Stay of execution granted for man convicted in ’99 Pleasant Grove murder
Article By Jennifer Emily
Dallas Morning News
Thursday, July 23, 2009
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday granted a stay of execution for a man who was to die today and ordered a lower court to determine whether he deserves a new trial and whether he is mentally retarded.
Defense attorneys had argued that Roderick Newton, who was found guilty of kidnapping and murdering 20-year-old Jesus Montoya in a Pleasant Grove ATM robbery in 1999, did not get a fair trial because police failed to hand over evidence that would have questioned the credibility of a co-defendant who testified against him.
The Dallas County district attorney’s office supported Newton’s attorney’s efforts to halt the execution after agreeing that Mesquite police withheld a written statement that contradicted the co-defendant’s testimony.
District Attorney Craig Watkins said he believes Newton is guilty and he will prosecute him again if a new trial is granted.
“We’ve always thought he was guilty. We’ll pursue the same punishment,” Watkins said. But he added, “The process was less than perfect. … We have the responsibility to call a spade a spade.”
David Finn, one of Newton’s attorneys, and prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the county’s conviction integrity unit, say they believe police never gave defense attorneys or prosecutors copies of co-defendant Julian Williams’ first statement to police.
In that statement, Williams denied any knowledge of the crime, according to a copy of the handwritten statement. He also said he would not lie.
Williams later made two substantially different statements and took the stand to testify that Newton shot Montoya as the man begged for his life.
Williams pleaded guilty after he testified and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Finn also said Mesquite Police Officer Michael Meek testified at trial that he took two statements from Williams – not three.
“It was not an oversight” that the first statement was never presented to the defense, he said. “It was not an accident. It was not a mistake. The detective should thank his lucky stars that the statute of limitations is only three years for aggravated perjury.”
Greg Davis, lead prosecutor during the original trial and now the No. 2 prosecutor in Collin County, said Wednesday that “nothing was withheld from the defense.”
He said that the defense attorneys reviewed the police file at the Police Department before the trial. He added that he was not present at that meeting.
“It was a premeditated and vicious killing, and Newton has never expressed one word of remorse for his actions,” Davis said.
“Besides the co-defendant’s testimony, we had [a] witness who identified Newton as the man who pawned Montoya’s crucifix necklace after the murder, Newton’s prints on Montoya’s vehicle, Newton’s attempt to escape at the time of his arrest and a confession to a cellmate that the defense called to the stand. The evidence of guilt was overwhelming against Newton.”
Finn said trial attorneys viewed only physical evidence at that meeting.
A Mesquite police spokesman, Lt. Bill Hedgpeth, on Wednesday declined to discuss the case and referred questions to prosecutors. He said that he has not spoken to Meek.
“My understanding is we made everything available to defense attorneys,” he added.
Finn credited the DA’s office for its help in securing the stay. Although Finn discovered the statement might exist, prosecutors found the document at the Mesquite Police Department.
“They could have just looked the other way,” Finn said. “And they didn’t. That speaks volumes about their integrity.”
Withholding information that could benefit a defendant is commonly called a “Brady violation.”
Agreeing to a stay of execution is an unusual move for a prosecutor, although Watkins has agreed to one before.
In September 2007, Watkins agreed to a stay of execution for Joseph Roland Lave Jr. because a second polygraph examination of a co-defendant was not given to the defense at trial. Lave is on death row, and prosecutors say they believe he is guilty.
The DA’s office did not agree to Newton’s stay on the issue of mental retardation.
But in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the mentally retarded cannot be executed. They can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced to life in prison if they understand the charges they face and can contribute to their defense.
Neither the Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nor the state Legislature has laid out a definitive method to determine if defendants are mentally retarded. But in several cases, defendants with IQs below 70 have been spared the death penalty.
Newton’s IQ is 61, according to court records.
No date has been set for proceedings by the original trial court to hold hearings about the Brady violation and whether Newton is mentally retarded. After that hearing, the appeals court would make a decision based on the lower court’s recommendation.