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Charlie Baird

The exoneration that wasn’t

I don’t know about you, but I’d forgotten about this.

Charlie Baird

A Texas judge who reviewed the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham planned to posthumously exonerate the father who was put to death for killing his three daughters in a house fire.

Scientific experts who debunked the arson evidence used against Willingham at his 1992 trial and a jailhouse witness who recanted his shaky testimony convinced District Court Judge Charlie Baird in 2010 that “Texas wrongfully convicted” him. But Baird’s order clearing Willingham’s name never became official, because a higher court halted the posthumous inquiry while it considered whether the judge had authority to examine the capital case.

While waiting for permission to finish the case from the Third Court of Appeals, Baird put together the document that “orders the exoneration of Cameron Todd Willingham for murdering his three daughters,” because of “overwhelming, credible and reliable evidence” presented during a one-day hearing in Austin in October 2010.

“You can’t do anything for Willingham except clear his name,” Baird told The Huffington Post. “When they tried Willingham, I’m convinced that everyone worked in good faith. The problem is that up until the execution, everything had changed so dramatically that you realized the science relied upon at trial was not reliable enough to take a man’s life.”

Baird’s intended order never came to light because the court of appeals criticized his handling of the case and prevented him from resuming work on it before he left the bench at the end of 2010 after choosing not to seek re-election. No one asked him for it after the court of appeals blocked him, he said.

Baird, now an attorney in private practice, said he was moved to share the document with HuffPost after reading about Carlos DeLuna, a Texan who a Columbia University team said this week may have been wrongly executed in 1989.

Link via Grits, who asked for and received a copy of Baird’s order. I had previously blogged about Baird’s hearing and the Third Court of Appeals shutting him down. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get past the politics of this case, but I think Baird’s conclusion that a modern day jury would never have convicted on the evidence that was presented at Willingham’s trial is accurate. Whether we’ll ever use our better understanding of the science of fire to correct the wrongs of the past that still can be corrected remains to be seen.

January finance reports: Harris County

January is a very busy month for campaign finance reports, since they are due for all levels of government. I’ve been busy updating the 2012 Primary Election pages for Harris County and elsewhere in Texas with reports as I can find them. Here’s an overview of some races of interest in Harris County. I’ll have similar reports for State Rep and Congressional races next week.

Let me preface this post by saying that I loathe the County Clerks’ Campaign Finance Reports page. You can’t search for an individual by name, you can only search for all candidates whose last name starts with a given letter. All of the reports are scanned PDFs, which means that most of them are handwritten, though even the ones that are electronically generated are then apparently printed and scanned. This has the effect of creating much larger files, which are then harder to navigate, and Adobe being what it is they managed to crash Chrome on my PC and IE9 on my laptop. They do open in the browser with a direct link, unlike the city’s reporting system which opens each report as an Acrobat file for download, which I then have to upload and share to make available on my page, so as long as your browser continues to function that’s nice. All I know is that when I am named Supreme Commander of the world, my first official action will be to outlaw paper filing of campaign finance reports. It’s 2012, for Pete’s sake.

OK, rant off. Here are the highlights:

District Attorney

Incumbent Pat Lykos starts the year in good shape, having raised $194K with $320K on hand; she spent $40K during the cycle. Primary opponent Mike Anderson reported no money raised or spent. He was a late entrant and likely hasn’t had any fundraisers yet. I’m sure he’ll have sufficient resources to wage a campaign. On the Democratic side, Zack Fertitta had an impressive haul, taking in $170K, with $141K on hand. I don’t know exactly when he named a treasurer, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t start raising money until a couple of months into the cycle. His primary opponent Lloyd Oliver, who is listed for some bizarre reason in the county financial reporting system as “Oliver Lloyd” – I only found his report by accident, looking for other L-named candidates – reported no money raised or spent.

Sheriff

Sheriff Adrian Garcia will have a tough race in November, and he starts the year well armed for it, having collected $187K and maintaining $302K. He has two primary opponents – Delores Jones has $1,038 on hand, while perennial contender Charles Massey El had no report visible; yes, I checked under M and under E. There are eight Republican hopefuls, but only four filed reports. Ruben Monzon raised $33K; Carl Pittman raised $13K and reported $24K in loans; Brian Steinacher claimed the princely total of $750 raised. The most interesting report belonged to Louis Guthrie, who claimed to raise $96K with $30K in loans. That caught my eye at first, but he only listed $21K on hand, which made me suspicious enough to read the whole report. The individual contributions he detailed added up to only $6450 in cash plus about $18K in kind for things like printing and food, which are usually considered expenses. Something is definitely off there, but even if you took him at his word, the four of them together raised less than Garcia did.

County Attorney

Not really on anyone’s radar since it’s a lower profile office and there are no contested primaries, but Democratic incumbent Vince Ryan raised $29K and has $126K on hand. Republican challenger and former State Rep. Robert Talton raised $14,650 and had $10,500 in loans, but spent $14,978 and was left with $10,367 on hand.

Tax Assessor

In the battle of Guys Whose Surnames Both Start With The Letter S And Are Thus Convenient To Find In The Otherwise Wack Harris County Finance Reporting System, incumbent Don Sumners reported no cash raised and $3,911 on hand, while current Council Member Mike Sullivan made good use of his remaining Council campaign fund, which allowed him to report $53K on hand. He actually raised $8200 for this cycle, and had $15K in loans outstanding. Democratic challenger Ann Harris Bennett, who was listed under the Bs, raised no money and had $1,856 on hand, presumably left over from her 2010 race for County Clerk. Remind me to ask Clerk candidates in 2014 about how they propose to overhaul the finance reporting system.

Constable

I didn’t bother looking at a lot of these reports, as there are just so many Constable candidates. Among those I did look at were ones for the open Precinct 1 seat. Alan Rosen did the most, raising $43K with $37K on hand. Cindy Vara-Leija raised $22K and had $15K on hand; Grady Castleberry, who also had a July report, raised $2K but had $19K in loans and $23K on hand. Quincy Whitaker’s January report was not visible as of this publication; his July report claimed $5K raised and $18K spent but did not list any loans or cash on hand.

That’s your Harris County finance report. I’ll have state and federal candidates next week. The one other county race I’m watching is the Democratic primary for Travis County DA, featuring incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg and former judge Charlie Baird. The Statesman noted their totals, and I have their reports linked on the non-Harris page – here’s Lehmberg, and here’s Baird. Check that page and the Harris page for more reports as they come in. Greg has more.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that there is a “Friends of Mike Anderson” finance report, which I would have found if I could have searched by name and not by letter, and that this report shows contributions of $152K and cash on hand of $135K. That report lists his office sought as the 127th District Civil Court bench, but that’s neither here nor there.

Gallego to run for CD23 and other updates

State Rep. Pete Gallego has decided to run for Congress in CD23.

Gallego first won election to the Texas House in 1990 and has chaired various committees and also been part of the Democratic leadership, doing time as head of the House Democratic and the Mexican American Legislative Caucuses. That’s made him known to state and national Democrats who might be willing to help him in a congressional contest.

The district runs from San Antonio west to El Paso and includes all but five of the Texas counties that border Mexico.

San Antonio lawyer Manuel Peleaz, a Democrat, decided this week not to run for that congressional seat. He says he got lots of encouragement at home from others in San Antonio but that Gallego has locked down most of the important supporters west of Bexar County. That sets up as a “cage match,” as he put it, between Gallego and [former Rep. Ciro] Rodriguez, and with others, including John Bustamante, son of a former congressman, who announced as a Democratic candidate last month.

I’ve said I want to see new blood, and this counts as new blood. Nothing against Rep. Rodriguez, but Rep. Gallego has been an outstanding member of the Lege and will no doubt make an excellent Congressman. I’m a little concerned because Gallego’s legislative district is less solid than others, but Dems should still be favored to hold it. And hey, if you never risk anything you’ll never gain anything, either. I wish Rep. Gallego the best of luck.

There’s another primary battle to the west of CD23 as well.

Former El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke said today that he will challenge longtime El Paso U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary election next year.

“He’s never had a real challenger,” said O’Rourke, who launched a website last night but hasn’t yet made an official announcement. “I think competition always produces better results than a monopoly.”

O’Rourke, who served on the City Council for six years before leaving the post this year, has long considered a congressional run, so his decision is not a big surprise. But it does set up another big political brawl in this city known for bruising Democratic melees.

“This is going to liven things up here,” said El Paso County Democratic Party Chairman Danny Anchondo.

Reyes and O’Rourke come from two long feuding camps in the local Democratic Party. Reyes, a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief who was elected to Congress in 1996, is leader of the more conservative, establishment Democrats. O’Rourke, who runs a technology consulting and web design firm and is the son of a former El Paso County judge, is aligned with former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and more liberal, progressive Democrats.

CD16 is solid Dem in the new map, with Obama getting over 65% and Sam Houston 68%, so there’s certainly something to be said for this kind of challenge. Even if you lose, you can help shift things in a positive direction. Beyond that, I don’t know enough about either of these gentlemen to say anything more. I just hope the campaign energizes the Democratic electorate out there.

A bit closer to home, there will be a high profile primary fight in Travis County.

Former Judge Charlie Baird, who had previously formed a committee to explore running for Travis County District Attorney, announced on his website [Wednesday] that he will indeed run for the position.

Baird will face incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg in the March Democratic primary.

[…]

Baird served four years as a district judge and did not seek re-election last year. He was a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for eight years during the 1990s.

Lehmberg has been district attorney since January 2009 and has worked as a prosecutor in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office since 1976.

As I said when I noted Baird’s initial interest, I don’t have any preference in this race. I have no complaints about Lehmberg, and as far as I know Baird was a good judge. As with CD16, I hope this is the kind of campaign that gets people fired up in the good way.

On the Republican side, Robert Miller has a number of updates. The main thing you need to know is that Dennis Bonnen’s brother may be in the Lege as well in 2013. Urk.

Finally, a candidate announcement that isn’t a contested primary.

If the name Keith Hampton sounds familiar it’s because he appeared on your ballot in 2010 as the Democratic nominee for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (Place 6). [Thursday], he announced that he’s running for the statewide, all-Republican court in Place 8, currently held by Rick Perry appointee Elsa Alcala.

“I am excited to continue the work of reforming the Texas criminal judicial system that we began last cycle,” Hampton said. “I believe Texans want their justice system to enforce the law according to principle instead of ideology, so that each person may be treated equally, individually, and fairly before the law. I hope to use my campaign to advance this fundamental ideal.”

Like pretty much all of the downballot candidates last year, Hampton’s race got buried by the Governor’s race. Hopefully he’ll be running in a much less hostile environment next year.

Another Travis County DA race?

When Ronnie Earle announced his retirement in 2007, it kicked off a spirited Democratic primary to replace him that was ultimately won by his chief lieutenant, Rosemary Lehmberg. It looks like we may have another such primary next year.

Former Judge Charlie Baird is eyeing the Travis County district attorney’s post.

In an interview Tuesday, the former District Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judge said he is seriously considering challenging District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg in March’s Democratic primary.

Baird, 56, sounded very much like a candidate in laying out some changes he would make if elected, such as requiring every employee of the office to live in Travis County and abolishing the long-standing death penalty review committee that evaluates capital murder cases.

He noted that Lehmberg, who has been district attorney for 2½ years, has worked in the office since 1976.

He said if he runs, the question for voters would be: “Do you want to continue with the status quo, or do you think there are ways that the criminal justice system could be improved?”

Lehmberg, 62, said she is proud of her experience working in almost every part of the district attorney’s office. She also pointed to programs she has begun during her current term.

I don’t really have an opinion on this, I’m just curious. What do you Austinites think about the job Lehmberg has done? Does she deserve re-election, or would you rather see someone else – Baird, or a different person – challenge her in the primary? Thanks to its Public Integrity Unit, the Travis DA’s office is the most important in the state. What do y’all think about this?

Appeals court suspends Willingham court inquiry

This happened late last week.

An Austin appeals court has ordered Judge Charlie Baird to halt his inquiry into whether Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed in 2004 and whether there is probable cause that state officials committed a crime in their handling of Willingham’s case prior to his execution.

The Austin American-Statesman obtained an order by the 3rd Court of Appeals from the court clerk just prior to 5 p.m. today, after Baird heard several hours of testimony on the case. By that time, Willingham’s lawyers had announced that they were through presenting evidence.

Before Baird closed the hearing, former Gov. Mark White said that Willingham should be posthumously exonerated.

“The state of the testimony that convicted him has been impugned today,” said White, who said. “Every shred of evidence points conclusively to his innocence.”

Baird said he would take the case under advisement and issue formal findings of fact at a later date if they that is warranted.

Dave Mann has a good report of what actually happened at the hearing before the Appeals Court suspended matters, Grits reviews the politics of the matter, and the Stand Down blog rounds up coverage of the story. I don’t know what will happen at this point, but I feel pretty confident saying we’d be paying less attention to this now if Governor Perry and his henchman John Bradley hadn’t expended so much effort trying to keep the lid on it. Justice is slow, but usually it eventually arrives.

Is the county’s public defender proposal good enough?

This op-ed by Charlie Baird, judge of the 299th District Court in Travis County, and William Sessions, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, suggest that the start-up public defender’s office that Commissioners Court recently voted to authorize suffers from the same problem as the current system: lack of adequate oversight.

In response to public concerns about judicial conflicts of interest in picking defense lawyers, excessive caseloads and the poor quality of legal representation, Harris County agreed to create a pilot public defender office. Last week, Harris County applied for a grant from the state to pay for half of the public defender office over the first four years of operation. That grant is worth $4.4 million in the first year and $13.2 million over four years.

Unfortunately, Harris County is on the brink of not receiving that money because the planned public defender office lacks: 1) independence from the judiciary; 2) workload standards; and 3) uniform use of the public defender office by all judges.

With some tweaking, the proposal could be a step in the direction of justice for Harris County. But as it’s now written, justice will continue to be denied even with the new public defense office in operation.

A major problem with the proposed plan is that it permits individual judges to decide whether they want to maintain the status quo and not let the newly established public defender office represent defendants in their courts. The core of our justice system is to treat every individual brought to court on criminal charges fairly. How then can some judges opt out of the reforms in favor of business as usual? In such a system, the extent of justice a person receives may be entirely dependent on the court in which the case is heard.

Additionally, the new proposal fails to establish limits on the workloads of public defenders or appointed counsel. These limits are essential to ensuring that quality defense services are provided and that defense attorneys do not violate their ethical duties to provide competent and diligent representation to their clients.

More about that grant for which the county is applying is here. I’ve said before that I don’t accept the objections from the judges who want to maintain the status quo. Even if a few of them are doing a decent job with their own pool of contract attorneys, the system as a whole isn’t working, and it’s not just those judges who’d be opting out if they are allowed to do so. If we’re going to do this, and I believe we should, we need to do it right.

And these are not just theoretical concerns, either.

The Task Force on Indigent Defense, created by the Texas Legislature in 2001, has asked the county to spend some of its own money on the office, expand its scope and create an independent oversight board.

If the revisions adequately address what James Bethke, the task force’s director, calls requests for “clarification,” the county would be well-positioned for a grant. If the revisions do not pass muster at the task force’s August board meeting, Bethke said, the county would have to wait a year for another shot.

“We respect local control,” Bethke said of Harris County’s plan, but “certain principles … do need to be met.”

On Wednesday a task force committee gave the county until July 12 to fix its plan.

Baird and Sessions’ suggestions would cover the task force’s items. It’s up to the county to make this work, and they are on the clock to do so.