Appeals court rules in favor of death row inmate
A federal appeals court Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that gives a
new trial to a former suburban Houston public safety officer sentenced to
die for masterminding the fatal shooting of his wife.
A federal district court judge last October ruled condemned inmate Robert
Fratta's conviction was based on an inadmissible jailhouse confession from
the man who allegedly carried out the shooting.
On Tuesday, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed,
saying the confession used against Fratta was "contradictory, inconsistent
"The state's burden was to produce affirmative proof that a
murder-for-hire had occurred, and on this point, the admissible evidence
was far from conclusive," the court said.
Fratta's wife, Farah, 33, was found dead in the garage of her north Harris
County home in November 1994. She'd been shot twice in the head.
Prosecutors said Robert Fratta, now 51, had his wife killed after she
filed for divorce. He had tried to collect on her life insurance policy
days after her death. Payment for her death was to be $1,000 and a Jeep,
The man named by authorities as the triggerman, Howard Paul Guidry, was
convicted in 1997 and sentenced to death. He was granted a new trial, was
tried last year, convicted and sentenced to death a second time. A 3rd
defendant, Joseph Prystash, who prosecutors said Fratta enlisted to hire
Guidry, also is on death row.
"By the terms of the indictment, the state was required to prove that
Fratta employed Prystash or Guidry to kill Farah in exchange for
remuneration in the form of money or a car," the 5th Circuit panel wrote
Tuesday. "As an initial matter, the admissible evidence connecting
Prystash and Guidry to the murder was hardly overwhelming …
"On the crucial point of whether Fratta had engaged Prystash or Guidry to
commit the murder for remuneration, the inadmissible evidence was vital to
the state's case."
Neither Prystash nor Guidry testified at Fratta's trial and the appeals
court said allegations against Fratta were improperly supported "entirely
of hearsay statements" introduced to jurors by a pair of prosecution
witnesses, a detective and Prystash's girlfriend.
According to court documents, Fratta made no secret of his bitter feelings
toward his estranged wife and often expressed a desire to see her dead.
They'd been married 9 years and had 3 children.
Fratta, who worked as a peace officer in Missouri City, southwest of
Houston, has long maintained his innocence.
A year ago, he asked Melinda Harmon, the federal judge who eventually
ruled in his favor, for guidance on how to drop his appeals and volunteer
for execution. In a letter to the judge, he said even though he was
innocent, "I would rather be killed than live in this daily torture and
(source: Associated Press)