Court grants Texas man a stay of execution just before his scheduled lethal injection

Legal Insight 2024/07/17 12:39   Bookmark and Share
The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for a Texas man 20 minutes before he was to receive a lethal injection Tuesday evening. The inmate has long maintained DNA testing would help prove he wasn’t responsible for the fatal stabbing of an 85-year-old woman during a home robbery decades ago.

The nation’s high court issued the indefinite stay shortly before inmate Ruben Gutierrez was to have been taken to the death chamber of a Huntsville prison.

Gutierrez was condemned for the 1998 killing of Escolastica Harrison at her home in Brownsville in Texas’ southern tip. Prosecutors said the killing of the mobile home park manager and retired teacher was part of an attempt to steal more than $600,000 she had hidden in her home because of her mistrust of banks.

Gutierrez has sought DNA testing that he claims would help prove he had no role in her death. His attorneys have said there’s no physical or forensic evidence connecting him to the killing. Two others also were charged in the case.

The high court’s brief order, released about 5:40 p.m. CDT, said its stay of execution would remain in effect until the justices decide whether they should review his appeal request. If the court denies the request, the execution reprieve would automatically be lifted.

Gutierrez, who had been set to die after 6 p.m. CDT, was in a holding cell near the death chamber when prison warden Kelly Strong advised him of the court’s intervention.

“He was visibly emotional,” prison spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez said, adding he was not expecting the court stay. “We asked him if he wanted to make a statement but he needed a minute.”

“He turned around to the back of the cell, covered his mouth. He was tearing up, speechless. He was shocked.”

She said Gutierrez then prayed with a prison chaplain and added: “God is great!”

Gutierrez has had several previous execution dates in recent years that have been delayed, including over issues related to having a spiritual adviser in the death chamber. In June 2020, Gutierrez was about an hour away from execution when he got a stay from the Supreme Court.

In the most recent appeal, Gutierrez’s attorneys had asked the Supreme Court to intervene, arguing Texas has denied his right under state law to post-conviction DNA testing that would show he would not have been eligible for the death penalty.
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Boston lawyer once named ‘most eligible bachelor’ is sentenced to 5-10 years

Legal Insight 2024/07/14 16:39   Bookmark and Share
A former Boston lawyer and prosecutor who was once named one of People magazine’s most eligible bachelors was sentenced Monday to between five and 10 years in state prison for rape.

Gary Zerola, 52, was found guilty last month after a jury deliberated for five hours and has been incarcerated since then. He was acquitted of a greater charge of aggravated rape and burglary.

Prosecutors said that Zerola, in January 2021, paid more than $2,000 for a night of drinking with a woman he was dating and her 21-year-old friend who’d just graduated from college. The friend became intoxicated and had to be helped back to her Beacon Hill apartment. Zerola later entered the apartment without permission and sexually assaulted the woman around 2 a.m. while she was sleeping, prosecutors said.

In a victim impact statement that was read in court, the woman said she’d tried desperately to not allow the incident to affect her, or to give Zerola any power over the rest of her life. But she said that participating in the trial had brought up “the significant and insidious effect this event has had on my life.”

“For months after the incident, I experienced nightly recurring nightmares reliving the assault. Even today, I still have nightmares of someone breaking into my apartment and trying to assault me,” the woman wrote. The Associated Press does not generally name victims of sexual assault.

“These cases are always difficult, and this victim deserves enormous credit for taking the stand and telling the jury what happened to her that night,” Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden said in a statement after the verdict.

Zerola’s attorney Joseph Krowski Jr. said Monday that his client is appealing the conviction. He said the sentence wasn’t what they wanted, but was within or close to the recommended guideline range for somebody without a previous criminal record. He pointed out that Zerola had been acquitted on two of the three original charges.

Krowski Jr. said his client was doing “as well as could be expected under the circumstances” and was going to put his time to good use and come out of the experience for the better.

Zerola had previously been accused of other sexual assaults but wasn’t convicted in those cases. He had faced two rape charges in Suffolk County and was acquitted in 2023, according to the district’s attorney’s office. He also was charged in three sexual assault cases between 2006 and 2007, but was not convicted.

Zerola worked as an assistant district attorney in Essex County for one year, and in Suffolk County for two months in 2000, according to former District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ office. He was arrested in January 2021.
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A US appeals court will review its prior order keeping banned books

Legal Business 2024/07/08 15:23   Bookmark and Share
A federal appeals court in New Orleans is taking another look at its own order requiring a Texas county to keep eight books on public library shelves that deal with subjects including sex, gender identity and racism.

Llano County officials had removed 17 books from its shelves amid complaints about the subject matter. Seven library patrons claimed the books were illegally removed in a lawsuit against county officials. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled last year that the books must be returned. Attorneys for Llano County say the books were returned while they appeal Pittman’s order.

While the library patrons say removing the books constitutes an illegal government squelching of viewpoints, county officials have argued that they have broad authority to decide which books belong on library shelves and that those decisions are a form of constitutionally protected government speech.

On June 6, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split three ways on the case, resulting in an order that eight of the books had to be kept on the shelves, while nine others could be kept off.

That order was vacated Wednesday evening after a majority of the 17-member court granted Llano County officials a new hearing before the full court. The order did not state reasons and the hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled.

In his 2023 ruling, Pitman, nominated to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, ruled that the library plaintiffs had shown Llano officials were “driven by their antipathy to the ideas in the banned books.” The works ranged from children’s books to award-winning nonfiction, including “They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group,” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; and “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health,” by Robie Harris.

Pitman was largely upheld by the 5th Circuit panel that ruled June 6. The main opinion was by Judge Jacques Wiener, nominated to the court by former President George H. W. Bush. Wiener said the books were clearly removed at the behest of county officials who disagreed with the books’ messages.
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The Supreme Court strips the SEC of a critical enforcement tool in fraud cases

Court Watch 2024/07/02 10:45   Bookmark and Share
The Supreme Court on Thursday stripped the Securities and Exchange Commission of a major tool in fighting securities fraud in a decision that also could have far-reaching effects on other regulatory agencies.

The justices ruled in a 6-3 vote that people accused of fraud by the SEC, which regulates securities markets, have the right to a jury trial in federal court. The in-house proceedings the SEC has used in some civil fraud complaints, including against Houston hedge fund manager George Jarkesy, violate the Constitution, the court said.

“A defendant facing a fraud suit has the right to be tried by a jury of his peers before a neutral adjudicator,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s conservative majority.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who read from her dissent in the courtroom, said that “litigants who seek to dismantle the administrative state” would rejoice in the decision.

Federal agencies that oversee safety in mines and other workplaces are among many that can only impose civil penalties in in-house, administrative proceedings, Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan.

“For those and countless other agencies, all the majority can say is tough luck; get a new statute from Congress,” she wrote.

The case is among several this term in which conservative and business interests are urging the nine-member court to constrict federal regulators. The court’s six conservatives already have done so, including in a decision last year that sharply limited environmental regulators’ ability to police water pollution in wetlands.

Still awaiting decision are cases calling on the court to overturn the 40-year-old ruling colloquially known as Chevron, which has made it easier to sustain regulation of the environment, public, health, worker safety and consumer protection. Some of the same parties that supported Jarkesy at the Supreme Court are calling for Chevron to be overturned.

The SEC was awarded more than $5 billion in civil penalties in the 2023 government spending year that ended Sept. 30, the agency said in a news release. It was unclear how much of that money came through in-house proceedings or lawsuits in federal court.

The agency had already reduced the number of cases it brings in administrative proceedings pending the Supreme Court’s resolution of the case.

The high court rejected arguments advanced by President Joe Biden’s Democratic administration that relied on a 50-year-old decision in which the court ruled that in-house proceedings did not violate the Constitution’s right to a jury trial in civil lawsuits.

The justices ruled in favor of Jarkesy after the SEC appealed a decision in which the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out stiff financial penalties against Jarkesy and his Patriot28 investment adviser.

The appeals court found that the SEC’s case against Jarkesy, resulting in a $300,000 civil fine and the repayment of $680,000 in allegedly ill-gotten gains, should have been heard in a federal court instead of before one of the SEC’s administrative law judges.
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