Texas Death Penalty News

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October 16, 2014, 07:36:01 PM Last Edit: October 16, 2014, 07:40:43 PM by turboprinz
Laborer who spent time on death row in Texas goes free
October 8, 2014

A construction laborer who spent nine years in prison -- four on death row -- was freed Wednesday after a judge ruled that the man's county-appointed lawyers in South Texas did a shoddy job defending him.

"An innocent man went to death row because of a complete system failure," says Brian Stull, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Manuel Velez, 49, in the successful effort to overturn his 2008 murder conviction.

Velez was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2005 beating death of Angel Moreno, the 1-year-old son of a woman Velez was living with in Brownsville, Texas. The prosecution relied heavily on a timeline asserting that the fatal injuries occurred within the two weeks before the child died. Before those two weeks, Velez had been working in Tennessee for several weeks.

The jury never heard about a prosecution expert's report indicating that autopsy results showed that the critical head injury occurred more than two weeks before the child died.

The death sentence was overturned in 2012 in an appeal arguing that a witness on the subject of Velez's future capacity for being dangerous was no longer credible. The conviction stood.

Lawyers for Velez then sought to overturn the conviction on the grounds that his original lawyers, appointed by the court, made mistakes.

At a hearing for a new trial in December 2012, prosecutors argued that those lawyers -- Hector Villarreal, who has since died, and Rene Flores -- did the best they could and that the standard for good lawyers and top experts was lower in South Texas.

The judge hearing the motion for a new trial, Elia Cornejo Lopez, rejected the standards argument, writing that "a (defendant's) life in Cameron County is worth just the same as a life in other parts of the United States."

She granted a new trial. Earlier this year, prosecutors said they would no longer seek the death penalty in the case

The ACLU's Stull said Velez wanted to get out of prison as soon as possible and agreed in August to plead "no contest" to reckless injury of a child, allowing him to go free based on time already served and good behavior.

The case began on Halloween 2005, when Angel Moreno was found not breathing and was rushed to a hospital, where he died two days later, according to court records.

His mother, Acela Moreno, later pleaded guilty to striking her son on Oct. 31, 2005, and served five years of a 10-year sentence. She agreed to testify for the prosecution against Velez but never said she saw him strike her son.

The evidence portion of Velez's trial lasted seven days. In reviewing the record seven years later, Lopez found that Villarreal and Flores did a poor job representing Velez. They offered no medical evidence about the age of the child's injuries and failed to contact a neuropathologist who had examined the brain tissue for prosecution experts.

The neuropathologist concluded in a report that a crucial head injury had clearly occurred two weeks to six months before death.

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Texas Death Row Inmate Convicted Of Killing 3 Kids Loses Appeal

HOUSTON (October 15, 2014) Raphael Holiday, 35, who was sentenced to die for the deaths of his daughter and two other young girls in a house fire in Central Texas 14 years ago, has lost a federal court appeal, moving him a step closer to execution.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Tuesday refused claims from attorneys for Holiday that testimony against him was improperly allowed at his trial in 2002 in Huntsville, that his indictment was flawed and that a juror improperly was removed during jury selection.

Holiday was sentenced to die for the September 2000 deaths of his 18-month-old daughter, Justice, and her half-sisters, 5-year-old Jasmine Raquel DuPaul and 7-year-old Tierra Shena Lynch, in a fire that was set at their home in Madison County.

Holiday was the estranged common-law husband of the girls' mother.

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A man on death row for killing an HPD officer wins appeal
November 5, 2014

HOUSTON - Alfred Dwayne Brown says he is innocent despite his conviction and death sentence for the killing of Houston Police Officer Charles Clark in April 2003.

Now the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals says there is evidence he might be right and it is evidence that Harris County prosecutors may have had during his trial and did not share with the defense.

"This thing is outrageous for a lot of reasons," said KHOU 11 News Legal Expert Gerald Treece.

Alfred Brown was convicted in 2005 for the murder of HPD officer Charles Clark during an attempted check cashing store robbery in 2003.

He said all along that he was not there, he was with a girlfriend at her apartment but he had no proof.

Just last year, a retired HPD detective found a box of evidence from the case in his garage. In that box was a phone record that could prove Brown's whereabouts. That record was requested by the lead prosecutor in the case.

"You don't get a fair trial if the government knows that your alibi might be true but does not give you that evidence that helps you," said Treece.

In a statement, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said that office, "...discovered that the defense was not provided material information at trial. As a result of this review, our office agreed that Mr. Brown should receive relief in his case so that justice could be served."

The DA's office supported the request for a new trial, "I will now carefully review and evaluate the case to determine the appropriate proceedings," said Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson.

The difference now is that Brown has something, "It is a good piece of evidence in his favor it may give her second thoughts," said Dave Atwood of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Brown will have to wait. Anthony Graves knows something about that, "I don't know if it gets any worse than what I went through," Graves said.

He spent 18 years behind bars, on death row, even had execution dates set twice for a crime he did not commit, "Unfortunately it is the culture. It is the culture to win at all costs."

Graves has had involvement in the Brown case, talking to the girlfriend who told him she was threatened during Grand Jury testimony, "What she revealed to me was really shocking but not surprising."

That witness has now recanted her testimony and now it is the DA's move.

Graves hopes for the best, "We have to actually want to seek justice instead of winning convictions."

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Death penalty for Eric Williams; judge compares killer to cult figure Charles Manson
December 16, 2014

ROCKWALL - A 12 member jury on Wednesday morning ended the punishment phase of Eric Williams capital murder trial by handing down a death penalty sentence.

The presiding judge in the case, Dallas County Criminal District Judge Mike Snipes, likened Williams to cult figure Charles Manson and convicted serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. Manson was tied to the murder of Sharon Tate and other Hollywood figures in the late 1960s.

Per Snipes' instructions to the jury, all 12 members had to agree on the death sentence for it to be imposed. The jury handed down their verdict about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday after deliberating about two hours and 40 minutes Tuesday afternoon before being sequestered for the night.

The jury resumed deliberations Wednesday morning before handing down the death sentence. Family members of the victims, Mike and Cynthia McLelland, spoke to Williams after the verdict was read.

The jury on Dec. 4 convicted Williams of murdering Cynthia McLelland, and during the same transaction, her husband, District Attorney Mike McLelland, in their home near Forney on March 30, 2013. The jury also heard testimony surrounding the shooting death Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse who was brutally gunned down on Jan. 31, 2013.

Williams was indicted in 2013 for the Hasse and McLelland murders. The sentencing phase of the trial started on Dec. 8 and continued through all of last week before concluding Tuesday afternoon about 3 p.m.

Closing arguments were made on Tuesday afternoon and the case was turned over to the jury for deliberation on whether to sentence Williams to death or life in prison without parole.

n on whether to sentence Williams to death or life in prison without parole.

Accused triple murderer Kim Williams' testimony on Tuesday left some of the victims' family members in tears.

Williams is the wife of convicted murderer Eric Williams, who is facing a sentence of life in prison without parole or the death penalty for slaying Cynthia McLelland the morning of March 30, 2013, in her home near Forney.

Special prosecutor Bill Wirskye called Kim Williams -- who also has been indicted for capital murder -- to the stand as a rebuttal witness during Eric Williams' sentencing phase.

She admitted to playing a part in the murder of not only Cynthia McLelland but also her husband, Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland, and his stop assistant, ADA Mark Hasse.

There was heightened security in the courtroom because of Kim Williams' presence, and her planned testimony implicating herself and her husband.

Kim Williams, in gruesome detail, described how her husband executed the McLellands and Hasse. Her testimony left Mike McLelland's sister, Marsha Calame sobbing and Cynthia McLelland's son, Nathan Foreman, wiping his eyes.

She said when her husband was arrested in 2011 for stealing computer equipment he told her Hasse and McLelland were setting him up.

She believed him.

When Hasse and McLelland were going to have Janice Gray, a former court coordinator Eric Williams had dated in the 1990s testify that he threatened to shoot her after they broke up, he told his wife that the prosecution was bringing up something from the past that he did not tell her.

"He said it was not true," Kim Williams said. Again, she believed him.

Her husband blamed former 86th District Court Judge Glen Ashworth for telling Hasse and McLelland about the incident.

She said he was very mad at McLelland, Hasse and Ashworth.

"He would talk really badly about them," Kim Williams said. "He mentioned he would like to kill them."

Of course, Kim Williams did not believe him when he first started talking about exacting revenge on his "enemies."

It was after his conviction and sentencing for burglary in 2012 that he became serious when he lost his justice of the peace position and license to practice law.

Kim Williams said her husband made napalm and placed it in pickle jars, in addition to buying a crossbow.

She said he was going to wait until after the Super Bowl and go to Ashworth's house just down from their home, shoot him with an arrow and then gore out his stomach before filling it with the homemade napalm.

But Eric Williams switched gears and set his sights on Hasse, taking Kim with him to Hasse's house in the country in Rockwall to scout it out.

Killing Hasse at his home, though, was not good enough for Eric Williams. That was his second scenario.

His wife said he decided he was going to gun Hasse down in the street in Kaufman like it was a scene from the movie, "Tombstone." That was his first choice.

He was going to go for the shock factor, killing Hasse early in the day as people were going to work.

"His anger was my anger," she said. "He was excited. He was happy."

Kim Williams said her husband wore a black Halloween mask, black jacket, pants and bulletproof vest.

The mask, she said, was ghoul like.

"It was a cold day and excitement was in the air," Kim Williams said about Jan. 31, 2013, the day Hasse would die.

Both of them were excited.

Wirskye asked her if she wanted to murder Hasse. She said she did.

They were going to park by a pharmacy near the Kaufman County Courthouse Annex parking lot, but there was a man there.

So they went to the parking lot. When Hasse drove up and parked in his usual spot, they waited.

Her husband walked up behind Hasse and confronted him. She heard shots.

Kim Williams could not watch the murder, though.

"Because it hurt," she said. "I could not watch him kill someone."

Wirskye asked her if she was happy after the murder and she said she was.

"I asked if Mark had said anything and he told me Mark said, 'No, no, please no.'"

They went home and she took a valium and went to bed.

Next on the list was Mike McLelland. They even drove by the McLelland house and took pictures.

When the Mercury Sable, which they used for the Hasse murder, was disabled, they bought a white Crown Victoria that was a former police car.

"He was happy," Kim Williams said. "He was ready to kill Mike McLelland."

When the law enforcement command post was set up at the former armory not far from their Overlook Drive home in Kaufman, she said her husband joked about how easy it would be to go there and start shooting.

In planning Mike McLelland's murder, Kim Williams said her husband told her it was more than likely that Cynthia McLelland would answer the door. He would introduce himself as a police officer and tell her there was a gunman in the area.

"Why did Cynthia McLelland have to die?" Wirskye asked.

Kim Williams said she did not really know why she had to die.

"He said she had to die ... she was collateral damage," she said.

The night before the murders at the McLelland home near Forney, the Williamses were excited.

"He was in a very good mood, a very good mood," she said.

Eric Williams was trying on clothing and modeling it for his wife, like he was on a runway.

He had a bulletproof vest with sheriff on it, pocket pants, army-like helmet and goggles.

They got up at 5:30 a.m. on March 30, 2013, Easter weekend.

They went to the storage unit in Seagoville to pick up the Crown Victoria and drove to the McLelland home, parking the Ford in the driveway.

There weren't any lights on in the house, until Eric Williams rang the doorbell.

A light came in the house, then the porch light.

"He goes inside and I hear shots, a lot [of shots]," she said.

They fled the scene and returned the Ford to the storage unit before driving home.

"He did not tell me about Mike," Kim Williams said.

He did tell her about Cynthia McLelland.

"He told me he had to shoot her an extra time because she was still moaning," Kim Williams said. He shot her in the top of the head while she lay on the ground.

That night they celebrated with steaks on the grill at her parents' home.

Then came the television interviews when law enforcement had turned their sights on Eric Williams.

"He was arrogant," Kim Williams said. "He was thrilled. He acted like nothing happened."

Wirskye asked her if there were still people on the hit list, and she said County Court at Law Judge Erleigh Norville Wiley and Ashworth.

Wiley was on the list because she put an end to his overcharging for his work on Child Protective Services cases.

But Eric Williams' desire to show off - sending a tip into Kaufman County Crime Stoppers that was traced back to his computer -stopped the killing with his arrest in April 2013.

The case went to the jury shortly after 3 p.m. when the prosecution and defense attorneys finished their closing arguments.

The defense argued that Eric Williams was not a threat to society and should be sentenced to life without parole.

The prosecution maintained that he is calculating, vindictive and would still be a danger to society if sent to prison for the rest of his life.

Dallas County Criminal District Court Judge Mike Snipes at about 6 p.m. said jurors had not reached a decision and he was sequestering them for the night.

Court resumes at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday.

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Convicted Texas Spree Killer Loses Death Row Appeal

HOUSTON (December 18, 2014) The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday rejected an appeal from Texas death row inmate James Bigby, 59, a North Texas auto mechanic who was sent to death row for the murders of a 4-month-old boy and the infant's father during a Christmas Eve spree 27 years ago that also left two other men dead.

The ruling moved Bigby another step closer to execution for the Christmas Eve 1987 deaths of Mike Trekell, 26, and his infant son Jayson.

Trekell was shot to death on Dec. 24, 1987 at his Arlington home while cooking a steak for Bigby.

The child was suffocated with a piece of cellophane and then drowned in a sink, authorities said.

Calvin Wesley Crane of Fort Worth and Frank Curtis Johnson of Arlington also died during the seven-hour spree.

Bigby confessed to the slayings, but pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

In 2005 the appeals court in 2005 threw out his death sentence.

Bigby was sentenced to death again the following year after a new punishment trial.

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Court turns down Wardrip appeal
Dec 11, 2014

WICHITA FALLS, Texas - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has dismissed the latest effort by convicted serial killer Faryion Edward Wardrip to avoid the death penalty for murdering a Wichita Falls woman as part of a killing spree from late 1984 to early 1986. In all, Wardrip has been convicted of killing five young women.

Wardrip predicated his death sentence appeal on a claim he was not adequately represented by a public defender in his original trial.

The appeals court dismissed Wardrip's application for Writ of Habeas Corpus as an "abuse of writ" without considering the merits of Wardrip's claim. This means the long and complicated case goes back to Federal Magistrate Paul D. Stickney, who has had it since 2002.

Stickney has no deadline on acting to send the case back to trial judge Robert Brotherton to set an execution date and Wardrip can begin appeals once that date is set. District Attorney Maureen Shelton said execution is not imminent for Wardrip, who has been sitting on death row for 15 years.

Wardrip, now 55, was convicted in 1999 of killing four women after having already served 11 years in prison for killing another Wichita Falls woman, Tina Kimbrew, 21, in 1986. The other murders Wardip admitted included Wichitans Toni Gibbs, 23, Ellen Blau, 21, Terry Sims, 20, and Debra Taylor, 25, of Fort Worth. Although all the murders happened within the span of 17 months, investigators did not realize they had a serial killer on their hands for another 14 years. The investigations into the murders were spread among four separate law enforcement agencies and DNA as forensic evidence at the time was in its infancy.

By the late 1990s then-district attorney Barry Macha began to suspect a connection among the murders that had gone unsolved for years. He put his investigator John Little on the case. DNA technology had advanced by that time. Wardrip had been paroled in the Kimbrew case by then and was working and teaching Sunday School in Olney. Little took a paper coffee cup Wardrip had discarded and used his DNA to tie the suspect to some of the other cases.

The manner of death for Wardrip's victims ranged from smothering to stabbing. Evidence of rape was present in two victims.

Though he confessed to the killings, Wardrip was tried in Denton County on a change of venue. He was convicted and sentenced to death in the murder Terry Sims and was given life sentences for killing Gibbs, Blau and Taylor.

"The remaining family members of the victims deserve closure as it has been pending in the criminal justice system for over 15 years, not to mention the victims who were murdered in the '80s," Shelton said of the latest ruling in the case. "Hopefully, this will finally make Federal Magistrate Stickney rule on the matter so we can proceed."

Although Wardrip has been on death row 15 years, he is far from being the longest-held inmate there. A Houston killer has been awaiting execution for 38 years.

Wardrip is the only inmate from Wichita County currently on death row.

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Texas Death Row Inmate Wants to Volunteer to Die
Jan 12, 2015

A federal appeals court is asking a lower court to determine if a prisoner on Texas death row for the slaying of a Houston boy more than 20 years ago is competent to drop his appeals and volunteer for execution.

Inmate Perry Austin wrote the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September that he wants to drop his appeals but hasn't received a response. He said in the letter he'd like an execution date as soon as possible.

In a ruling late Friday, the appeals court said there's evidence that questions Austin's competency to make that decision.

Austin confessed to the slaying years after 9-year-old David Kazmouz disappeared from his Houston home in 1992. The boy's remains were found in April 1993, eight months after his disappearance.

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Court upholds death sentence in brutal Austin murder
Jan. 14, 2015

The state's highest criminal court Wednesday upheld the death sentence for Milton Gobert, convicted in the 2003 murder of Mel Cotton and the attempted murder of her 5-year-old son in their North Austin apartment.

In a terse ruling that did not discuss the legal issues involved, a unanimous Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Gobert's claims challenging his conviction and sentence.

No execution date has been set for Gobert, who still has federal court appeals to pursue.

The appeals court had previously upheld Gobert's conviction in a separate appeal, ruling in 2011 that trial testimony by a psychologist was improper but not worthy of overturning his conviction because it could not have affected the jury's decision.

Austin psychologist Richard Coons told jurors that Gobert was likely to commit future acts of violence but could provide no scientific research or studies to support his "idiosyncratic" methods, the court ruled.

But Gobert's jurors were given more than enough additional information -- including prior crimes and the gruesome nature of Cotton's stabbing death -- to conclude that he should be executed because he posed a continuing threat, the court ruled.

According to trial evidence, Gobert:

Stabbed Cotton 107 times in a drawn-out attack in her bedroom.

Strangled her son, Demetrius, and stabbed him four times in the chest, puncturing a lung. The boy survived and testified at Gobert's trial.

Plotted to escape from Travis County Jail by killing a guard and stealing his truck.

Attacked a fellow prison inmate with a hoe and threatened to fight prison guards.

Tampered with his leg restraint so it did not function properly during his capital murder trial.

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Supreme Court rejects Texas Death Row inmate's appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a Fort Worth man sent to Texas Death Row for killing a 61-year-old grandmother at her Johnson County home nearly five years ago.

The high court ruling Tuesday, with no comment from the justices, was on an automatic first appeal following the conviction and death sentence given to 32-year-old Mark Anthony Soliz. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last month rejected a similar appeal.

Nancy Weatherly, fatally shot during a June 2010 robbery at her rural home near Godley, was one of two people Soliz killed during a crime spree. The murder weapon came from a Fort Worth home burglary.

Soliz committed 13 crimes over eight days in June 2010, including carjackings, armed robberies, a holdup, a drive-by shooting and the fatal shooting of Ruben Martinez, a deliveryman who happened to be unloading beer at a north Fort Worth convenience store about 6 a.m. June 29, 2010.

A few hours later, Weatherly was killed when Soliz and co-defendant Jose Ramos broke into her home intent on robbery and shot her.

Tarrant County prosecutors have not tried Soliz in Martinez's slaying.

Ramos pleaded guilty in both cases and was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

State District Judge William Bosworth has not set Soliz's execution date.

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Man on death row for Houston murders loses Supreme Court appeal
January 20, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from a man convicted and sent to Texas death row for the fatal shootings five years ago of his estranged wife and her 15-year-old daughter.

The high court made no comment Tuesday rejecting the appeal from 44-year-old Jaime Piero Cole, who's identified in prison records as a native of Ecuador. Justices rejected Cole's automatic appeal following his conviction and death sentence. A similar appeal was turned down last year by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Cole was condemned in 2011 for the slayings of 31-year-old Melissa Cole and her daughter Alecia Castillo. Both were shot repeatedly at their Houston apartment. Cole drove off with the couple's 2-year-old son and was arrested about 50 miles away in Wharton.

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Court vacates death sentence in 1990 Houston slayings
February 4, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thrown out the death sentence of a Harris County man convicted of the slayings of a Houston couple more than two decades ago.

The state's highest criminal court ruled Wednesday that jurors who sent Daryl Wheatfall to death row in 1992 had instructions during his trial's punishment phase that have been found unconstitutional. His trial was held at a time when the Texas jury instructions covering mitigation issues in death penalty cases were evolving under U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The appeals court has ordered his case be returned to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing.

The now 49-year-old Wheatfall was convicted of the December 1990 slayings of James Fitzgerald and his wife, L.B., in southeast Houston following an argument over $50.


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Supreme Court refuses Harris County death row inmate appeal
March 2, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review the case of a 35-year-old Houston man sentenced to die for a fatal shooting during an $8 robbery nearly more than 16 years ago in Harris County.

Lawyers for Juan Martin Garcia contended he had poor legal help during his trial in 2000 and that he's mentally impaired and ineligible for the death penalty.

The high court Monday rejected the appeal without comment.

Evidence showed the murder victim, 36-year-old Hugh Solano, was shot three times in the head in September 1998 when he was confronted while walking to his van at his Harris County apartment complex.

Garcia does not yet have an execution date.

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Grinning Grim Reaper

Texas obtains more lethal injection drugs

By Mark Berman March 25 at 6:19 PM    

Texas, the country's leading death-penalty state, was facing a bit of a quandary recently: Authorities there have six executions scheduled over the next three months, but they only had only enough lethal injection drugs to carry out one of them. And they were not sure what to do when they ran out. Would they postpone the other executions? Try to find a new lethal injection drug, as so many other states have done amid a shortage of execution drugs?

The state will have a little longer to figure that out. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said Wednesday that it had obtained another batch of pentobarbital, the drug used in lethal injections there since 2012.

This comes a little more than two weeks before the state's next scheduled execution, which is set for April 9. That is the first of four executions set for April, with lethal injections also on the calendar in May and June.

"We continue to explore all options including the continued used of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process," Jason Clark, a spokesman for the department, said in an e-mail Wednesday.

Clark said that the state bought the drugs from "a licensed pharmacy that has the ability to compound," but he declined to answer additional questions about the pharmacy. He had previously pointed to a lawsuit filed against the Department of Criminal Justice in order to force it to reveal the name of the compounding pharmacy that had supplied the state with lethal injection drugs.


Good old Texas...you just can't keep a good state down.   8)
Vengence is mine saith the Lord...who are we to question the instruments used to carry it out?


Dallas-area man condemned for killing 2 loses federal appeal
May 20, 2015

HOUSTON (AP) -- A federal appeals court has refused an appeal from a 41-year-old man sent to death row for the slayings of two Dallas-area sandwich shop workers during robbery almost 13 years ago.

Terry Edwards contended a judge's improper instruction during jury selection violated his right to an impartial jury at his November 2003 trial for the fatal shootings of a Balch Springs Subway store manager and an employee.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument late Tuesday, moving Edwards a step closer to execution for the deaths of 34-year-old Tommy Walker and 26-year-old Mickell Goodwin.

Evidence showed Edwards had been fired from the store a few weeks before the shootings in July 2002. About $3,000 was taken in the holdup.

Edwards does not yet have an execution date.

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After 10-month hiatus, death row in Texas gets its first new inmate of 2015

Gabriel Hall enters court for sentencing at the Brazos County courthouse in Bryan, Texas on Oct. 1, 2015. A Brazos County jury decided after seven hours of deliberation Wednesday that 22-year-old Gabriel Hall should be put to death for an attack that left a 68-year-old man dead and his wife injured at the couple's home in College Station. It is the first death sentence imposed in Texas since last December.

Oct. 9, 2015
HOUSTON (AP) -- Texas' death row is getting its first inmate of 2015, ending a 10-month hiatus in death sentences imposed by juries in the nation's most active capital punishment state.

A Brazos County jury decided after seven hours of deliberation Wednesday that 22-year-old Gabriel Hall should be executed for an attack that left a man dead and his wife injured at the couple's home in College Station, about 100 miles northwest of Houston.

The lull in death sentences in Texas is similar to what other capital punishment states have experienced in recent years. The Texas hiatus is believed to be the longest the state has seen since the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a Georgia case in 1972, effectively halted executions.

Statistics kept by the Death Penalty Information Center show 73 people nationwide were sentenced to die last year. In 1996, the nation's death rows swelled by 315 inmates.

"It's definitely slowing down, especially compared to the 1990s," Richard Dieter, senior program director for the Washington-based organization that opposes capital punishment, said Thursday. "It's reflected in almost every state."

He said Missouri, an active death penalty state, had no death sentences last year. Oklahoma had 15 of the sentences in 1998 but just two last year. North Carolina had 20 in 1998 and now is averaging a couple per year, he said.

"Certainly it's a national phenomenon, but the crime rates are lower, too," Dieter said. "So there's a lot of factors going into this."

Both executions and death sentences have declined since about 2000, he said, with cases undergoing more legal scrutiny and DNA testing becoming more prominent. He said there's "a whole range of things that has made the system more cautious when it comes to the death penalty."

In 1994, 49 inmates arrived on death row in Texas, nearly one a week. In 2000, the state executed 40 inmates. Since then, courts have narrowed some of the conditions for death sentences such as exempting inmates with mental impairment or those who were younger than 18 when their crimes occurred.

At the state level, juries considering death sentences in Texas in recent years have been given the option of life without parole.

"That does matter," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, California, organization that has supported the death penalty and focuses on crime victims. "If you have to choose between two penalties, that additional choice might make you accept life without parole when life with parole was not an acceptable choice.

"And it's not a bad thing," he said. "We are supposed to be choosing the worst of the worst for the death penalty."

Texas now has 253 inmates currently on its death row with the addition of Hall.

The last person sentenced to death in Texas before Hall was Eric Williams, convicted in December for the revenge-plot deaths of the Kaufman County district attorney, his wife and a top assistant prosecutor. Eleven convicted killers were given death sentences last year in Texas.

Jurors who convicted Hall of fatally shooting and stabbing 68-year-old Edwin Shaar and severely wounding Shaar's wife, Linda, rejected the option of sending him to prison for life with no chance of parole. In three other Texas cases this year in which the death penalty was on the table, jurors chose life without parole.

"It shows how disproportional Texas' use of the death penalty is," said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a legal group that handles capital case appeals for inmates. "Here we have in two of the three prior trials this year, there were multiple murders and those jurors came back with life sentences. This man killed one and yet the jury sentenced him to death.

"What this first death sentence of the year emphasizes for Texas is that the death penalty is like lightning striking," she added.

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