Innocent until proven dead

October 12, 2009

Carter Pagel, a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, documents the long list of injustices that have put Reginald Blanton face to face with the Texas death chamber.

IN TEXAS, it doesn't matter if you're innocent. They'll kill you anyway.

The Lone Star State solidified this disgraceful reputation in 2004 when it went ahead with the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, despite a report from a top scientist disproving most of the evidence that sent Todd to death row.

Now, the state is again refusing to listen to innocence pleas from another man, and has set his execution date for October 27. Much like Willingham, Reginald Blanton says he has been accused and convicted of a crime he didn't commit. Unlike Willingham, Reggie's life can still be saved.

A Fateful Day

April 9, 2000 was a regular, lazy Sunday for Reggie. He was at his home in San Antonio when his twin brother Robert Blanton and Robert's girlfriend LaToya Mayberry dropped by. The couple wanted to go cruising around, and visit friends and family. Reggie agreed to join them.

One of the places the stopped that day was Carlos Garza's home. When they arrived at the Stepping Stone Apartments, LaToya, who was pregnant at the time, opted to wait in the air-conditioned car while Reggie and Robert went up to Carlos' apartment. They knocked on the door, but Carlos never answered. So the two brothers returned to the car and, along with LaToya, left to go visit other friends.

Rally to abolish the death penalty in Austin, Texas
Rally to abolish the death penalty in Austin, Texas (Matt Beamesderfer | SW)

Later that day, someone would kick in Carlos' door and fire two bullets into him, fleeing the home as Carlos lay dying.

During their investigation of the crime, police initially heard a description from a woman who had been with Garza the day he was murdered. She told investigators that she had seen a man threaten Carlos's life that same day and described him as wearing a silver 2Pac necklace. Police searched for a man fitting the woman's description, but they were unable to turn up any leads and soon began searching for others to blame.

Creating a Case

Reggie, Robert and LaToya were no angels as far as the San Antonio police were concerned. The cops knew the brothers as the "Blanton Boys" and were aware that they had ties to gangs in the area. This gang affiliation makes kids like Reggie perfect scapegoats when someone turns up dead and there are no credible leads.

The act of pinning the Garza murder on Reggie began on April 11, when police responded to a domestic disturbance call at the trailer home where Robert and LaToya were staying. An officer arrived and attempted to detain LaToya. She resisted and was charged with assault on a public servant and failure to produce identification. When the officer ran a background check, he discovered she also had outstanding warrants, which meant LaToya was facing significant jail time.

What you can do

Join the October 14 Day of Action to Save Reginald Blanton by calling Gov. Rick Perry's office at 512-463-1782 or sending faxes to 512-463-1849. Also, call the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles at 512-406-5852 or fax 512-467-0945 and tell them to grant Reginald Blanton clemency.

Download a petition that you can use to build support for clemency for Reginald.

Watch Reginald's mother Anna Terrell's powerful plea for the life of her son at a rally at the Texas Capitol on Sept 26, 2009.

To learn more about the politics and actions of the DRIVE Movement on Texas' death row, which Reginald helped found, visit the DRIVE Movement Web site.

For more information on the death penalty and the struggle to end it across the U.S., see the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site.

At this point, another officer arrived, placed LaToya in his squad car and drove her across the street to a church parking lot, where they were met by a detective who was in the neighborhood investigating the Garza murder. The detective, aware of the disturbance, LaToya's arrest and her involvement with the "Blanton Boys," likely saw this as an opportunity to manipulate her and end his fruitless investigation. After the detective talked with the arresting officer for a few minutes, LaToya was taken to the homicide office for questioning.

According to sworn testimony by LaToya, the detective fed her information about how he thought Garza was murdered. He told her that eyewitnesses had already implicated her and Robert in the killing, and said if she didn't sign a statement against either Robert or Reggie, she would be charged with murder--meaning she would give birth to her child in prison and, ultimately, lose custody.

Of course, there were no eyewitnesses. But LaToya was scared for her life and the life of her baby, so she signed a statement saying that she heard Reggie bragging about killing his friend Carlos that day. At trial, Mayberry recanted her statement and testified that she was threatened with capital murder charges.

Almost comically, LaToya's original statement, which was typed by the detective, compared Reggie to Tupac Shakur--an obvious attempt to deal with the description of the initial suspect (who was not said to look like Tupac, but was wearing a 2Pac necklace).

After the statement was signed, LaToya's charges of assault on a public servant and failure to produce I.D, as well as her outstanding warrants, were all suddenly dropped, and she was sent home from the homicide office. She never saw a jail cell. When the arresting officer was questioned at Reggie's trial about what happened to the charges, he said he didn't know.

Even with Mayberry's coerced statement, investigators needed one more person to point the finger at Reggie to shore up their case. So the detective called up Robert Blanton and asked him to come to his office so they could talk about a murder. The officer assured Robert that he wasn't a suspect in the case, and even sent a squad car to pick him up.

According to Robert's testimony, upon arriving at the homicide office, the detective changed his story and told Robert that if he didn't sign a statement against his brother, not only would he get locked up on murder charges, but his pregnant girlfriend would be locked up as well.

Just like LaToya, Robert was terrified and signed the statement. Just like LaToya, Robert recanted his statement at trial--a statement that, again, was typed by the detective, and not only used terms that weren't part of Robert's vocabulary, but also listed his age and Social Security number incorrectly, and placed the scene of the murder at a different location than the Stepping Stone Apartments.

Despite these inconsistencies, the detective had what he needed. On April 14, Reginald Blanton--at the age of 18--was arrested for the murder of his friend Carlos Garza.

The Trial

Civics classes and our introduction through popular television series like Cops teach us that all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. In reality, a defendant is presumed guilty. After all, he wouldn't be there sitting at that table unless he had done something wrong, would he?

In the case of Carlos Garza's murder, Reginald Blanton was sitting at the defense table despite the fact that not a single shred of physical evidence connected him to the crime.

In fact, the only physical evidence investigators had come up with should have ruled out Reggie altogether. When Carlos's door was kicked in, a shoe print was left behind. Also taken into evidence were the shoes Reggie wore the day of the murder. The problem for the prosecution is that Reggie's shoes were two sizes smaller than the footprint on the door, and the tread patterns clearly didn't match.

Though Blanton's court-appointed trial lawyers were aware of this fact, they refused to bring it up in court. We may live in the age of CSI, but in the real world, many defendants are charged and convicted not based on objective forensic evidence, but rather on coerced confessions, jailhouse snitches and unreliable eyewitness testimony.

Speaking of jailhouse snitches, one always seems to turn up in cases where actual evidence is scant, and they are rewarded handsomely for their information.

In Reggie's case, no murder weapon was ever found, and there were no eyewitness accounts, so the prosecution found a complete stranger to testify that Blanton had bragged to him about the murder. For his part in sending Reggie to the death chamber, the snitch received a one-year, time-served deal for a number of felony cases pending in several counties and states.

The fact that things like this remain legal stands as further evidence that the so-called justice system in this country isn't interested in putting the right person behind bars--just in putting someone behind bars.

With the three coerced statements in hand, prosecutors made their case that Blanton had not only killed Garza, that he'd done so while robbing him of jewelry, making the charge capital murder, punishable by death.

When Reggie testified that the jewelry he supposedly stole from Carlos was, in fact, his, the prosecution scoffed. When a mutual friend, Ronald Marshall, produced photographs of Reggie wearing the jewelry two-and-a-half months prior to Carlos' death, the prosecution's story changed: Carlos lent the jewelry to Reggie, but Reggie gave it back to Carlos, and then went back and stole it.

The prosecutors never explained why Reggie would go through the trouble of killing his good friend in order to take jewelry he had been lent weeks before. But they didn't need to--Reggie was sitting at that table, so he must be the guy who did it.

The Texas Shuffle

Prosecutors do not like Black people on juries. As recently as 1986, it was legal to strike potential jurors simply for being Black. The U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and tried to change that, but prosecutors still have tactics to keep African Americans off juries, and in Reggie's case, they pulled out all the stops.

First, when they saw too many Blacks in the front of the jury pool, they requested (and were granted) three "jury shuffles." This maneuver is an obscure rule that only exists in Texas. Basically, it allows lawyers on both sides an unchecked pass to judge prospective jurors primarily based on their skin color or gender.

Despite the legal status of the jury shuffle in Texas, there have been cases where it was ruled discriminatory by federal courts. In June 2006, for instance, the high court cited the jury shuffle as one of the discriminatory tools used by prosecutors in a 19-year-old Dallas County death penalty case it overturned. Even in Blanton's case, the federal courts agreed that the shuffle was unacceptable discrimination--but shockingly, did nothing to fix the situation.

The three shuffles by prosecutors successfully moved most of the African Americans to the back of the line, making them unlikely even to be interviewed to serve since a jury is usually found before complete panel is interviewed. In this case, jury selection did make it to the Blacks in the pool. But the prosecutor found excuses, supposedly having nothing to do with race, to strike all of them. The courts went along with this as well, and as a result, there was not a single African American on Reggie's jury.

With their African American-free jury set, prosecutors argued their case with the only evidence they had: coerced statements from Robert, LaToya and the jailhouse snitch, and testimony that Reggie had pawned some jewelry for about $80 shortly after Carlos's death (some of which he was wearing in those photographs the prosecutors were stunned to be presented with).

Even with this thin evidence, the jury found Reggie guilty and sentenced him to death. In reality, Reggie never had a chance. He couldn't depend on the lawyers that the rich and middle class retain. His only hope, like the hopes of other poor people, lay with often-incompetent appointed counsel or over-worked public defenders.

You Have the Right to Be Ignored

Death row in Texas is where people are sent to die, and the conditions are perfect for it. The cells are small and dingy. The inmates are kept in solitary confinement 23 hours of each day. They are treated poorly and fed worse than animals.

Reginald Blanton, however, has refused to die in his cell. "One thing is for certain," he says. "I will never give up, nor will I stop being a voice for my brothers and sisters on death row. I know who I am and my value to my community, and will fight this to the end."

And he has done just that. Reggie personally presented his court-appointed appellate attorney, James Scott Sullivan, with approximately a dozen critical issues in the categories of: wrongfully admitted evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, perjured testimony, ineffective assistance of counsel, mitigating evidence, insufficient investigation and actual innocence. He followed up with letters, begging his lawyer to file appeals, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. (Sullivan also failed to return phone calls for this story.)

After realizing his efforts with his attorney were getting him nowhere, Reggie compiled carbon copies of all the letters he sent to his court-appointed lawyer and mailed a 50-page filing to the appellate court himself, notifying the court of Sullivan's refusal to represent him, while requesting for the court to hear his ignored issues. The court also ignored his plea.

Finally, in a last ditch effort to have his interests represented in his appeal, Reggie sent the same filing to the American Bar Association, which is supposed to investigate claims of professional misconduct among lawyers. After viewing the complaint, the ABA stated, "If your case involved a court-appointed attorney, court appointments are exclusively under the authority of the appointing cour, and the Board cannot take any action to remove or replace a court-appointed attorney."

Ironically, this response placed Reggie right back in the same court that was ignoring him.

The Eleventh Hour

Despite the glaring lack of evidence and court-acknowledged racial discrimination in jury selection, the blood-soaked wheels of Texas justice continue to steam forward.

Now, with less than a month left until Reginald Blanton is scheduled to be poisoned with lethal chemicals that have been deemed too cruel to use on dogs, the governor of Texas is the only man who has the jurisdiction to save his life. However, history has proven that elected officials in Texas are either too scared or too callous to step up on their own. Justice will only come from forcing the governor's hand through media exposure and public outcry.

One woman who knows this as well as anyone is Reggie's mother Anna Terrell. At a recent rally to save Reggie's life, she pleaded with Gov. Rick Perry, "At least have my son's case looked into before it's too late."

But the state of Texas isn't interested in looking into cases. Once they have their verdicts, no matter how they get them, they're satisfied that justice has been served.

Just ask the presiding judge on the highest court for all criminal matters in Texas. Sharon Keller of the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has clearly stated that "finality [of a judgment] is important," and that she is "absolutely" bound to follow the law even if it means an unjust result. Translated, this means that if someone has a strong innocence claim, but is also out of appeals or is being ignored by a court-appointed attorney, he or she is out of luck.

Does that sound like justice? What if that someone was you?

In this case, that someone is 28-year-old Reginald Blanton, a real person with a mother who loves him; a real person with dreams and aspirations; a writer; a self-taught law student; a flame of inspiration.

How can we, in good conscience, let that flame be extinguished, knowing there is even the possibility that he is innocent? The simple answer is: we can't. Now, we just have to convince one more person that Reggie's life is worth something. Hopefully, Mr. Perry is listening.

Further Reading

From the archives