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.