The nation’s first execution of the new year was set for Jan. 15 here in Texas. But now, that execution will not happen as scheduled. In a rare last-minute move, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of the execution of Blaine Milam, a 29-year-old convicted in the death of his girlfriend’s 13-month-old baby daughter.
In December 2008, police were called to Milam’s trailer in Rusk County where they found the body of Amora Bain Carson. The medical examiner said there were 24 human bite marks on the body, along with signs of blunt-force trauma and sexual assault. Prosecutors alleged that the child’s death came during a botched exorcism.
The case drew national attention. Prosecutors linked Milam to several of the bite marks found on the body of the child. Milam also apparently told his sister, from jail, where to find a pipe wrench used in the assault, and he apparently confessed to a nurse in Jail. All of this came out during the trial.
Now, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ordered a lower court to revisit the bite-mark evidence and consider claims by Milam’s attorney that Milam lives with an intellectual disability, and therefore is not eligible for execution.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says several kinds of forensic evidence that courts have relied on to convict accused criminals were found by the National Academy of Sciences to be “simply not reliable.” These included hair comparisons, tire tracks and bite marks.
“There’ve been a number of people who have been exonerated from death row after being falsely identified as the killer because of essentially junk-science bite-mark testimony,” Dunham says.
Dunham says that under Texas law, if a person who has been convicted of a crime presents evidence that the proof used to obtain that conviction was “false or misleading,” the convicted person has the right to an evidentiary hearing. Dunham says the lower court will examine both the constitutionality of the evidence and whether Milam’s conviction violated state law.
“This case is complicated in a number of different ways,” Dunham says.
If Milam is intellectually disabled, he cannot be executed. That disability could also call into question any confession he made “because individuals who are intellectually disabled are often coerced or cajoled into giving false confessions,” Dunham says.
Dunham says the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas’ standard for determining intellectual disability was unconstitutional because it was not based on a clinical definition, but rather on stereotypes about people with disabilities.
“This will be the fourth case that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has now sent back for redetermination of intellectual disability, based upon the prevailing clinical standards,” Dunham says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.