New resource available for condemned killers

HOUSTON An alliance of the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and public defense advocates endorsed the measure before the 2009 Legislature.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston says the status quo has been an "international embarrassment." Ellis sponsored the law that created the office, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a nine-person staff.

The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that Texas is one of the only capital punishment states that lacks a public defender to oversee key death row appeals.

Texas, the nation's most active capital punishment state, put 18 convicted killers to death last year.

The Office of Capital Writs will be funded by redirecting money already in the state budget.

"Better late than never," said Juan Edward Castillo, whose state appeals were never filed by an attorney assigned to represent him. "This is a start. There's a lot of cases" that have been screwed up, Castillo said.

Castillo has argued that evidence was insufficient to convict him of the 2003 slaying of 19-year-old rapper Tommy Garcia Jr. during a robbery.

Ellis first introduced the bill in 2007.

"I think that everyone agrees (death row inmates) deserve one fair shot at presenting their issues, whether they're meritorious or not," said Andrea Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. "We saw too many cases where poor state habeas representation forced people to lose appeals."

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