"Federal habeas courts do not sit to correct errors of fact but to ensure the individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution."

-- Collins v. Herrera, 754 F.2d 1029 (5th Cir. 1992)

Last Words from Death Row

by Norma Herrera

Norma Herrera lived her brother Leonel Herrera's personal hell as he waited on Death Row for the courts to decide if the new evidence that proved his innocence would save his life. To fulfill her last promise to Leo -- to tell his story, to tell the truth -- Ms. Herrera has authored Last Words from Death Row.
Last Words from Death Row

In Last Words from Death Row (Nightengale Press, ISBN 1-933449-29-2, $19.95) Ms. Herrera writes:

On February 16, 1992, Applicant filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. He showed that he had important and compelling evidence of his innocence and argued that because of his innocence it would violate the United States Constitution to execute him. ... Collins v. Herrera, 754 F.2d 1029 (5th Cir. 1992). The Fifth Circuit held that, based upon Supreme Court precedent, innocence did not provide a basis for federal habeas corpus relief.

In 1993, the court ruled in Herrera vs. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993) that a prisoner cannot simply argue in federal court that new evidence points to his innocence. He first must prove that his trial contained procedural errors (the technicalities that may free the guilty but also protect the innocent). In this case, Leonel Herrera had been convicted of shooting two police officers. Ten years later, he submitted affidavits from witnesses who said that his now-dead brother had been the killer (one witness was his brother's son, who says he saw the murders). Without considering the statements, the court told Herrera to sit down and shut up. "Federal habeas courts do not sit to correct errors of fact but to ensure the individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution," it said. In other words, being falsely imprisoned is not a violation of your rights. Herrera was executed four months after the ruling.

Last Words from Death Row documents court events and press coverage, and calls into question the landmark decisions that sent her brother to his death. In the book, Ms. Herrera recounts the tribulations she and her family suffered as they worked to free Leonel Herrera from his fate. In his last words, Leonel Herrera said: "I am innocent, innocent, innocent. I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight."

If all the court proceedings, including the Supreme Court's decision prior to Leo's execution represent the visible tip of the death penalty iceberg, Last Words from Death Row exposes the enormous human tragedy that resides below the surface. Her questions drive a powerful wedge between the legal process in capital cases and the truth. Why do the guilty go unpunished? When is innocence not enough to free a convicted man? Does Truth not prevail in the American Justice system? Who pays? Who is next?

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