Death Watch: Expert Opinion

Appeal alleges Dr. Death perjured himself at killer's trial

Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas
Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas (Courtesy of TDCJ)

It was just after 10 pm on October 14, 1997. Lera Lich was reading the newspaper when she looked up to see Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas on the porch outside the bedroom she shared with her husband, Glen, in their home on rural property in Kerr County.

Not long before, Glen had left the house with Hernandez-Llanas, who had been living on the property and doing manual labor for the couple. Now, Glen was not with him and Hernandez-Llanas was covered in blood and carrying a knife. He attacked Lera and raped her repeatedly, demanded money for the return of her husband, and rifled through her jewelry; according to court records, he threatened to kill both Lera's daughter and elderly mother, who were asleep in other rooms in the house. Finally, Hernandez-Llanas fell asleep on the bed next to Lera. She extracted herself from his grasp and fled to a neighbor's home to call police. When they arrived, Hernandez-Llanas was still asleep. He fought police, but they were finally able to get him into custody. Behind a generator shed on the property, police later found Glen; his head had been bashed in with a crowbar discarded next to his body.

Hernandez-Llanas was tried for the murder, and in February 2000 received the death penalty. He is scheduled for execution on April 9, when he would become the sixth inmate executed this year and the 514th executed in Texas since reinstatement of the death penalty.

Among the arguments on appeal, Hernandez-Llanas' attorneys have claimed the Mexican national is ineligible for execution because he is mentally retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing the mentally impaired offends the constitution, but has allowed the individual states to devise their individual systems for determining whether an inmate is so impaired as to be spared the ultimate punishment.

Hernandez-Llanas grew up in a ramshackle shelter erected on a toxic dump on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo; he suffered severe abuse at the hands of his mother – who regularly beat him, including into unconsciousness; he never could master even simple tasks – like sorting glass that his family members scavenged from the dump; and was ultimately kicked out of school in the third grade because he was deemed incapable of learning. As an adult, Hernandez-Llanas repeatedly scored below normal on IQ tests. When considered all together, it is clear that Hernandez-Llanas is mentally impaired, his lawyers have argued.

The state disagrees. None of the IQ tests was administered until after Hernandez-Llanas was arrested, so there's no way of knowing if he has been impaired his entire life. Moreover, they argued that the fact that he scored low may be attributed to the fact that he lacked formal education and grew up in poverty, not because he's actually impaired. They also suggested that Hernandez-Llanas – who they noted was smart enough to try to deceive police about his role in Lich's murder – was malingering in order to skew the results of the IQ testing.

As expected, each side has attempted to bolster its position through the use of experts. Indeed, during the punishment phase of Hernandez-Llanas' trial the state called to the stand the late, and notorious Dr. James Grigson – a.k.a. Dr. Death – who claimed he could predict with 100% accuracy whether a defendant facing capital punishment would pose a "future danger" if not sentenced to die, one of the questions jurors in capital cases must answer and that, in the affirmative, leads to a death sentence. Grigson was excoriated in part because he claimed he could make these determinations without ever examining a defendant, and based only on information provided to him by a prosecutor. He was eventually expelled by the American Psychiatric Association for his unethical conduct, though prosecutors continued to employ him and judges continued to allow him to testify before jurors.

In the case of Hernandez-Llanas, Grigson testified that although he had never examined the defendant, he was "absolutely" certain Hernandez-Llanas would pose a future danger. Hernandez-Llanas was not mentally ill or mentally retarded, he asserted, but simply a "sociopath."

Ultimately, the courts have agreed with the state, ruling that Hernandez-Llanas has not been able to show that he is retarded and thus protected from execution.

But in a subsequent appeal filed March 28, Hernandez-Llanas' lawyers argue that Grigson perjured himself at their client's trial, exaggerating his experience, his neutrality, his ability to determine future dangerousness and, importantly, lying about the reason he was booted from the APA. The appeal was not brought sooner, reads the filing, because Hernandez-Llanas relied on the state to bring to his attention the fact that the testimony was false, which is its duty.

The appeal, filed with the Court of Criminal Appeals, argues that the inclusion of the false testimony violates Hernandez-Llanas' due process rights and seeks to have the case remanded for a hearing on the issue.

Notwithstanding this last appeal, the legal road to Hernandez-Llanas' execution has been cleared – though whether he'll be allowed to know the source of the drugs used in his lethal injection is still unresolved.

Hernandez-Llanas and fellow death row inmate, serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, filed suit in Travis County district court last week, arguing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice must release to them information about the source of the drugs the state intends to use to carry out their lethal injections. The district court agreed, as did the 3rd Court of Appeals, ruling that the information should be made available to the inmates, but could, at least for now, be kept from the general public. Access to execution drugs has been contracting, as drug-makers have been shying away from being connected to the practice of killing inmates. The state has sought to keep the information confidential in part as a means of shielding its source from threats of violence from abolitionists. (Notably, the Associated Press this week reported that it has turned up "scant" evidence of actual threats against execution-drug makers.)

The state promptly appealed the lower court decisions, and on March 28 the Texas Supreme Court granted a stay blocking enforcement of the ruling. Lawyers then sought and received a stay from a federal district court, which ruled the information must be released; the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

Sells was executed Thursday evening, just after 6 pm. Hernandez-Llanas' execution is set for next Wednesday, April 9.

"TDCJ's continuing attempt to fight disclosure of this information seeks to bend the law to shield their actions from the light of day," Maurie Levin, one of the lawyers representing Hernandez-Llanas and Sells in the action, said in a statement. "This kind of extreme secrecy prevents our courts from being able to ensure that executions are carried out in a humane manner, in full compliance with all state and federal laws."

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death penalty, capital punishment, Death Watch, Lera Lich, Glen Lich, Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, mental retardation, James Grigson, courts, criminal Justice

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