Judge keeps British grandmother on Texan death row despite doubts over conviction
By Clive Stafford Smith
Reprieve’s Founder and Director
Last week a Texas court denied British grandmother Linda Carty a new trial and refused to throw out her death sentence. Remarkably, the judge took the decision despite finding that the prosecution had hidden crucial evidence from the defence.
Linda was sentenced to death in Houston, Texas, in 2002 for the abduction and murder of 25-year-old Joana Rodriguez. Barring a reprieve, she stands to be the first British woman executed since Ruth Ellis in 1955 – sixty-one years ago.
Linda’s case was always a bizarre one. The purported motive for the crime was her desire to kidnap Ms Rodriguez to take her unborn child. The prosecution’s gory but utterly incredible theory was that Linda was going to cut the baby out of the pregnant Ms Rodriguez, because she desperately wanted another baby.
If the theory had been true, it would have been evidence of a serious mental illness. It patently was not true – the two were neighbours, and Linda certainly knew that Ms Rodriguez had already given birth. But Linda’s notoriously inept trial lawyer was so ineffective that he did not even point out that the scissors introduced to the jury had rounded ends – they were bandage scissors that Linda had bought for her daughter, who was setting out on a career in nursing.
Linda would have been executed by now but for newly discovered evidence that casts serious doubt on her conviction. The prosecutors knew most of this evidence in 2002, but they unilaterally decided that it was not credible – so it was not heard at Linda’s initial trial.
The judge who finally heard the evidence earlier this year disagreed. He found that the prosecution knew a veteran special agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Charles Mathis, had been ready and willing to testify that Linda had helped him solve a number of cases. He would have told the jury that she was not the kind of violent person who would commit a violent crime.
This glowing character reference, which could have convinced the jury to spare Linda’s life, was not heard at her trial – because the prosecutor falsely claimed that Mathis did not want to speak to the defence team.
Even worse was that the judge found a key state witness, Marvin Caston, had been “promised that he would not get prison time if Carty received the death penalty”. But the prosecution failed to tell the defence this. Imagine an influence such a promise could have on the witness’ willingness to lie to save his own skin – and what the jury might have made of it.
The prosecutors also failed to share numerous witness statements with the defence until years after her trial, and only when compelled to during appeal proceedings. The judge found that with one key witness, Chris Robinson, “the State should have known that each of the statements of Robinson could be used to impeach him at trial.” In other words, his testimony was highly dubious.
And yet despite all this, and more, the judge found that the result of Linda’s case – a conviction and death sentence – would not have been different. I have spoken with jurors in scores of capital cases in the US and I have often found that the jurors feel as betrayed when they have been denied such vital information in making a life-or-death decision.
One positive aspect of Linda’s terrible injustice is that the British government has been uncommonly active on her behalf, particularly the local consular officers. The UK government has intervened in court to challenge the unfairness of the conviction, and Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan immediately issued a press release after the latest decision, lamenting that: “We have long held concerns about the handling of Ms Carty’s case and will continue to raise these with the relevant authorities.”
This is a welcome contrast from another capital case of a British citizen, Andargachew Tsege, who was sentenced to death in absentia in Ethiopia. Last week, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson posted a fatuous letter on line telling us all that “Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions…”
That is pure nonsense, since the UK government routinely files legal pleadings setting out why a particular conviction is unsafe – just as they have intervened many times in foreign courts to support corporations in their claims for money. I simply cannot believe that the UK government is so dedicated to cosying up to the authoritarian and illegitimate government of Ethiopia that they are willing to ignore the fact that there is no meaningful system of law there at all. We were told months ago that Andy would be given a lawyer, yet even that has not been forthcoming in the two years that he has spent under an illegal death sentence.
We must keep pressuring the Foreign Office to do more against the death penalty, and help reverse the injustices done to people like Linda and Andy.