Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Posthumous Impending Execution of Steven Woods

"The killer is Marcus Rhodes, not Mr. Woods. It's Marcus' gun. It was found in his room, under his bed. If he were here in this courtroom, I would be pointing at him, telling you that over and over, but I don't have that opportunity." -- Denton County Judge Jerry Parr

"I think the death penalty is a crime no matter what the circumstances, and it is particularly awful in the Steven Woods case. I strongly oppose the execution of Steven Woods on September 13 2011." -- Noam Chomsky (8/26/11)

"You're not about to witness an execution, you are about to witness a murder. I am strapped down for something Marcus Rhodes did. I never killed anybody, never. I love you, Mom. I love you, Tali. This is wrong. This whole thing is wrong. I can't believe you are going to let Marcus Rhodes walk around free. Justice has let me down. Alex Calhoun completely screwed this up. I love you too, Mom. Well Warden, if you are going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull the trigger. It's coming. I can feel it coming. Goodbye everyone, I love you." -- Steven Woods, last statement, September 13, 2011.

Because of time limitations, I did not prepare a post regarding the impending execution of Steven Woods. Now it is too late. He was executed on 13 September. I had, however, conducted some research on the case, and I noted on my navigation page that I stood mute with respect to his execution. Two astute and curious readers have asked about my decision to stand mute, since it seemed to them Steven Woods might have been innocent. I will therefore take a posthumous look at his case and see if any mea culpas are in order.

Speaking for Woods will be the folks who maintain his innocence website. I will refer to those folks hereafter as Woods.

Speaking for the State of Texas will be the appellate judges via their decisions in Woods v. Quarterman (2009) and Woods v. Thaler (2010). I will refer judges and their decisions hereafter as Texas.

Let's begin by looking at the factual background as summarized in both the referenced appellate decisions. Texas says:
Early in the morning of May 2, 2001, two golfers driving down Boyd Road at the Tribute Golf Course near The Colony, Texas, found the bodies of Ron Whitehead and Beth Brosz. Both had been shot in the head and had their throats cut. Whitehead was dead; Brosz was still alive but after receiving medical care, she died the next day. That evening, police received several anonymous tips that Woods was involved in the killings, along with one Marcus Rhodes. Detectives interviewed Woods, who admitted to being with the victims the night before their bodies were found. He said that he and Rhodes had agreed to lead Whitehead and Brosz to a house in The Colony owned by someone named "Hippy," but that their two vehicles became separated during the trip, so he and Rhodes returned to the Deep Ellum section of Dallas. Woods was not arrested as a result of his interview. Detectives then interviewed Rhodes, and after a search of his car revealed items belonging to Whitehead and Brosz, Rhodes was arrested.

Woods left the Dallas area, traveling to New Orleans, Idaho and California, where he was finally arrested. Several witnesses testified that before the killings he told them about his plan to commit the murders, and after the killings, he told them about his participation in them.
That's pretty thin as factual summaries go, but It will have to do. Woods v. Quarterman has a fair amount of detail sprinkled elsewhere throughout its decision, so we may have enough to work with here.

Woods summarizes the case thus.
In 2002, Steven Woods was wrongfully convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the shooting deaths of a young couple in Denton. He spent the next 9 years of his life awaiting death, in solitary confinement with no phone/computer access or human contact.

There was no physical evidence that ties Steven to the crime scene, and Steven disproved the court's only physical evidence used against him: The prosecution presented a latex glove that they claimed had his DNA on it. Knowing this isn't possible, Steven demanded that the glove be tested. The DNA on the glove did not match Steven's DNA. This glove was stricken from the protocol by the sentencing judge, to ensure that Steven would not use it as exonerating evidence in his appeals.
Woods seems to be correct on this point. I find nowhere in the appellate decisions any discussion of physical evidence tying Woods to the crime. I didn't even know about the latex glove until Woods brought it up. Anyway, Woods continues:
Steven was indicted and tried as the shooter. ... Three months after Steven's wrongful conviction, a man named Marcus Rhodes stood up in court and took full responsibility for knowingly & intentionally murdering both victims. Both victims' backpacks were found in the Trunk of Rhodes' Mercedes. Rhodes' fingerprints were on the weapons, his car was littered with shell casings, the guns were registered under his name and found hidden, under his bed. at his parents' home in Dallas. ... Rhodes admitted to shooting both weapons and all fatal shots as well as cutting the victims' throats, never once mentioning Woods in his testimony.

Marcus, the murderer got life in prison while Steven remained on death row.
Woods claims there is no proof he was even at the crime scene. During his trial, in fact, he produced an alibi witness, Leslie Batteau. Let's see what Texas had to say about Leslie Batteau.
During the guilt-determination phase of his capital trial, Woods raised an alibi defense. Leslie Batteau testified that he and Woods were asleep in an abandoned building at the time of the murders and did not learn of the murders until the next day, when they encountered Marcus Rhodes at the Insomnia coffee bar. The prosecution questioned Batteau as to whether Woods ever told him that he (Woods) and Rhodes committed the killings, and whether he (Batteau) had said to anyone else that Woods had told him that he and Rhodes killed Whitehead and Brosz. During the state's rebuttal case, the prosecution recalled David Samuelson and elicited the following testimony:

Q: What did Les[lie Batteau] tell you [Woods] had told him about the murder of [Whitehead] and [Brosz]?

A. He said that they drove up --

Q: Who is "they"?

A: Marcus and Halo [nickname for Steven Woods] in the front with Ron and Beth's car behind them, and they got out. Ron said, you brought me to the perfect place to set me up. And then that was the last thing he ever said.

Q: Who did Les[lie Batteau] tell you killed Ron?

A: [Woods].

Q: Did Les[lie Batteau] ever tell you he was with [Woods] the night of the murders?

A: No.

Q: Has Les ever said anything to you about being at The Squat with [Woods] the night of the murders?

A: No.

Q: Who did Les[lie Batteau] tell you murdered Ron and Beth?

A: [Woods].
Woods appeal was based in part on this testimony being hearsay, which it clearly is. But hearsay rules apply only to defense witnesses. (I over-simplify, but not by much.) There are so many exceptions to hearsay rules, almost all of them favoring the prosecution, that the entire hearsay business has become just one more weapon in the State's arsenal. The fact nonetheless remains that witness David Samuelson seriously rebutted witness Leslie Batteau's alibi testimony. In fact, the rebuttal witness moved Woods from being at the Squat (sounds like a nice place) with Batteau to standing over the bodies with Rhodes.

Woods complains, and rightfully so, about the snitch testimony. That's right, the State once again used a snitch. They can't help themselves.
One jailhouse informant recanted his testimony and acknowledged an agreement with the DA.
That's true, and all of you know I trust snitch testimony even less than I trust the feds with my tax dollars. Let's see what Texas had to say about their snitch.
Woods's eighth claim is that he was denied his right to the assistance of counsel during custodial interrogation when inmate Gary Don Franks ("Franks") elicited information from him while he was incarcerated. ... A criminal defendant may not have used against him at trial evidence of his own incriminating words, which federal agents deliberately and surreptitiously elicited from him after he had been indicted and in the absence of his counsel. ... In the present case, Woods contends that Franks, his cellmate, attempted to get him to talk about the killings, at the behest of the state, who then rewarded Franks by dismissing drug offense charges that were pending against him.

It is undisputed that Franks had numerous conversations with Woods, testified at his trial, and that the charges were dropped after he testified. Franks and his attorney stated in affidavits, however, that Franks did not attempt to elicit information from Woods, and that he had his attorney contact the prosecution and offer to testify without expecting, or being promised, anything in return.

Franks and his attorney would have at least hoped for, and in fact harbored some expectation of, receiving something in return for his testimony, even though no promise was made by the government. The issue is whether in these circumstances Franks should be considered a "government agent" ... An individual is a government agent where he was promised, reasonably led to believe, or actually received a benefit in exchange for soliciting information from the defendant and he acted pursuant to instructions from the state, or otherwise submitted to the state's control. ... In the present case, while the Court agrees with Woods that Franks appears to be "an individual who knew how to manipulate individuals, as well as the criminal justice system for his benefit," ... there is no evidence that Franks acted pursuant to instructions from the state, or otherwise submitted to the state's control. ... Since Franks was not a government agent, the state court's denial of this claim was neither contrary to, not the result of an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law ... The Court denies Woods's eighth claim.
What a bunch of crappola.

Now on to the meat of the case against Steven Woods. He was a blabbermouth. He told a fair number of people he killed the victims. About those confessions, Woods has this to say:
All witness testimonies consisted of hearsay which is inadmissible in court. Witnesses recanted their well-coordinated hearsay testimonies. Some witnesses were paid to testify, others were threatened.
Woods is wrong about his first point, as I have already pointed out. Courts admit hearsay testimony on all days having a "y" in their name, as long as the hearsay testimony is coming from a State witness. Regarding the recantations and the threats, I am aware of none. It's not to say they aren't out there. I'm just pointing out that they are much harder to find than the recantations in the Troy Davis case.

Some of the people that testified about Woods confessions include Melissa Byrom, Whitney Rios, and Staci Schwartz. None of those three provided hearsay testimony.
Melissa Byrom testified that she ran into Woods, who was with a friend of hers, on approximately May 5, 2001, and that Woods offered to pay for her gas and pay for an oil change for her car if she would drive him to New Orleans. She and Woods, along with two of their friends, left the next morning, and she ended up staying there for three or four days. During that time, she heard Woods, on two occasions, say that he had killed two people in Dallas. She became scared, drove back to her house in Texas, and on May 15, 2001, she made a statement to the police. On cross-examination, she admitted that, in her May 15, 2001 statement, she only mentioned one occasion in which she heard Woods say to another person that he had killed people in Dallas. She also stated that she thought she may have had a beer or something during the time she was in New Orleans.
The prosecution called Whitney Rios and Stacy Schwartz, who each testified that the day after the murders, Woods said that he and Marcus Rhodes had killed Whitehead and Brosz. The conversations took place at separate times.
Staci Schwartz testified that on the day after the murders, Marcus Rhodes and Woods told her they had killed Whitehead and Brosz, and Rhodes showed her their property in the trunk of his car. ... Rhodes told Schwartz that they had used Brosz's credit card to buy tickets in Samuelson's name to make him look guilty.
Woods argues, in various fashions, that these people were lying. Indeed they may have been lying. Woods, however, seems to acknowledge in his appeal that he told lots of people he killed the victims. This was one of the strangest appellate claims I've ever read. Hang on to your hats.
Woods's ninth claim is that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to impeach his own inculpatory statements. ... Woods's lead defense counsel for the guilt-determination phase of his trial was Jerry Parr. Parr said in his affidavit that after being presented by the prosecution with a list of approximately 100 witnesses, he asked Woods specifically if Woods had made any statements to any of the witnesses about the murders, and Woods denied making any incriminating statements to any of them. Parr stated:
Unfortunately, Mr. Woods' false statements to his attorneys that he had not made any admissions eliminated the development of evidence that the statements testified about at trial were the product of his propensity for untruthfulness. Perhaps, if he had admitted to his attorneys that he had made a series of admissions about the murders and that those admissions were false, evidence that he was a liar, rather than a killer, could have been developed.
So Woods' argument is twofold. First, I never confessed. Second, I told lots of people I did it, but only because I'm a habitual liar.

That's not grabbin' me as a great defense. I'll also admit that some of the bad character evidence offered during the punishment phase didn't make me lean towards innocence.
During a separate punishment hearing, the State, in addition to evidence about the circumstances of the crime and Woods's moral culpability, presented evidence that Woods was involved in the murder of another individual in California one-and-a-half months prior to the murders of Whitehead and Brosz; that Woods got into a fight with another inmate in the Denton County Jail; that Woods, Rhodes, and two other accomplices planned to rob a clothing store in Deep Ellum; that Woods may have planned to murder a woman who was coming to pick up vials of "acid" to sell; and that Woods made "bottle bombs" as a juvenile. ...
Based upon the credible affidavit of the government's lead prosecutor, Michael Moore, the government had additional evidence that it could have presented to prove Woods was a future danger including evidence of bomb-making, sexual assault, documentation from mental hospitals that Woods hated society and was sadistic, school officials who could not testify to anything favorable or redeeming about the defendant, sexual abuse of his younger brother, escalating physical abuse of siblings and dogs, affiliation with white supremacists, theft, drug dealing, and that even Woods's fiancée and her family would testify as to Woods's negative character.
Okay. I have to laugh a bit. Given the rather sordid list of bad character items, I find this one the most disturbing: "School officials ... could not testify to anything favorable or redeeming about the defendant." Hahahaha. Forget the bomb-making, the canine abuse, the planned murder, the actual murder, the sexual assault, and all the rest. They don't mean all that much. But when school officials have nothing good to say about you, it's the needle for you, mister.

Now that I've organized my research and thinking into pixels, I think I'm still going to stand mute regarding the propriety of Steven Woods execution. I perceive Steven Woods in much the same way as I perceive Cleve Foster. He put forth a superficially compelling case of factual innocence, but he was nonetheless a disturbing individual who was most likely guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced to death.