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John Thuesen Writ Hearing

Lawyers for convicted killer Thuesen push to get death penalty off the table


By Maggie Kiely The Eagle June 11, 2014

Attorneys for Brazos County death row inmate John Thuesen continued presenting evidence Tuesday in an attempt to prove he had ineffective representation during his 2010 trial. At the conclusion of the more than two-week trial, the 30-year-old was sentenced to death by a jury that convicted him of shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend and her brother, Rachel and Travis Joiner, on March 6, 2009 inside the home of the Aggie siblings. Based on evidence from the trial, Rachel Joiner was shot in the back after coming home to find Thuesen waiting for her. Hearing the commotion, Travis Joiner came out of his bedroom, where he'd been sleeping, at which point Thuesen fired three rounds before turning the gun back on Rachel Joiner and firing twice more. He then called 911, confessed and was arrested.

Thuesen was transported from the Polunsky unit in Livingston to Brazos County jail on Friday in advance of his writ hearing, which began Monday in front of District Judge Travis Bryan III and is expected to last through Friday. The four writ lawyers representing Thuesen, all of whom work for the Texas Office of Capital Writs, argue that his trial attorneys, Billy Carter and Michele Esparza, were ineffective based on 22 claims and are asking the judge to vacate the conviction and sentence or grant appropriate relief, such as a new trial. In a 235-page application for writ of habeas corpus, Thuesen's attorneys assert Carter and Esparza failed to adequately develop the main defense theory -- that Thuesen, a Marine, had returned from Iraq in 2004 with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental illness that contributed to the double-murder. "John Thuesen's PTSD was the factor that best could have explained to the jury both the crime and Thuesen's reduced moral culpability for the events that occurred," the writ application states. Thuesen's father, Dennis Thuesen, described his son as "social" and "very friendly" as a kid, never showing signs of aggression or violence. When John Thuesen enlisted in the Marine Corps, Dennis Thuesen said he as proud of his son. But when he got back from Iraq, "It seemed like he wasn't John," Dennis Thuesen testified, going on to say the post-war John Thuesen seemed "distant" and "distracted." Dennis Thuesen said he wasn't familiar with PTSD at the time of his son's homecoming, and still is unsure as to what exactly it is and how it affects individuals. Most of Tuesday was spent with defense witness Mark Cunningham, a forensic psychologist who said he's been hired to conduct about 200 risk assessments on capital murder defendants nationwide. Cunningham, who was not called on by Esparza and Carter during the 2010 trial, testified that based on his system of evaluation, there was a "very low" probability Thuesen would inflict serious violence against others while in prison. On cross-examination, Cunningham said his testimony experience in Texas capital murder cases has been strictly for the defense, though he'd welcome an inquiry from state attorneys. Thuesen's attorneys are expected to call on four to five witnesses when the hearing resumes Wednesday. Thuesen attorneys to appear before judge in writ hearing By Maggie Kiely, The Eagle June 12, 2014 Attorneys for Brazos County death row inmate John Thuesen will be back in front of Judge Travis Bryan III on Thursday for a fourth day of evidence in a hearing requested by the convicted double murderer. Thuesen was found guilty by a Brazos County jury and sentenced to execution in May 2010 for the shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend and her brother, Rachel and Travis Joiner, on March 6, 2009, inside the home of the Aggie siblings. The 30-year-old's current lawyers, who work for the Texas Office of Capital Writs, filed a legal document claiming Thuesen received ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial and should have his conviction and sentence vacated or be granted other relief such as a new trial. In cross-examining witnesses, prosecutors have directed their questions toward disproving the two factors that must be proven for ineffective assistance of counsel to be found: that Thuesen received deficient representation during his trial, and that had it not been for trial attorney's errors, the result of the trial may have been different. The hearing will likely continue through the week and several more defense witnesses are expected to testify Thursday and Friday before the state has a chance to present evidence. According to evidence from Thuesen's trial, Rachel Joiner was shot in the back after coming home to find her ex-boyfriend waiting for her. Hearing the commotion, Travis Joiner came out of his bedroom, where he'd been sleeping, at which point Thuesen fired three rounds before turning the gun back on Rachel Joiner and firing twice more. Thuesen was brought to Brazos County jail from death row in Livingston last Friday and has been escorted in and out of court by two deputies, both of whom have stayed in the courtroom throughout proceedings. Attorney says she did what she could to help Thuesen By Maggie Kiely, The Eagle June 13, 2014

A local attorney who represented Brazos County death row inmate John Thuesen during his 2010 trial testified Thursday that while there were things she would do differently in hindsight, she believes she did everything she could to save the man's life.

The 30-year-old was sentenced to death for shooting and killing his ex girlfriend, Rachel Joiner, and her brother, Travis Joiner, inside their College Station home on March 6, 2009.

Thuesen's current attorneys called on Michele Esparza during day four of a hearing surrounding a 235-page legal document insisting Thuesen received ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial and is entitled to a vacated conviction or a new trial.

Specifically, Thuesen's four lawyers, all of whom work for the Texas Office of Capital Writs, claim Esparza and her co-counsel, Billy Carter, failed to adequately develop a case showing jurors that Thuesen suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from his service in Iraq with the Marine Corps, and how the mental illness factored into the crime itself, as well as its role as mitigating evidence.

Cathryn Crawford, one of Thuesen's attorneys, focused much of her line of questions for Esparza on the pre-trial timeline and why she and Carter made certain decisions, such as selecting who would and wouldn't testify.

Esparza acknowledged that looking back, she and Carter probably should have called on an expert at the end of their punishment case who could tie up the PTSD issues. At the time, she said, the defense believed it was not in Thuesen's best interest to end with a witness whom the state could use to refocus jurors' attention to details of the murders.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Brian Baker had Esparza explain that, as a trial attorney, she often has to adjust her tactics and decisions as the case unfolds.

Baker also pointed out Esparza has worked five death penalty cases, and Thuesen's, as of now, is the only one that has resulted in an execution sentence. Two of those cases ended with life sentences for the defendants. Another capital murder defendant represented by Esparza, Christian Olsen, had his death penalty punishment overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeals and is awaiting a new punishment trial.

Esparza's fifth death penalty defendant, John Ray Falk Jr., is waiting for an appeals ruling to determine if he will be retried after a mistrial was declared in his case.

While being questioned by both Baker and Crawford, Esparza made it clear it was her intention to tell jurors in Thuesen's trial a story about someone who went to war for his country and came back a changed man with a mental illness.

Thuesen's parents have been in the courtroom for most of the week, sitting quietly a few rows behind their shackled son.

It's expected that Thuesen's writ attorneys will call on several more witnesses today before resting their case, at which point the state is anticipated to have one witness testify.

District Judge Travis Bryan III told lawyers before recessing Thursday that he intends to take Thuesen's request under advisement and will not be making a ruling this week.



Updated Sunday, February 19, 2017

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