Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Case of Delma Banks: Part I

In a recent post, Hank Skinner Watch, I gave a quick rundown of the Texas death row inmates the Supreme Court had ruled against as they further delayed a decision on Hank Skinner. In all but one case, I found either insufficient information to pass even a preliminary judgment, or I concluded that the evidence of innocence was insufficient to pass the person through my coarse review filter.

The one exception was Delma Banks. With respect to that inmate, I wrote:

"Uh oh! That one doesn't look good. Not good at all. It has all the makings of a wrongful conviction, at least at first glance. I'll have to get back to you on that one."

 There is a lot of information out there, most of it written in support of a new trial for Banks. I have spent a dozen hours or so trying to make sense of it all. It's got me so befuddled, I've struggled trying to figure how to present it here in a fair, clear-cut manner. In this post, I'll describe the case as argued by the state. It's a compelling story of Delma Bank's guilt.

On Friday evening, 11 April 1980, 16-year-old Richard Whitehead (the soon to be victim) and a 14-year-old female friend, Patricia Hicks, encountered 21-year-old Banks at a bowling alley, and agreed to give him a ride home. Departing in Whitehead’s distinctive green Mustang (with a primer hood), the trio ended up drinking Coors beer together in a secluded park near Nash, Texas. Nash is a small town four miles west of the border town of Texarkana, where Banks lived with his parents.

Around 11:00 PM, the trio left the park and drove Patricia Hicks' home. Whitehead and Banks left Hick's house in the victim's Mustang. They briefly visited another of the Whitehead’s friends, Patricia Bungardt, shortly before midnight. That friend too witnessed Whitehead and Hicks traveling  in Whitehead's distinctive green Mustang.

A few hours later, at about 4:00 AM on Saturday, 12 April, Mike Fisher heard two gunshots coming from the part of the park where Whitehead and Banks had been drinking beer. On Monday, 14 April, at 10 AM, Whitehead's body was found in that portion of the park. He had been shot three times; his Mustang was missing; empty cans of Coors beer were strewn about.

Returning to the early hours of Saturday morning, Banks traveled approximately 175 miles west to Dallas, Texas. He arrived by 8:30 AM, about four and one-half hours after the gunshots had been heard. When Banks arrived in Dallas, he was driving a distinctive, multi-colored Mustang. There he stopped and asked a couple for directions. That couple, Charles Cook and his soon to be wife, Rita, were waiting for a bus that would transport Rita to her place of work. 

Charles Cook talked Banks into giving Rita a ride to work, and the three departed in the Mustang. After dropping Rita off at work, Cook and Banks continued to ride around together for much of the day.  They visited Cook's sister who also noticed the distinctive green Mustang (with primer hood). Banks stayed the next two nights with Cook and his family at Cook’s grandparents’ house in Dallas.

That Saturday, while riding around Dallas in the Mustang, Cook noticed blood on one leg of Banks’ trousers. When asked about the blood, Banks said he had shot a “white boy”. That evening, Banks told Cook that he had “decided to kill the white boy for the hell of it and take his car and come to Dallas”.

Cook noticed that Banks had a pistol. On Sunday evening, Cook took the pistol away from Banks and hid it. It was later identified as a .25 caliber Galesi handgun.

On Sunday, Banks made a collect call from Cook's house to his mother in Texarkana. Banks’ mother urged him to turn himself in. Later that weekend, Banks shared this information with Cook’s neighbor, Bennie Lee Jones.
After spending Saturday and Sunday night with Cook, Banks was given bus fair by Rita. On Monday, 14 April, Banks' boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Texarkana.

Early on Tuesday morning, 15 April, Cook abandoned the multi-colored Mustang in West Dallas. It was never recovered. Shortly thereafter, Cook sold the .25 caliber Galesi pistol, along with some jumper cables and tools from the Mustang, to his previously mentioned neighbor, Bennie Lee Jones.

Later that month, Banks telephoned Cook twice in an attempt to recover his .25 caliber Galesi pistol. On 23 April, Banks returned to Dallas. He traveled with two acquaintances, Robert Farr and Marcus Jefferson. Farr was Banks’ girlfriend’s brother-in-law. Marcus Jefferson was Banks’ girlfriend’s brother. Unknown to Banks, he was followed by law-enforcement personnel.

Upon arriving in Dallas, Banks drove around, looking for Cook’s house. Upon locating it, Banks went to the door of the house while Robert Farr and Marcus Jefferson waited in the vehicle. Banks asked Cook for his gun. Banks returned to the vehicle, and they departed. In the vehicle, Banks told Farr and Jefferson that Cook didn’t have his gun because he had given it to someone else. Cook, instead, gave Banks a .22 caliber pistol.

Departing from Cook’s house, Banks, still traveling with Robert Farr and Marcus Jefferson, apparently got lost trying to find the way back to the highway. The still-trailing law-enforcement personnel, after observing several traffic violations, initiated a traffic stop of Banks’ vehicle. A .22 caliber pistol was recovered from the vehicle. Banks was arrested, Farr and Jefferson were released.

On 24 April, the day after Banks had attempted to retrieve his pistol from Cook, law-enforcement personnel visited Cook and asked for Banks’ pistol. They were taken to neighbor Jones’ house. There, Bennie Lee Jones returned the .25 caliber Galesi pistol to Cook, who provided it to the police. This pistol was later determined to be the weapon that fired the bullets that killed 16-year-old Richard Whitehead.

In summary, Banks was the last person seen with Whitehead. Whitehead was killed where he and Banks had been drinking earlier. Banks drove to Dallas in Whitehead's Mustang. The murder weapon, a .25 caliber Galesi pistol, ended up in Dallas at the same time and place as Banks. Banks attempted to recover the gun, and identified the gun as "his" to his two companions.

So there you go. Case closed. 


Make sure to read the follow-up post: The Case of Delma Banks: Part II

Monday, April 26, 2010

In Search of 54: Odell Barnes

Other than the distinct possibility he was executed for a crime he did not commit, Odell Barnes was not a sympathetic figure. He was a crack addict and admitted to stealing to support his habit. He racked up nine felony convictions by the time he was 21 years old. In one case he broke into a home, hit the female resident over the head with an iron, threatened her with a gun, threatened to kill the daughter, sexually assaulted her, robbed her, and stole her car.

The murder for which he was executed ...

Hank Skinner Watch

We're waiting to see how the Supreme Court rules on Hank Skinner's request for a writ of certiorari. I wrote about that in Good Morning, Hank Skinner. That was on March 25, the day after his last minute reprieve. While others were saying the Supreme Court might decide within a few days, I predicted it would be a month or so. Turns out I was right. I have no great insight into the Supreme Court. I simply figure that no government body anywhere can act more quickly than Texas does when goes for a death warrant, and that requires at least a month.

Word was out that the Supremes would come down with their decision last Monday, on the 19th. On that day, they announced that Texas could go ahead an execute Charles Dean Hood and Duane Buck, and gave adverse rulings in the capital murder cases of Ruben Cardenas and Delma Banks. Regarding Hank Skinner, they said "Maybe next Monday, the 26th." 

Today (perhaps last Friday), the Supremes announced that Texas could go ahead and execute Peter Cantu. Regarding Hank Skinner, they said "Maybe next Monday, May 3."

And so we will wait.

I have peeked at the cases of the other four. With respect to Charles Dean Hood and Duane Buck, they would not get through the coarse filter I'm using in my search for the 54 innocent people who have been executed by Texas. With respect to Ruben Cardenas, I can find almost no information on him.

With respect to Delma Banks .....

Uh oh! That one doesn't look good. Not good at all. It has all the makings of a wrongful conviction, at least at first glance. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Regarding Flying Machines, Feedback Loops, and Criminal Justice

I've been away for a bit, both physically and mentally. I'm running behind on my posts. It seems I owe the second part of my essay on feedback loops.

If you missed the first part, you can read it here. It will reinforce the point I hope to make, but it's not critical.

In a previous career, I designed commercial transport aircraft for a major aircraft manufacturer. It would be far more accurate to say I helped design airplanes. No one person designs large aircraft. The jumbo jets are some of the most technologically advanced and complex pieces of machinery around today. Despite their complexity, the fact that they travel near the speed of sound, in a near vacuum, at -65 degrees Fahrenheit, and despite the fact they carry around a quarter million pounds of fuel, commerical aircraft are one of our safest forms of transportation. You are far safer flying from Los Angeles to New York than you are driving from Azusa to LAX. 

The safety doesn't result from mottos or mission statements, from pledges or codes of conduct. The safety results from a cadre of engineers who know nature will smite them should they fail to follow the rules. It comes from legions of regulators and auditors, customers and lawyers who will descend upon them should one of their elegant designs fall from the sky. The world of commercial aviation is a world of feedback loops. Planes are safe because those who err are fed back upon, with prejudice.

The world of criminal prosecution is largely absent feedback loops. Judges and prosecutors are, for the most part, legally immune any consequence resulting from their misdeeds, whether careless or willful. The populace returns them to office based on inflated conviction ratios rather than upon any measure of accuracy. The appellate system provides thinly veiled cover for all but the most egregious acts of misconduct. The bottom line is our judicial system deals grisly justice because it is unrestrained by any meaningful, negative feedback.

Consider the case of Charles Dean Hood. I started an Innocence Scorecard for the man, and though I haven't yet completed it, I figure he is good for the two murders for which he was convicted. The US Supreme Court recently declined to hear his case, so Texas can now proceed with his execution. Hood had argued that he had not been given a fair trial becaused the female judge and the male prosecutor had  been doing the judicial hokey pokey. She had ruled favorably on his motions. She sustained him repeatedly.

The point wasn't that Hood was incorrect in his accusations. Not at all. The judge and prosecutor both admitted to their affair. They claimed, however, that it was all over between them at the time of the trial. They didn't mention it to anyone, say the defense team, because the two star-crossed lovers would never let something like their runaway hormones get in the way of their jurisprudence.

The US Supreme Court sided with the judge and the prosecutor. Those two are, after all, servants of the State. The defendant, on the other hand, is a murderer. Off to the gallows with him.

Neither the judge, the prosecutor, nor the State of Texas were fed back upon. There simply is no effective feedback loop in our criminal justice system. Don't believe me? Give it a try. Withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. The court will rule that you didn't, and that even if you did it would be a harmless error. Bribe a witness with time off, or threaten a witness with time in. Either will get a pass. Pay a discredited DA $86,000 to mount a pathetic defense in a murder case, and the appellate court will look the other way. 

Our judicial system will continue to strap innocent people to gurneys as long as the State exempts itself from any consequences for its bad behavior. Our judicial system is a plane wreck, and nobody plans to investigate. The people on board probably deserved what they got.

22 Apr 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

News From Hank Skinner, Including Who Might Have Been Innocent

Hank Skinner has published his latest edition of Hell Hole News. In it he describes the events of his day of execution. Not many people can write of that after the fact.

He thanks by name many (he hopes all) of those who have tried to help him. I am mentioned somewhere near the middle of that impressively long list, as are The Skeptical Spouse and The Skeptical Niece.

Of greater interest to me ...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Regarding Ponies, Pianos, Self-Interest, Feedback Loops, and Criminal Justice

I'm guaranteed to get the details of this anecdotal lead-in story wrong, but I hope to preserve enough accurately to make a point.

A couple is undergoing a divorce, and the assets are being distributed by a judge. The husband wants the piano and the wife wants the horse. The husband claims the horse is worth $5000 and the piano is worth only $1000. He wants $2000 cash plus the piano to make things fair. The wife claims just the opposite. She claims the piano is worth $5000 and the horse is worth only $1000. She wants $2000 cash plus the horse. The judge's ruling is simple and brilliant.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Actual Innocence: Johnny Frank Garrett and Bubbles the Clairvoyant

The fine folks of Amarillo wanted justice, and wanted it toot-sweet. The Amarillo police were having trouble finding the low-life individual who raped and killed 76-year-old Sister Tadea Benz on Halloween night, 1981. The authorities had just released Fernando Flores, and that was embarrassing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Off Topic: 12 Apr 2010

Mykola Syadristy is a Ukranian artist of little note. I mean by that, his works are little. He is a miniaturist. His works are seemingly impossible, yet they exist.

 A rose inside a hair: "A hair is drilled lengthwise and polished off inside and outside. A rose branch is inserted inside the hair. The diameter of the flower is 0.05 mm"


 A beer factory on a barley seed: "The beer factory model is made of gold, platinum, and steel and placed on a half of a barley seed."


A camelcade in the eye of a needle: "The author made the whole composition of gold and placed it in the needle eye."

Visit his gallery for many more amazing works.

Roger Coleman: A Precautionary Tale

Anonymous left a comment on my post Good Morning, Hank Skinner. I want to encourage such behavior, commenting on my posts, so I'll heap praise upon Anonymous for his insightful comment and discuss it herein.

Anonymous is clearly a very bright person, making two good points in the comment. The first has to do with the nature of Hank Skinner's civil rights claim.  I'll pass on that for now. The second point is reproduced below.

Reminds me alot of the Coleman case. (Remember he embarrassed the Centurion Ministries with his claims of innocence by DNA testing, that posthumously ended up being untrue.) 

Friday, April 9, 2010

Meet Lynn Switzer

After favorable posts regarding Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, Rob Owen, and David Protess, I wanted to  write a fair and balanced post regarding Lynn Switzer. Switzer is well-known to readers of this blog as the District Attorney who refuses to release the DNA that could further exonerate Hank Skinner. 

Unfortunately ....

Off Topic: 9 Apr 2010

Writing a post such as Robert Nelson Drew or Now for Another Cosmic Moment takes me a couple hours, what with researching, sourcing, fact checking, spell checking. And that doesn't count the five or six hours required to create the Actual Innocence Scorecard that prompted the Drew post. Mostly though, I write slowly because I struggle to transform thoughts so clear in my head into pixelated text. I'm already ten minutes into this post. Only occasionally, when the muse hits, do I write quickly and to my satisfaction.

Given that I maintain this blog (in theory) only after earning a living elsewhere, trying to publish a series of books, directly assisting someone wrongfully convicted, and having a private life, hours are a precious commodity. I'm not complaining by any means. I've mentioned multiple times that I consider myself  to be among the most fortunate of people. I would simply like more hours in each day, and more days ahead of me, then I won't ask for anything else. For now.

When I go Off Topic, however, I can finish a post in a few minutes, if I don't get too philosophical. That's one reason I post on such topics as kittens riding the Roomba and puggles. (The Skeptical Spouse described the picture as The Black Hole of Cuteness.)

There's another reason, however, for going Off Topic. At the same time life can be ugly, it can be beautiful.  I must not lose sight of that.

I want to help correct a serious problem we have in our society, that of wrongful convictions.  That effort has placed me waiting anxiously in a courthouse to see if they will take the belt and shoelaces from a good and decent (and innocent) man as they march him away from his family, probably forever. It has caused me to stuggle for the right words, as if there are any, when I first speak to someone serving two life sentences for a crime he did not commit. It has caused me to stay up through the night slowly composing a farewell post to someone with less than a day to live, someone who took a substantial portion of his final days to write to me, and to educate me.

I didn't expect this to be so personal, so potentially overwhelming.

So that I can continue, I try not to lose sight of all that is beautiful in this world. That is why I go Off Topic.

With that brief introduction out of the way, I now (finally) present:
A woman suing over defective clown shoes.

A patent for a beer keg hat. (Scroll down once you get there to see the cool picture.)

And finally, wavy beans.  It's merely an illusion. Focus on one bean to make them all stop. Alternatively, lean back from the screen and blur your vision a bit. Do something, or you will go mad.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Actual Innocence Scorecard: What Good Is It?

Previously, I introduced the concept of an Actual Innocence Scorecard and discussed the meaning of an Actual Innocence Score. In this post, I'll give an example of the value of such scoring.

Northwestern University has a web page listing 39 individuals executed though possibly innocent. You can't help but run across that page multiple times if you are researching the subject of wrongful executions. I'll give you the money quote from that page, and I'll include that portion of the list consisting only of those Texas may have wrongfully executed.

Off Topic: 7 Apr 2010

James Lileks is an interesting guy. He writes, frequently of mid-century culture. We have three of his books: The Gallery of Regrettable Food, Mommy Knows Worst, and Interior Desecrations. I still can't look through any of them without suffering some bizarre mixture of horror and laughter.

Take a browse through his tour of a Knudsen recipe book. Start here, then use the "Next" button to page through the book. The food images are  too ghoulish to show here, even as thumbnail. Lileks' narrative is sublime.

Bon appetit!

On Coins, Dice, and Lethal Injections

“They told me there would be no math.” -- Chevy Chase as President Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live, 1975.

What are the chances that if you could flip a coin 10 times it will not once turn up "tails?" In other words, what's the chance of 10 "heads" in a row? The odds can be calculated as:

1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = (1/2)^10 = 0.001 = 0.1%

What are the chances you could roll a die ten times in a row and not have it once turn up "1?" In other words, what's the chance of getting somewhere between 2 and 6, ten times in a row? That answer can be calculated as:

5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6 = (5/6)^10 = .162 = 16%

Now here we go.  Texas has exonerated 2.4 people from death row for every 100 they have executed. (The other 49 states have exonerated 14 people from death row for every 100 they have executed.) Assuming that for each lethal injection in Texas there is a mere chance of 2 in 100 that the convict is innocent, what's the chance that Texas has not executed an innocent person among its 451 lethal injections?

(98/100)^451 = 0.011 = 0.01%

That's one chance in 10,000. And that assumes that the Texas death machine is 98% accurate.

Not bloody likely.

7 Apr 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lisa Busby Wants the DNA Tested

A news report from Lisa Busby is Twila's daughter. She believes Hank Skinner is guilty of killing her mother and wants to see him executed. To expedite matters she is asking Lynn Switzer to allow the DNA be tested. "He needs to die. I mean test the DNA and get it over with," Busby said. "Kill him. That way we have something of peace and closure."

Actual Innocence Scorecard: What Does it Mean?

Last time we spoke seriously, I introduced my use of an Actual Innocence Scorecard as a means of ranking the likelihood that an innocent person was executed. In this post, I hope to clarify the meaning of the Actual Innocence Score. I'll use the case of Michael Blair as an example.

You can see Michael Blair's scorecard by clicking on the image to the right. Since it's an information-dense image, maximize the window in which it appears. Most browsers will allow you to enlarge the image further by simply clicking on it.

From the scorecard, you can get a quick overview of the case. "On September 4, 1993, seven-year-old Ashley Estell was with her family at  ... 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Off Topic: 3 Apr 2010

Chick-fil-A is a chicken-base fast-food chain second in the U.S. only to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though of Southern origins, Chick-fil-A stores can now be found in most of our 57 50 states. (Our condolances to those of you living in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations, Alaska, and Hawaii.)

The chain's founder is a devout Christian and he runs his business accordingly. All Chick-fil-A locations are closed on Sunday. For devoted fans, and there does seem to be a fair number of them, this is a matter of woe. The Urban Dictionary defines the term pollo domingo  as "An inexplicable and almost singular craving for Chik-fil-A on a Sunday afternoon, the one day a week Chick-fil-A is closed."

Comedy song writer Tim Hawkins has picked up on this. Try the embedded YouTube clip. It you like what he has to offer, check out his his web site for other samples. Try the one called "Short Songs.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Actual Innocence Scorecard: An Introduction

After having calculated that Texas has executed 54 innocent people, and after having vowed to review all 451 Texas lethal injections in search of those 54, I have developed an Actual Innocence Scoring program to allow summarizing and ranking of the cases. I'll introduce that scoring system below using Robert Nelson Drew as an example of someone who scored well (84 out of 100) and Melvin Wayne White as an example of someone who scored poorly (0 out of 100).

The Skeptical Spouse and I develop custom database solutions for a small list of clients using a database  system called Filemaker. I naturally turned to that software when faced with organizing and bringing some sense to all the data I am collecting about the 451 executions. By comparison with the solutions we develop for our clients, the Actual Innocence Scoring software is exceptionally simple. It is nonetheless my primary tool for evaluating the cases.

I wish to clarify up front that my scoring program does not and can not remove the subjective nature of my evaluation. The program merely allows me (forces me) to condense the case to a single screen, to consider individually the primary evidentiary components of a case, to assign a subjective score to each of those components, and to apply weighting factors to calculate an overall Actual Innocence Score.

To see the scorecard for Robert Nelson Drew, click on the image to the left. The scorecard for Melvin Wayne White is down and to the right (click "Read more"). Open either for a nearly full screen image in which the text becomes readable.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Judge Fine Is Asked To Recuse Himself

Patricia Lykos, District Attorney of Harris County (Houston and environs), has submitted a motion to Judge Fine that he recuse himself from the death penalty case of John Edward Green. Judge Fine is in the cross-hairs because he is planning to hold a hearing on the constitutionality of  the procedure by which the death penalty is implemented in Texas. I wrote of Judge Fine recently in Now For Another Cosmic Moment.

DA Lykos argues from several directions that Judge Fine is not impartial. I quote below from one argument where I believe she digs herself into a hole.

In the present case, Judge Fine has preordained the defendant's innocence by stating "I am not prepared to say that our society, that our citizenry is willing to let innocent people die so that the State of Texas can have a death penalty."  ... Such an argument would be irrelevant in the present case unless Judge Fine had already concluded the defendant was innocent. ... But the issue of the defendant's innocence must be resolved at the guilt stage of trial, not by the trial judge at a pretrial hearing. Judge Fine has demonstrated his favoritism toward the defendant in this case by implicitly making that determination prior to trial. And reasonable people, knowing all the circumstances, would harbor doubts on Judge Fine's impartiality. 

Now I'm not an attorney, and I assume most of you reading this are not attorneys. Nonetheless, I hope you can see the the problem here. In our system of justice, a defendant is (at least in theory) presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. While the words "innocent until proven guilty" are not found in the Constitution, they are embodied by protections such as the right to remain silent (thereby forcing the State to prove its case) and the right to a trial by jury (thereby forcing the State to prove its case to the citizenry.)

I believe Lykos has it upside down. She in fact suggests that only an unreasonable person "knowing all the circumstances, would harbor doubts on Judge Fine's impartiality."

I ask that DA Lykos step aside because of her obvious effort to taint the jury pool.

2 Apr 2010