death penalty news—-TEXAS

Jan. 11


Condemned Dallas man loses at US Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to review an appeal from a condemned
Dallas man, moving him closer to execution for fatally stabbing the wife
of a prominent Dallas civil rights lawyer who also was killed in the same

Kenneth Dewayne Thomas, 48, is awaiting lethal injection for killing
Mildred Finch, 64, at her home in Dallas in 1986. Also fatally stabbed was
her husband, Fred Finch, 66. Thomas does not yet have an execution date.

Attorneys for Thomas wanted him declared ineligible for execution under a
Supreme Court ruling that bars execution of mentally impaired people. Last
June, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's
decision that Thomas wasn't entitled to a federal evidentiary hearing to
support Thomas' claims he's mentally impaired.

Thomas' lawyer, Lydia Brandt, said Monday she has another appeal before
the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Evidence showed Thomas broke in the Finches' home in March 1986 by prying
open a window, then stabbed the couple before fleeing with a pistol,
clothing and a Rolex watch. Mildred Finch, a community college math
teacher, was stabbed more than 80 times. Her husband was stabbed at least
25 times and sodomized.

Fred Finch was a Harvard Law School graduate who fought for school
desegregation and civil rights in Dallas. He filed the lawsuit that
resulted in integration of what is now the University of Texas at

Thomas was convicted and sentenced to die for Mildred Finch's slaying
after Dallas County prosecutors discovered a juror in the trial stemming
from her husband's death was unqualified because she was on felony
probation and charged with misdemeanor theft. Thomas had 2 death sentences
until the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1990 reversed his capital murder
conviction in Fred Finch's slaying.

Thomas was arrested 2 days after the Finches' bodies were found in when a
brother told police Thomas had brought stolen property and a bloody knife
to his home. A person aware of Fred Finch's murder also alerted
authorities after seeing Thomas with clothing carrying Finch's "FF"

Thomas was on parole at the time of the attack. He'd been released from
prison after serving about 6 months of a 10-year term for aggravated
assault for stabbing a man in the head with a screwdriver.

His death sentence was the 1st in Dallas County for a black offender
convicted of capital murder of a black victim.


Convicted killer of 2 at Texas ranch set to die

More than 2 decades later, Shannon Ferguson still can hear the cries
breaking the nighttime silence, a plea carried across the dark pasture
from a neighboring southeast Texas ranch a quarter-mile away.

"We could hear someone yelling: 'Don't shoot me… Help! Don't shoot me!"
And we heard the gun," she said last week. "That's something you don't
ever forget."

Walker County sheriff's deputies she summoned to the ranch about 10 miles
west of Huntsville found the bodies of James Hazelton, 28, the ranch
foreman, and his brother-in-law, Peter Sparagana, 23. Each had been shot
in the head twice with a .44-caliber Magnum pistol.

A former ranch worker, Gary Johnson, 59, was set for lethal injection
Tuesday evening for the April 1986 slayings.

Johnson's attorneys went to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to keep him from
becoming the second prisoner executed this year in the nation's most
active capital punishment state. A clemency petition to the Texas Board of
Pardons and Paroles was turned down last week.

Evidence showed the shootings at the Triple Creek Ranch occurred after
Hazelton and Sparagana interrupted Johnson and his brother, Terry, who
went to the ranch to steal a welder, tires, livestock feed and other
items. Prosecutors said the brothers had a history of burglarizing

Terry Johnson took a plea deal and is serving 99 years in prison. His
brother went to trial and received death.

Ferguson and her husband were in the pasture the night of April 30, 1986,
to be with a mare who was about to give birth when they saw a truck pull
up to the gate at the ranch across the highway. Men got out and cut the

"We couldn't see but could hear more than we could see," Ferguson
recalled. "They turned their lights off. They started it back up and
didn't have lights on and went on to the driveway across the street from

She said the intruders never could have anticipated "anybody was sitting
out there in the pasture in the middle of the night."

She called the house to alert Hazelton that something suspicious was
happening. A few minutes later, Hazelton arrived with Sparagana. When they
couldn't get in because the gate lock had been changed, they went to a
back entrance to the 1,100-acre ranch.

"We could hear yelling, then we heard the gunshots," Ferguson said. "I
felt kind of responsible. If I hadn't called and told him, they wouldn't
have come out."

Gary Johnson didn't deny being at the ranch for a burglary but blamed the
shootings on his brother, Terry.

"According to Terry Johnson, Gary did all four shots," Frank Blazek, who
prosecuted the capital murder case, said. "Of course, there's no way we'll
ever know who did what out there.

"But Gary Johnson took his .44-caliber Magnum pistol to his brother in
Missouri, told his brother he had used his weapon in the double homicide,
admitted to the shooting and told him to get rid of the gun."

Rather than dispose of it, Johnson's brother in Union, Mo., hid the
weapon. Authorities eventually recovered it.

Gary and Terry Johnson were arrested some 2 years after the slayings.

In their appeals to the Supreme Court and to the Texas parole board, Gary
Johnson's lawyers insisted the condemned prisoner was not violent, that he
had lost one eye in a prison assault and was blind in another, that his
health was poor and executing him would be unconstitutionally cruel.

"It would be an embarrassment to the state of Texas to execute …. Gary
Johnson at this time," David Schulman, one of his attorneys, said in a
petition. "He is certainly no threat to anyone."

State attorneys argued Johnson's appeal sought new rules to reassess at
the time of execution his threat of future violence, rather than accept
the judgment of jurors at his trial. They also contended that federal
appeals courts have ruled prisoners may be put to death as long as they
understand the punishment and why they're receiving it.

"Johnson's allegedly deteriorating physical health does not concern his
ability to comprehend his impending execution and the reason for it,"
Stephen Hoffman, an assistant Texas attorney general, told the Supreme

At least 4 other Texas inmates have execution dates in the coming months.

(source for both: Associated Press)