Killer of woman, 85, set to die Tuesday
The elderly woman living alone in an elegant two-story Victorian house was
a tempting target for a group of young men looking for a place to break in
so they could get some money.
"At 19, you really don't think of the consequences," one of the burglars,
Willie Pondexter, says.
By the time Pondexter and his companions fled Martha Lennox's home in
Clarksville in far northeast Texas, the 85-year-old woman worth millions
was dead of 2 gunshot wounds to her head.
They took less than $20 in her purse and her Cadillac.
On Tuesday, Pondexter, now 34, was set for execution for the October 1993
The high school dropout from Idabel, Okla., would be the ninth condemned
Texas prisoner executed this year in Huntsville and the 1st of 2 set to
die on consecutive nights this week in the nation's most active capital
Attorneys were in the courts trying to block the punishment.
Pondexter was one of two men condemned for the slaying of Lennox, whose
great-great grandfather signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and
whose pioneer family had a long history in the Red River County area,
accumulating substantial wealth and real estate holdings. Lennox herself
donated a 374-acre forest preserve north of Clarksville to the Nature
Conservancy of Texas and her family foundation with assets topping more
than $16 million as of a year ago continues to make charitable donations.
James Leon Henderson, 35, was tried separately and also went to death row
but does not yet have an execution date. Evidence showed he first shot
Lennox, then gave the gun to Pondexter, who shot her again.
"Basically out of stupidity and ignorance," Pondexter said last week from
death row, explaining his role in the slaying. "I know what I did was
But he insisted his shot, which struck the woman in the jaw, wasn't fatal.
"I wasn't the guy that killed her," he said, blaming the slaying on
Henderson for a burglary-robbery that got out of hand. "It shocked me.
This wasn't what we had talked about.
"If we planned on shooting this woman, ain't no way I'd go along. It's
One of his trial lawyers, Craig Henry, agreed.
"I really truly believe he was not the cause of the death," Henry said.
A medical examiner, however, testified at the trials of Pondexter and
Henderson that either shot could have been fatal. Jurors decided both
Pondexter's attorneys and death penalty opponents contended the prisoner
was a changed person since he'd been locked up and didn't deserve to die
because he no longer represented a threat.
Jack Herrington, the former Red River County district attorney who
prosecuted Pondexter, disagreed.
"I definitely think if he ever got out, he'd do it again," Herrington
said. "There was a whole page of items that he'd been in trouble since he
was a kid and he gradually was getting more and more violent."
Although Pondexter had served no prison time before his capital murder
arrest, records show he'd committed assault, battery and trespassing in
Oklahoma and was considered a delinquent as a juvenile. As an adult, he
was arrested in Clarksville for unlawfullly carrying a weapon, was
arrested again in Oklahoma for assault and battery, received 12 years
probation and violated the terms of the probation.
Less than 3 weeks before the Lennox shooting, records showed he robbed and
stabbed an Oklahoma woman. She would testify against him at his murder
Pondexter, Henderson and 2 companions were arrested in Dallas the day
after the Lennox slaying after robbing a pedestrian. Henderson had been
left on the street to do the holdup and the others drove away in Lennox's
car. When the car didn't return in what he thought was an appropriate
time, he called police.
"He said somebody stole his grandmother's car," Herrington said. "Really
"He's standing out there with the police and then the Cadillac showed up.
They all were arrested."
At the time of the arrests, Henderson, on probation for an auto theft
conviction in Oklahoma, still had the murder weapon. Besides Pondexter and
Henderson, 3 others involved in the case received prison terms.
In 1997, some three years after arriving on death row, Pondexter nearly
escaped with another condemned inmate by cutting through a recreation yard
fence with a hacksaw blade.
Lennox, a benefactor of San Antonio's Trinity University, never married.
She'd lived for decades in the landmark Clarksville home with her 2 older
brothers, who also never married. They died a few years before the attack.
"She was the last survivor," said Jim Clark, who knew Lennox and is
manager of Clarksville's Red River Bank. "I can't tell you what a kind
soul she was.
"She never wished to be recognized for anything. She was very low-key. And
to think about someone breaking in and murdering her, it was just beyond
On Wednesday, another condemned inmate, Kenneth Wayne Morris, was set to
die for the slaying of a Houston man, James Adams, who was gunned down
during a burglary of his home in 1991. 2 more executions are set for next
(source: Associated Press)
Attorneys for Willie Pondexter have filed this petition with the U.S.
Supreme Court, today. He is scheduled to be executed tomorrow evening.
Last week, Pondexter's attorneys filed a federal civil rights lawsuit
complaining that the Polk County Sheriff's office and TDCJ were
interfering with their ability to gather evidence to plead for clemency
from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court
of Appeals dismissed the suit without ruling on the questions presented in
Earlier coverage of the harrasment by Polk County officials is here.
Pondexter's case for clemency is based on rehabilitation and not being a
future danger. Backing that up is one TDCJ guard who has urged that
Pondexter's death sentence be commuted to life in prison. The Board of
Pardons and Paroles would have to make such a recommendation and the
governor would have to approve the recommendation.
Texas' unique reliance of predictions of future behavior does not allow
any judicial remedy for a faulty conclusion reached by trial jurors. Only
the BPP with the governor's agreement can make such a correction under the
I discussed this unique Texas criminal justice problem last October in
this post. Here's an excerpt:
Even in Texas the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst
of the worst.
One of the unique aspects of Texas criminal law is a reliance on
predictions of future behavior in determining whether or not a person is
sentenced to death. In order for any person to receive a death sentence,
all 12 jurors must agree that the individual will represent a continuing
threat; a future danger. Some have likened it to a ticking time bomb,
bound to explode.
That charge to the jury, "whether there is a probability that the
defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a
continuing threat to society," is written into the Texas Criminal Code.
Keep in mind that means being a continuing threat in a prison setting, one
of the most secure, locked down environments on the planet. It means being
a danger to cause harm not to the general public, but to other inmates,
prison employees and guards.
Eric Nenno assaulted and killed a child in 1995. When he was convicted in
Harris County in 1996, all 12 jurors voted that he would be a future
danger, and Nenno was sentenced to death. He faces a scheduled execution
tonight in Huntsville.
But what if that prediction was wrong?
Executive clemency in Texas has been criticized by many criminal justice
watchers as failing to live up to its historic responsibility as a
failsafe. The facts of Eric Nennos case called out for serious review by
the Board. He has proven on a daily basis over the past 160 months that he
has not been a continuing threat. He has demonstrated that he is not the
worst of the worst. But the Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Nenno's
clemency petition, as noted in this earlier post.
The prediction answered in 1996 got it wrong. It seems that the Texas
Board of Pardons and Paroles was not interested in revisiting the question
or how to set it right.
This reliance on predictions of future behavior was the subject of Texas
Defender Service's, "Deadly Speculation: Misleading Texas Capital Juries
with False Predictions of Future Dangerousness." It was published in 2004.
In 2005, Texas Appleseed and the Texas Innocence Network published, "The
Role of Mercy: Safegaurding Texas Justice Through Clemency Reform," which
examined best practices in executive clemency.
(source: Texas StandDown)
Appeals court senior judge says Keller wasn't urged to resign
The senior judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Monday that
he and his colleagues have urged Presiding Judge Sharon Keller to resign
over allegations that she improperly blocked a last-minute plea to halt an
Sharon Keller "It would not be for me to tell her what to do," Judge Larry
Meyers said during an hour-long interview with The Dallas Morning News
Meyers, a former Fort Worth appellate judge who has spent 17 years on the
Austin court, said he had spoken with Keller, and she seems resolved to
fight the charges brought two weeks ago by the State Commission on
"I think she's determined to air it out," he said.
Chip Babcock, a Dallas attorney for Keller, dismissed any notion she would
"It is not a real possibility," he said.
Meyers said he still does not know the details of what happened the
evening of Sept. 25, 2007, when attorneys for convicted murderer Michael
Richard were unable file a petition to prevent their client's execution.
Richard was given a lethal injection about three hours after court
employees said they had been advised by Keller that the court closed at 5
p.m. and pleadings could not be accepted after that time.
On Feb. 19, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct concluded a yearlong
investigation when it filed charges that Keller's conduct in the Richard
case constituted a willful violation of her official duties and brought
disrepute on the court.
The commission accused Keller who had left the court for the day to await
a repairman at her North Austin home of violating court rules by
directing Ed Marty, the court's general counsel, to reject any filing
after 5 p.m.
The commission also ordered an unprecedented public hearing for Keller, a
former Dallas prosecutor who has become a lightning rod for death penalty
critics during her 15 years on the state's highest criminal court. The
hearing could result in a recommendation that she be removed from the
Keller, through Babcock, has denied any wrongdoing in the Richard case.
Babcock reiterated Monday that blame for paperwork not being filed with
the Austin court rests with Richard's attorneys.
Babcock said Keller's decision to fight the charges could cost her much of
her own personal wealth because of a recent ruling by the state ethics
commission that prohibits judges from accepting legal defense services at
reduced or no cost.
Meyers acknowledged that the Richard case and resulting charges against
Keller have brought significant "notoriety" to the court. But he said he
was not ready to assign blame to any of his fellow judges or their
While it appears the court's long-standing policies were not followed, it
remains unclear, he said, whether there was a "miscommunication" among
Keller, the court's former general counsel, the court's chief clerk and
attorneys for Richard.
He did say Marty's decision to retire from the court last year was partly
because he felt some responsibility for his role in the incident.
"I think he was ready to retire and probably also saw there was going to
be a lot of controversy," Meyers said. "It was not based on any pressure
Marty, who now lives in Gatesville, could not be reached for comment
The court's decision days after the Richard execution to put its
policies in writing and allow electronic e-mailing of last-minute pleas
was meant to ensure there were no further problems in death penalty
appeals, Meyers said.
Keller actively supported the decisions, he said.
"Judge Keller basically indicated what happened was something that should
not have happened," he said. "She always indicated that we need to make
the system in line that miscommunication not ever happen again."
(source: Dallas Morning News)