By Nick Braune
Anti-death penalty activity has increased in the Rio Grande Valley recently, led by The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty chapter in the Valley. And one key figure in the local TCADP is Sylvia Garza, a working class woman whose son is on death row after a problematic conviction in a high-profile multiple murder case back in 2002.
Garza’s son was 19 when he was convicted under the vicious “law of parties” statute in Texas, where anyone having anything to do with a chain of happenings in certain serious criminal cases can receive a maximum penalty. (Garza lobbied against the law of parties in the last legislative session and was shocked to find out how few legislators themselves were aware of the wide net cast by the statute.) Incidentally, there also remains considerable confusion about a “confession” Garza’s son gave the police. Sylvia and several women friends who are spouses or moms of death row inmates have been getting their word out well over the last few years, but with more effectiveness recently.
In early November, the local chapter organized a Valley-wide speaking tour for Juan Melendez, who spent 18 years on death row in Florida before he was released by the intervention of the national Innocence Project. Melendez’ visit clearly energized the local organizers, who had arranged for him to speak at two campuses of South Texas College, at some churches, and at high schools. Since the tour, the women in the chapter have continued vigils on execution days, have visited local legislators, and done other organizing.
Last weekend, Garza and the TCADP chapter were joined by Gloria Rubac from the Death Penalty Abolition Movement, who was visiting from Houston. They held a workshop in Spanish and one in English at the Fifth Annual People for Peace and Justice Gathering in Weslaco. They also maintained a literature table at the event, joining a good number of other progressive organizations in the Valley. (Over 200 people attended the annual gathering.) Speaking with this reporter over the phone afterwards, Garza reported that she was really pleased with how many people stopped over at their table, and how many indicated they wanted to help.
At speaking engagements Garza frequently tells groups that before her son was picked up and charged she remembers hearing the priest in church urging people to pray for the end to the death penalty, but it simply didn’t hit her. But she and the other moms in her circle here have done a lot of attentive praying since and have made their presence felt politically. “I used to think my voice could never be heard, but now I know it can be,” she told this reporter. And she said that the day before the Gathering she and the group went over to Harlingen for the Texas Forensic Science Commission meeting.
Because the Commission was hoping no one would attend if they held their meeting in remote Harlingen, they were surely disappointed that Garza and other concerned citizens turned up holding protest signs. Here is a quick report on the meeting and why it drew visitors.
The January 29 Forensic Science Commission meeting could have been important, had it been chaired properly. The Houston Chronicle writer, Rick Casey, reported the meeting, opening his coverage this way:
“Friday started badly for John Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney selected last fall by Gov. Rick Perry to ride herd over the troublesome scientists on the Texas Forensic Science Commission. His [Bradley’s] first official act of the morning was to violate the state’s open meeting law. Then the day got worse.”
Although the Innocence Project, a national organization which has now freed 250 people through DNA testing, had anticipated live-stream video coverage, an Austin-based documentary crew was not allowed to film the meeting. The crew called the Attorney General’s office, and the office sent a message to Bradley. An hour and a half into the meeting, someone signaled Bradley. He called for a ten minute break and readmitted the film crew.
The Commission meeting was tense. Bradley had been picked by Governor Perry to head the commission last September, Perry having high-handedly reorganized the commission after it had shown some independence. Because Perry has overseen more executions than any American governor, even surpassing George Bush’s previous ghoulish total, and because Republicans and Democrats have begun rethinking capital punishment across the nation recently, Perry is sensitive and wants to hide any embarrassments on the issue. And one clear embarrassment involves the 2004 execution of Todd Cameron Willingham.
Forensics in Texas has a bad reputation anyhow, but the commission meeting was particularly haunted by the Willingham case. When Bradley was installed as chair back in September, he canceled a meeting scheduled for three days later which was intended to discuss the Willingham case and he did not call another meeting until the January 29 session in Harlingen. The cancelled September meeting was going to discuss the fact that an arson expert, hired by the commission, had verified charges that Willingham was falsely convicted.
Rick Casey of the Chronicle said, “The meeting had drawn national attention because the expert found that the arson investigation that had helped lead to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the murder of his children was badly flawed. It was especially controversial because Perry had rejected a request to delay Willingham’s execution based on similar analysis.”
Chairman Bradley, no doubt with Perry’s best interests at heart, did not even allow the Willingham case to be placed on the January meeting agenda. (The McAllen Monitor quoted Gloria Rubac of the Abolition Movement: “I think it is a cover-up by Perry. The (gubernatorial) primary is in March, and their next meeting is not until April.”) And this gap in the agenda not only angered the protestors and those nationally who were following matters through the Innocence Project network; according to Sylvia Garza, it also seemed to irritate members of the committee who are growing suspicious of Chairman Bradley.
Garza and TCADP are planning a full day workshop on capital punishment in March to consolidate some of the new forces around them. For information: http://www.tcadp.org.