San Antonio Express News

Rebeca Chapa: Inmate a perfect case for innocence panel

San Antonio Express-News

Last week, I wrote about a bill moving through the Texas Legislature that would create an innocence commission to review wrongful convictions. Such a body is much needed in Texas, where 28 men have been exonerated since 2001 using DNA analysis.

Nationwide, that number is 200, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. So it should be clear that innocent people are being convicted and sent to prison.

In some cases, it appears they may be sitting on death row.

Consider the pitiful case of Cesar Fierro, who has been on death row since 1980 for the murder and robbery of El Paso taxi driver Nicholas Castanon.

Fierro, who was not considered a suspect until months after the February 1979 murder, was convicted on the basis of two things: the shaky testimony of an alleged co-conspirator and his own confession, which many now conclude was coerced.
Gerardo Olague, a juvenile thief with a spotty psychological profile, told police months after the murder that he and Fierro together had planned to rob Castanon.

He also said that Fierro surprised him by shooting Castanon.

Fierro, whose landlord testified the accused was home on the night of the killing, confessed to the crime because he was told his mother and stepfather would be tortured by the police in a jail in Ciudad Juárez, where they lived.

After his parents were released from the Juárez jail, Fierro recanted.

At the time, the detective in the case testified that he did not know whether Fierro's parents were in a Juárez jail, so he could not possibly have used that information to extract a confession.
But many years later, the detective, Al Medrano, signed an affidavit stating that he did know Fierro's parents were being held in the jail.
In other words, he acknowledged that that information was available to force a confession out of Fierro.

The prosecutor in the case, Gary Weiser, told the Chicago Tribune in 2000 that he would have agreed to suppress the confession if he had known about the police misconduct.

Without that confession, Fierro would not be sitting on death row today.

In 1995, an El Paso district court judge recommended a new trial based on the evidence of police misconduct. The following year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that the coerced confession did point to constitutional error, but that no "harm" had been committed.

And so the confession stood.

"If Fierro is executed, it will be because a technicality allowed the authorities to coerce a confession from him and then get away with it," writes David R. Dow, author of "Executed on a Technicality" and one of Fierro's attorneys.

Another of Fierro's attorneys, Richard Burr of Houston, said his client's situation is untenable and that he has gone insane during his nearly three decades on death row.

"Tragedy has just struck this case at every turn," Burr said. "There is so precious little evidence of his guilt."

Fierro's case is wrapped up in a larger set of cases involving 51 Mexican nationals who were denied consular access in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, according to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

President Bush ordered new state hearings for the Texas prisoners based on that ruling, but a Texas court ruled that the president overstepped his authority and is pursuing the executions anyway.

In addition to the other problems in Fierro's case, he also did not receive access to the consulate. If he had, such officials could have determined whether his parents were indeed being held in a Juárez jail.

Fierro's execution date has not been set, but unless the court system decides to reverse itself after years of denying him a new trial, he likely will be executed.

Texas took in a man at age 23 whose guilt is not at all certain and sentenced him to the ultimate punishment.

He is now 50.

"His life has been destroyed and he's horribly mentally ill," Burr said. "He's in hell."

Death Penalty Issues
Innocent Imprisoned

Truth in Justice