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Death Watch: 501 and 502

After a short break, Texas resumes executions

By Jordan Smith, Fri., July 12, 2013

Death Watch: 501 and 502

Just four days before Thanksgiving 2002, John Quintanilla walked into the Action Amusement Center in Victoria, Texas, wearing a mask and gloves and brandishing a high-powered rifle. He was there to rob the place, but things went sideways. When retired law enforcement officer Victor Billings, there with his wife Linda, tried to intervene, Quintanilla shot him three times in the chest, killing him. On July 16, Quintanilla is set to become the 501st inmate executed in Texas since 1982.

Quintanilla was picked up on Jan. 14, 2003, on a warrant from another county for an unrelated robbery. He was read his rights and questioned, first about the robbery and then, later, when Victoria police showed up, about the amusement center slaying. Although a Victoria investigator again read Quintanilla his rights, he failed to tell him that he would be provided an attorney if he could not afford one. Quintanilla never invoked his right to counsel and ended up making a statement that connected him to Bil­lings' murder. He was then charged, convicted, and sentenced to death for the slaying.

On appeal he argued that the statements he made should have been excluded from evidence because of the failure of the cops to read a portion of the Miranda warning. Moreover, he's argued that his trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence that might have convinced the jury to impose a life sentence instead of death. Those claims have been rejected by the courts. Quintanilla was Miran­dized multiple times before the Victoria detective delivered a subsequent, and faulty, admonition – one that was not required by law. And he specifically declined to let his lawyers present any mitigating evidence during the punishment phase of his trial; indeed, he said during a post-conviction hearing that he wanted the death penalty, if found guilty.

Just two days after Quintanilla's scheduled execution, the state is set to execute Vaughn Ross, who would be the 10th inmate executed this year.

Ross was convicted in September 2002 for the murder of Viola Ross (no relation) and Douglas Birdsall. The pair was found murdered in Birdsall's car, which was found abandoned in a ravine in Lubbock. Inside the car, police found glass from a car window, several .38-caliber shell casings, and the tip of a latex glove; in an alley just yards from Ross' apartment, police investigating a call of shots fired found glass, blood, and a shell casing – one that matched those pulled from Birdsall's car. A day later, Ross accompanied his girlfriend, Viola's sister, to the police station where he told police he did not get along with Viola, and had argued with her the night she was murdered. Ross consented to a search of his apartment, where police found latex gloves and a bloodstained sweatshirt; the blood matched Birdsall's, according to court records.

On appeal, Ross argued, in part, that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial attorneys had failed to investigate and present evidence of the criminal history of his former girlfriend, Regina Carlisle, whom Ross pleaded guilty to assaulting in 1997. Carlisle said Ross had stabbed her and stolen her car; police found that Carlisle had numerous stab wounds, including a laceration to her neck that was potentially life-threatening, according to court records. Ross argued that Carlisle's criminal history might have served to undermine her credibility. He also argued that his attorneys failed to present mitigating evidence that might have spared his life. On both counts the appellate courts disagreed, affirming Ross' conviction and death sentence.

On July 18, he would be the 502nd inmate put to death in Texas since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1982.

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