Did Death Row Inmate Linda Carty Get a Fair Trial?
Trafalgar Square, just a stone’s throw from the very center of the British capital, is an expanse of paved sidewalk, pretty fountains and, most notably, five statues. The central statue is of Admiral Lord Nelson, after whose infamous 1805 sea battle the square is named; King George IV stands in one corner; two historical army generals in the others. The ‘fourth plinth’, as it’s known, remained empty for 150 years, but for the last decade or so it has been used to showcase a series of artworks. For one day in September 2009, though, it carried a cardboard cut-out of an African-American woman, while beneath it, a portable PA system broadcast her voice — calm, and with a slight Caribbean lilt — to passers-by.
“Hello Trafalgar Square,” she said. “My name is Linda Carty and I’m speaking to you from death row in Texas in the United States.”
Her name will mean little to most Texans: the arrests, charges and then sentences in the case were reported locally — but briefly — in the Houston Chronicle and a longer piece appeared in the same paper in 2010 following the Supreme Court’s refusal to review Carty’s case. But the British press had been on it for a long time. In fact, over the last eight years, thanks to news reports (in everything from broadsheets like the Independent and Guardian to tabloids like the Daily Mail and Express), magazine features, a prime time television documentary and a sustained campaign by a London-based human rights group, Carty has become something of a cause célèbre in the UK — and not just for those opposed to capital punishment. Many feel that, irrelevant of her guilt or innocence, Carty simply didn’t get a fair trial.
From the Trafalgar Square plinth, Carty’s disembodied voice continued: “I’m sorry I sound like a desperate woman but I am desperate. The British people may be my last hope. If they ask for my life to be spared, maybe Texas will listen.”
But why has a little-known inmate on Texas’s death row — one of 10 women and 311 men — got the British all a fluster?
Carty was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts when it was still a British colony. As such, Carty holds British citizenship, and under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, when she was first arrested, the British consulate in Houston should have been informed. But it wasn’t.
Carty’s journey to death row began in the early hours of May 16, 2001, and if you just heard the prosecution’s side of the story, it would seem like a cut-and-dried case:
At about 1am, four men kicked down the door of a Houston apartment and demanded marijuana and money from its three occupants: Joana Rodriguez, her husband Raymundo Cabrera, and Cabrera’s cousin, Rigoberto Cardenas. Rodriguez had only been home from hospital for a day, the proud mother of a baby boy. The four men ransacked the apartment, tied up Cabrera and Cardenas, then stole $800 in cash, taking Rodriguez and baby Ray with them.
Florence Myers, a tenant in the apartment complex told police she had seen Carty sitting in her car in the apartment parking lot the night before and the pair had chatted for a while. Myers said Carty told her she was pregnant and that the baby was going to be born the next day; she noticed an infant car seat in the back of the car, but that Carty didn’t appear to her to be pregnant.
Police immediately brought Carty in for questioning. During her interrogation she told officers she had loaned both a rental car and her daughter’s car to a group of men she believed might be involved in the kidnapping. She directed officers to a house where police discovered the two cars. In one was baby Ray, alive and well. In the trunk of the other, bound and gagged, was Joana Rodriguez. A plastic bag had been placed over her head and she had suffocated. Inside the car was baby clothes, baby blankets and a diaper bag.
Carty’s common-law husband, Jose Corona, testified that Carty had suffered several miscarriages and that she had lied recently about being pregnant. Other witnesses testified that Carty told them she was expecting a baby in May. Police said cell phone records tied Carty to the four men who had broken into Rodriguez’s apartment.
The prosecution painted Carty as a woman who would stop at nothing — even kidnap and murder — to have a baby.
I first interviewed Carty in 2004 for a story for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. It was while researching that piece that I found the case against her wasn’t as watertight as it first appeared.
From behind a glass screen at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Carty told me that when she was arrested she thought it would all be over in 30 minutes — that the police had just made a mistake; at first she didn’t even know she was a suspect. She was interviewed for several hours, most of which was without an attorney. I listened to the police interview tapes in their entirety, and throughout, Carty denies involvement, saying she lent her car to some men she knew. She tells police the names of two of them, says they are armed and dangerous and that she can take them to an address where she believes they live.
The idea that she lent her car to dangerous men she hardly knew, and that those men could have framed her, is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the 1980s, Houston had a drug problem. Jamaican gangs operating throughout the U.S. were considered the most violent in the criminal underworld. Carty, then a pharmacology student at the University of Houston, was dating a drug dealer (something of which she claims she had no former knowledge) and after a friend in the police department made an introduction, she was recruited as a confidential informant by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Her handler was a man named Charlie Mathis, who recruited and ran informants for the DEA. Carty’s task was to befriend suspected traffickers in order to get information and, occasionally, make test purchases of drugs. It was risky work. Her targets were dangerous people. But Linda would prove to be a good hire for Mathis. He trusted her and for the next 15 years Carty would risk her life for him on several occasions.
Carty claimed, therefore, that her three co-accused all had a motive to frame her – that they were members of the Houston underworld harboring a grudge. But three of the men who broke into the apartment – Chris Robinson, Gerald Anderson, Carliss Williams (the fourth has never been identified) – told police that Carty had planned the entire thing; that if they broke into the apartment and kidnapped Rodriguez and her son, they would find marijuana and cash inside. In return for testifying against Carty, Robinson, Anderson and Williams were each promised lesser sentences. None was sent to death row.
In a dramatic courtroom flourish, the State’s lawyers produced a pair of Carty’s scissors, claiming that she had planned to cut the baby out of Rodriguez’s womb. Inevitably it elicited a strong response from the jury. But these were bandage scissors with rounded ends – incapable of cutting through muscle and skin. And anyway, Rodriguez had given birth three days before the murder, something Carty surely must have known, living so close.
If Carty was faking a pregnancy and planned to pass the baby off as her own, she hadn’t mentioned being pregnant to her own daughter, Jovelle, nor her mother, Enid. As for the baby clothes in her car, Carty said she was days away from moving out of her apartment and these were the last items she’d removed – bought just before she miscarried.
Then there was the seriously questionable – some say negligent – performance by her court-appointed trial attorney, Houston lawyer Jerry Guerinot. Of the 39 people Guerinot has represented in capital murder cases, 20 have been sentenced to death. A story in the journal of the American Bar Association said he possibly held the record for the most clients sentenced to death in the U.S.
There was never any physical evidence tying Carty to the murder. And although Guerinot presented testimony from a clinical psychologist saying Carty would have been incapable of committing the crime, he failed to interview her husband, Jose Corona, he didn’t ask her DEA handler of 15 years, Charlie Mathis, to take the stand in her defence, and he didn’t object to the prosecution’s dramatic presentation of the bandage scissors either.
Crucially, he didn’t inform Corona of his right under Texas law not to testify against his own wife — something known as spousal privilege. Corona gave statements claiming the couple had broken up two weeks before the murder and that Carty had lied to him about being pregnant, essentially giving prosecutors the motive they needed (ergo she had kidnapped Rodriguez’s baby and killed Rodriguez to prove to Corona that she had given birth to his son). But it was a motive Carty claims never existed.
In mitigation, all the jury heard was a few minutes of cursory testimony from Carty’s mother, daughter and sister, in which they said she was sweet, kind, had never harmed anyone and had worked hard her whole life to put Jovelle through school. Guerinot failed to call friends, extended family, coworkers or colleagues.
Perhaps critically, he also failed to advise Carty of her right, as a citizen of St. Kitts and the United Kingdom, to consular help.
It wasn’t until the end of 2004 that the British Government finally stepped in, hiring Houston attorneys Baker Botts to represent Carty in her remaining appeals.
The law firm argued that Guerinot ‘rendered ineffective assistance’ by failing to notify Corona of his spousal privilege, and by failing to prevent additional mitigating evidence during the punishment phase.
Corona swore an affidavit saying that he thought he had no other option but to testify and that if it had been explained to him, he would have refused.
Charlie Mathis swore that the ‘Linda I know is not a violent person, let alone a cold- blooded murderer’, and if he’d been asked to take the stand for the defense, he would have also provided favorable testimony about her performance as an informant for the government for over a decade.
Baker Botts argued that, absent Guerinot’s errors, at least one juror would have had reasonable doubt about Carty’s guilt and that mitigating evidence from Corona, Mathis, Carty’s extended family and friends, and acquaintances on her native St. Kitts, where she’d worked as a much-loved school teacher, could have altered the outcome of her sentence.
But both the district court, and later the 5th circuit appeals court, decided that despite Guerinot’s ‘deficiency’ it did not sufficiently prejudice Carty’s defense; that although it was a ‘close case’, Carty had not proved that Corona’s testimony rendered her conviction unfair or that the omission of Mathis’s testimony was prejudicial.
In the middle of all this, the UK government filed what’s known as an Amicus brief to the 5th circuit appeals court, registering its interest in the outcome of case. “Among the failures of Ms. Carty’s trial counsel was his failure to notify or seek assistance from the British Consulate-General in Houston, Texas,” it said.
All Carty’s appeals were unsuccessful. The Supreme Court refused to look at the case, and bar an intervention by Governor Rick Perry or the Board of Paroles and Pardons, Carty has now exhausted all her options.
The question remains: if the British consulate had been called when Carty was first arrested back in 2001, and it had instructed attorneys of its choosing, would Carty be in the position she is now?
Andy Pryce, Deputy Consul General in Houston, says that when British nationals are charged with capital crimes, the consulate monitors judicial proceedings, works with prosecutors to ensure the British position on the death penalty (it opposes it unequivocally) is understood and ensures that the accused receives appropriate legal representation. In Carty’s case it could have secured pro-bono lawyers and helped get crucial mitigating evidence through the British High Commission responsible for St. Kitts — something that “could have proved a vital role in the outcome of Ms Carty’s case, especially with regard to sentencing.”
At the end of November, the UK’s Channel 4, one of the country’s main broadcast television channels, aired an hour-long documentary on Carty. Filmmaker Steve Humphries says it was of huge interest because the last British woman to be executed was in 1955, when 28-year-old Ruth Ellis was hanged for murdering her lover.
Humphries’s film, broadcast on a Monday night at 8pm, was watched by almost two million people — double what that time slot would normally attract. Its commissioning editor, David Glover, tells the Observer that he wanted to show it because it was a disturbing, tragic human interest story, but, he says, there were difficulties. “The case was very complicated. TV viewers naturally adopt a ‘whodunnit’ mentality; they’re looking at the screen asking if that person is innocent or guilty. Most people want to be told a simple story and there just isn’t one. The truth is, Carty’s trial was so botched, it was very hard to know the degree of her involvement, if any.” But, he says, there were deeper moral questions. “The film is very much about compassion.”
At the end, the credits gave details of a petition where viewers could sign up to add their names to a list asking for clemency. In the days that followed the broadcast, 50,000 people added their signatures and so many people visited the accompanying website that it crashed. As Glover says, “it struck a chord with the British people.”
Glover is keen to point out, however, that he wouldn’t be so interfering or arrogant to tell the American people how to run their justice system. “Every country has autonomy, but as [Carty] is a British citizen and this wasn’t pointed out at her trial, it’s important to bring this up.”
I ask Steve Humphries what the most compelling part of the Carty saga is for him. “Her defence attorney Jerry Guerinot was offered money by the court to go to St. Kitts but he didn’t go,” he says. “If he had done — like we did — he would have uncovered the story of a public spirited young schoolteacher who was shamed and dismissed from her job when she had a baby outside of marriage. If he’d investigated her story more fully he would have discovered that she’d been raped, beaten and pressurised into becoming a DEA agent, a job which led her into the criminal underworld. But perhaps more importantly, to be executed under Texan law she needed to be regarded as a serious danger to the community. And Linda, in my opinion, is not that. She never received the proper defence which was her constitutional right.”
Carty told me that when the death sentence was handed down in the courtroom back in 2001 it felt like a sharp pain running through her body. She felt betrayed by a government she had worked for — and put her life on the line for — for 15 years. And she said the closer she got to the Mountain View Unit, the place she’d call home until her execution, the more she felt like she would be forgotten.
Carty’s daughter, Jovelle, is now mother to two little boys, Jhori, five, and Caden, four. They’re no longer allowed to visit their grandmother. A couple of years ago Jovelle was told a new rule had been imposed that children couldn’t visit if the crime the offender committed involved children. For Jovelle, it makes a hard situation even worse. “We visit once every two to three weeks for just two hours each time. It’d be nice to have contact but we’re not allowed. A hug goes a long way.”
In 2011, for the second year in a row, juries condemned just eight people to death in Texas — the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after a hiatus. In 2008 and 2009 there were no new death sentences at all in Harris County, where Carty was convicted. Last year there were just three. If Carty’s trial took place today, Carty’s supporters wonder aloud whether she would have been found guilty, let alone sentenced to death.