Defendant Charged with Murder?

Ford v. State (2015) | San Antonio Murder Mystery

JCell Tower Records Criminal Defenseon Ford and Dana Edwards dated off and on for two years in the small town of Alamo Heights, Texas. After a long break-up, the former couple saw each other at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party. The group of friends drank heavily and played “Apples to Apples,” an interactive game that required the participants to reveal their thoughts on personal topics. During the game, the subject of marriage came up and Ford was singled out about his on-again-off-again relationship with Edwards. Angry, Ford left the party before everyone else.

The next day, Edwards’s parents were expecting her in Fredericksburg, but she never showed. Worried, her parents drove to her condo, where they found her dead. Because she sustained lacerations and trauma to her head, the police opened up a murder investigation.

The State Gathers Evidence

On January 2nd, Ford volunteered to give a statement. In his statement, Ford said he left the party around 11:30 pm, went home, and fell asleep. Ford said that his new cell phone had been in his possession the entire night.

The investigators obtained video footage of the streets bordering Edwards’s condo, footage that conflicted with Ford’s official statement. At 11:24 pm, the camera captured a white SUV, similar to Ford’s vehicle, turn into the victim’s condo complex. At 1:00 am, Edwards’s car entered the complex. At 3:16 am, with the headlamps turned off, the white SUV exited the complex. No one could definitively say the white SUV belonged to Ford, as the license plate and registration stickers could not be determined because of the quality of the video.

A week later, the San Antonio District Attorney’s Office filed an application under Article 18.21 § 5(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, and in compliance with Communications Act, to obtain Ford’s historical cell-site-location records from AT&T Wireless.

Ford’s Case Goes to Trial

At trial, a radio network engineer from AT&T Wireless testified about the records. The engineer said that AT&T can tell where a cell phone is located by examining the sector information. He explained, “when a person sets up a call, receives a call, or sends a text, the person does so in communication with…sectors in the cell-phone network…[which] enables [AT&T] to look up the records for a particular phone number…determin[ing] [the] cell phone’s proximity to a cell…tower.” Ford v. State, 444 S.W.3d 171, 190 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2014). This is also true when the phone is not being actively used, as “unanswered texts and calls…automatic downloads….cause the [phone] to…ping the network to alert the network that the [phone] is in a particular…area.” Id.

According to AT&T, Ford’s cell records indicate that the numerous pings place Ford at the party, then at the victim’s condo complex and finally, at his home. The “ping” time frame also matches the timestamps from the camera footage for the unknown white SUV. Id.

The jury found Ford guilty of murder, sentencing him to forty years in prison. Ford appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the verdict and sentence, relying upon the third party doctrine. Justice Chapa dissented in the court of appeals case, stating, in a nutshell, that Ford retained a reasonable expectation of privacy in his physical movements and location; he did not voluntarily surrender his expectation of privacy; and because the State did not secure a warrant before obtaining the records, Ford’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. Ford appealed to the Criminal Court of Appeals (“CCA”).

The Big Issue | Privacy of Cell Tower Records

Did the State of Texas’ warrantless acquisition of historical cell-site-location information—recorded by a 3rd party cell-phone service provider—violate the Fourth Amendment? Did Ford have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements and location?

What does the law say about the expectation of privacy in cell phone records? What is the Third Party Doctrine?

The Fourth Amendment Guarantees , “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. CONST. amend. IV. A person may appeal a verdict under a privacy theory if (1) he has a subjective expectation of privacy in the place or object searched, and (2) society…recognize[s] that expectation as reasonable. State v. Granville, 423 S.W.3d, 399, 405 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).

The Third Party Doctrine allows for acquisition of information revealed to a third party (such as a cell phone company or a bank). Case law reflecting this doctrine suggests that information that must be disclosed [in the normal course of business] for the phone company to provide the requested service, is not off-limits to law enforcement and is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, courts across the United States remain divided on this issue.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Weighs in on Cell Phone Records and the Third Party Doctrine

Here, the CCA says that the DA’s office did not violate Ford’s Fourth Amendment rights because Ford had no legitimate expectation of privacy in records held by AT&T, records kept in the normal course of business, pointing to his location and movements in the past. AT&T uses the records for its own business purposes to improve network functionality. Moreover, phone service providers are required, by the FCC to locate a cell phone when a 911 call is placed. In re Application (Fifth Circuit), 724 F.3d at 611-12. Therefore, “The type of non-content evidence, lawfully created by a third-party telephone company for legitimate business purposes, does not belong to defendant[s], even if it concerns [a defendant].” United States v. Davis, 785 F.3d 498, 511 (11th Cir. 2015) . Acknowledging that Fourth Amendment claims may survive with in the case of GPS devices, or in long-term monitoring of individuals, the CCA affirms, holding, “In the circumstances [of this case], we do not see a jurisprudential reason to stray from the third-party doctrine.”

What could Ford v. State mean for you?

Generally speaking, your cell phone records, by way of the third-party doctrine, are subject to review by law enforcement and could be used against you in criminal proceedings in Texas. The CCA is saying that a reasonable person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her cell tower records.

Making a Murderer | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorney

Making a Murderer: The Power of the Jury

By | Jury Trial

Can a Single Juror Make a Difference? Ask Steven Avery.

Making a Murderer | Fort Worth Criminal Defense AttorneyWe, like many of you, have been sucked into the sad, frustrating, and very real tale of the murder trial of Steven Avery in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin brought forth in the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.” While much has been made of Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence, the coerced confession from his nephew Brandon Dassey (see full confession transcript HERE), and the possible foul play of the law enforcement in Manitowoc County, one major key to the case has been largely overlooked – the power of the jury. Without a guilty verdict from the jury, there is no frenzy over a viral documentary and certainly Steven Avery is a free man.

Recently, the filmmakers have reported to the press that a member of the jury now admits that he or she believed Avery was not guilty. This juror, wishing to remain anonymous, claims to have changed their vote to “guilty” after succumbing to fear and pressure. In reality, the juror believed, and still believes, that Avery was framed for murder. Speaking to the filmmakers, the juror said “I’m the reason the justice system failed.” Is the juror right?

Criminal Verdicts in Texas Must Be Unanimous. Every Juror Vote Counts.

Jury deliberations are secret, so only the jurors themselves could ever say for sure exactly why they arrive at a certain verdict for a case. In a criminal case, a jury verdict must be unanimous, which ensures that each juror’s vote is important and not diluted in a simple majority. If this one juror had summoned the courage to stay true to their “not guilty” vote, it would have caused a mistrial. A mistrial forces authorities to make the difficult decision of whether or not to retry the accused. Who knows what would have happened in a hypothetical second trial of Steven Avery.

For years, this juror has shouldered guilt from this trial, proving that the decisions juries are asked to make are indeed difficult ones. The next time you are on a jury, take a lesson from this case. Stand up for what you believe in and refuse to cave to pressure or fear. Do not be overpowered by the person with the loudest voice in the jury room. Remember, your vote holds the power of incarceration or freedom.

I hope we didn’t spoil the documentary for you, but if you haven’t watched it, this post does not even scratch the surface of the things you will see in this series.  We suggest you watch it and consider the case for yourself.  If nothing else, you’ll see that there are two sides to every story and you’ll understand to importance of having a fair and conscientious jury in a criminal trial.

Texas CCA Holds Manslaughter is an LIO of 19.02(b)(2) Murder

By | Lesser-Included Offenses

Murder under Section 19.02(b)(2) of the Texas Penal Code provides:

A person commits and offense if he intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.

Because there is no clear mens rea (i.e. culpable state of mind, such as intentionally or knowingly) required under 19.02(b)(2), Texas courts have not allowed a lesser-included instruction on the offense of Manslaughter (which required a mens rea of recklessness).

Not any more.

In Cavazos v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that Manslaughter is an LIO of Murder under 19.02(b)(2).  While the CCA could not look to the specific elements of the offenses to come to a conclusion, it used a functional equivalence test, holding that the culpable mental state for Murder under 19.02(b)(2) is the intent to cause serious bodily injury, which can be substituted for recklessness under a Manslaughter theory.

Of course, Mr. Cavazos did not benefit from this holding, because the CCA also held that his particular case did not qualify for the LIO instruction.  So while new law emerges, his conviction stands.

DNA Innocence

The Last Man Exonerated – Kerry Max Cook

By | DNA, Murder

DNA InnocenceI usually do not repost articles that others writers send to my email, but I decided to make an exception for this one.  Reposted below is a compelling article written by Michael Hall with Texas Monthly, regarding the current plight of Kerry Max Cook, a man who hopes to obtain a complete exoneration for a murder that he did not commit (as later demonstrated by DNA evidence).  You can either read the story below, or see the original article HERE.  You can also check out an updated Article by Michael Hall HERE.


Kerry Max Cook walked off Texas’s death row in 1997, but earlier this week he filed two motions in the 241st District Court in Smith County that he hopes will finally clear his name. Cook (pictured above) and his Dallas lawyers, working with the New York-based Innocence Project, petitioned for post-conviction DNA testing on untested evidence he is certain will show once and for all that he is innocent of killing Linda Jo Edwards in Tyler in 1977. He also asked to have the DNA motion considered by a judge from outside Smith County, where he claims he was a victim of “the most well-documented and notorious instance of prosecutorial misconduct in the annals of Texas jurisprudence.”

Now would seem to be a good time to file these motions. Since 2000, four dozen Texans have been exonerated, most by DNA evidence. Recently we’ve seen several high-profile cases in which men sent to prison—including death row—were exonerated and freed, to great fanfare. Timothy Cole, convicted of rape in Lubbock in 1985, was exonerated posthumously in 2009 after a court of inquiry found him innocent. Anthony Graves, a former death row inmate, was freed in 2010 after a special prosecutor found his trial prosecutor had “handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare.” Michael Morton, convicted of killing his wife in 1987, was freed in October after tests revealed his wife’s blood and another man’s DNA on a bandana near the crime scene.

Cook was released when these other men were still in prison. Any yet, unlike them, he is not legally an exoneree. That’s because, even though his death sentence was overturned twice by higher courts, and even though DNA taken from the murder victim didn’t match him, when prosecutors were preparing to put him on trial for a fourth time, Cook pleaded no contest instead of not guilty. Thirteen years later, his murder conviction is still on his record.

Why did Cook plead no contest to a murder he didn’t commit? Good question. Cook’s case is a strange one, one of the strangest in Texas history. He was arrested in June 1977 for the rape and murder of Linda Jo Edwards, who had been stabbed, beaten, and mutilated in her apartment. Her roommate told of seeing a man at the apartment whom she assumed was James Mayfield, a married man with whom Edwards had been having an affair. But the affair had ended three weeks before the murder. Police instead zeroed in on Kerry Max Cook, who lived in the same complex and whose fingerprints were found on a patio door of the apartment. Cook said he was innocent.

The prosecution made a strong case at Cook’s first trial in 1978. A police detective testified that his fingerprints could actually be dated as having been left there within hours of the murder. The roommate who originally thought the killer was Mayfield now said it was Cook. A jailhouse snitch said Cook confessed to him that he’d killed Edwards. And a gay hairdresser named Robert Hoehn said that on the night of the murder he and Cook had watched the movie The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea; Hoehn said he had performed sex acts on Cook, who also had masturbated during a scene involving the torture of a cat. The prosecution’s theory was that Cook, aroused by the torture scene, had rushed out to rape, kill, and mutilate Edwards, a total stranger. Cook, who says he knew Edwards and had visited her apartment by invitation (thus accounting for the prints), was found guilty, convicted, given the death penalty, and sent to death row.

Ten years later, stories in the Dallas Morning News began alleging serious improprieties at the original trial. For example, the snitch admitted that he had lied as part of a deal with prosecutors (his pending murder charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for his testimony), and the detective’s testimony about being able to tell the age of fingerprints was shown to be highly misleading, if not downright absurd. In 1991 Cook’s sentence was overturned on a technicality and sent back to the trial court.

By this point, the state’s case was in the hands of a tough prosecutor named Jack Skeen, who had been elected Smith County DA in 1983. Cook had found his own advocate in Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey group that helps the wrongly convicted. Centurion did some research and found four dozen people who knew Mayfield, the man Edwards had been having an affair with; none had ever been interviewed by police. McCloskey became convinced of Cook’s innocence and wrote a report titled “Why Centurion Ministries Believes Jim Mayfield Killed Linda Jo Edwards.”

Cook’s second trial was moved to Williamson County in 1992, but it ended in a hung jury and a mistrial. By this point other evidence that suggested prosecutorial misconduct had been revealed—the state hadn’t turned over evidence that Mayfield’s teenaged daughter had repeatedly threatened to kill Edwards in the weeks before her death. The state also withheld evidence that Cook and Edwards did indeed know each other and that Hoehn had originally told the grand jury that he had not had sex with Cook (who, he had also said, didn’t pay any attention to the movie). Finally, the state hadn’t revealed a written statement from the detective who had testified about the age of the fingerprint in which he said he had told prosecutors this opinion was unsound and couldn’t be backed up by any science. Still, he stated, prosecutors pressed him to give it, and he did, to devastating effect.

At trial number three, in 1994, even without the testimony of the snitch or the detective regarding the age of the fingerprints, the state was allowed to use the testimony of Hoehn, who had recently died. Cook was again found guilty and again given the death penalty.

In 1996 Cook finally got his first vindication. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the latest conviction, pointing to the massive official misconduct. “Prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset,” the majority opinion declared. Cook made bail in 1997, but the state prepared to try him again. Skeen, who was elected Prosecutor of the Year by the State Bar of Texas, remained convinced of Cook’s guilt.

In an attempt to head off a fourth trial, Skeen’s office offered Cook a deal: plead guilty, be sentenced to time served, and go home. Cook refused. He was innocent, he swore. In early 1999, Edward’s underwear was sent to a DPS lab for modern forensic testing. On February 5, the lab confirmed the presence of semen. Six days later a hopeful Cook gave a blood sample. The next day, before the results of the DNA test came back, the DA’s office made another offer: a no contest plea, in which he would maintain his innocence while acknowledging that witnesses against him “would testify sufficiently to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that he’d killed Edwards. Again Cook refused. On February 16, the DA came back with a final offer: a no-contest plea in which Cook would maintain his innocence while only acknowledging the evidence the state would offer to try and convict him. Cook took the deal. He didn’t want to run the risk of another trial, another guilty verdict, and another death sentence in law-and-order Smith County.

Two months later, the test results came back: the semen belonged to Mayfield—who had given a blood sample a month after the plea deal. Skeen’s office maintained that the results didn’t prove anything—after all, Mayfield had recently had a sexual relationship with Edwards, and who knew when that semen had been deposited there? Cook was still guilty. As Assistant DA David Dobbs said later, “The important thing for us was to insure that he got a conviction for murder that would follow him for the rest of his life.”

In 2003, Skeen became judge of the 241st District Court. One of Cook’s motions filed Tuesday specifically asks for his case to be tried by someone other than his former prosecutor. In this motion for recusal, Cook’s attorneys note new evidence that they say suggests Skeen failed to follow the law. In particular, in May 2011 Cook’s lawyers say they found a polygraph report on the jailhouse snitch that indicated deception during his 1977 questioning—a report that was never turned over to any of the defense lawyers, either in 1978 or 1994. Cook’s lawyers write, “the State was unquestionably obligated to provide this highly exculpatory document to the defense.”

The CCA, in its review, concluded that the improprieties in the case were confined to the original investigation, in the late 1970s. A footnote to its majority decision in 1996 reads: “We note the acts of misconduct … took place nearly 20 years ago and we do not imply any complicity in said acts on the part of the current District Attorney or current members of the Tyler Police Department.” But Judge Charlie Baird, in a separate opinion, disagreed, saying that he thought the misconduct went further: “the State’s misconduct in this case does not consist of an isolated incident or the doing of a police officer, but consists of the deliberate misconduct by members of the bar, representing the State, over a fourteen year period—from the initial discovery proceedings in 1977, through the first trial in 1978 and continuing with the concealment of the misconduct until 1992.” By that point, Skeen had been DA for nine years.

One of the more intriguing questions is whether Skeen knew the results of the DNA test before making the plea offer in 1999. In Chasing Justice, a book Cook wrote about his experience, he says that McCloskey suspected so. “I’ll tell you what I think,” Cook remembers McCloskey saying. “I think they ran a preliminary test on the semen stain and have at least got a blood type; they know you aren’t the donor.” In the DNA motion, Cook can only speculate on what happened:

Based on statements made by the District Attorney, what likely occurred between February 12 and February 16, 1999 is that an initial analysis was performed on Mr. Cook’s blood sample for purposes of comparison to the semen stain on Ms. Edwards’ clothing, which had only been provided the day before the prosecution’s offer to Mr. Cook of 40 years in prison. And in hindsight it is apparent that this initial analysis excluded Mr. Cook as the individual that raped and murdered Ms. Edwards. Just after Mr. Cook entered his no-contest plea, a local newspaper reported that, ‘[t]esting continues on a recently discovered semen stain on the dead woman’s underwear, said Skeen. But initial indications were that the new evidence would not prove helpful to prosecutors, he [Skeen] said.’ The prosecution knew that once a jury was informed that the semen from Ms. Edwards’ panties did not belong to Mr. Cook, the State would not be able to convict Mr. Cook of her rape and murder. Again, Mayfield did not submit his blood until after the plea agreement was entered, so when the prosecution made the deal with Mr. Cook they may not have known with scientific certainty who did rape and kill Ms. Edwards, but they absolutely knew who did not—Kerry Max Cook.

The intent of the DNA motion seems to be to start the ball rolling to get Cook eventually declared actually innocent. This is a tall order in Texas, especially this long after the verdict. The motion states:

Mr. Cook is factually and actually innocent of the 1977 rape and murder of Ms. Edwards and requests further DNA testing to verify and corroborate the other powerful evidence of his innocence. While previous DNA testing has already provided exculpatory evidence and established overwhelming proof of Mr. Cook’s innocence, there is a substantial volume of additional un-tested evidence that will further corroborate Mr. Cook’s innocence.

The motion is referring to things taken from the bloody crime scene that were never tested for DNA, including Edwards’ bloody blue jeans, a hair found on her body, and other biological samples taken from her bra and a knife.

One of the great mysteries of the case is why Mayfield, whose semen was found inside Linda Jo Edwards’ lifeless body, was never tried for her murder. If his DNA profile were to be found in the untested blood or hair, could Mayfield (who lives in Houston and has refused requests for interviews for 35 years now) ultimately be prosecuted? Could Cook be exonerated?

Cook’s case is a deeply tragic one. He was one of the first of the modern wave of men to be freed after years of wrongful imprisonment. And yet Cook never experienced a profound public vindication. He never got to raise his arms high as he was cheered leaving the courthouse—like Morton recently did. He doesn’t get millions of dollars in compensation from the state for those wasted years—like the others do. He doesn’t have a brotherhood of fellow exonerees—like the men in Dallas have. He isn’t even, technically, an exoneree.

“Every day I fight against the darkest depression imaginable,” he says, “because of what Smith County did to me and continued to do to me for 35 years. First there was the horror of my prison experience as an innocent man, then my fate when I was freed, which in some ways was almost as bad. I developed severe PTSD. I was forced to move five times by people who found out about my past. Kids won’t play with my son because they find out he’s the son of a man who was on death row. My wife and I–we have no insurance. I can’t get an apartment, I can’t get a real job. It’s been unbelievable. Nobody knows what it’s like. It’s like I’m behind another set of bars. I’m not free.

“I want the official exoneration. I want what Ernest Willis and Tim Cole and Michael Morton got. I deserve it. It’s my turn.”

Self-Defense and Murder in Texas

Self-Defense and Reckless Offenses

By | Self-Defense

Self-Defense and MurderUnder Chapter 9 of the Texas Penal Code, self-defense is provided as a justification to the offense of murder (among others).  Chapter 9 makes clear that if a fact-finder believes a defendant’s actions are justified, the fact-finder may not convict for an offense based on those self-defense actions.  In essence, a defendant that pleads self-defense is telling the fact-finder that he intentionally performed certain actions in order to protect himself against the unlawful actions of another.  So…if the defendant intentionally performed the self-defensive actions, can self-defense be applied to an offense like manslaughter that requires “reckless” conduct vice intentional?

In Alonzo v. State, the 13th District Court of Appeals (Corpus Christie) “believed it is illogical for a defendant to argue self-defense when charged with an offense whose requisite mental state is recklessness.”  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, disagrees, explaining that “there is nothing in Penal Code Section 2.03 or Chapter 9 that limits justification defenses to intentional or knowing crimes, nor do we have a reason to infer such a limitation.” The CCA notes that limiting self-defense to only intentional or knowing crimes could encourage prosecutors to charge manslaughter (a reckless offense) vice murder when there is a self-defense issue, because self-defense would be inapplicable.

Judge Womack explains that “by arguing self-defense, a defendant is arguing that his actions were justified, and therefore he did not act recklessly.” So really, it’s just another way to disprove the charged offense.

Of course, a defendant cannot argue self-defense in the face of a murder charge and then at the same time request a lesser-included instruction on manslaughter. The CCA made sure not to disrupt prior caselaw holding such. But the overarching takeaway from Alonzo is that a defendant that is acquitted of a murder charged based on self-defense CANNOT be convicted of the LIO of manslaughter.

The CCA reversed the decision of the 13th Court and remanded the case for a harm analysis.  Presiding Judge Keller concurred. Alonzo Concurrence

The Importance of a Waiver to a Potential Conflict of Interest

By | Murder

Back in June of this year the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals addressed a case involving a conflict of interest.  Criminal defense attorneys will find that conflict issues come up frequently. The writ of mandamus that the CCA heard in this case addresses conflicts of interest and provides some assurance as to what attorney’s can do to shore up any issues they may have with conflicts.

In Bowen v. State, a writ of mandamus was filed by a defense attorney representing a client on trial for Capital Murder.  A principal witness in the case against his client was a jailhouse informant who happened to also be a former client of the defense attorney.  The State moved to disqualify the attorney arguing that his ability to cross-examine his former client would be hampered because of the past representation.  At a hearing on the State’s motion to disqualify, the attorney introduced into the record signed written waivers from both his client on trial for capital murder and the witness whom he formally represented.  The trial court granted the State’s motion to disqualify the attorney.

The Court primarily looked to the Sixth Amendment as addressed by the Supreme Court in Wheat v. United States, 486 U.S. 153 (1988).  In Wheat, the Court emphasized the question of whether or not an actual conflict exists.  The Court held that trial courts must, “recognize a presumption in favor of [a defendant’s] counsel of choice, but that presumption may be overcome not only by a demonstration of actual conflict but by a showing of a serious potential for conflict.” Id. at 164.  In absence of an actual conflict, the court gives great weight to a waiver.

The Court in the Bowen case held that the decision to disqualify the attorney was a clear interference with the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel and that there had been no evidence of the existence of an actual conflict.  Ultimately, the Court held that the waiver that had been signed was sufficient in this case to preclude disqualification of the attorney.

It is a “must” in the defense world to obtain waivers when facing potential conflicts of interest.  Even in a Capital Murder case, a waiver can be effective to disclaim the conflict.  This case does not make waivers the “end-all, be-all,” but it does show the legal world that the court will give great deference to waivers and a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the counsel of their choice.

Ex Parte Robbins Medical Examiner

CCA Refuses to Grant New Trial in Capital Case After Medical Examiner Recants Trial Testimony and Trial Court Recommends New Trial

By | Murder

Ex Parte RobbinsEx Parte Neal Hampton Robbins – Tex. Crim. App. , June 29, 2011

In 1999, Neal Robbins was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison for the death of his girlfriend’s 17 month-old child. The cause of death as reported by the medical examiner was asphyxiation by compression. The medical examiner testified to her theory at trial and despite contrary evidence that the compression wounds may have resulted from adult administered CPR, the jury convicted Robbins of capital murder.

In 2007, at the urging of one of Robbins’s acquaintances, the original findings of the medical examiner were reviewed by the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office. The Deputy Chief Medical Examiner disagreed with the findings and the trial testimony of the original medical examiner. The autopsy report was then amended to reflect that the cause and manner of death was “undetermined.” Eventually, the original medical examiner was asked to review her prior findings. In a letter to the district attorney, she stated:

I believe that there are unanswered questions as to why the child died, and I still feel that this is a suspicious death of a young child. Given my review of all the material from the case file and having had more experience in the field of forensic pathology, I now feel that an opinion for a cause and manner of death of “undetermined” is best for this case.

She went on to explain that the bruises she originally equated with asphyxiation by compression could have resulted from aggressive CPR and other efforts to assist the child.

Armed with the recantation of the chief government witness, Robbins filed an application for writ of habeas corpus in June of 2007. The State did not oppose the application and recommended that Robbins be given a new trial “because his due process rights to a fair trial and impartial jury were violated.” In response, the trial court appointed yet another medical to review the evidence and offer an opinion. This time, the chairman of the Department of Pathology at Baylor College of Medicine opined that the original determination of the cause of death, as presented in the capital trial, could not be supported by the evidence.

Not satisfied with this opinion, the trial court ordered one last review by another pathologist. This last and final pathologist stated that it was her opinion that the child’s death was a homicide and that the manner of death was asphyxia by suffocation (a theory not presented at the original trial). After this finding, the State withdrew its recommendation that a new trial be granted, but agreed not to oppose the request for a new trial.

After an evidentiary hearing into the cause of the child’s death, the trial court recommended that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grant Robbins’s request for a new trial.

A slim majority (5-4) of the CCA was not equally convinced. Characterizing Robbins’s application as a “bare innocence claim,” the CCA explained that it must “look to see whether there is ‘clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence.’”

The CCA concluded that:

[The original medical examiner] did not entirely repudiate her testimony. Although she can no longer stand by her more definite trial testimony, it remains at least possible that [the child’s] death could have occurred as [the medical examiner] originally testified. Thus, [her] re-evaluation does not void her trial testimony. The jury could have considered [her] “undetermined” opinion and still found Applicant guilty, especially in light of all of the other evidence adduced at trial. Applicant has, therefore, failed to make the requisite showing “by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of” [the medical examiner’s] re-evaluation.

Application for writ of habeas corpus is denied.

Judge Price Concurred.

Judge Cochran, joined with Judges Womack and Johnson dissented, stating:

I certainly agree [that]…applicant has not established his actual innocence-not even close. But, given the inexperienced trial and habeas judge’s legitimate and serious concerns about the impact of [the medical examiner’s] testimony at trial on the critical and hotly disputed issue of [the child’s] cause of death, I agree that applicant did not receive a fundamentally fair trial based upon reliable scientific evidence (or the honest admission that science cannot resolve the critical issue.)

Judge Alcala also dissented in a separate opinion, stating that she would grant relief because Robbins “was denied due process of law by the State’s use of false testimony to obtain his conviction.”

If only Robbins had been tried in Florida by Casey Anthony’s jury, this entire appeal could have been averted.