1993: Leonel Herrera, perilously close to simple murder?

6 comments May 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1993, Leonel Herrera was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas, for shooting two policemen. Herrera’s last statement averred,

Herrera’s sister Norma self-published this book about the case — keeping a promise to her executed brother.

I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Make no mistake about this; I owe society nothing. Continue the struggle for human rights, helping those who are innocent, especially Mr. Graham. I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight. May God bless you all. I am ready.

Well, Herrera wasn’t the first to go to his death maintaining his innocence. The circumstances (and circumstantial evidence) of the crime rate on the forgettable side.

But Leonel Torres Herrera was a bit different from his cousins in hopeless protestation: while he died this evening, his name lived on … in a landmark Supreme Court decision

Herrera v. Collins

Years after Herrera was convicted and death-sentenced, multiple affidavits were produced to the effect that his late brother, Raul, was the real killer.

This evidence was naturally pursued with gusto by the condemned man.

Unfortunately, a claim like Herrera’s of “actual innocence” faces a very high bar when raised in appellate courts, once a prisoner has already been convicted and their presumption of innocence become a presumption of guilt.

That this arbitrary rule of the game has a defensible rationale — could any criminal justice system operate if prisoners could continually relitigate their cases while memories fade and evidence ages into obsolescence? — does not make it the less Kafkaesque for individual prisoners, some of whom are in fact innocent.

Herrera presented this problem in unusually stark terms. Lacking any procedural violation upon which to hang his hat as an appeals issue, his claim pitted substance against form in the Supreme Court. (Oral arguments at Oyez.org)

You already know how it ended.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s opinion patiently explained a jurisprudential truism loftily uncolored by any experience in life liable to introduce a sense of kinship with a Hispanic man charged with a Texas cop-killing who uncovers too late the evidence that could save him.

“[A]ctual innocence” is not itself a constitutional claim.*

Instead, the Court recommended — tongue no doubt planted firmly in cheek — that Herrera apply for executive clemency, a dead letter procedure in Texas used exclusively in a good cop/bad cop routine opposite the black robes.

“Judicial restraint forbids relieving you,” says the court. “Go ask the governor.”

“The courts have thoroughly reviewed the case,” intones the governor. “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Herrera himself may or may not have been innocent. At the end of the day, he went down because the game was rigged against him: his exculpatory evidence was not available at trial, when it might have introduced “reasonable doubt” — as Rehnquist’s opinion put it, “in state criminal proceedings the trial is the paramount event for determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant.” Once that evidence became available deep in the appeals process, it was procedurally barred, and far from such a slam-dunk exoneration that any institutional actor would stick his, her or its neck out to lift Leonel Torres Herrera from the gurney.

Justice Harry Blackmun’s dissent retorted,

Just as an execution without adequate safeguards is unacceptable, so too is an execution when the condemned prisoner can prove that he is innocent. The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder.

Whether “simple murder” happened in Huntsville this night in 1993, perhaps no one can really say with certainty.

But as DNA evidence and other forensic advances in the intervening years have increasingly eroded confidence in the reliability of the justice system that metes out death, Herrera v. Collins stands as a key precedent in a case now before the Supreme Court — in which states (joined by the Obama administration) are asking the justices to agree that convicted prisoners have no right to cheap, simple, and frequently dispositive DNA testing that may not have been available when they were tried.

Given the composition of the court (including three holdovers from the Herrera majority), that decision figures to have Leonel Herrera rolling over in his grave.

* Rehnquist conceded a theoretical possibility that extraordinarily persuasive evidence could generate relief on due process grounds. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas went much further, claiming that prisoners had no right to anything but their trial and their (procedural) appeals.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Innocent Bystanders,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1916: James Connolly, socialist revolutionary

9 comments May 12th, 2008 Sem

On this date in 1916, James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad along with Sean Mac Diarmada.

James Connolly: Irish revolutionary.

Connolly was born to Irish immigrant parents in Scotland. His first experience in his ancestral home of Ireland was during his stint in the British Army where, stationed in and around Cork, he had the opportunity to witness firsthand both the poor treatment of the native Irish by the British forces as well as the grave disparities between the landowning and peasant classes. When he returned home to Scotland, he fell in with the socialist crowd and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the movement’s leaders. He actively participated in socialist organizations in several countries and joined the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World.

A variety of circumstances brought him back to Ireland, where he led Irish socialists in seeking rights for the working class, joining the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1912. He went on to head the union two years later when the General Secretary, “Big” Jim Larkin, left for a speaking tour. In this capacity, he found a crowd for his increasingly open talks of revolution. Frustrated by what he saw as the unwillingness of the bourgeois Irish Volunteers, Connolly spoke persistently about sacrificing his own life in the name of economic freedom for Ireland, starting The Workers’ Republic journal, then printing his treatise The Re-Conquest of Ireland in 1915. Connolly headed just one revolutionary faction in Ireland at the time. Not wishing to have their festivities spoiled by Connolly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, another revolutionary paramilitary group, decided to invite him to their Easter party.

The General Post Office in Dublin after the uprising.

The Easter Rising, which had little support from the Irish public at the time, began on April 24, 1916. Connolly led the Dublin Brigrade, which held the Dublin General Post Office, and so was in essence a sort of Commander-in-Chief during the uprising. Six days later, the Easter Rising came to a close with a surrender to British troops; its leaders, who had issued a proclamation of Irish freedom, were quickly sentenced to death by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Injured during the fighting, Connolly had only been given a few more days to live by the doctors that attended him at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Unable to stand on his own due to his injuries, he was tied to a chair in order to face the firing squad.

The rapidity and brutality of the executions shocked the Irish public and the conditions of Connolly’s death were most shocking of all. After the executions, the corpses of the 15 put to death (killed between May 3 and May 12) were placed into an unmarked mass grave. The Irish people, previously largely indifferent to the republican rantings of the revolutionaries, angrily regarded British action against the leaders of the Easter Rising, granting legitimacy to the rebellion.

The death of Connolly and the other leaders of the six-day siege presaged the final revolution that led to a free Irish state. Two of Connolly’s cohorts in the Easter campaign were Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins; within a half dozen years, the two* expanded revolutionary tactics through Sinn Fein that forced the British to the bargaining table, meetings that would give rise to the bitterly partitioned Ireland of today. Connolly is still regarded as one of the greatest Britons, though he spent his life fighting the British, and the Irish have celebrated his memory through several songs.

* While de Valera and Collins were regarded as the primary players in Irish statehood, the Easter Rising included dozens of revolutionaries who would spend their lives fighting for Irish independence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Guest Writers,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Politicians,Popular Culture,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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