Excerpts from article published “May 7th 2008
By GAYLE REAVES, PHOTOS BY JOHN HOLBROOK
Tony Egbuna Ford
Shooting through thick glass into the narrow box of a prison interview cubicle, John Holbrook had few options as a photographer. On Texas’ death row, the inmates’ uniforms were routinely white, the walls barren, the lighting harsh. But there were faces, body language, hands. And so he used those things to tell the story: hands clasping each other, or pressed against the glass, folded in prayer, spread across a chest. Eyes looking straight at the camera, or giving a sideways glance.
Holbrook, who also is a private investigator, is a confirmed opponent of the death penalty, and his photo essay was originally suggested by fellow anti-death penalty activists. But along the way, he said, he realized that his pictures are as much for himself and the families of the killers’ victims as they are for people who’d like to abolish capital punishment....
.....Holbrook continued to take photos of homeless people. That led, last year, to an inquiry from two anti-death-penalty activists from Oslo, Norway, who approached him about doing similar photos of the men and women on death row in Texas..... Negotiations on that project broke down temporarily, and Holbrook approached Fort Worth Weekly about doing the death row portraits for this paper — to put a human face on the most active death row in the country.
And so Holbrook went down the path followed by many before him: He started turning his anguish into art. Beginning in January, Holbrook made repeated trips to Livingston, where men sentenced to death in this state are housed, and to Gatesville, where the women on Texas death row are incarcerated. He has photographed only a handful of the condemned – one of nine women, 10 of about 380 men. Since then, two of the men have moved off death row: Thomas Miller-El of Dallas dropped his appeal, which had been based on Dallas’ formerly racist jury selection procedures, in return for a life sentence. LaRoyce Smith, not pictured here, was granted a new trial....
...Tony Ford is another subject, convicted largely on the basis of one witness who has since recanted and another whose identification of Ford is suspect due to the inmate’s eerily close resemblance to the man that even police have heard was the real killer...
The inmates had different reactions to Holbrook and his camera. Ford, for instance, wanted to be photographed while engaging in prayer. Routier flirted. When he took Greer’s picture, Holbrook said, “It was as if I was not there. He used the brief photo session to escape into some kind of fantasy world. He posed like he was the subject of some kind of exotic fashion shoot.”
Holbrook said he found that Miller-El — arrested following a shoot-out with police, after killing one man and leaving another paralyzed by his wounds – has, over the decades, become one of the most beloved people on the death row unit, respected by guards and inmates.
The 43-year-old photographer believes in the “spiritual transformations” that inmates such as Miller-El appear to have undergone. “Would they have made these transformations if not for the fact that they were about to be killed?” Holbrook asks himself, and he has no answer.
Holbrook was most affected by his session with Ford, whom the photographer said “has the best innocence claim of anyone I have photographed.” That causes Holbrook great anxiety. After that trip, he said, “I woke up at 3 a.m. and had a panic attack.”....
[John] intends to keep taking death row pictures, if he can. And the Oslo group and others are again working on plans for the photo exhibit to tour Europe, where opposition to the death penalty is much stronger than in this country. The portraits will also be shown around the United States.
Last night on channel 44 cable, Court TV had a piece on an El Paso case. It will run again today at 2:00 p.m.. Tony Ford was accused of capital murder in 1991. According to the news, the case was tried in 1993-94 and Ford was convicted and condemned to death for the killing. In 1993, Jaime Esparza was the District Attorney. The case was prosecuted by Chris Bradley and others. This is the same Chris Bradley who is now in private practice, and who served as a special prosecutor on the Alberto Ocegueda case and declined it, see Monday, April 23, 2007 blog.
According to Court TV and other news shows on the case, Tony Ford maintains that he was outside the residence at the time of the killing and was not the shooter. DNA testing has been ordered but the results are not conclusive due to the degraded condition of the samples. More testing will be forthcoming. Court TV featured now defeated ex-judge Luis Aguilar (he received a rare public reprimand while a judge from the state bar for his behavior on the bench) who was an assistant district attorney under Esparza and who was somehow involved in the case because he came out saying Tony Ford was the right man. In other words, he is defending the verdict. Independent investigators, not hacks of Esparza, involved now, say Tony Ford is the wrong man. In fact that is the title of the story, "The Wrong Man."
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To view the Court TV film about Tony's case, "The Wrong Man", click
Staying alive on death row, a daily battle
More than 400 of their fellow prisoners have been executed in
But many languish there for more than 15 years, some for double that amount. And even if it appears that capital punishment has been suspended while the US Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of lethal injections, most know it is only a temporary reprieve.
“The key in this place is isolation ... If you let this place act like it’s designed to, you’re not really going to talk to anybody. It breeds the antisocial mentality within you,” death row inmate Tony Ford told AFP.
He has spent 16 of his 34 years on this earth in prison, and now faces the death sentence for a murder he says he did not commit.
Like all other death row prisoners here, he spends his days alone, locked in a 60 square feet cell, allowed out only for showers or to spend an hour’s recreation in a cell little bigger than his own.
Human contact is mainly limited to a few words exchanged through the slot in his cell door which his meals are passed through.
Twice a week he gets to exercise in a cell in the courtyard. Still on his own. But at least he can talk a bit with his neighbor in the next cage as they are only separated by some wire fencing.
Many prisoners lose all hope and throw in the towel. They refuse to leave their cells for showers or recreation.
“Even though we stay 23 hours a day inside, a lot of people won’t come out of their cells, because they are broken. They are not whole,” Ford said.
“Here is almost like being in a rat cage, being in a cage with just a little circle, and the little rat gets up and runs around the wheel but he’s not going nowhere. And that’s what those cages are like. You can walk around, and walk around, but you’re not going nowhere.
“Some people here may fill their depression and despair by eating so you have a lot of overweight people over here,” said Ford.
For many, the overwhelming loneliness finally gives way to despair and for some even madness.
A few weeks ago one prisoner began to throw his faeces and urine through the slot in the door, filling the building with the stink of human excrement.
But since the move to the Polunsky Unit, a brand new prison in Livingston an hour’s drive from Huntsville, all that has stopped, even television.
Ford has already won two last-minute stays of executions, and has now become an amateur expert in DNA analysis. He maintains that traces of blood found on the coat of another suspect could prove his innocence.
In calm, measured tones he describes his daily, disciplined routine aimed at staving off the despair.
A practising Muslim, he always starts his day with a prayer and a cup of coffee and then some reading.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be spiritual. It may be poetry, it may be Koran, it may be something politically positive. I’ve a Socialist newspaper back here that I get from time to time and I read that. Just something positive. It gives me something to focus on.
“I like to say that I put myself to school three times a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are study days. So I’m going to study something. It’s gonna be history, it’s gonna be spiritual matters, it’s gonna be politics, it’s gonna be the economy ... but I want to study. I want to spend some time to study and try to learn.”
Two years ago he married Rachael, an Englishwoman, who wrote to him after coming across his website set up by his support group.
Her letters were different from that of the “groupies, people who are not serious with the death penalty, they don’t take it seriously. They don’t understand we’re in a real struggle.”
Now she comes to see him three or four times a year, for just a few hours of conversation conducted through a glass window via a telephone.
“She just makes everything brighter. She helps me stay focused on what is important and not to give in to some of the despair. That’s one thing I’ll never give in to, this despair,” Ford said.
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A SUSPECT PROCESS:
In police lineups, eyewitness testimony is usually faulty
In a recent case, DNA analysis Awasn't wrong, but eyewitness identification was. How HPD can reform its lineups.
By MICHOL O'CONNOR
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
On Tuesday, Oct. 9, a Houston Chronicle headline on a Page One article read: "Something needs to be done." The day before, Ronald Taylor, who had just been released after spending 14 years in prison for a sexual assault he did not commit, appeared before City Council to ask that something be done for other wrongfully convicted people in prison. The response of city officials seemed to consider Taylor's wrongful conviction as another example of the problems with the Houston Police Department crime lab. Addressing the problems at the crime lab has been a long and expensive process.
What gets lost in the discussion of Taylor's case is that his conviction was not based on a mistaken analysis of DNA evidence by the HPD crime lab. Taylor was convicted based on mistaken eyewitness testimony of the victim. The only role DNA played in his case is that the Innocence Project found DNA evidence that exonerated Taylor that the HPD crime lab overlooked or ignored.
Taylor's exoneration is similar to other people whose convictions have been overturned by DNA evidence: Seventy-five percent of wrongful convictions result from faulty eyewitness identifications. This is a problem City Council can solve for future cases prosecuted here.
Repeated studies have shown that the traditional lineup procedures produce mistaken identifications. Despite this, HPD continues to use those very same procedures: live and photo lineups, usually conducted by one of the officers involved in the investigation or the arrest of the suspect.
The Innocence Project endorses reforms of the lineup procedures that have been developed to counter the problems with eyewitness lineup identifications. City Council should force HPD to adopt these procedures:
• Blind administration: The police officer administering the lineup (photo or live) should not be told which person in the lineup is the suspect. This procedure sharply reduces the risk of misidentification by witnesses. When the officer knows the identity of the suspect, the officer may inadvertently give the witness subtle or not-so-subtle indications to the witness to pick the suspect.
• Lineup composition: The persons in the lineup must resemble the eyewitness' description of the perpetrator. For example, the suspect should not be the only member of in the lineup with facial hair.
• Sequential lineups: The persons in the lineup should be presented to the witness one-by-one (sequential), not all at once (simultaneous), as is presently done. A sequential lineup reduces the chance the witnesses will identify an innocent persons as the perpetrator. When witnesses view several people at once (for example, a card with six photos), witnesses tend to choose the person who looks the most like but may not actually be the suspect.
• Single view: Witnesses should never be shown separate lineups with the same suspect's photograph, or shown a sequential lineup with more than one photograph of the suspect in the same lineup. When a suspect's photo is included in two separate lineups, or is included more than once in the same lineup, the witness begins to see the suspect as familiar and is more likely to identify the suspect as the perpetrator.
• Instructions: The witnesses viewing a lineup should be told the suspect may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result.
• Confidence statements: Immediately after the lineup, the lineup witnesses should provide a statement, in their own words, articulating their level of confidence in the identification.
• Recording: The identification procedures should be videotaped whenever possible. This protects innocent suspects from any misconduct by the officer conducting the lineup, and helps the prosecution by showing a jury that the procedure was legitimate.
City leaders should be weary of making apologies to innocent people who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. By requiring HPD to reform its lineup procedures, the city can reduce the risk of wrongful convictions without spending millions of dollars. The Chronicle headline was right: Something needs to be done. Now.
Michol O'Connor was a justice on the Texas First Court of Appeals for 12 years.
David Crowder / El Paso Times
Article Launched:10/30/2006 01:08:13 PM MST
El Paso County Commissioners Court today approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in Texas.
The resolution passed four to one with Miguel Teran, Larry Medina, Betti Flores and Dolores Briones voting in favor of the resolution. Dan Haggerty opposed it.
A similar resoultion was presented years ago and was passed by Commissioners Court before District Attorney Jaime Esparza at that same meeting went back to the Commissioners Court and convinced them to rescind the resolution.
Travis County has adopted a similar resolution.
*It is pertinent to note that Myra Murillo Sr. spoke out at a meeting prior to the council voting on this issue in 2000. She stated that she was against the death penalty and did not believe Tony should be executed, but rather serve a LWOP term. (Ref: San Antonio News, November 14 2000).
Workers World, July 22 2004
By Gloria Rubac
Houston community activists were deeply moved on July 10 as local poet Hitaji Aziz read the words of Tony Ford, an innocent man on Texas death row. Ford's poetry and art were presented here in an exhibit entitled "All Eye See," brought to the U.S. by Gabriella Giuliari, Ford's friend and the head of his defense committee in Italy.
Aziz transported the crowd at SHAPE Center to the prison cell and the mind of Ford, as his words spoke the truth of the centuries of oppression and genocide faced by Black people in the U.S.
Aziz explained that she had been a prison activist for decades and knew more about the Texas prison system than anyone would want to know. But, she said, none of this prepared her to deal with her own son going to prison several years ago.
Singing and speaking, her voice rising and falling, she first presented her own work entitled "A Mother's Prayer":
"I am in a battle to save my life and help save the life of my child and the rules of this battle are unfamiliar... As I walk forward I hear the voices and spirits of other mothers. I will remember and give praise to those mothers who were slain before me when they stood at the doors of illusion and fear, slavery and deprivation, trauma and poverty; the doors of the incarcerated; the doors of death row.
"I hear the mothers cry; their backs bent, brokenhearted and dragged off the battlefield by a prison slave industry that does not care and is devoid of spiritual morality. I am here, Lord, replacing every mother that has fallen by the wayside. I am here, Lord, planting seeds for the New America. Lord, Lord, I am here."
Aziz's son Amil was released from prison in May and attended the presentation.
Aziz then performed "Lost Souls." Ford's words told of the hopelessness that squeezes the life out of those who would be doctors, teachers, scientists and community leaders but are entombed in the nightmarish hell of prisons and forgotten by society.
With her voice rising into a powerful melody, Aziz captured the pain of her people and raised the consciousness of all who listened to the systemic racism and terror of the prison industry.
Salute to Shaka Sankofa
The exhibit and reception was organized by the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement and emceed by abolitionist Njeri Shakur.
Shakur gave a brief history of her involvement in the struggle to abolish the death penalty. She spoke of coming to know many of the activists on death row, like Ponchai Kamau Wilkerson, who was fearless in the face of the terror of prison. Before his execution on March 14, 2000, Wilkerson was a friend and mentor of Tony Ford.
Niya Kimble shared a powerful poem inspired by Shaka Sankofa, written on the fourth anniversary of his execution in June. Kimble was only 18 years old when Sankofa was killed. "The night of his execution was seminal in my development," he told the audience.
Sankofa was an innocent man and political activist who was executed by then-Gov. George W. Bush despite a worldwide campaign to save his life. As he lay on the gurney awaiting execution, Sankofa said, "Fight on, Black people, fight on. What we have tonight is a lynching. We may lose this battle but we will win the war."
After the presentations, the crowd looked at Ford's art and discussed its political meaning. Most of the art deals with life on death row and the pain of losing friends to executions.
Ford's federal appeal was recently denied. Attorney Richard Burr wrote a synopsis of the case entitled "The Case of Tony Ford: A Mistaken Identification Leads to A Wrongful Conviction and Death Sentence." This document was presented in a packet along with Ford's art and poetry.
Burr says, "Based on all the other evidence, the witness's identification of Tony appeared to be a mistake, because no other evidence connected him directly to the crime.
"Despite many troubling facts, pointing clearly to a wrongful conviction, the federal district court in El Paso denied Tony Ford's federal petition without ever holding a hearing. That decision is indefensible and is on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit," Burr wrote.
The day after the exhibit, one activist told friends, "I went down to SHAPE on Live Oak Street on Saturday afternoon for the gathering about Tony Ford and got taught and re-taught a lot of history, both ancient and recent. At times, I felt like standing up and testifying myself... I want to do more."
The case of Ruben Cantu has strong similarities to Tony's - convicted and subsequently executed on the word of eyewitnesses, now strong doubts exist over Ruben's guilt. In November 2005 the Houston Chronicle wrote on the case of Ruben Cantu and drew comparisons to Tony’s case:
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Up until his death by lethal injection in the summer of 1993, San Antonian Ruben Cantu steadfastly claimed that he had been framed at the age of 17 for shooting two men during a robbery. One of them died, and the other lived to bear witness against him. An investigation of Cantu's conviction by the Chronicle's Lise Olsen provides persuasive evidence that his execution by the state was a mistake. Opponents of capital punishment point to the fact that the The 15-year-old who admitted participating in the crime, David Garza, has signed an affidavit claiming Cantu was not the gunman and was not at the scene of the shooting. Garza, incarcerated for an unrelated burglary, says both he and Cantu took a vow of secrecy not to identify the killer. He says he's speaking out now because he continues to be tormented by his failure to prevent the execution of his friend. The surviving witness, Juan Moreno, testified at the trial that Cantu was the killer. The individual Garza claims did the killing told police at the time that Cantu had confessed his role in the murder. There was no physical evidence tying the defendant to the crime. The jury did not believe Cantu's claim that he was in Cantu's death sentence resulted in part from a later, unrelated incident in which he shot an armed off-duty police officer during a quarrel at a bar. That officer provided testimony that his shooting was unprovoked. Cantu d, the officer had previous suspensions for brawling in a bar and claimed both had been drinking and he was defending himself. As the Chronicle investigation documenteabusing a prisoner. Although he was never charged in that shooting, Cantu was arrested soon after and tried for the robbery-murder. Cantu repeatedly asked his attorney to corroborate his alibi by finding several brothers who had been with him in As the forewoman of the jury told a Chronicle reporter, the jurors did the best they could with the information they were given, but "the bottom line is an innocent person was put to death and we all have our finger in that." The district attorney at the time, Sam Millsap Jr., says he made a mistake trying Cantu for capital murder. Today's criminal justice system, he said, allows people to be convicted based on mistaken or corrupted evidence. Jim Marcus is director of Texas Defender Services, which assists many University of Of approximately 160 Like Cantu, the next person to face execution in The execution of one innocent person in
Death penalty doubts
The case of Ruben Cantu may provide the smoking gun capital punishment opponents have sought in
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Up until his death by lethal injection in the summer of 1993, San Antonian Ruben Cantu steadfastly claimed that he had been framed at the age of 17 for shooting two men during a robbery. One of them died, and the other lived to bear witness against him. An investigation of Cantu's conviction by the Chronicle's Lise Olsen provides persuasive evidence that his execution by the state was a mistake.
Opponents of capital punishment point to the fact that the
The 15-year-old who admitted participating in the crime, David Garza, has signed an affidavit claiming Cantu was not the gunman and was not at the scene of the shooting. Garza, incarcerated for an unrelated burglary, says both he and Cantu took a vow of secrecy not to identify the killer. He says he's speaking out now because he continues to be tormented by his failure to prevent the execution of his friend.
The surviving witness, Juan Moreno, testified at the trial that Cantu was the killer.
The individual Garza claims did the killing told police at the time that Cantu had confessed his role in the murder. There was no physical evidence tying the defendant to the crime. The jury did not believe Cantu's claim that he was in
Cantu's death sentence resulted in part from a later, unrelated incident in which he shot an armed off-duty police officer during a quarrel at a bar. That officer provided testimony that his shooting was unprovoked. Cantu d, the officer had previous suspensions for brawling in a bar and claimed both had been drinking and he was defending himself. As the Chronicle investigation documenteabusing a prisoner. Although he was never charged in that shooting, Cantu was arrested soon after and tried for the robbery-murder.
Cantu repeatedly asked his attorney to corroborate his alibi by finding several brothers who had been with him in
As the forewoman of the jury told a Chronicle reporter, the jurors did the best they could with the information they were given, but "the bottom line is an innocent person was put to death and we all have our finger in that." The district attorney at the time, Sam Millsap Jr., says he made a mistake trying Cantu for capital murder. Today's criminal justice system, he said, allows people to be convicted based on mistaken or corrupted evidence.
Jim Marcus is director of Texas Defender Services, which assists many
Of approximately 160
Like Cantu, the next person to face execution in
The execution of one innocent person in
Thursday, November 17, 2005 | 5:24 AM
(11/17/05 - HOUSTON) -- Advocates for a death-row inmate said Wednesday they are asking the Supreme Court to grant Tony Ford a new trial -- and make new law in the process -- because two eyewitnesses misidentified him as the killer.
Ford, now 32, has acknowledged driving Van Belton and another man to the Murillo family house in El Paso in December 1991 so they could collect a drug debt. Two men went to the Murillos' door, argued with them, barged inside and opened fire.
Armando Murillo, 17, was killed. His mother, Myra Concepcion Murillo, was shot in the head and is permanently disabled. One of her daughters, Lisa Murillo, was wounded by a bullet. The men also shot at another daughter, Myra Magdalena, but missed.
Myra Magdalena identified Belton as one of the assailants because they knew each other from school. He was convicted of aggravated burglary. The other man, whom Ford claims was the gunman, has not been charged in the crime.
Richard Burr, Ford's attorney for the federal appeals, said Wednesday that Ford's court-appointed attorney in his state trial tried to get money from the court for testimony from Roy Malpass, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, that would have cast doubt on Lisa Murillo's eyewitness identification, but the judge refused.
Federal appellate courts have denied appeals, Burr said, because an earlier Supreme Court ruling prohibits applying new law retroactively to the defendant making the appeal. New law would have to be made to require judges to allow expert testimony on the unreliability of eyewitnesses.
Burr said he and the Innocence Network filed a petition with the Supreme Court in October, asking them to require judges to allow expert testimony on eyewitnesses and grant Ford a new trial. El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said he was confident he had the right man on death row.
"In this case we tried him as the shooter, and we convicted him as the shooter," Esparza said.
Esparza said the Murillo sisters had nothing to gain by misidentifying Ford.
"There'd be no reason for them to identify him if he wasn't in the house," Esparza said.
Burr said police found evidence of the Murillo shooting at Belton's house, including the same size ammunition and some belongings of the Murillos.
The only evidence police found on Ford was the gray coat worn by the shooter. Ford maintains the shooter borrowed the coat to cover the gun he stuck in his waistband as he walked to the Murillos' front door.
Burr said police never tested hairs found on the coat for DNA that might have shown someone other than Ford wore the coat.
"The Texas Innocence Network became utterly convinced that Tony Ford is an innocent man," said University of Houston law professor David Dow, who runs the network and held a news conference Wednesday to publicize the Supreme Court petition.
Malpass said he has testified in federal appeals of Ford's case that the witnesses were shown a photo array of suspects, including Ford, only after Ford's photo was shown in local media as the lead suspect in the killing. He also showed reporters on Wednesday mug shots of Ford and the alleged gunman, who look similar. The shooter was wearing a knit cap that covered his eyebrows, one of the few strong differences in the men's faces.
Malpass also said studies have shown that people of one race often misidentify suspects of another race. The Murillos are Hispanic; Ford, Belton and the other man are black. "Eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable form of evidence," Dow said.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)