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Maslon LLP Wins Victory for Pro Bono Client: Resentencing After 10 Years on Death Row in Texas

November 28, 2017

On November 15, 2017, Maslon secured the vacation of Douglas Tyrone Armstrong's death sentence by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals following 10 years on death row in Texas. Convicted of Capital Murder in 2006, Armstrong will be removed from his confinement on death row and transferred to the Hidalgo County jail for a new sentencing proceeding before the trial court.

A summary timeline of events is provided below:

2006: Armstrong stumbled upon the body of Rafael Castelan on his way home from a bar in Donna, Texas. Castelan was critically injured and laying on the ground by a sidewalk. Recognizing Castelan, Armstrong helped the victim to his feet and attempted to walk him to a nearby hospital. Two people driving their van to the local grocery store came upon Castelan and Armstrong, who was by then covered in Castelan's blood. The witnesses misinterpreted the scene, called the police, and drove their van at Armstrong—who panicked and fled the scene.

Later, the police found Armstrong, and he was arrested and charged with Castelan's murder. Armstrong maintained his innocence throughout hours of intensive interrogation by the Donna Police Department. Nonetheless, Armstrong was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Rafael Castelan.

2007: Maslon LLP was contacted by the ABA Pro Bono Death Penalty Representation Project regarding Armstrong's representation and agreed to serve as pro bono counsel. A Maslon team—led at varying times by attorneys Catherine Ahlin-Halverson, Julian Zebot, Mike McCarthy, Nicole NarotzkyHaley Schaffer (now senior litigation counsel at 3M), and recently-appointed U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge David Schultz—began work uncovering forensic evidence and eyewitness statements that tended to verify Armstrong's version of events and exonerate him. The team conducted forensic analysis on physical evidence from the scene that pointed to a different murderer and uncovered evidence that suggests Castelan was killed in a drug deal gone bad. Additionally, Maslon delved into the story of Armstrong's horrific childhood and found evidence of his organic brain injury—facts critical to both guilt/innocence and penalty mitigation. This evidence, both of his innocence and of mitigating factors that would have precluded his being sentenced to death, should have been introduced at the sentencing phase of Armstrong's trial, but was not.

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 Armstrong received patently ineffective assistance of counsel at every stage of the proceedings.

2017: On November 15, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Armstrong's death sentence and remanded for a new sentencing—determining that Armstrong was prejudiced by his court-appointed trial attorneys' ineffective assistance of counsel in conducting an investigation of possible mitigating evidence to present at the punishment phase of his capital murder trial. After considering this evidence, the Court determined that it was probable that at least one juror would have found that the mitigating circumstances warranted a sentence of life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty. As a result, under United States Supreme Court precedent, Armstrong is entitled to a new sentencing hearing with all of the evidence considered by a jury.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals specifically found that the addition of the expert testimony presented by Maslon about Armstrong's "low intelligence and the various psychological maladies from which he suffered at the time he committed this offense creates a reasonable probability of a different outcome had it been presented at trial."

The decision by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is not the end of Armstrong's story, nor of Maslon's work on his behalf. In the order issued November 15, 2017, the Court denied all other relief sought by Maslon with respect to Armstrong's original writ for habeas corpus, which includes Maslon's attempt to overturn his guilty verdict as a result of the ineffective assistance of counsel he received at the guilt/innocence phase of his trial. Regardless of what happens next in the trial court proceedings, Maslon plans to continue its long-standing fight for Douglas Tyrone Armstrong's complete exoneration.

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