Life for Quintero


On September 21, 2006 Juan L. Quintero was pulled over by a police officer and arrested for driving without a license. The officer cuffed Quintero’s hands behind his back, searched him, and put him in the back of his patrol car. Then the officer got into the front of his patrol car. Quintero shot the officer seven times in the back, killing him. He was still sitting in the back of the patrol car when more police arrived.

On May 20, 2008 a Harris County, Texas jury, given the choice between sentencing Quintero to death and sending him to prison for life without parole, chose life.

The officer’s family is very upset:

“We’re just very upset,” said Lorraine Crawford, mother of the slain officer’s widow, Joslyn Johnson.

“We wanted the death penalty,” Crawford said. “He had nothing but malice in his heart.”

She added that the jury did not seem to understand the difficulty of a police officer’s job.

The officer’s brother, David Johnson, was in the courtroom with his wife, Donna Mack, when the sentence was announced. He said he and his wife also had wanted to see Quintero sentenced to death.

“He shot him four times in the back, three times in the head,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe that. What’s mitigation?”

You might be very upset too, if your loved one had been killed. Which is why families of complainants aren’t the ones to decide whether killers get death.

The usual gang of idiots commenting on the Chronicle article are understandably outraged at the jury for finding sufficient mitigation in this case. (You might be outraged at the jury too, if you were an idiot.)

But how is it possible, you might ask, that an illegal alien with a criminal record who shoots a Houston cop in the back, killing him, gets life in prison without parole instead of death?

In order to sentence a person to death a jury must unanimously answer “yes” to two questions. First, the future danger special issue:

Whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society.

The state has the burden to prove future dangerousness beyond a reasonable doubt. In Quintero’s case, the State had a pretty compelling argument that a guy who can, while cuffed in the back of a patrol car, kill a cop will always be a danger to society.

The jury answered the “future danger” question in the affirmative, and moved on to the mitigation special issue:

Whether, taking into consideration all of the evidence, including the circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s character and background, and the personal moral culpability of the defendant, there is a sufficient mitigating circumstance or circumstances to warrant that a sentence of life imprisonment without parole rather than a death sentence be imposed.

A unanimous “no” answer to the mitigation special issue would have resulted in a death sentence. Any other answer, or an inability to answer, would have — and did — result in a sentence of life in prison without parole.

This decision — whether there are sufficient mitigating circumstances, all things considered, to warrant a sentence of life in prison — calls for an intensely personal moral judgment.

Mr. Quintero’s lawyers, Danalyn Recer (who was my cocounsel in my capital case in Victoria County last year) and David Lane, prepared the jury for this very personal, almost sacred decision. They compared this decision to the other personal moral judgments that people have to make — what religion to believe, or how to raise our children, for example — and showed both the pro-death and anti-death jurors that it was not okay for one person to tell another what her personal moral judgment should be.

I’m not familiar with the mitigation facts in this case; neither are the Chronicle’s UGOI. Ms. Crawford or Mr. Johnson may have been, but I don’t suppose that any mitigating circumstance or circumstances would seem sufficient to the humans whose loved one had been murdered.

There was evidence in Quintero’s case of traumatic brain injury caused by a fall and a football injury. The evidence was presented at the culpability phase of the trial under the guise of insanity evidence. But Quintero’s lawyers knew that more and more people are willing to consider the effect of brain injury on personal moral culpability; by presenting brain injury evidence in the first part of the trial they front-loaded a key piece of mitigation evidence.

So how is it possible? Excellent lawyering, clearly.

But also this verdict reflects the Harris County citizenry’s growing weariness with the death penalty, and their maturing acceptance of LWOP as an alternative to death — in other words, it reflects evolving standards of decency. UGOI notwithstanding.

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0 responses to “Life for Quintero”

  1. I have been of the opinion for a long time that as soon as Texas got Life w/o parole, far fewer juries would be willing to give death. When a jury learns that the only people to whom a defendant can be a future threat are other prisoners, the answer to issue one is much harder to answer yes.

    Is that a good thing? If the object is to project society at the least cost, then the answer is also yes. There will still be cases where the jury will give death, ie. serials or multiples, maybe children, but far fewer than in the haydays.

    I really feel badily for the family of slain police officers, but in the long run, they are better off. The 15 to 20 years of waiting for that closure is really over now.

    The decision to seek death will not be easier for Chuck’s successor, it will be infinitely more complicated and selective and that’s a good thing.

  2. Jigmeister,

    I think that the consensus about LWOP was that it would result in fewer death penalties, which is why Chuck lobbied against it (something Kelly Siegler, campaigning, called “wrong”). Interestingly, though, in Quintero the jury apparently (according to its notes) found future danger.

    Of course it’s a good thing that juries have an option that causes them to use the death option less often. The jury, the conscience of the community, should not have its options limited.

    This case might give Chuck’s successor some pause in seeking the death penalty.

    Or it might serve as an case study in “letting the jury decide,” except that letting the jury choose life is so much more costly than the DA making that tough call himself.

  3. Mark:

    I hope you Texas lawyers do send information like this to the papers so that people who read the article can be educated about closure and about mitigation.
    We should all be doing it with our newspapers and tv.
    I was blessed to have a student years ago who started an organization in Philadelphia called Families of Murder Victims or something like that, after her daughter was stabbed by her boyfriend, one of the sex pistols when both were high on drugs and she bled to death. This woman turned her grief into service to other families with grief. They met and shared and cared about each other, since the D.A.’s office did not show any care about their feelings at all. They developed a consensus over time against the death penalty. It did not bring their loved ones back, and it only made life worse for them. The D.A. still didn’t listen to them.
    The families of police officers appear to make careers out of calling for the death penalty in some cases, such as Mumia Abu Jamal’s case. Maybe their victim books make them money, but screaming for death does not bring them peace or happiness.

    Do the Christians teach forgiveness any more?

  4. Clean it up, Mark. I’m sick and tired of people who I agree with calling people I disagree with idiots. Show respect for other viewpoints.

    This case reminds me of the yogurt shop murder trials, in which one of the defendants got life and the other got death (they were tried separately, of course). The idea that two different men were deserving of two different penalties for commiting the same heinous crime is hard to get your head around if you’re not familiar with the sentencing factors for death.

    There are lots of reasons to oppose the death penalty, in my opinion. The chief one for me is no man should intentionally kill another man. But another one is, is death a penalty? As a personal note, I’m slowly recovering from a hemorrhagic stroke (which makes typing a lot of fun, let me tell you) and spending most of my spare thinking time wondering whether I’ll make it to 50 now (I’m 47). One of the few advantages is knowing I won’t have to spend much time in prison if I do get a life sentence. Consider, also, the kid who killed a child in Vegas and pleaded out to life in prison. His new lawyers tried to withdraw his plea, but weren’t successful. If they had been, the death penalty was on the table. Is that what he wanted? If you were in your mid-twenties and healthy, which would sound better to you — die in prison sixty years from now, or two weeks from next Thursday? (And didn’t the boxcar murderer tell his judge that he wanted the death penalty after he was convicted?)

    Maybe the jury was telling HC they didn’t want to see any more innocent people get death, though it sounds like that wasn’t a danger here. Or, maybe, the Christians on the jury were willing to leave vengeance to their God like the Bible says. Because if there is a jury box in the sky, I think its verdicts will be right a lot more often than the ones on Earth.

  5. Mark,
    I agree in part and disagree in part with your post. I violently disagree with the posters on the Chronicle who would like to somehow attribute Quintero’s actions to all illegal immigrants. To me that’s just ridiculous racism. That being said, I don’t think that the posters who are mortified by this verdict are idiots. I’m pretty mortified with it, myself.

    As far as attributing it to “good lawyering”, I don’t think so. You are more on point with saying it is reflective of society’s attitude toward the death penalty. You can’t put Danalynn Recer in the same caliber of attorney as Denise Bradley, John Jordan, and Lyn McClellan.

    I’m sure you will counter with “oh yeah, well then look at the verdict”, but seriously, dude.

    One point about Chuck opposing the LWOP. My understanding at the time was that he opposed it as a THIRD option. Some wanted there to be a regular “Capital Life”, where a Defendant could parole out in 40 (like in the old days), the Death Penalty, and the LWOP. If I recall correctly, Chuck’s position was that it should either be Life or Death, whether “Life” meant 40 years or LWOP. Just not both.

  6. Your right Mark that the mitigation question provided an escape avenue for the jury, but under the old law, juries with these facts would have voted no on issue 2. I do think that there is a general, albet slow direction change in the philosophy of the public.

  7. AHCL:

    It’s apparent to me that some good lawyering must have taken place for a capital defendant to get a LWOP sentence in Harris County. When was the last time a jury didn’t sentence a cop killer to the death penalty in Houston? I mean, seriously, dude.

    You have a high opinion in a lot of the Harris County DAs, and IMO a low opinion of the defense attorneys who go up against them. In my experience, the defense lawyers have a much harder job. Trials for indigent defendants are always stacked against their lawyers, and heinous crimes make that even worse. The facts of this case were horrific, and the urge to write the defendant off as a monster has to have been practically insurmountable. It reminds me of your list of Siegler trials on your blog several weeks ago. What are the difficulties with proving a heinous crime that made you say Kelly’s defendants would not be in prison (or dead) if she hadn’t prosecuted them?

    Of course, a societal change in the death penalty probably has something to do with the verdict — and that also means the HCDA played a part, since that office has done more than any other county DA in the state to color most Texans’ view of the death penalty.

  8. Gee, Michael–the defesne lawyer has a harder job than the prosecutor in a case where a cop is killed by an illegal? Well golly I wonder why that is?

  9. It’s because it’s harder to defesne than it is to prosecute.

    The sentencing hearing would be even harder for the defesne than the prosecution too. I would predict a prosecution win 100% of the time. Well, not anymore.

    But I don’t want to sound like I’m happy the defesne lawyers won and the prosecutors lost. I’m happy that justice was served.

  10. I, for one, am proud that 12 citizens chose not to kill a human being. Nothing beneficial would have come from it. Killing people to “send messages” is morally indefensible.

  11. If there was any “excellent lawyering” by the defense, it happened during jury selection, when they managed to pick 12 people who were predisposed against the death penalty from the beginning.

    The “traumatic brain injury” you allude to was a complete farce from the beginning. Even the defense “expert,” a doctor who for some strange reason had to be flown in from out of town despite our surplus of local health care specialists, testified on cross that the MRI and PET Scans of Quintero’s brain were completely normal and showed no signs of injury. Other civilian witnesses for the cop-killing defendant testified that he seemed bright, intelligent, and normal, which prompted Recer, who evidently hadn’t woodshedded her witnesses sufficiently, to tell the judge she wasn’t ready to call her next and request a recess.

    The case is yet another great example of the conflict of ideals among death penalty abolitionists. The same folks who cry for “truth” and routinely accused police officers and prosecutors of lying have no compunctions about bludgeoning or strangling the truth when it suits their agenda. While Mark is correct that the mitigation decision is a personal one (and, BTW, their VERDICT of yes said he was a future danger — I don’t think we need to deduce that from their notes, do we?) and we will never know what each juror considered mitigating, it should be of no comfort to anyone on either side of the debate that the major piece of mitigating evidence, the phantom traumatic “brain injury,” was nothing but a big fat lie.

  12. Tarian

    The Chronicle reports this:
    “Gur said tests reveal Quintero’s brain is irregular and that irregularity may have contributed to psychological problems.”

    Now we could argue over the validity of that testimony but I think saying it was “nothing but a big fat lie” is not really an accurate statement.

  13. Ron,

    I’m sure that’s what the Chronicle said, but this guy admitted on cross examination that his opinion was based on his own theory and involved comparing Quintero’s brain to a sampling of “normal” brains that consisted of — how many? — 22, that’s TWENTY-TWO so-called normal brains. That’s not a very big sample for scientific purposes. This theory he advanced was his own, untested idea (which, not-coincidentally, has made him very valuable as an expert witness in criminal prosecutions). No control group, no way of testing the validity. Again, he admitted on cross that MRI’s and other scans of Quintero’s brain showed no sign of irregularity or injury. So his opinion were tenuous and speculative at best…fabrications at worst.

    Had the State offered that kind of junk science, a 702 hearning would have kept it out, and if not, the case would have been reversed for admitting it. But out of an abundance of caution, the judge let it in for the defense. If the prosecutors had tried that crap, the defense team would have been screaming to high heaven about medical fraud. But here they advanced it as if it were hard science. And don’t tell me they’re just lawyers, not doctors, and don’t know any better. You don’t need an MD to smell BS.

    There’s been some discussion of late on this blog (and yours, too, Ron) about determinism, free will, etc. We are all different, are born different, and experience different events during our lives. There’s no denying that some folks have the deck stacked against them early on in terms of opportunities. But in a world where we control almost nothing, we do control something important: Our free will. We can’t control our circumstances, but we can control how we respond to those circumstances and the choices we make. Quintero’s choice should have landed him on death row.

  14. A 702 hearing? You mean like all the “Intoxilyzer” or “Breathalyzer” results that get kept out from DWI cases because of the flawless science behind them? I don’t know about the science behind the defense expert’s testimony, but I have a firm opinion about the usefulness of Rule 702 when it comes to excluding machines that the State uses to create, rather than evaluate, evidence.

    Do you realize the irony of the last sentence in your last paragraph? Yes, we can control the choices we make in response to our circumstances. That is why we should not murder Quintero.

  15. I cannot fathom why they still use the “future danger” issue when the question is LWOP v. Death. What could it possibly matter whether there is a probability that a defendant could commit future criminal acts (which, of course, there always is, so this is just a chance for prosecutors to scare jurors)?

  16. Tarian,

    That you, a lawyer, think an accomplished and recognized academic is a “fraud” is only a testament to how deep the rot of anti-intellectualism has penetrated our society. You might prefer an HPD crime lab “expert,” but I’ll take a real scientist any day of the week. His methods and results have been peer reviewed and are accepted by the scientific community in his field. The bottom line is that your assessment of the scientific evidence carries no weight.

    You wrote: “Quintero’s choice should have landed him on death row.”

    Why? What would it have accomplished? It’s time to take the death penalty off the table altogether. The loved ones of murder victims will always be pressured to support the highest legal penalty available as an expression of the strength of their love and measure of their loss. If vengeance killings are completely off the table, then victims’ families can support and feel vindicated by such extreme punishments as life without parole, which, as “the ultimate penalty,” would no longer be considered “getting away with it.” Do you really think the level of hatred and vehemence spewing from the UGOI at the Chronicle forums is reflective of a healthy society? Verily, Jesus would roll over in his grave (if he had one, that is).

  17. Thank you all for commenting. What an embarrassment of riches.

    Anna, the papers are reading this blog, but my opinion doesn’t speak quite as loudly to them as the verdict of those 10 jurors choosing not to kill Quintero.

    Michael, thank you for sharing news of your stroke. Recover quickly and fully. Meanwhile, can we at least agree that there are some viewpoints that are unworthy of respect? For example: that the Quintero jurors are “gutless idiots” for not answering the second special issue “no”?

    AHCL, clearly you know racism when you see it (where the Hell did that post go, anyway?). Nothing wrong with being upset with the verdict. People shouldn’t kill cops, and we reflexively want to hurt people at least as badly as they hurt us. But you don’t think that answering the mitigation question “no” would have required some sort of bravery, do you?

    I really don’t think it reflects very well on you when you snipe at other lawyers from the cover of anonymity. What would your mother think? Danalyn is not the lawyer I would choose to defend me if I had a shot at an acquittal, but if the government had me dead to rights and was trying to stick a needle in my arm she’d be at the top of my list. She is a one-trick pony who keeps the government from killing people; she did so in this case against what we all thought were extraordinarily long odds.

    Your understanding of Chuck’s opposition to LWOP is incorrect. In ’05 he opposed LWOP as a replacement for life wit’. Not that the position you revisionistically ascribe to him would be any more reasonable — why shouldn’t a capital jury have a wider range to consider?

    Jigmeister, I agree that Quintero would probably have been sentenced to death had LWOP not been an option.

    Michael, interesting point that the HCDA has contributed to the public’s shifting attitudes toward death. Thank God we haven’t sent any innocent people to death, right?

    SC, do you have a point there somewhere? Would you prefer we took our VI Amendment and went home?

    Michael, the prosecutors won too: justice was done.

    PJ, still the primal instinct to hurt those who have hurt us lives on.

    Tarian, if I recall correctly jury selection is part of the trial. In fact, it might be a kinda important part of the trial, but I’m not going the one to educate you about how a death penalty case should be defended in the 21st Century. David Lane and DLR are the ones to go to for that education, and I don’t think they’ll tell you.

    Ron, funny thing about TBI: it can cause personality changes without being visible on a scan.

    Tarian, you should recognize that “we do control something important: our free will” is an article of faith, rather than a statement of fact. You believe it (a) because you want to believe it, and (b) because it seems that way to you, just as the ancient Greeks believed that Apollo rode his chariot across the sky from east to west every day. (I keep wanting to write that post, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a book rather than a blog post.)

    There’s been some mention here of Christianity. Can you shed some light on what you think Jesus would have done in the jurors’ position, and why?

    Bill, I can’t fathom how a jury can find a person will be a danger to society when locked in prison for the rest of his life. But I’d rather give the jury two questions to answer, so that they have two chances to spare my client’s life.

    PJ, questioning what death will accomplish isn’t done in execution-world. It obviously serves to “show how we value life” or “hold someone accountable” or “give the dead guy’s life meaning.”

  18. Mark,
    I don’t like my anonymity any more than you do, but we both know it’s necessary for the time being. I’ll make you a promise, that I will “out” myself in about seven months and nine days. Deal?

    It could quite possibly be the biggest moment in Internet History since the creation of “You Tube”. Mark your calendars, folks.

  19. Well, I suppose if I seem craven, it’s a good thing I’m anonymous then.

    Let those that I’ve cast aspersions upon gather their rocks and patiently wait to the end of the year.

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