One day in the Fall of 2001, I toured portions of the Mountain View Correctional Unit with my undergraduate social sciences club. As we stood in front of the Correctional officer’s reception desk by the psychiatric unit, I could hear several women’s voices from the cells located inside. One voice was unmistakably that of Darlie Routier, a woman who was on death row after having been convicted of the murder of her 5 year old son. How was it possible I could hear the voice of a death row inmate while I was standing at a reception desk in the facility?
The six women who are currently on death row in Texas are housed at the Mountain View Correctional Unit in the small town of Gatesville, Texas. The unit is operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and is located 4 miles north of central Gatesville on Farm to Market Road 215. A ride along a rural country road and down a long winding driveway brings you to the campus that is comprised of 4 one-story red brick buildings. But for the evenly placed guard towers, chain link fence, and razor wire, the complex looks much like a college campus.
The Mountain View unit houses prisoners who fall into the full range of custody levels from G-1 through G-5, Administrative Segregation, and Death Row. The G-1 through G-5 classification system covers offenders who may live in dormitories and require minimal supervision through those who must live in cells and be guarded by armed personnel.
At Mountain View, many of the general population offenders are housed dormitory style. They have a dayroom for television viewing, and are allowed to walk freely within the confines of the prison area when going to the chow hall, work assignments, and visitation. One of the employment opportunities within the prison is a braille transcribing operation where the prisoners are taught to use specialized equipment to transcribe textbooks into braille.
There is also a small chapel on the campus where I was once allowed to attend a college graduation ceremony. On this rare occasion, I was allowed to mingle freely with the inmates who served punch and cookies to guests. Later, I learned one of the inmates serving cookies was a serial killer named Genene Jones, better known as the Serial Killer Nurse. Jones was given a 99 year sentence so she is not a death row inmate.
Death row offenders are housed separately from the general population in single-person cells measuring 60 square feet. The death row area of the prison is located in a one story red brick building just inside the gate near the front parking lot. This building also houses twenty cells for the prison’s mentally ill offenders. The psychiatric unit is separated from death row by a reception desk for the Correctional offices, and gates. Death row is identified by a sign in block letters painted on the white brick wall above the black metal grate doors.
This facility has only been home to the women on death row since September 2000. Not long ago, Karla Faye Tucker, the infamous Pickax-killer-turned-Christian, was housed in the old death row facility where two women shared each cell. Tucker shared her cell with Pam Perillo who spent 20 years on death row before her conviction was overturned and she was granted a new trial. Rather than face the possibility of again being convicted and sentenced to death, Perillo took a plea deal and was removed from death row.
During our 2001 visit to the campus, we also toured the old death row building where the cells were arranged in a square configuration with a common area that was directly visible from each cell. Death row inmates are allowed to work in the prison but are not required to do so. Those who do work do so in the death row common area. The doors to each cell were metal with open grates that allowed prisoners in their cells to talk to those working in the common area. The configuration of the new death row prevents those who are in their cells from talking to those who are in the common area.
The women on death row spend up to 23 hours in their cells and leave only for an hour of recreation, visitation, and to shower. Those who choose to work are rewarded with additional recreation time and are allowed to eat their meals outside their cells.
When a death row offender leaves the cell, her hands are handcuffed and her feet are shackled. Two guards must escort each woman when she leaves the death row area. For visits, the death row inmate is brought into a white metal box with a secure glass divider so they can see and hear the visitor, but cannot have any physical contact with the visitor – no hugs, kisses or hand-holding. Death row inmate visitations do not coincide with general offender visitation.
Current Death Row Inmates
The 6 women currently on death row in Texas range in age from 42 to 58 years old. Three are Caucasian, 2 are African American and 1 is Hispanic. The newest convict on death row has been there 4 years while the longest serving has been there 21 years. Two have been convicted of killing one of their own children.
Kimberly Cargill was 45 years old when she was received on death row on June 7, 2012. She is Caucasian and completed 12 years of formal education. Cargill was convicted of the June 8, 2010 murder of her son’s mentally challenged caregiver, Cherry Walker. The state contended that Cargill killed the caregiver to prevent her from testifying against Cargill at a Department of Child Protective services hearing. Cargill testified that Walker had a seizure while they were returning home from a restaurant. Cargill said she panicked, and doused the woman with lighter fluid and set her on fire. Cargill’s direct appeal was denied in November of 2014.
Melissa Lucio was 40 years old when she was received on death row on August 12, 2008. She is Hispanic and completed 11 years of formal education. Lucio was convicted of the February 17, 2007 beating death of her 2½-year-old daughter, Mariah Alvarez. EMT’s responded to a call at Lucio’s apartment and found the child was not breathing. When the EMT’s cut off the child’s shirt to resuscitate her, they observed purple and green bruises across her body. Lucio was arrested with Robert Alvarez, and they were tried separately. While being questioned by police, Lucio claimed that she was the only one who ever spanked Mariah. The court of Texas Criminal Appeals denied her direct appeal in 2011. Her state application for a writ of habeas corpus was denied in January 2013. She also filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Linda Carty was 43 years old when she was received on death row on March 7, 2002. She is African American and holds British Citizenship, has completed a year of college, Carty was convicted of the May 16, 2001 kidnapping and murder of Joana Rodriguez. Chris Robinson, Gerald Anderson, and Carlos Williams broke into the Rodriguez home and kidnapped Joana and her three-day old baby. Joana was bound, her head was covered with a plastic bag that was taped closed, and she was placed in the trunk of a car where she suffocated to death. Two other people present in the home at the time of the break-in were beaten, bound and left in the residence. Carty claims that she was framed for the murder by drug dealers in retaliation for her work as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Carty’s conviction was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The United States Supreme Court denied her petition for a writ of certiorari. In February 2015, in response to a new appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted a new hearing to assess recently uncovered evidence in the case.
Brittany Holberg was 25 years old when she was received on death row on March 27, 1998. She is Caucasian and has completed 11 years of formal education. Holberg was convicted of the November 13, 1996 robbery and murder of A. B. Towery, Sr. Towery was stabbed nearly 60 times with multiple instruments including a paring knife, grapefruit knife, fork, and butcher knife. He was also struck with a hammer and then a lamp pole was shoved down his throat. Holberg confessed to killing Towery, but at trial claimed she killed him in self-defense after he discovered her crack pipe, became enraged, and struck her. Holberg’s conviction was upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals, and all other state appeals have failed to reverse her sentence or conviction. She is pursuing a federal appeal.
Darlie Routier was 27 years old when she was received on death row on February 5, 1997. She is Caucasian and has completed 12 years of formal education. She was convicted for the June 6, 1996 stabbing death of her 5-year-old son, Damon Routier. Her 6-year-old son Devon was also killed in that attack but she was not tried for his murder. Routier claimed that an intruder broke into the home and stabbed her and her sons as they slept. The State asserted that Routier stabbed her sons and her wounds were self-inflicted. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction. Routier has lost several rounds of appeals but as recently as April 2015 a state court ordered additional forensic testing in the case.
Erica Sheppard was 21 years old when she was received on death row on April 25, 1995. She is African American and has completed 12 years of formal education. She was convicted of the June 30, 1993 robbery and murder of Marilyn Sage Meagher. Sheppard and co-defendant James Dickerson saw Meagher carrying things to her apartment, and decided to rob her and steal her 1993 Mazda 626. They followed her into the apartment where Dickerson slashed her neck. She was still alive so Sheppard held her down while Dickerson wrapped her head in plastic to smother her, and then struck her with a 10 pound statue. The pair fled in Meagher’s car. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction. Sheppard is pursuing a federal writ of habeas corpus.
In addition to the 6 women currently on death row, 6 women have been put to death in Texas since the state resumed executions in 1982.
Karla Faye Tucker, executed on February 3, 1998, was the first woman to be put to death in Texas since 1863. She was on death row for 14 years before being executed and was 38 at the time of her death.
Betty Lou Beets, 62, was executed on February 24, 2000 after being on death row for over 14 years.
Frances Elaine Newton, 40, was executed on September 14, 2005, and was on death row for 17 years.
Kimberly LaGayle McCarthy, 52, was executed on June 26, 2013, and was on death row for 15 years.
Suzanne Margaret Basso, 59, was executed on February 5, 2014, and resided on death row for over 14 years.
Lisa Ann Coleman, 38, was executed on September 17, 2014 after having been on death row for 8 years.
Texas Death Row Appellate Process
The following discussion of the appellate process is a brief overview and is not exhaustive.
There are several methods of appeal available in death sentence cases in Texas. These include a direct appeal, a state habeus corpus application, a federal habeus corpus petition, and a request for clemency.
A direct appeal is one in which the conviction and sentence are appealed after trial to a state appellate court. In some states, this appeal is mandatory in any case where the death sentence is imposed. In Texas, the defendant is not required to file a notice of appeal. Rather, the District Court clerk where the trial was held is required to file a notice of conviction with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals within 30 days from the date the sentence was imposed. Tex. R. App. Proc. 25.2(b). This is required because Texas law provides that “[t]he judgment of conviction and sentence of death shall be subject to automatic review by the Court of Criminal Appeals.” Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art 37.071 §2(h).
Texas law further provides that the trial court must appoint an attorney to represent an indigent defendant in the appeals process. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art 26.052(j). Even though counsel is appointed, the defendant is not required to participate in the direct appeal, but she may do so. For instance, although the trial court clerk is responsible for sending the clerk’s record to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the defendant may also request in writing that the transcript or electronic recording of the trial be submitted to the appellate court. In addition, the parties may submit briefs after the appellate record has been filed with the court, and the defendant is entitled to have at least two attorneys participate in oral argument if there is one. The Court of Criminal Appeals is not required to hear oral arguments. Tex. R. App. Proc. 39.
In the direct appeal, the defendant is appealing, and the Court of Criminal Appeals is reviewing, only those matters that were raised during the trial. During this appeal, the appellate court is not looking at any allegations of matters outside the trial record.
The Court of Criminal Appeals may uphold or reverse the conviction, the sentence, or both. In the event that the conviction and sentence are upheld, the defendant may file a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. In order to seek Supreme Court review, the defendant must raise a federal question. In other words they must assert that one of their federal constitutional rights has been violated, or that the state court did not apply federal law correctly. Supreme Court review is completely within the Court’s discretion and is rarely granted.
The state and federal habeas corpus proceedings are generally referred to as the post-conviction appellate process. This is the part of the appeals process where the defendant can raise issues about things that did not occur during the trial. The types of claims raised during the habeas process include the ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, juror misconduct, newly discovered evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, and the state’s failure to turn over evidence that may have supported the defendant’s case.
In Texas, the initial application for a writ of habeas corpus must be filed within 180 days after the District Court appoints counsel to assist an indigent defendant to apply for a writ, or within 45 days from the date the state files its brief in the direct appeal, whichever date is later. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art 11.071, § 4(a). The Court of Criminal Appeals is the court of original jurisdiction for a habeas proceeding meaning they decide the matters raised in the application. However, the District Court must first review the application. They may request further evidence be presented by the parties and hold evidentiary hearings. The District Court then issues findings of facts and conclusions of law. The Court of Criminal Appeals is not bound by those findings and conclusions. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art 11.071,et seq.
After exhausting the direct appeal and state habeas corpus appeal, a defendant may file a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court. The defendant must be raising a federal constitutional claim that was raised in the state appellate process, or a claim based on new evidence that was not known to the defendant previously. The U.S. District Court judge may dismiss the petition, overturn the conviction, or overturn the sentence.
The U.S. District Court decision may be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals only if the Court of Appeals grants permission to file the appeal. If the Court of Appeals denies relief, the defendant may file a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court.
The final avenue for relief is executive clemency. In Texas, an application for clemency is filed with the Board of Pardons and Paroles. An inmate may request a full pardon, a partial pardon, or a pardon based on innocence. If a majority of the members of the Board agree and issue a written recommendation for clemency, the Governor then decides whether to accept or reject the recommendation. In Texas, the Governor does not have the authority to commute a sentence unless the Board of Pardons and Paroles has so recommended.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, http://tdcj.state.tx.us/
Wikipedia, multiple articles
Texas Condemned Women Get New Home, http://amarillo.com/stories/2000/09/13/tex_getnewhome.shtml#.V8RkGa18FRB
Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy in State Death Penalty Systems: The Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Report, http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/death_penalty_moratorium/tx_complete_report.authcheckdam.pdf
Woman on Texas Death Row Loses State Court Appeal, http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2014/11/19/woman-on-texas-death-row-loses-state-court-appeal/
Dallas Observer, Deathtrap, http://www.dallasobserver.com/news/deathtrap-6406470
Process for Federal Habeas Corpus, http://www.doj.state.or.us/victims/pdf/pcp_handout_federal_habeas_corpus.pdf
Capital Punishment in Context website, http://www.capitalpunishmentincontext.org/resources/dpappealsprocess
*Amy Ward is the President and CEO of Investigative Results. Amy holds a Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice and Political Science. Amy is proud veteran of the United States Army. Investigative Results is licensed by the department of Texas Department of Public Safety PSB, License # A15203.