This article from the New York Times is an excellent example of why it is important that capital punishment cases are allowed extensive legal appeals, even when those appeals take years.
Though our organization is a strong supporter of capital punishment, expressed on our website and through our book about it, Capital Punishment & Catholic Social Teaching: A Tradition of Support, we support it as expressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
An excerpt from the Times article.
When Iris Morgenstern, an English teacher, remembers her former student Robert Avila, she pictures the towering El Paso teen squeezing a tiny dropper of food into the mouth of a scrawny newborn kitten.
“Robert is just a really gentle, kind soul,” she said.
That is why, more than a decade after he was convicted of stomping to death his girlfriend’s 19-month-old son in a fit of jealousy, she still cannot believe that he is facing execution. Now, after years of fighting to prove his innocence, Ms. Morgenstern and Mr. Avila’s legal team hope a new law will give the death row inmate a chance for a new trial and the opportunity to prove his innocence.
In the last legislative session, in the wake of dozens of exonerations in recent years based on advances in forensic science, Texas lawmakers approved Senate Bill 344. The first law of its kind in the nation, it allows courts to grant defendants new trials in cases in which forensic science has evolved. On Friday, Mr. Avila’s lawyers filed a motion under the new statute arguing that recent developments in biomechanical science that were unavailable at the time of their client’s 2001 trial indicate that Nicholas Macias’s death may have been the result of an accident….
The Navy veteran, then a 28-year-old with no criminal background or history of violence, contended that he was innocent and that he had been out of the room when the baby was injured. He said he learned that the baby had stopped breathing when the older child, a 4-year-old who had been fixated on televised wrestling shows, came into the living room where Mr. Avila was watching TV and told him that he had held his hand over his little brother’s mouth. Mr. Avila’s trial lawyers suggested that some other adult may have caused the fatal injuries.
Jurors rejected the notion that the only other person in the house at the time — the toddler — could have caused such damage. Dr. George Raschbaum, a pediatric surgeon, explained that the baby’s injuries were so severe that the 4-year-old could have caused them only if he had jumped from a height of 20 feet….
At the end of a three-and-a-half-day trial, the jury found Mr. Avila guilty and sentenced him to death.
Ms. Crawford, Mr. Avila’s court-appointed lawyer, said that after his previous appeals failed she hired a scientist to examine the evidence that doctors used in 2001 to determine the child’s cause of death. In an April 2013 affidavit, Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist, wrote that only a few scientists understood the importance of biomechanics in child deaths at the time of Mr. Avila’s trial.
“It is mandatory and in the interest of justice for a qualified physicist or biomechanician to perform the appropriate tests, quantifying the potential forces required to cause Nikki’s intra-abdominal injuries,” he wrote.
Dr. Chris Van Ee, a biomedical and mechanical engineer who specializes in using impact biomechanics and accident reconstruction to identify the causes of injury, performed a laboratory experiment in May 2013. Using information from the case, he set out to determine whether a child jumping about 18 inches from a mattress onto an infant could cause fatal injuries.
“Results from the testing indicate that a child approximately the size of Nicholas’s older sibling jumping off of a bed landing feet first onto another child’s abdomen could produce abdominal impact forces as large as 400-500 lbs.,” Dr. Van Ee reported, concluding that such an accident could have caused the child’s death.