Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Scary Possibility

By Jenna Jackson

A man who has been on Death Row here in Texas for nearly 30 years could be getting out.

Jonathan Bruce Reed (pictured left) was convicted and condemned for the November 1978 rape-slaying, of Wanda Jean Wadle at her Dallas apartment. But, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled Dallas County prosecutors improperly excluded black prospective jurors from Reed’s trial and ordered him released unless prosecutors choose to retry him quickly.Prosecutors haven’t yet decided if they will re-try him. They say they need time to “dissect” the opinion, according to a story by Mike Gracyk of the Associated Press. The real question will be, CAN they re-try him? After 30 years, it’s hard to imagine what, if any, evidence remains preserved. Witnesses are probably dead or gone, and who knows if the victim’s family is even still around.

If they are—this is a terrible day for them. They probably thought this case was closed, even though the man a jury said was responsible hasn’t yet been executed.It seems it was pretty much the policy of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, at the time, to exclude black people from a jury in the belief that blacks empathize with defendants. Reed is white – but the Constitutional efforts remain the same.“Although we do not relish adding a new chapter to this unfortunate story more than 30 years after the crime took place, we conclude that the Constitution affords Reed a right to relief,” a three-member panel of the New Orleans-based court wrote in the ruling posted late Monday.

Reed has been on death row since September, 1979 making him among the longest-serving prisoners awaiting execution in Texas.
The 5th Circuit said Reed’s case mirrored the capital murder case of Thomas Miller-El, on Texas death row for nearly 20 years until the Supreme Court overturned his verdict, citing racial discrimination during jury selection. Miller-El last year took a life prison sentence as part of a plea deal.

In that case, the Supreme Court cited a manual—written by a prosecutor in 1969 and used for years later, that advised Dallas prosecutors to exclude minorities from juries. Documents in Miller-El’s case described how the memo advised prosecutors to avoid selecting minorities because “they almost always empathize with the accused.”

“Reed presents this same historical evidence of racial bias in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office,” the 5th Circuit panel said.It is a sad statement on our culture at the time that racial bias would be all but policy in one of the state’s largest district attorney’s offices. And I’m certain it wasn’t the only office in the state that followed such ridiculous notions. Thankfully, at least in most sectors, that sort of racial bias and ignorance is no longer tolerated.It does seem clear that—based solely on the racial bias issue, the Court had no choice but to overturn this case. The scary part is that it doesn’t seem like there was much doubt that Reed was the guilty party.

Reed, now 57, was identified as the man who attacked Wadle and her roommate, Kimberly Pursley, on November 1, 1978. He’d apparently entered their apartment by posing as a maintenance man. Pursley survived an attempted strangulation by feigning unconsciousness. Two other residents identified Reed as the man they saw in the apartment complex just before the time of the attack.

I’m sure nearly everyone in Texas knows the story of when serial killer Kenneth McDuff (pictured left) was released. McDuff was first convicted of three rapes and murders that took place in 1966. He was given the death penalty, but his sentence was commuted in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment. He was released on parole in 1989 due to prison overcrowding.That release had disastrous consequences.

He began killing again a year after his release. He was arrested for the murder of 22-year-old Melissa Ann Northrup , and was suspected in at least three other murders. McDuff was eventually sent back to death row and executed November 17, 1998.

It seems to me that the only good solution in this case will be if prosecutors have enough evidence left to convince Reed to take a plea deal, similar to Miller-El’s, that will keep him locked up.I don’t know much of anything about Jonathan Reed, but anyone who has spent nearly three decades on death row has had to learn to adapt in order to survive. And those same adaptation skills don’t transfer into too many careers on the outside.

It’s a scary possibility that he could be released into the free world and left to his own devices.


Anonymous said...

There should be a statute of limitations on the time frame an appellate or supreme court can rule on a case.

I just read yesterday where the Federal Supremem Court ruled that evidence in a search & seizure [in an Alabama case] was admissible, even though there was police error and the evidence should have been ruled inadmissible.

I think our system is pretty screwed up when you can get off on minor technicalities.

jigmeister said...

Striking blacks, not minorities in general because not all were seen to be weak on punishment, was an unwritten rule throughout the south until 1985 when the Supreme Court decided the Batson case. Up until that time, the court's position was that jury diversity was only required on grand juries. Even then, it took another 20 years for all of the various ways Batson would be applied to filter down to the trial court level. I'm afraid that it was perhaps the biggest failing of the criminal justice system in the last 100 years and is still occurring to some extent. It was perhaps inevitable given our history.

I think Batson, amongst other factors is changing the philosophy of punishment; in some instances, for the better, and in others, for the worse.

As a prosecutor, I always felt relieved to try a white person because Batson wasn't as big an issue, but even that proved wrong.

And you are right about the difficulty of retrying any case that old. Chances are it can't be done.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Anon said: "There should be a statute of limitations on the time frame an appellate or supreme court can rule on a case".

Really? When it can take a decade in some states like CA just to get an appeal lawyer for a first appeal? And the right wing cranks on the SCOTUS keep making demented rulings which wreck the processes used to date to proceed through cases?

Anonymous said...

I know the sister of Wanda Wadle and I am so upset with our judicial system. I am sick at the thought of what her sister and the surviving witness is going through right now!!! The man is a murderer and I cannot believe they would free a man who was proven guilty 2 times for her murder. Reed was already on parole when he committed this act. What do you think he will do when he gets many people will he have to kill before they will put him to death. I wish Bush was still our governor...I bet Mr. Reed would have gotten what he deserves!!!!

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