Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Impending Execution of Nicholas Tate

Nicholas Tate sits on death row awaiting execution by the people of Georgia on 31 January 2012. Though he pleaded guilty to murdering a mother and her child, he appealed the resulting death sentence on technical grounds. The appellate courts upheld the sentence. Though Tate has appeals still available to him, he now declines to pursue them.

From the appellate decision in Tate v. State of Georgia, I offer the following pieced-together summary of the crime.
Chrissie Williams and her three-year-old daughter, Katelyn Williams, were found dead in their home. Chrissie Williams was found bound to a bed with handcuffs and duct tape, and she had a bullet wound to her head. Katelyn Williams was found naked on the floor of another room, and her throat had been slit. Nicholas Cody Tate pleaded guilty to both murders and to related crimes, and he waived his right to a jury trial as to sentencing for the murders. At the conclusion of a bench trial on sentencing, the trial court found the existence of multiple statutory aggravating circumstances and sentenced Tate to death for each of the murders. ... 
Tate argues that his guilty pleas to the two counts of kidnapping and the one count of child molestation were not supported by a showing of a sufficient factual basis ... 
The factual basis shown to the trial court for Tate's guilty pleas, including Tate's videotaped interrogation, correlated sufficiently with the definition of kidnapping ... 
The strongest portion of the factual basis for Tate's guilty plea to child molestation was his own statement in the plea hearing that he himself had undressed Katelyn Williams for the purpose of his sexual arousal. ... 
The trial court denied Tate's pretrial motion to suppress his videotaped interrogation. Despite the fact that the videotape is marked in the record as an exhibit of the State, a review of the sentencing trial record reveals that the videotape was actually introduced by Tate during his cross-examination of a witness for the State. Accordingly, we conclude that Tate has waived the right to complain on appeal about the introduction of the videotape as evidence at his sentencing trial. 
The evidence showed that Nicholas Tate directed Chad Tate, his 15-year-old brother, to silence Katelyn Williams, who was only three years old. Chad Tate emerged from the room where he had strangled the child with a telephone cord, likely with his hands showing obvious signs of what he had done. When the child regained consciousness and began screaming again, Nicholas Tate, who had initially sent Chad to silence the child, allowed Chad Tate to take his knife and to return to the room where the child was. The evidence also showed that Nicholas Tate had been intent upon eliminating potential witnesses and that Katelyn Williams had recognized him and had called him by name. Both Chad and Nicholas Tate's pants were shown to have been stained with Katelyn Williams's blood. The trial court, acting as the finder of fact, was authorized to find that Nicholas Tate directed his young brother to murder the child. As we have held, one "who directs a follower or lackey to commit murder" is guilty of the statutory aggravating circumstance addressing persons who cause or direct another to commit murder as an agent or employee.
Note that the police in this case did indeed record their interview with Tate, and they did preserve Tate's confession with that recording. Kudos to them. Given the preserved, unchallenged confession, there is no doubt that Nicholas Tate is factually guilty of the crimes for which he is scheduled to die.

In cases where factual guilt is clear, I neither oppose nor support the death penalty. Instead I stand mute.

With respect to the impending execution of Nicholas Tate, I stand mute.

The Execution of Rodrigo Hernandez

Though it is likely that Rodrigo Hernandez was factually guilty of the crime for which he was executed, I nonetheless opposed the execution. I opposed the execution because Hernandez was convicted in part on a disputed confession which the police failed to record. I'm weary of our justice system condoning such failure to preserve evidence and / or the willful manufacture of evidence.

One commenter provided a link to an article about Hernandez that I had not read. The article provided some additional information regarding both the alleged confession and the DNA evidence. First the DNA info:
With no sign of Verstegen or her 1991 Pontiac Firebird, a massive search began:  ... Susan Verstegen's brother-in-law and her boyfriend, Douglas Kirchner, found the Firebird. A handprint was on the driver's side door and “dragging finger marks were on the inside of the back window,” made by “smaller fingers,” according to police records. A wet spot was on the back seat.
Police cut the wet fabric and filed it as evidence, along with soil samples from beneath the car, cigarette wrappers, latent fingerprints, vacuum samples, the drum, nail clippings and swabs from Verstegen's body. ...
Four years later, when the national DNA system was established, the evidence was submitted. Monney would continue to get letters from SAPD detectives informing him they'd reopened the case. Four investigators took it up at different times.
Though they still do not make clear the nature of the DNA link to Hernandez, one might guess that they found Hernandez's DNA on the vaginal swab taken from the victim. This guess could be reinforced by Hernandez claim that he and the victim had consensual sex but that he did not kill her.
Hernandez now says he and Susan Verstegen had a months-long casual sexual relationship after they met at an H-E-B where he worked ...
It's the additional information about the alleged confession that most attracted my attention.
Almost by chance, Hernandez was linked to Verstegen's death in 2002, eight years after her half-naked body was found stuffed in a 55-gallon drum at a church.As a condition of his parole for an assault in Grand Rapids, Hernandez had to submit a DNA sample for a local, state and national database called CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System. When a match was found,George Saidler, then a San Antonio Police Department cold case detective who had reopened the probe in 2000, visited Hernandez in a Michigan jail. 
After about 20 minutes, Saidler recalled, Hernandez asked a Michigan officer to leave the room, then confessed to killing Verstegen, a single mother interested in photography who worked for Frito-Lay. 
“He gave me the facts of the case that only the killer had known,” said Saidler, now an investigator with the Bexar County district attorney's office. 
“He gave (the confession) up pretty easily to me. He had some tears, but I couldn't say if he was shedding tears for himself or for the victim.”
Not only did the Texas Rangers not record the interview, a Michigan police officer left the room just before Hernandez allegedly confessed. I find it extremely odd that Hernandez would insist a Michigan police officer leave the room as a condition of confessing to capital murder to two Texas Rangers. It sounds fishy. Of course I don't know if it is fishy, because no one bothered to preserve the evidence. That's the whole point.

Now I read this article about Rodriguez's execution that says he finally confessed to killing both woman in Texas and the woman in Michigan he was linked to by his DNA.
Right to the end, death-row inmate Rodrigo Hernandez – suspected in a 1991 killing in Grand Rapids – hoped for a last-minute reprieve. 
When it became apparent that wouldn't happen, Hernandez, who once lived here, admitted he shot and killed Muriel Stoepker, 77, near Grand Rapids Community College campus, and raped and strangled Susan Verstegen, 38, whose killing in San Antonio led to his execution Thursday. 
“I can tell you, Mr. Hernandez did not want (the execution) to happen,” Michigan State Police detective Sgt. Sally Wolter said Friday. 
Just minutes before his execution Thursday night, Rodrigo Hernandez confessed to the 1991 killing of Stoepker and 1994 killing of Verstegen, police said. He was put to death in Huntsville, Texas. ... 
Police in 2010 tried to talk to Hernandez, but he refused pending the outcome of appeals. After appeals were exhausted, police again tried to talk to Hernandez. He admitted to having sexual relations with Stoepker, but said he did not kill her. 
Wolter said Stoepker’s family took comfort in knowing that the person who killed her finally took responsibility. Police were confident based on the scientific evidence, but also wanted to rule out the possibility any others were involved. 
Wolter said police are confident Hernandez acted alone. She said that once Hernandez realized that the execution would occur, he consented to an interview with Texas Rangers and admitted to the killings. He told police that he had a gun that accidentally went off, killing Stoepker. 
“I think for the Stoepker family, and also for the family in Texas, the Verstegen family, he has now admitted responsibility for the crimes. That was their hope, for (the killer) to take responsibility and show some remorse,” Wolter said. 
She said it helps families to know “they have the right guy.” 
The Metro Cold Case Team, comprised of Grand Rapids police, Kent County sheriff's deputies and state police, also took satisfaction in the confession. Between his statements and physical evidence, police have determined he alone killed Stoepker and can close the case.
Hernandez, 38, maintained his innocence through it all. 
“It still doesn't seem real. I did not commit this murder; I'll take that to the grave,” he told the San Antonio Express-News recently.
Now Texas claims to have two confessions from Hernandez. They have the unrecorded confession, in the handwriting of a Texas Ranger, taken after Hernandez asked the Michigan police to leave the room. They also have a confession, apparently unrecorded, taken just before Hernandez was executed and soon after Hernandez claimed he would never confess.

I figured since Hernandez had finally decided to confess, he would mention it in his final statement, the one that is recorded. He might apologize to the victim's family. He might ask for forgiveness. But he did not. As best as I can find, here are his final words.

I want to tell everybody in the world I love everybody. Keep your heads up. We are all family, people of God Almighty. We're all good. I'm ready. This stuff stings, man.
So we have yet to hear Hernandez confess. We have only heard him say that he didn't do it, that he didn't confess, and that he would never confess. We have, however, been assured by the Texas police that he did confess, twice, to them and them only. And now they can magically close the other case as well, which they couldn't do if Hernandez had not conveniently and temporarily confessed.

Record the damn interviews.

Preserve the damn evidence.

I maintain my objection to the execution of Rodrigo Hernandez.