Death Row Stories

During the 1970s the Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment on the grounds that it was applied in an "arbitrary" and "capricious" manner. Now it's back with a vengeance, but as a group of Minnesota attorneys is learning, nothing has really changed.

Other witnesses told Babcock that their first statements had incriminated Carrasco. But when police learned that he was dead, they came back and coerced the same witnesses to incriminate Aldape, telling one woman they would take away her infant daughter if she didn't cooperate. Others were threatened with arrest. Then, when they had assembled a compliant group of witnesses, says Babcock, "they put everybody in a room and paraded my client through in handcuffs before the lineup."

With the pro bono assistance of a prominent Houston firm, Babcock put together a 250-page brief detailing the new evidence and filed it with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The very next day, the judge denied relief. "I'm convinced he didn't read it," says Babcock. "The judge was just worthless. There was no explanation, no findings of fact." A cop was dead; that seemed to be all anyone wanted to know. "Our investigator talked to one officer," she says, "who said it was his opinion that even if my client wasn't the shooter he deserved what he got because he was there and somebody had to pay. He gave no statement."

Finally, in 1992, a federal judge agreed to hold a hearing with the original witnesses. Appalled by what he heard, he reversed Aldape's conviction. In the accompanying opinion, he wrote, "It is clear to this court that the mood and motivation underlying the police officers' conduct arising out of this case was to convict Aldape for the death of officer Harris even if the facts did not warrant that result.... The prosecutors' conduct was equally rank.... The police officers and prosecutors had a duty to accurately record the statements of the witnesses, to fairly investigate the case, and to disclose all exculpatory evidence. Moreover, they had a duty not to prosecute an innocent man. They failed in these duties."

Aldape is still sitting on death row waiting to see whether the state will retry the case. "I'm sure they will," says Babcock. "The chief of police in Houston and the Harris County District Attorney, who is a national spokesperson for the death penalty, wrote to the attorney general's office and asked them to appeal it." Aldape is 34 now and has spent more than 13 years of his life under a death sentence.

"People could say the system worked in this case," says Babcock, but, "so much could have gone wrong." She points out that the Aldapes of the future will likely face an even tougher battle. The resource center that handled his case is closing down. And habeas corpus revisions of the sort Congress is considering might have forestalled the appeal that eventually overturned his conviction. "Right now," she says, "the way the habeas statute is worded, the judge in the Aldape case had to hold a hearing. Under the new statute, he would not have been required to hold a hearing. In fact, he would have been required not to hold a hearing unless we could prove that no reasonable juror could have voted him guilty based on the new evidence. It's quite possible he would have been executed by now."

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