The U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in Gongora v. Thaler is available in Adobe .pdf format.
The Texas Tribune posts, "Court Reverses Death Row Inmate's 2003 Conviction." It's by Maurice Chammah.
A man sentenced to death for the 2001 murder of another man in Fort Worth has had his case overturned by a federal appeals court.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with attorneys for Nelson Gongora that prosecutors in his 2003 murder trial should not have suggested to the jury that Gongora's decision to not testify indicated his guilt.
In their decision Wednesday, the 5th Circuit judges wrote that repeated comments by the Tarrant County prosecutor about Gongora's lack of testimony violated his right to a fair trial. The 5th Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to not testify at trial and in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this meant a prosecutor could use a decision to not testify as evidence of guilt. The lead prosecutor in Gongora's case, J.D. Granger, did not return a call requesting comment.
Gongora remains on death row while the Tarrant County district attorney's office decides whether to try him again. "It's premature to determine how we're going to proceed," said Melody McDonald, the office's spokeswoman.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest criminal court, wrote in 2006 that the prosecutors’ comments were “inartful and often confusing,” but did not violate Gongora’s rights. A federal district judge said in 2007 the prosecutor should not have made the comments, but that they did not affect the jury’s decision.
On Wednesday, however, the 5th Circuit, which reviews appeals from all Texas death penalty cases, wrote that the prosecutor’s comments were “repeated and direct violations” which were “both inexplicable and inexcusable.” In context, the court said, the comments might be read as the prosecutor’s attempt to correct his initial mistake, but over time they served to “reinforce the impression of Gongora’s guilt.”
"Courts Overturn Three Capital Murder Cases," is Jordan Smith's report in the Austin Chronicle.
In that case, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit concluded that the conviction and death sentence handed to Nelson Gongora in 2003 should be vacated, and the case handed back to the district to retry or to dismiss. In its ruling, the court concluded that Tarrant County prosecutors made impermissible comments to the jury about Gongora's failure to take the stand in his own defense, a clear violation of his Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled as a witness. "We find that the extraordinarily extensive comments on Gongora's failure to testify resulted in actual prejudice," the panel ruled.
Gongora was among a handful of men indicted for the 2001 robbery and murder of Delfino Sierra. Gongora was indicted for capital murder in the case, though at trial prosecutors argued that he was either guilty of the robbery and shooting or that he was a participant in the robbery during which Sierra was shot by one of Gongora's cohorts. The result, it seems was confusing: "The jury heard sharply conflicting evidence regarding Gongora's role in the offense, including evidence that the shooter may have been someone other than...Gongora" or a co-defendant, Albert Orosco, reads the Feb. 27 opinion. One witness testified that she didn't see who did the shooting, while others pointed their fingers in several different directions, before ultimately ending up on Gongora – including a witness indicted for the crime but, after agreeing to testify against Gongora, given a plea for 20 years, and a promise that he would not be prosecuted for a second shooting, a fact about which the Fifth Circuit seemed none too amused.
Ultimately, though, prosecutors pointed out that only Gongora did not testify, implying that meant he was the guilty party. Over repeated objection by the defense, prosecutors continued to point out that he failed to take the witness stand. The trial judge declined to grant a mistrial and later rejected Gongora's direct appeal. Texas' Court of Criminal Appeals also ultimately rejected Gongora's argument that the constant comments violated his Fifth Amendment protections. The "complained-of comments appear to be the prosecutors attempt" to comment on the failure of some other witnesses to testify, the CCA concluded. The comments were "not so blatant" that they would have prejudiced the jury, the CCA ruled.
Not only was the CCA wrong, the Fifth Circuit has concluded, but to "conclude otherwise" that the comments did not violate the Fifth Amendment "empties all meaning of this cornerstone of rights upon which our criminal justice system rests," the panel ruled. "Its very centrality renders it a primer rule – etched in the minds of all players in a criminal case. Single episodic violations wil creep in, but repeated and direct violations are both inexplicable and inexcusable. Certainly not excusable by ignorance or inexperience." Not only was the evidence against Gongora fairly weak, the panel noted, but based on notes from the jury during their deliberations, it appears they focused on who and who had not testified – just as prosecutors had suggested they should.