CLIENT SUCCESSES

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ABA Death Penalty Project: Pro Bono Representation for Death Row Inmate

On a sultry, spring evening in Donna, Texas, Tyrone Armstrong ambled home from the Sunshine Bar. About two blocks from his apartment, he stumbled upon the body of Rafael Castelan, an acquaintance. Castelan lay almost dead by a sidewalk outside his public housing. Armstrong, recognizing Castelan and seeing a bloody, gaping wound in Castelan’s throat, helped the victim to his feet and attempted to walk him to a nearby hospital. By the time Armstrong had assisted Castelan half a block, his shirt and his pants were soaked in Castelan’s blood. Just at that moment, two people driving their van to the local grocery store came upon Armstrong and Castelan. Misinterpreting what they were witnessing, they drove their van at Armstrong and called the police. Armstrong panicked and fled the scene. He was later found by the police back at the Sunshine Bar. He was arrested and charged with the capital murder of Rafael Castelan. Armstrong maintained his innocence throughout hours of intensive interrogation by the Donna Police Department. Nonetheless, Armstrong was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the murder of Rafael Castelan.

The entire process from arrest to criminal charge, to trial, conviction, and death sentence took just over six months. Armstrong’s court-appointed lawyers did nothing to prepare Armstrong’s defense. Their entire investigation consisted of hiring an investigator who spoke only to the two eyewitnesses whose stories constantly evolved as the process went along. Armstrong’s original lawyers did not investigate the facts and circumstances of the crime or the victim and his known drug dealing. Nor did they conduct any forensic testing on any of the physical evidence related to the murder scene or to Armstrong’s attempt to rescue Rafael Castelan. The defense attorneys also did not investigate Armstrong’s background or put on a mitigation case at the sentencing phase of Armstrong’s trial. During the guilt phase that proceeded the sentencing phase, Armstrong’s lawyers did not call a single witness to the stand. Rather, their defense consisted of cross-examination of prosecution witnesses that served simply to reiterate the prosecution’s theory.

In early 2007, the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project contacted Maslon to represent Tyrone Armstrong. Maslon undertook his representation pro bono. Led by David Schultz, a team of attorneys including Mike McCarthy, Catherine Ahlin, Haley Schaffer, Nicole Narotzky, and Julian Zebot began to dig into Armstrong’s case. They uncovered forensic evidence and eye witness statements that tended to exonerate Armstrong and to verify his version of events. They conducted forensic analysis on physical evidence from the scene that similarly pointed not to Armstrong, but to someone else as the murderer. They uncovered evidence that Rafael Castelan was killed in a drug deal gone bad. Maslon lawyers delved into the story of Armstrong’s horrific childhood and found evidence of his organic brain injury—a medical fact that is critical to both guilt/innocence and penalty mitigation—all of which should have been introduced at the sentencing phase of Armstrong’s trial.

In February, 2009, Maslon filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that Armstrong is actually innocent of the crime charged and that, in the process of defending his case, Armstrong received patently ineffective assistance of counsel at every stage of the proceedings. That petition is currently pending before the Hidalgo County District Court, five years later, the result of Maslon’s effort thus far is profound: Armstrong is still alive after half a dozen years on death row in Texas.

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