Tuesday, February 2, 2010

They'd Rather Have Closure

The title of this post is part of what special prosecutor Raymond Fuchs said in explaining why the family of Louella Hilton went along with it.

"It," in this case, is a life sentence with the possibility (although surely not the likelihood) of parole for Gabriel Gonzales in Bexar County, Texas.

Some 13 years ago, Gonzales was sentenced to die for killing Hilton. As Craig Kapitan in the San Antonio Express-News tells it:

Gonzales was a 20-year-old member of the Crips gang who was known as “Capone” when he and four others were alleged to have stormed into Louella Hilton's Austin Highway store on the morning of June 20, 1994.

During his 1997 capital murder trial, prosecutors described him as the one who planned the heist in an attempt to gather more guns for his gang. He was also accused of serving as the triggerman, shooting Hilton three times through a closed door as she dashed for a 12-gauge shotgun in her office.

At his first punishment hearing, prosecutors described a lengthy criminal history and produced a letter they said Gonzales wrote from jail in which he pledged to kill a witness.

You read that, you think Texas, and you understand why he got death. But then, and this is unusual, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals called a do-over. Here's the key part of the majority opinion. (I've omitted footnotes.)

The evidence and arguments at the punishment hearing would have been significantly different with the mitigating evidence adduced at the applicant's habeas hearing. The habeas court accepted as true that the applicant's father forced him to perform oral sex on him weekly beginning when the applicant was less than six years old, and that his father had anal intercourse with the applicant weekly from the time he was seven years old. The applicant's father was also physically abusive towards the applicant if he resisted, and would threaten to kill the applicant, as well as the applicant's mother, if the applicant ever told anyone about the abuse. The applicant's father also sexually molested the applicant's sister numerous times during her childhood. It is not clear from the record when the abuse ended, but the applicant lived with his father until his parents divorced in 1988, when the applicant was fourteen years old.

The habeas court accepted as true the conclusions of Dr. Raymond D. Potterf, a board-certified psychiatrist who examined the applicant and diagnosed him as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the repeated physical and sexual abuse he suffered. Dr. Potterf also concluded that the applicant had a "Borderline Normal Intelligence Quotient which would lead to poor processing of information and probably lower level of control of behaviors which included antisocial behaviors and impulsive behaviors at an early age." The habeas court accepted Dr. Potterf's conclusion that, if given extensive psychiatric treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Chemical Dependence, the applicant could perhaps become a productive, law abiding member of society. None of this evidence was presented during the applicant's trial.

We believe the mitigating evidence presented at the habeas hearing is substantially greater and more compelling than that actually presented by the applicant at his trial. We cannot say with confidence that the facts of the capital murder and the aggravating evidence originally presented by the State would clearly outweigh the totality of the applicant's mitigating evidence if a jury had the opportunity to evaluate it again. In short, we conclude that the applicant's available mitigating evidence, taken as a whole, "might well have influenced the jury's appraisal" of the applicant's moral culpability. Therefore, there is at least a reasonable probability that, had this mitigating evidence been available at the applicant's original punishment hearing, a different result would have occurred, such that it undermines our confidence in the outcome.

The Express-News talked to Hilton's daughter when the court's decision came out. She said she was

stunned by the ruling, said she didn't know how she would feel if Gonzales successfully evaded execution. She was, however, exasperated that a new sentence — life or death — likely would start the appeals all over.

"I'm going to be an old woman" before the case ends, Darla Hilton-Gurkins said. "I was only 27 when it happened and I'm almost 40 now.

Sure. These things drag on because with life on the line, there's every reason to keep litigating, especially because reversals happen a fair percentage of the time.

Anyway, now we're back in Bexar County. Time for a new sentencing. Which means going through it all again. And then . . . . Who knows?“I did talk to (Hilton's) family about it and explained what I thought all the problems were,” Fuchs said. “They agreed they'd rather have closure than for it to continue on.”

In this business, "closure" is the "C word." Proponents of executions like to toss it around. Seeing the killer killed, they say, will bring closure to the family of the victim. Whatever that means exactly (relief? an end to suffering? additional sufferering, now by the family and friends of the person executed? schadenfreude?), the studies don't indicate that the families of the victims of homicide derive any real peace or comfort from the death of the killer.

All they get is an end to process. And there's a much faster way. Just take death off the table.

Hilton's family got it. It's over now. Case closed. Which is maybe what closure means.

Of course, that's Texas. Here in Ohio, things continue unabated.

The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday refused to stay Mark Brown's execution, scheduled for Thursday, so that he can have time for appellate review of the substantial evidence that he's factually innocent of the murder for which he's about to be killed.

Today, the court set serious execution dates for three more men. That brings us to 8 scheduled murders. One a month through September. If they all go, it will be 9 in the first 9 months of the year. Expect more. Double Digits. Oh, and on Thursday we'll be tied with Texas for the most executions so far in 2010.

Here, to help you keep track:

  • Mark Brown - February 4
  • Lawrence Reynolds - March 9
  • Darryl Durr - April 20
  • Michael Beuke - May 13
  • Richard Nields - June 10
  • William Garner - July 13
  • Roderick Davie - August 10
  • Kevin Keith - September 15


  1. I'll tell you what the word closure means to victims. It means nothing as far as closure about the person they lost. I have said that I would get closure for the murder of our son when they put the lid on my urn and not before.

    The closure the death penalty brings is being able to finally not having the murderer looming over our heads everyday. NO MORE APPEALS, NO MORE SCUMPALS, NO MORE INTERNET SITES, NO MORE MURDERER TO THINK ABOUT EVER AGAIN. Maybe then the victims' families and friend could begin to grieve.

    So for all you doogooder antis, I wish just once you would bother to ask victims' families and friends, instead of making assumptions of what we want and that you print our exact words, not the ones that are taken out of context to support your anti stance.
    Mom of a murder victim.

  2. After having assisted on a recent legal research project on a Texas criminal case, you don't find too many with results like the one you found. I was beginning to lose all hope for those in Texas. We all know TX leads the league in state sponsored killings, but when you actually delve into the case law you see case after case where defendants get hammered at sentencing (punishment hearings) and the appellate courts slam the rubber stamp on the draconian sentences.