Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: Silence of the Lambs

Lecter:   And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?

Starling:  Lambs. The lambs were screaming.

Lecter:   They were slaughtering spring lambs?

Starling:  And they were screaming.

Lecter:    And you ran away?

Starling:  No. First I tried to free them. I, I opened the gate to their pen, but they wouldn't run. They just stood there, confused. They wouldn't run.

Lecter:    But you could and you did, didn't you?

Starling:  Yes. I took one lamb and I ran away as fast as I could.

Lecter:    Where were you going, Clarice?

Starling:  I don't know. I didn't have any food, any water and it was very cold. Very cold. I thought, I thought if I could save just one, but he was so heavy. So heavy. I didn't get more than a few miles when the sheriff's car picked me up.

From Wikipedia:
Exsanguination is used as a method of slaughter where, before the incision is made, the animal, depending on species, is rendered insensible to pain by various methods, including captive bolt, electricity or chemical. Without prior sedation, stunning or anesthetic, this method of slaughter causes a high degree of anxiety and should not be used alone. The captive bolt is place against the skull of the animal, and penetrates to cause tissue destruction in the brain, incapacitating the animal so that the procedure may take place. Electricity is used mostly in  porcine, poultry, and domestic sheep, whereas chemical is used in injured livestock.

While the animal is incapacitated, a pointed knife is fully inserted through the skin just behind the point of the jaw and below the neck bones. From this position, the knife is drawn forward severing the jugular vein, carotid artery, and trachea. Properly performed, blood should flow freely with death occurring within a few minutes. Sometimes the same procedure is repeated on the other side of the neck, severing vein and artery on the other side.

From Sheep Slaughtering Procedures. II. Time to Loss of Brain Responsiveness after Exsanguination or Cardiac Arrest:
The time taken for three different sticking (exsanguination) methods to produce a loss of flash-evoked responsiveness in the electrocorticogram of anaesthetized sheep was compared with a method involving fibrillation of the heart. On average, severing both carotid arteries plus jugular veins took 14 sec to induce a loss of brain responsiveness, whereas severing only one carotid artery plus one jugular vein took 70 sec.

From The Silence of the Lambs:
Lecter:  What became of your lamb, Clarice?
Starling:  They killed him.

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The Case of Preston Hughes III: Exsanguination

Today's word is Exsanguination. It comes from Latin. The prefix ex means "out of" and the word sanguis means "blood".

Here's how you would use the word in a sentence: Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor died of exsanguination. They simply ran out of blood as they lay in the darkened, overgrown field that night.

In Brain Teaser #2, I offered 10 points for any insightful observation regarding the neck wounds suffered by Shandra and Marcell. To help readers collect the irredeemable points, I posted the relevant paragraphs from each of Shandra and Marcell's autopsies. Still, I had no takers other than blunt-edge Paul, so I guess I'll award myself 10 points for the following observation.

The stab wound to Shandra's neck "transected" both the left common carotid artery and the left jugular vein. The stab wound to Marcell's neck "perforated" both the left common carotid artery and the left jugular vein.

The fact (as established by the autopsy) that Shandra's carotid and jugular were "transected" (i.e. completely severed) convinces me that Shandra died soon after she was stabbed. If I am correct, Shandra could not have provided Sgt. Hamilton a dying declaration.

The fact (as established by the autopsy) that Marcell's carotid and jugular were merely "perforated" (i.e. not completely severed) suggests that Marcell would have lived longer than Shandra. If I am correct, Shandra could not have provided Sgt. Hamilton a dying declaration.

Times of Death
Officers J. L. Cook and D. J. Becker were the first officers on the scene, arriving sometime after 11:30 PM. They allegedly found Shandra unconscious but alive. From their report:
Officers walked east along the path ... approx 30 yards when observing a black female laying face down in the path. ... There was blood along the neckline and she was breathing deep but was unconscious. Officers notified the west side dispatcher of the find. The blood appeared to be fresh so officers looked ... for possible susp(s).
If Cook and Becker believed Shandra was alive, I find it inexplicable and inexcusable that they made no effort to save her life. Cook and Becker did, on the other hand, attempt to save Marcell's life. From their report:
Approx 40 to 50 feet east of the female's location officers found a small boy laying in the brush face down approx 2 to 3 feet north of the path. ... The boy did not appear to be breathing nor have a pulse. ... Officers notified the dispatcher of the find and began emergency first aid. Officer cook observed the boy's left shoulder area still bleeding and turned him over to check for any sign of life. Both eyes, pupils were dilated and there was still no pulse or breathing. ... The boy did not respond to any resusitation [sic] attempts.
It's now clear that Marcell was not bleeding from the small exit wound on his shoulder, but rather from the large exit wound in the back of his head. The blood was soaking his shirt.

While a body can still bleed after the heart has stopped, due mainly to gravity, I believe Marcell's heart must have still been beating when Officers Cook and Becker found him. Marcell was bleeding with enough volume and enough pressure that the officers noted the bleeding quickly. Significantly, Marcell was bleeding uphill. His heart was still pumping. He was still alive.

Bust just barely.

And only for the next moment or two.

After noticing the bleeding, Cook and Becker were unable to detect or re-establish a pulse. Marcell, it seems, died just as they arrived. Shandra must have died sometime sooner, since her carotid and jugular were transected rather than perforated.

The next officer to arrive on the scene was Patrol Sergeant D. Hamilton. He would later claim that Shandra calmly, clearly, and repeatedly told him that Preston is the person who attacker her. According to his report, he was the first person to respond to Cook and Becker's calls. From his report.
Sgt D. Hamilton ... heard Officers V. L. Cook and C. J. Becker ... call out on an assault victim ... Around 2340 hrs Sgt Hamilton checked by with Unit 20G40 and arrived on the scene at approx 2343 hrs. Upon arriving at the scene, Sgt Hamilton found the crime scene to be an open field. Sgt Hamilton noticed Officer Becker and Cook standing near a b/m juvenile in the field. While approaching officer Cook, Sgt Hamilton noticed a second compl a b/f, laying face down on the ground in a small pool of blood. ...
By the time Hamilton arrived at 11:43 PM, Cook and Becker had given up on Marcell. Shandra must have died earlier than that, since her carotid and her jugular had been transected while Marcell's had only been perforated.

Shandra Charles exsanguinated before Sgt. Hamilton arrived. She could not have given him a dying declaration.

Either I am wrong in my analysis or Preston Hughes III was framed.

Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: On Being Blunt

The autopsy reports for Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor are quite specific: none of the stab wounds showed a blunt edge. So that you understand what a blunt edge stab wound looks like, I offer the following image from Sharp Edged and Pointed Instrument Injuries, by Dr. William A. Cox.

Image Removed
at Owner's Request

Dr. Cox provided the following caption and credit for that image:
Re-approximation of the wound edges of the above image. Such re-approximation allows one to determine the upper angle is blunt, whereas the lower has an acute angle consistent with a single-edged instrument. (Sharp Force Injuries, J. Prahlow, MD, and S. Cina, MD, Medscape, Mar 29, 2010)
With respect to Brain Teaser #2, Reader Paul was the first to note (via the comments) that the autopsy reports exclude Preston's knife as the murder weapon, since his knife had a blunt edge and their wounds did not. To help you visualize that point, I present once again images of Preston's knife, Shandra's two stab wounds, and one of Marcell's stab wounds.

Preston Hughes' Knife

Shandra's Neck Wound

Shandra's Chest Wound

Marcell's Chest Wounds (Stab upper, cut lower)
I do not have an image of the stab wound to Marcell's neck. Be aware, however that Assistant Medical Examiner Vladimir M. Parungao, M.D., declared that each of Shandra's two stab wounds and each of Marcell's two stab wounds had no blunt edge.

Despite Reader Paul's timely and accurate observation that Marcell's knife could not have created any of the stab wounds found on Shandra or Marcell, I awarded him only 10 of the possible 20 points. I cautioned him that there were two exceptions to be considered, two conditions under which a blunt edge knife might not leave a blunt edge wound. I withheld the remaining 10 points to the first person to describe those exceptions and explain why they do not apply to this case. I guess I will have to award those points to myself.

I return to Dr. Cox for clarification.
One of the most significant determinations that must be made, along with width, thickness and length of the blade, is whether the blade was single- or double-edged or serrated. If the victim has been stabbed with a single edge blade, they will have an acute angle at one end of the stab wound, with the other end being blunted or squared off. 
However, it is well know that stab wounds produced by single-edged blades often have acute angles at both ends. How a single edged blade can produce acute angles at both ends is believed to occur for two reasons.
I'll address the second exception first, and the first second.
The second reason why a single-edged blade can produce acute angles at both ends is because many single-edged blades have a cutting edge on the back of the knife (non-cutting edge) at its tip.
That hardly counts. Dr. Cox explained the obvious, that some blades are actually double-edged near the tip and single-edged near the handle. If only the double-edge portion is inserted, then a blunt end wound would not be expected. I consider the second exception to be the "Duh" exception. Now onward to the first exception.
The first is that the initial penetration by the point of the knife creates a defect with an acute angle at both ends. As the blade of the knife creates a defect with an acute angle at both ends. As the blade of the knife continues to proceed deeper into the tissues, that edge of the defect in contact with the cutting-edge obviously remains at an acute angle. However, the opposite end of the defect, which is in contact with the non-cutting surface does not impart its shape to that end of the skin defect. All the non-cutting edge does as the blade is plunged deeper into the defect is to tear the skin and underlying tissue along the original acute angle. Where this changes is, if the stab wound runs parallel to Langer's lines, than [sic] one end will have an acute angle and the other will be blunted or squared off. In this particular case the width of the of the blunt end of the stab wound will represent to a substantive degree the width of the non-cutting edge of the knife.
Prior to reading Cox, the only Langer's lines I was familiar with were the lines of people waiting to get into  Langer's Deli, home of the best pastrami sandwiches in the world.

Dr. Cox, however, was speaking of these Langer's lines:

I guess I should first mention the obvious. That guy has a few more lines than the guys who posed for the ancient Greek, Roman, and Renaissance statues. Consider, for example, the David guy who posed for Michelangelo.

Now that I don't feel quite so inadequate, I can move on. Here's how Dr. Cox describes Langer's lines.
The actual configuration of the incised wound is dependent on whether the edge of the sharp instrument was parallel, transverse or oblique to the direction of the alignment of the collagen fibers in the skin; this alignment is referred to as Langer's Lines. Langer's lines, also called cleavage lines, is a term used to define the direction within the human skin along which the skin has the least flexibility. These lines correspond to the alignment of collagen fibers within the dermis. ... Knowing the direction of the Langer's lines within a specific area of the skin is important for surgical operations, especially cosmetic surgery. Usually, a surgical cut is carried out in the direction of Langer's lines, and incisions made parallel to Langer's lines generally heal better and produce less scaring. ... 
If an incised wound occurs parallel to Langer's lines it will tend to be narrow in configuration with the wound edges being more closely approximated than one in [sic] which runs across or oblique to Langer's lines. In the latter instance, you can expect the wound edges to be further apart with the configuration of the incised wound being more oval than linear with the wound edges being pulled apart and everted [turned inside out]. The orientation of stab wounds relative to Langer's lines can have a considerable affect [sic] upon the presentation of the wound.
If you look again at the wounds and compare them to the Langer lines for that region, you can see that Shandra's neck wound is nearly parallel to her Langer lines. Her neck wound is more slender, less gaped, than her chest wound and Marcell's chest wound.

The two chest wounds are almost perpendicular to the local Langer lines. They are gaped open far more than Shandra's neck wound.

According to Dr. Cox, we cannot determined from the chest wounds whether or not the weapon had a single or double-edge blade. The neck wound, however, is compelling evidence that the weapon had a double-edge blade. Unless a different weapon was used for the chest and neck wounds, the knife found in the bottom of a box in Preston Hughes' closet is not the weapon that killed LaShandra Rena Charles and Marcell Lee Taylor.

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I returned home last Friday night. I still have much work to do on the case, but I am satisfied that I spent the time and the money wisely.

I now return to my many other tasks, including blogging. With respect to this blog, I have an announcement.

After having requested, received, and reviewed the autopsy reports, I am convinced that Preston Hughes III is innocent. I am convinced that he in no way participated in the murders of Shandra Charles and Marcell Taylor. Given my conviction, coupled with the possibility that Preston Hughes III may soon be assigned an execution, I believe I have a moral obligation to expeditiously complete my work. Therefore, until I have completed my series on his case, I will blog of nothing else.

With one exception.

I will continue to review each impending execution before injection. I do not want to see any more innocent people executed without at least a public proclamation of my objection.

Once I have completed my series on Preston Hughes III, I will once again return this blog to making my case that we now have approximately a quarter million innocent people behind bars, and that we have already executed an uncounted number of innocent people.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I haven't posted in more than a couple days, and it will be more than a couple of days hence before I post again. I am out of state and deeply involved in a case.

For those of you who wish to read a remarkable work on wrongful execution, specifically the case of Carlos DeLuna, I recommend the astonishingly well done effort by Columbia Human Rights Law Review. I wrote of Carlos DeLuna early in my still young blogging "career", back in May of 2010. I scored him as having an 83% chance of being factually innocent.  Since I have yet to work my way all the way through the Columbia review of the case, I do not yet know whether or not I would change that estimate.

For those of you awaiting my response to Brain Teaser #2, I have nothing to offer in this post. I will respond sometime after I return home.

For those of you following the case of Preston Hughes III, I offer another paragraph from Shandra's autopsy report. It's sad in its own way, but I believe it may help identify the person who actually killed her. (I'll give you a hint. That person was not Preston Hughes III.)
EXTERNAL APPEARANCE: The body was that of a 15 year old black female, appearing older than the stated age, measuring 65 inches in length and weighing 127 pounds. The body was well developed and well nourished in appearance. There was total body rigidity and fixed postmortem lividity posteriorly. The head was normocephalic with a normal amount of kinky black hair which was beaded, measuring 12 inches in length. The eyes were covered with corneal caps. The ears and nose were unremarkable. The mouth contained natural teeth. The neck was symmetrical and stable. There was a stab wound in the left upper side at the left submandibular area. The thorax was symmetrical in shape and contour with unremarkable breasts bilaterally. There was a stab wound on the left side. The abdomen was flat. The external genitalia were those of a normal adult female with unremarkable pubic hair in normal distribution. There was no injury to the mucosa or submucosa of the vagina. The perineum was intact. The lower extremities showed no edema. The toenails were partially covered with red nail polish. The upper extremities showed recent needle punctures in the left and right cubital areas. The fingernails were covered with pink nail polish. The back was unremarkable. The cerebrospinal fluid was clear.
Shandra was using. I suspect that use led to her death at the hands of those involved with drugs.

I refer you to my previous posts Weed and The 99 Cent Coin.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: Brain Teaser #2

The autopsy reports are in.

In Shandra's Neck, I explained why the wound path through Shandra's neck had to be either side-to-side or front-to-back, or nearly so. I ruled out the possibility that she had been stabbed in the neck at most any angle in between.

In Stabbings Well Done and Stabbing Redeaux, I explained why I believed either a side-to-side or a front-to-back wound path would be exculpatory. If side-to-side, the larynx would have been severed and Shandra would have been unable of providing a dying declaration, as the police so claimed. If front-to-rear, the wound path would have been so similar to that suffered by Marcell that the stabbings would have been the result of a well executed attack rather than an uncontrolled flurry, as Hughes so confessed.

The autopsy reports are in. The wound path through Shandra's neck was front-to-rear. The wound in Shandra's neck was more similar to the wound in Marcell's neck than I would have guessed.

I'm going to present the descriptions of the two neck wounds below. Read and compare them carefully. There will be a pop quiz afterwards.

From Shandra's Autopsy Report
There was a stab wound in the left side of the neck at the left submandibular area located 2 inches to the left of midline and 8 inches below the top of the head. The wound measured 1-1/8 inches in length and gaped up to 1/8 inch in width. There was no blunt end. The stab wound track perforated the soft tissues and muscles of the neck, transected the left jugular vein and the left common carotid artery and the track ended in the soft tissues and muscles of the neck with an approximate depth of penetration of 3-1/2 inches. The direction of the stab wound was from front to back, slightly to the right and slightly upwards.

From Marcell's Autopsy Report
There was a stab wound in the left side of the neck at the left submandibular area located 1-1/2 inches to the left of the midline and 7 inches below the top of the head. The wound measured 1 inch in length and gaped up to 1/8 inch in width. There was no blunt end. The stab wound track perforated the soft tissues and muscles of the left side of the neck, perforated the left common carotid artery, the left jugular vein and exited on the left side of the head at a point 2 inches to the left of the midline and 4 inches below the top of the head. The exit wound measured 9/16 inch in length and gaped up to 3/16 inch in width. This was located 4 inches from the entrance wound. The direction of the stab wound was from front to back, upwards and slightly to the left.

Now here's the pop quiz / brainteaser:
  • 20 points for the first person to explain why these reports exclude Hughes' knife as the murder weapon.
  • 10 points for each unique and insightful observation.
Don't forget to sign your comment with a pseudonym or an actual nym.


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Monday, May 14, 2012

Beautifully Deadly

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Case Of Preston Hughes III: Stabbings Redeaux

In Stabbings Well Done I contrasted Preston's descriptions of how he stabbed Shandra and Marcell against the description of the wounds provided by the ever-so-helpful fill-in medical examiner. I contrasted, without comment, simply by posting excerpts from case documents. I asked readers to draw their own conclusions and to share their thoughts in the comments.

The first comment out of the block was brilliant. I concede my assessment of that comment may be somewhat inflated. Perhaps declaring it brilliant is merely a self-flattering form of confirmation bias, since the commentor anticipated much of what I planned to write in this post. In any case, I decided to use that comment as the template for this post. I begin by repeating the comment in toto.
The confessions are a lie. If Preston did kill Shandra and Marcell, he didn't do it the way he claimed. 
(a) He claimed he stabbed at Shandra 6 or 8 or 10 times, but Shandra was stabbed just twice. 
(b) Marcell's wounds are very similar to Shandra's. One to the left side of the chest, one to the left side of the neck. This would be an incredible coincidence if Preston were really just blindly stabbing. 
(c) The wound on Marcell's neck was from an instrument that travelled "slightly upwards". Unless the attacker was REALLY short, Marcell probably wasn't standing when he was stabbed in the neck (contrary to Preston's confession). 
I know nothing about stab wounds, but the confessions seem to describe a passionate, angry attack, and it looks to me like this attack was very deliberate. (Maybe a stab wound to the chest to disable each victim and then a stab wound to the neck to kill them?)

I will now deconstruct.

The confessions are a lie
"If Preston did kill Shandra and Marcell, he didn't do it the way he claimed."

I'm pretty sure no one is going to argue that point. Not only do Preston's two confessions fly in the face of the physical evidence, they fly in the face of one another.

Another way of describing a lie is to say the statement is false. Preston Hughes provided not just one, but two false confessions. The question is: Why?

Hughes claims he signed the confessions under threat of physical violence, even death. I assume the Houston police deny that. However, even if the Houston police were to suddenly admit they threatened Hughes' life, it is certainly no guarantee that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would grant Hughes a new trial. I refer you, as I have done previously, to the case of Cesar Fierro.
The opinion ... accepted the trial court's conclusion of law that "there was a strong likelihood that [Fierro's] confession had been coerced by the actions of [Mexican] police and by the knowledge and acquiesence [sic] of those actions by [El Paso police officer] Det. Medrano." However, though acknowledging that Fierro's "due process rights were violated", it concluded that "the error was harmless" and denied the motion for a new trial.
See also my posts here and here. The good news is that Fierro is unlikely to be executed. The bad news is that Fierro is unlikely to be executed only because he has literally gone insane while being locked in a concrete box by the people of Texas.

But I digress.

Some argue that Hughes lied during his confessions because he was trying to mitigate the charges against him. Reader and frequent commentor Mike, for example, wrote:
To a jury it's not going to matter too much. They are going to first look at it as Preston hedging his punishment. The first story was "hey it was self defense" with the hope of just getting parole. The second time was "hey I was just acting irrationally" a 20-40 year sentence, but if he had said, "I stabbed them execution style" he's going to get life at best or a visit to sparky.
I'll concede that once someone believes they are going down for the crime, they may indeed attempt to mitigate the damage by claiming self defense or temporary insanity. It seems to me that might be a relatively common occurrence.

This argument does not, it seems to me, hold in this case. Preston didn't mitigate his legal situation with his confessions. He aggravated them, and substantially so. Read on.

He claimed he stabbed at Shandra 6 or 8 or 10 times, but Shandra was stabbed just twice.
That is true, but the situation is worse then that. He said he stabbed the person who came up behind him twice before realizing it was Shandra. Even after he realized it was Shandra, however, he just kept stabbing. 

There goes his self-defense. He confessed to stabbing Shandra even though he knew it was her. Then he makes himself as unsympathetic as possible by adding that he went home, turned on the television, and checked the football score. It's almost as if someone who wanted him convicted was writing it for him.

As a public service, in case any of you find yourself in Preston's spot, I offer a better self-defense argument.
Someone grabbed me from behind. It was dark. I had no warning and I simply reacted. I pulled my knife and stabbed once, maybe twice. I can't remember. Then I ran home. I didn't know it was Shandra. I didn't know I hurt her. I swear.
It has the advantage of being consistent with the facts, at least as they relate to Shandra. By sticking to the facts, Hughes could have mitigated his crime rather than aggravating it. I suggest Hughes didn't stick to the facts of the crime because Hughes didn't know the facts of the crime.

Marcell's wounds are very similar to Shandra's
Also true. In his first confession, however, Hughes didn't even mention Marcell. When he included Marcell in his second confession, after the police cleverly noticed he had said nothing about a double homicide in the first, Hughes obligingly told them he had stabbed Marcell an unknown number of times even though he realized it was Marcell. Not only are the wounds similar, Marcell's incorrect explanations for how he created them were similar.

But wrong.

The second confession, according to those of the Reader Mike camp, is where Hughes was converting from a self-defense to a temporary insanity plea. Two problems there. First problem is Hughes never made any such claim during either confession. Second problem is Hughes never made any such claim during trial. From Hughes v. Quarterman (2008):
At the guilt-innocence phase of the trial, Hughes took the stand in his own defense. He denied that he killed the victims, claimed that he was framed by the police, and testified that he confessed to the crimes only because the police officers struck him and threatened him, causing him to fear for his life. The jury found him guilty of capital murder.
Rather than cleverly mitigating his alleged offense during each of his confessions, he claimed he knew who he was stabbing in each instance, and he claimed he stabbed them more times than they had in fact been stabbed. Once again, it seems as if Hughes had no idea what had happened, and that his confessions were worded by someone who wanted to see him convicted.

Marcell probably wasn't standing when he was stabbed in the neck
The same thought had occurred to me. In fact, I suspect neither Shandra nor Marcell was standing when their neck was cut. To understand why, I'm going to show once again a gruesome photo from my post Pools of Blood.

That's what you should expect to see if someone with a severed carotid artery is standing. When a carotid is severed, it spurts blood. From the substitute ME's trial testimony:
Q, [I]n the wounds that you have described here, would there have been spurting and splattering of blood? 
A. Yes, sir. 
Q. ... When we say a gushing, bleeding wound, are we talking about something that is shooting out away from the body or is it something that's oozing out of the body? Is there a difference in your mind? 
A. Well, arterial pressure is considerably higher than venous pressure; and usually when an artery is severed, it is followed by spurting of blood and it can go some distance.
So if your artery is severed and you are spurting your own blood while you are skating or staggering or even just falling, the spurted blood is going to leave a trail on the ground, or ice.

Now let's go back to the crime scene photos and check out the location where Shandra was tended to by the paramedics. There's the spot in the trail ahead. See it?

Let's look closer.

Closer still.

Let's step over the stain and look from the other direction.

It's obvious that the crime scene was not well preserved between the time the first and last photos were taken. It's obvious also that the blood stain looks nothing like the blood stain in the hockey arena. It doesn't consist of a trail spurted from Shandra's neck as she staggered and fell to the ground. It consists of a single elongated stain, right smack dab where Shandra was tended by the paramedics for her wound.

It looks to me as if Shandra was stabbed in the neck when she was already laying on the trail, face up. It looks to me as if her neck spurted blood first to one side of the trail, then to the other side as she rolled (or was rolled) from her back to a face down position.

The presence of other blood stains in some locations, and the absence of blood stains in some locations leaves plenty of room for confusion of how the stabbings went down. It seems to me, however, that Marcell's shoulder and neck wounds were inflicted while he was laying on his back. It seems also that Shandra's neck wound was inflicted while she was laying on her back.

With respect to Shandra's chest wound and Marcell's cutting wounds, I simply haven't enough evidence to venture a guess.

The confessions ... describe a passionate, angry attack, and  ... this attack was very deliberate
I made an promise in Shandra's Neck that I have yet to fulfill. Let's go to the tape.
Whether the knife traveled front-to-rear or side-to-side, the wound path challenges the State's case. I explain why in my next post in this series.
Another disappointing failure in my part. I have written several posts on the case since then and I have yet to explain. I will now.

If the knife traveled from side to side through Shandra's neck, it would have severed her larynx. She would not have been able to speak, and the wound would falsify the claim that she identified Hughes as her killer in a dying declaration.

If the knife traveled from front to rear through Shandra's neck, it would mean that the two sets of stab wounds are even more similar than it now seems. To the extent the wounds are more similar, they seem more deliberate and less random. That increases the disconnect between Hughes confession and the physical evidence. It makes it seem even more as if Hughes had absolutely no knowledge of the details of the stabbings.

As I type, I await the autopsy reports. I ordered them from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. I received a reply already (after three weeks) that the reports have been released and that they will send me a copy if I remit $2.30.

I remitted. I now await.

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The Impending Execution of Samuel Lopez

Samuel Villegas Lopez sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Arizona. He is scheduled to die on Wednesday, 16 May 27 June. His execution may did not proceed as scheduled due to arguments over whether the State's clemency board was properly populated and trained.

I summarize the crime by excerpting from the adverse appellate decision State v. Lopez (1990).
On October 29, 1986, sometime around 11:00 a.m., a Phoenix police officer made a "check welfare" call at the apartment residence of the murder victim. The check was in response to a call from the victim's fellow employees expressing concern that the consistently prompt victim inexplicably failed to arrive at work. 
Approaching the apartment, officers noticed a broken window next to the front door. Entering the apartment, they discovered the partially nude body of the victim. Overturned and broken furnishings in the blood-splattered apartment indicated that a tremendous struggle took place prior to the murder. A scarf had been stuffed into the victim's mouth, and she had been blindfolded with her pajama pants. An autopsy revealed that her throat had been slashed, and she had been stabbed twenty-three times in her left breast and upper chest and three times in her lower abdomen. Seminal fluid was found in both her vagina and anus. 
Samuel Lopez had been seen in the neighborhood the night of the crime. He was also seen in the early morning after the murder walking down the street, soaking wet, as if he had recently washed himself. Several days after the murder, the police were questioning defendant about an unrelated matter when he mentioned something about a woman who had been stabbed and whose throat had been slashed. 
The information that the victim's throat had been slashed had never been released to the public. Realizing that only the murderer would know of the slashing, the police focused their investigation upon Lopez. A check of his fingerprints matched those found at the victim's apartment and his body fluids matched those obtained from the victim's body. 
A jury convicted Lopez of first degree murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, and burglary. After a sentencing hearing, the trial judge found two statutory aggravating circumstances: (1) the defendant had a prior conviction for resisting arrest, which was considered a death-qualifying conviction ... and (2) the murder was committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner ... In support of mitigation, defendant argued that his capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired. The trial court found that defendant did not prove this mitigating factor by a preponderance of the evidence. Finding no other mitigation, the trial judge sentenced defendant to death for the murder and to aggravated, consecutive terms of twenty-one years for each of the other convictions.
I find no suggestion that Samuel Lopez might be factually innocent of raping and murdering 59-year-old Estafana Holmes. I oppose all execution in which a person might be factually innocent of the crime for which he is scheduled to die. With respect to all other executions in this country, I stand mute.

I the case of Samuel Villegas Lopez, I stand mute.

ADDENDUM: Samuel Lopez was executed by the people of Arizona on 27 June 2012.

The Impending Execution of Steven Staley

Steven Kenneth Staley sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Texas. His execution is scheduled for Wednesday, 26 May. I summarize the crime by excerpting from the adverse appellate decision of Staley v. State (1994).
During a four-state crime spree, Tracey Duke, Brenda Rayburn, and Steven Staley arrived on October 14, 1989 at a Steak and Ale restaurant in Tarrant County just prior to closing. After dinner and dessert, Duke and Staley removed two MAC 119-millimeter semiautomatic pistols from Rayburn's purse. Staley secured the kitchen and rear area of the restaurant, while Duke proceeded to secure the front. Staley gathered all the employees in the kitchen storeroom. During the confusion an assistant manager slipped out a rear door and called the police. 
After securing the restaurant, Staley demanded that the manager present himself. Robert Read stepped forward and slightly nudged two other assistant managers, indicating they should remain where they were. Staley then commanded Read to open the cash registers and the safe. He also dictated that the employees in the storeroom throw out their wallets, purses and aprons. One employee lifted his head, only to be kicked in the chest by Staley. Staley threatened the other employees that if any others looked up, he'd kill them—"he'd blow them away!" 
The police arrived. Believing that Read had pressed a silent alarm button, Staley threatened that if the police were outside Read was going to be the first to die. Read remained calm. He told Staley there were no panic buttons, but he would be their hostage and go out front with them as long as they did not hurt the other employees. Staley told Read, "if you fuck up one time, I'll kill you." 
Staley, his two accomplices, and their hostage left the restaurant. Eventually they hijacked a two-door Buick on Alta Mere Road. Duke went around to the driver's side and instructed the owner of the vehicle to get out. Duke and Rayburn got in the automobile. Staley pushed Read into the back seat of the car and followed him. Police heard several gunshots as the car accelerated. 
During the high-speed pursuit of Staley and his accomplices, a brief case containing some of the stolen money and both semiautomatic pistols were discarded at various locations. Ultimately, the car broke down and the three accomplices attempted to flee. All were quickly captured. Staley's first words to the arresting officers were, "[d]on't kill me." Upon their apprehension, the police discovered Read's body in the back seat of the Buick. 
The medical examiner testified that Read had suffered a blow by a blunt object to the forehead. The nature of the wound led the examiner to believe Read's head was stationary when the blow occurred. Read had also been shot in the head, shoulder and side. The medical examiner testified Read was shot in the right temple at a distance of one inch. Within approximately thirty seconds, Read was shot in the shoulder region. Both shots would have been fatal. The third and final bullet which would not have been immediately fatal entered Read's abdomen. The medical examiner testified that when the bullet entered Read's right shoulder his right arm was down at his side. The forensic expert testified that the gunshot to the shoulder was at a distance of approximately nine inches. There was gun powder residue on both hands of Read. The forensic expert testified the powder on Read's hands could be consistent with someone attempting to defend himself. 
The evidence presented in the guilt phase of the trial is sufficient for a jury to rationally conclude Staley "intentionally" shot and killed Read. In his brief, Staley contends a struggle ensued in the commandeered car between Staley and Read. When Read grabbed the semiautomatic pistol from Staley, the pistol went off several times. Staley alludes to several witnesses' testimony concerning movement inside the car as well as evidence that a bullet exited the front windshield of the Buick as evidence further supporting this theory. However, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, we disagree with Staley's contention.
There is a twist in this story. Staley is literally going crazy while sitting on death row awaiting to be executed. If he is crazy, he can't be executed. The State therefore is giving him anti-psychotic drugs to keep him sane enough to kill him. His supporters argue that constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The arguments have landed in the courts. The courts have so far ruled in favor of the State.

As an advocate for the wrongfully convicted, I find the twist interesting but insignificant with respect to my judgement of the impending execution. I oppose those executions in which I believe the person scheduled to die might be factually innocent. With respect to all the other executions in this country, including those of the insane and infirm, I stand mute.

In the case of Steven Staley, I stand mute.

Regarding the Mothers on Mother's Day

This will be the first Mother's Day I will spend without being able to at least speak to my mother. She died in January. I sat beside her as she drew her final breath, just as I sat beside my father 29 years ago when he drew his. This Mother's Day is therefore poignant for me.

I understand that I am not special. I understand that this Mother's Day must be poignant for all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. One group of people that come to mind are the mothers of those wrongfully convicted. Of the cases in which I am involved, either publicly or behind the scenes, it is almost always the mothers that have been keeping hope alive. It is almost always the mothers who somehow have acquired all the case documents. It is almost always the mothers who will make copies of those hundreds or thousands of pages and send them to me.

It is almost always the mothers.

I therefore dedicate this post to those mothers out there who spend years and decades attempting to prove their sons to be innocent. For them, every Mother's Day is poignant.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Walkin' Music: Whitewash County

Been listening Elton John's The One as I walk. I like the track "Whitewash County" despite its blatant accusation of infinite southern racism. (Elton John is pretty much an idiot with respect to all matters other than music.) I like the track for two reasons.

First, very few songs can incorporate the phrase "sticky as a chili dog" in its lyrics and get away with it. (It is, however, more evidence of how clueless Sir Elton really is. Chili dogs may be a lot of things, but they're not sticky.)

Second, and more significantly, Elton delivers some stellar piano work beginning at 4:30 and lasting for 45 seconds.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: Stabbings Well Done

I now return to the Case of Preston Hughes III. For those unfamiliar with the case, I refer you to the Table of Contents. For those lacking the time or inclination to read the previous posts, I offer this brief overview of the case: Shandra Charles and her cousin Marcell Taylor were stabbed to death in a dark, overgrown field. She allegedly identified Preston Hughes as her attacker in a dying declaration. Preston Hughes confessed not just once, but twice to the crime. He nonetheless claims he is innocent. As he sits on Texas death row, I am working my way bit by bit through the evidence to determine if he may indeed be innocent.

In this post I present Preston Hughes' description of the stabbings as per his two confessions. I present as well the trial testimony of  the prosecution-friendly, fill-in medical examiner, at least those portions related to the wounds.

I include images of all the wounds except Marcell's neck wound. I have no image showing that. I have cropped the images so as to not unnecessarily intrude on the privacy of Shandra and Marcell. I made a two-image composite of Marcell's wounds to show the relationship of the stab entry and exit wounds.

Buckle up. Here we go.

From Hughes Confession #1:
As I got into the field walking along the path someone came up behind me. Nobody said anything and I felt someone touch me on the shoulder. I have been carrying a knife ever since these guys have been talking about ryting to kill me. The knife is an army knive with brown handles and a rusty blade that is about 5 or 6 inches long. I carry it in a grey sheath on the right side of my belt. When I felt someone touch me, I turned to my left and threw a blodk with my left arm and just started sticking with the knife. It was dark and I couldn't tell who was there. When I swung the first times it hit, but I didn't know it went in or nothing. After I stuck the first two times, I saw that it was Shawn [Shandra]. I fucked up and I just got scared and kept sticking. I swung the knife 6, 8, probably 10 times then took off running toward my apartment.
From Hughes Confession #2:
Everything in the first statement is correct except what happened when I met Shawn on the trail between Fuddruckers and the apt. complex. Shawn did not come up behind me and tap me on the shoulder. I was walking with my dog from from the Lakehurst Apts. toward Fuddruckers on the trail. As I was walking down the trail I saw Shawn walking down the trail from Fuddruckers toward the apt. complex. She was walking with a little boy. I did not know who he was. We then met in the middle of the trail. Shawn spoke first and she told me that she was on the way to my house. I then asked her what for. She told me that she was coming to use my contacts. I told her that she was a damn fool, that she was not wearing my contacts. She then gave me a kiss. She then started rubbing by crotch. She then un-buttoned my jeans. She then pulled her zipper down on her shorts. Shawn then placed my penis in the slit of her vagina. We call that "grinding" if you don't put it in the hole. We did that for about 30 seconds. While we were "grinding" the zipper on her shorts rubbed against the sore on my penis. I then pulled away and buttoned up my jeans. The little boy that was with her was standing next to us. 
I then said, "Fuck this shit", because I hurt the sore. She then asked me if I had some money. I told her I keeps money. She then asked me for $50.00 and I told her no. She then started telling me that she was going to have me arrested for rape. I told her that I never forced her to do nothing with me. She then raised her hand and hit me. I then blocked her with my left hand. I hit her in the throat. She then came back at me with her hand open. She was coming at my face. I had my knife in a sheath on the right side of my pants on my belt. I then pulled my knife and stabbed at her six or eight or ten times. I'm not sure, I just started stabbing. I'm not sure how many times I stabbed her. As I was stabbing her the little boy looked up at me and started crying. He then ran in between us and I stabbed him. I don't know how many times I stabbed him. I stopped and looked at Shawn and she was looking at me. I then put the knife in my sheath and ran home.
Trial Testimony Summarizing Marcell's Wounds:
Q. What was the cause of death of Marcell Taylor? 
A. The cause of death of Marcell Lee Taylor was a result of a stab wound to the neck through and through. 
Q. Does the report reflect if any other injuries were sustained by Marcell Taylor? 
A, Yes, sir. 
Q. What other injuries does the report reflect? 
A. In addition to the stab wound to the neck, there was a stab wound to the chest, which was also through and through, a cutting wound to the chest and a cutting wound to the left arm. 
Trial Testimony Regarding the Stab Wound to Marcell's Neck:
Q. Does the report indicate the nature of the cutting wound to the neck, the damage caused by that cut? 
A. There was a stab wound of the neck.
Q. Stab wound, I'm sorry. 
A. And Dr. Parungao described that the wound was caused by an instrument which traveled completely through the neck in a direction of front to back, slightly upwards and slightly to the left. The instrument perforated the common carotid artery, which is a large blood vessel in the neck, and the jugular vein. 
Q. Does the report indicate an exit wound for that stab wound? 
A. It does. 
Q. Where is the exit wound of the stab wound? 
A. The exit wound of the instrument was located on the back of the neck in line with the entrance wound.
Trial Testimony Regarding the Stab Wound to Marcell's Chest:
Q. Does the report describe what if any injuries were sustained by the stab wound to the chest? 
A. Yes, sir. ... The instrument, again, went entirely through the body, did not enter the chest cavity, and came out the back. 
Q. Does the track of that stab wound to the chest indicate that the instrument that caused the injury passed through any cartilage or bone? 
A. Yes, sir. ... On coming out of the back, the instrument penetrated the scapula, which is the large flat bone exposing part of the shoulder. ... The shoulder blade originally is composed of cartilage, but as one ages, it becomes calcified, ossified, forming true bone, which is much tougher than cartilage. ... Medically, the ossification centers of the scapula usually mature faster in the midpoint than they do peripherally so that the scapula of the 3-year-old child demonstrates some ossification and calcification in the central portion. ... [C]artilage is relatively soft compared to bone. Bone is very hard. ... Cartilage has the consistency of a thick sheet of cardboard, such as found in large boxes, packing boxes.
Q. As a person ages, that becomes harder, is that correct?
A. That is correct.
Trial Testimony Regarding the Cutting Wounds to Marcell's Chest and Arm:
Q. As to the injuries sustained by Marcell Taylor, does the report indicate any other injuries besides those two stab wounds? 
A. Yes, sir. ... There was a cutting wound to the chest which is described in the external examination located on the left upper side measuring 1 inch in length and gaping to a width of 5/16  of an inch. In addition, there was a cutting wound to the left arm which measured one quarter of an inch in length and gaped 3 /16 of an inch. The difference between a cutting wound and a stab wound is that cutting wounds are longer than they are deep and stab wounds are deeper than they are long.
Trial Testimony Regarding the Stab Wound to Shandra's Neck:
Q. Doctor, moving along to the autopsy report, prepared on the body of the young woman in this case, Shandra Charles. Having reviewed that report, do you have a medical opinion as to the cause of death of Shandra Charles? 
A. Yes sir. ... LaShandra Charles died as a result of a stab wound to the neck. 
Q. Could you describe more specifically that stab wound to the neck? 
A. Yes, sir. There was a stab wound to the 1eft side of the neck located 2 inches to the left of the midline and 1 inch below the top of the head. The instrument perforated the left jugular vein and the left common carotid artery, two of the large vessels in the neck. 
Q. Is this injury similar to the injury that the child Marcell Taylor, received? 
A. That is correct.
Q. In fact the arteries and veins were severed the same as on the child Marcell Taylor? 
A. That is correct.

Trial Testimony Regarding the Stab Wound to Shandra's Chest:
Q. Did you note any other stabbing iniuries or wounds on Shandra Charles? 
A. There was a stab wound to the chest. ... The instrument penetrated the left side of the chest, 1 1/2 inches to the left of the midline and 4 inches below the external notch, which is where the collarbones come together, went into the chest and ended at approximately 4 inches below the entrance; in other words, the instrument penetrated to a depth of 4 inches. 
Q. Does the report indicate the approximate width of the stabbing wound? 
A. Yes, sir. ... The wound gaped up to approximalely 1/2 an inch in width. 
Q. Does the report indicate a length of the wound? 
A. Yes, sir. Wound measured 1 inch in length. 
Q. And when we say "gaped up to," I believe you said "1/2 inch"? 
A. That is correct. ... When a sharp instrument enters the skin and subcutaneous tissues, the edges are pulled apart by the little muscular fibers and collagen fibers in the skin. So, it gapes open.

I will withhold my observations until my next post regarding this case. I do so because I hope you will develop your own thoughts on how the confession and the testimony combine to prove or disprove Preston's guilt or innocence. Feel free to use the comments to express your thoughts.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

A Thousand Words

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The No Longer Impending Execution of Eric Robert

Eric Robert sits on death row awaiting (and hoping for) execution by the people of South Dakota. Last year he pleaded guilty to murder and asked to be sentenced to death. When granted an automatic appeal, he appealed the appeal. His execution has been stayed as he fights for his right to be executed.

A South Dakota inmate who acknowledged killing a state penitentiary guard in a failed escape attempt asked a judge on Wednesday to sentence him to death, saying his one regret is that he did not kill another officer and that he will kill again. 
Eric Robert, 49, pleaded guilty in September to killing Ronald "R.J." Johnson on April 12 – Johnson's birthday – in an attempt to sneak past other security. Robert waived his right to a jury trial and said he wanted to be put to death, but Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell said the state still had to prove the death penalty is warranted. Robert had been serving an 80-year-sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he attempted to escape with Rodney Berget, 49. 
Robert told Zell during his pre-sentencing hearing that he was so full of anger and hungry for freedom on April 12 that he would have killed anyone who stood in his way. 
"Brad Zell, if you stood between me and the door of freedom, I would kill you," Robert said. 
Robert said the one regret he has from April 12 is that he did not bring the pipe with him to the gate to kill the officer who stopped him. Once he realized his plan was going to fail, Robert said he began climbing up the wall of the prison – not to escape but to try to reach for the rifle of an officer on the lookout. 
"I would have shot that weapon until it was empty," he said. 
Zell told Robert that wanting to die is not reason enough for the death penalty. 
"There are many people who want to die," Zell said, adding that that doesn't count as an aggravating factor. 
The judge must find at least one aggravating factor was present during the killing to sentence Robert to death. The state presented five factors during the three-day pre-sentencing hearing: the death of a correctional officer, the manner of death, where and why it occurred, and the defendants' criminal background. 
Robert said he was guilty of all five factors and offered a sixth one to the judge – stealing Johnson's uniform, which included his wallet with money inside. 
Lynette Johnson, Ronald Johnson's widow, broke down in tears and had to be escorted off the witness stand as she testified about how her life has been ruined because of Robert's actions on April 12. In their 34 years together, they spent a total of six nights apart, she said. 
"We weren't done," she said. "We weren't done living. He wasn't done living with me."
So terribly sad.

I oppose the execution of anyone who may be factually innocent of the crime for which they are to die. I all other cases, I stand mute.

In the case of Eric Robert, I stand mute.