Friday, August 27, 2010

Convictions Talk, Reason Walks

One way to reduce the number of wrongful convictions is to reduce the number of convictions. We have 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prisoners. Assuming we could struggle by with  as many prioners per capita as the rest of the world, we could reduce our wrongful conviction numbers by 80%. Instead of having around 200,000 people wrongfully imprisoned, we would have "only" 40,000 people wrongfully imprisoned.

I don't claim to have all the solutions. I do, however, want to talk about the magnitude of the numbers. They are appalling and a national embarrassment. I also want to listen to what others have to say. Consider if you will, this 7 minute video by someone who has put some thought into the matter.

The Well-Orchestrated Trail and Execution of David Wayne Stoker

In my search for the 54 innocent people I calculate Texas has executed, I recently reviewed the case of David Wayne Stoker. Stoker was charged and tried for murder based almost exclusively on evidence and testimony provided by “low-life scum drug dealer” Cary Todd. I adopt Todd’s unofficial title of “low-life scum drug dealer” from the prosecutor’s description of him during trial.

Though the prosecution considered Cary Todd to be a “low-life scum drug dealer”, they nonetheless paid him with cash and time-off for his role in convicting David Wayne Stoker. The prosecution then lied to the jury about doing so.

Even though I have yet to describe the details of the case, I hope that you already have some doubt that David Wayne Stoker was guilty as charged, and some doubt as well that he was properly killed by the people of Texas.


During his six years as governor, George W. Bush presided over 152 executions. Regarding them he said: “I take every death penalty case seriously and review each case carefully ... Each case is major because each case is life or death.” He explained that for each case, he received a brief from his legal counsel and reviewed the arguments made by the prosecution and defense raising "any doubts or problems or questions.” He described his approach as “fail-safe.”

Below, I will describe Stoker’s case to you as it was described to then Governor Bush. Though Bush did not find the description provided to be inadequate, I do. I will therefore annotate freely.

Allow me to begin by presenting page 1 of the 3-page summary Bush received regarding the impending execution of David Wayne Stoker. As always, click on it to enlarge.


Right away, there are matters of interest to discuss. Note that the summary was prepared by Alberto R. Gonzales. For such fine work as this life-or-death summary, George Bush would later select Alberto Gonzales to be the Attorney General for all these United States. Gonzales served after John Ashcroft stepped down, resigned amid several controversies and allegations of perjury before Congress, and was replaced by Harriet Miers.

As Governor Bush's chief counsel, Gonzales reviewed all clemency requests. During Bush's six years in office, during the six years in which Bush's "fail-safe" plan was in effect, 152 people were executed by Texas while only one case was overturned.

Note now the date of the summary: June 16, 1997.

Note now the subject: Scheduled Execution of David Wayne Stoker #892 on Monday, June 16, 1997, at 6 P.M.

The Gonzales summary is dated on the same day as the execution. It gets worse though. Stephen Latimer, the person who represented Stoker in his clemency appeal, claimed he received a call from Gonzales' office about a week to ten days before the execution, advising him that there would be no reprieve. If that is correct, then the decision to go ahead with the execution was made a week to ten days before Bush could have possibly seen Gonzales' summary. It casts considerable doubt over Bush's claim that he carefully reviewed each case before execution. It's not likely Bush's "fail-safe" plan was either seriously implemented or particularly effective.


Time to move on to the details of the "BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE FACTS".
David Wayne Stoker was convicted of capital murder for the murder of 50-year-old convenience story clerk, David Manrrique, while in the course of committing a robbery. Stoker was convicted on October 26, 1987, and sentenced to death the next day in the 242nd Judicial District Court of Hale County.
So far, so good.
On November 9, 1986, sometime between approximately 5:30 a.m. and 5:50 a.m., Mr. Manrrique was shot on the top of his head and twice in the chest with a .22 caliber Ruger.
Actually, the victim was shot once in the head and twice in the back. It's a minor quibble. Let's proceed.
When Ms. Gracie Sanchez, the assistant manager, arrived at approximately 5:50 a.m., she noticed customers waiting to be served. Ms. Sanchez went into the store and found both cash registers opened with $96.00 missing. Ms. Sanchez also noticed the back door was left open and found Mr. Manrrique's body lying face down in a pool of blood.
Another quibble. Gracie Sanchez noticed the cash register drawers were opened, but did not determine that $96 were missing. Instead, she called the store manager. The manager audited the receipts and estimated that $96 had been taken.
Ms. Sanchez immediately called both the police and her store manager to report what she had discovered. Medical personnel arrived on the scene quickly and administered first aid when they discovered that Mr. Manrrique was still alive, albeit with a very weak pulse. Mr. Manrrique was rushed to the hospital. After several efforts to resuscitate him failed, he was pronounced dead at 7:08 a.m., approximately one hour after receiving emergency medical attention. According to the autopsy, his death was the result of multiple gunshot wounds. Police records reflect there were no fingerprints at the scene. Only three spent shell casings were found on the premises.
Close enough. I think Gonzales should have mentioned that two bullets were retrieved from the body, but I'll not press that point.
According to trial testimony, twenty-seven-year-old David Wayne Stoker admitted to at least two people that he had killed the clerk at the convenience store.
Now I have a problem with Gonzales' summary. While it's true that two people did testify at trial that Stoker confessed to them, the witnesses and testimony were of dubious quality. Consider first Debbie Thompson.

While it's easy to cast aspersions, during my research I saw Debbie Thompson referred to as someone who would trade sex for methamphetamine. More specifically, I saw her described as a "methamphetamine whore." Perhaps it was only coincidence that at the time of her trial testimony, Debbie was living with a methamphetamine pusher, Cary Todd. That must have been a bit awkward for the prosecution since Cary Todd was the person most likely to have shot and killed David Manrrique.

Debbie's living arrangement was also awkward since she was at that time married to another man. In fact, she was married to Ronnie Thompson, the other person to whom Stoker allegedly confessed. Ronnie now claims that Stoker never confessed to him, that he signed a statement written by wife Debbie only because she told him that David Wayne Stoker had raped her. By the time of the trial, Ronnie no longer believed his beloved to be truthful, perhaps because she had shacked up with “low-life scum drug dealer” Cary Todd. When he tried to recant just before providing his testimony, the prosecutor threatened him with perjury based on his earlier statements. From Ronnie's perspective, the only way to avoid being convicted of perjury was to commit perjury.

I suggest these issues reflecting on the credibility of two crucial witnesses should have been mentioned in Gonzales' summary memo to George Bush, else the "fail-safe" system might fail.
However, Stoker maintains his innocence and argues that, with the choice of weapons in his possession, he would never have used an old and unreliable weapon if he were planning to murder someone.
Hahahaha! Nice job summarizing Stoker's defense. Only in Gonzales' summary did I ever see anyone offer this defense. It is merely a case of damning with faint inculpatory praise.
Stoker readily admits to drug use and sales, but disputes that those who testified against him were credible witnesses.
Perhaps Gonzales could have discussed here the nature of Debbie Thompson's conflict of interest and Ronnie Thompson's claim his testimony was coerced by the state. Perhaps that would have resulted in a more balanced summary than simply stating that Stoker "disputes" their testimony.
The prosecution's main witness was a police informant who purchased drugs from Stoker.
Gonzales elected to refer to Cary Todd merely as a "police informant" rather than as a "low-life scum drug pusher," as did the prosecution. Gonzales also failed to mention that Todd was the person who provided the murder weapon to the police. The .22 caliber Ruger Todd provided was consistent with the two bullets removed from the body, and was the weapon that fired the three shell casings found beside the body. Todd explained, however, that he had been given the gun by Stoker.
That purchase provided evidence that resulted in a thirty-year sentence for delivery of methamphetamines which he [Todd] is serving concurrently with his present incarceration.
Gonzales would have the reader believe that Cary Todd voluntarily walked into a police station, gave them a murder weapon, explained that he had the murder weapon only because the real killer had given it to him, confessed that he knew the murderer only because he bought large quantities of meth from him, and was then shocked to receive a 33-year sentence for his good-Samaritan effort.

A astute reader might note also that the sentence was being served concurrently, not consecutively. In other words, the sentence added no additional time to his confinement. What the reader can't possibly know, based only upon the writing of Alberto Gonzales, is that Cary Todd had drug and weapons charges dropped against him in another jurisdiction on the same day he testified, but only after he testified. The jury was unaware of this tit-for-tat because prosecution witnesses swore under oath it never happened and proof of the deal was found only after Stoker's conviction.

The jury was unaware also that Cary Todd was awarded $1000 for assisting the police, given as part of the crime-stoppers program. The prosecution witnesses lied about this fact as well. And, by the way, Debbie Thompson claimed half of the $1000 reward for corroborating the claims of the man she was sleeping with in exchange for meth.

Even though Gonzales made it sound as if Cary Todd should be believed because he was doing hard time, Cary Todd in fact managed to avoid a capital murder charge, to have drug and weapons charges dropped in another jurisdiction, to receive no incremental time for the drug charges in the local jurisdiction, and to be rewarded $1000 in crime-stoppers money, simply for being the primary witness against David Stoker, who could not otherwise be tied to the crime. Good one, Alberto.
One court opinion states that the evidence is solely circumstantial.
In fact, one federal appellate judge concluded that Todd was just as likely the murderer.
Nonetheless, experts did determine that the .22 Ruger admitted into evidence, seen in Stoker's possession by his own bother within the weeks following the murder, was actually the murder weapon.
This was the closing line in Alberto's "brief summary of the facts", and it was a doozie. Two people actually testified they saw Stoker with the weapon sometime after the murder. One was in fact Stoker's brother, Danny Stoker to be precise. Danny Stoker testified his brother only had the gun because Cary Todd had given it to him, asking him to fix the trigger.

Wayne Reed also testified he saw Stoker with the gun after the shooting. Wayne testified further that Cary Todd told him he had "set [Stoker] up to take the big fall."

On the other hand, two witnesses (presumably Danny Stoker and Wayne Reed) testified they saw Cary Todd with the gun just before the shooting.

So there you have it: Alberto's Gonzales' "brief summary of the facts" annotated with my more extensive summary of the facts. You can decide for yourself which would be more valuable to an allegedly "fail-safe" system preventing innocent people from execution.

I have prepared an Actual Innocence Scorecard for David Wayne Stoker. I score him at 73. I think its more likely that he did not kill David Manrrique than he did. Where most others are certain, one way or another, I claim only a probability based on imperfect knowledge. Of this much, however, I am confident: the totality of the evidence in this case, not just that presented to the jury, did not merit a guilty verdict for capital murder.