Max Soffar dies on Texas death row after 35 years in prison; strong claim of innocence

Max Soffar, who spent 35 years on Texas’ death row – died of complications from liver cancer on Sunday, April 24, 2016.  He was diagnosed in the fall of 2014, when doctors told him he had only months to live.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was scheduled to hear oral arguments in his case, including evidence that might have overturned his conviction, just two days later.  Soffar was 60 years old.

Read this powerful piece by ACLU attorney Brian Stull, who represented Soffar for more than a decade.

There was no evidence whatsoever connecting Max Soffar to the horrific murders of three people in a bowling alley in Houston in 1980.  His conviction and death sentence hinged solely on a confession he gave to police – one of three inconsistent statements he provided after three days of intense interrogation.  According to the National Registry of Wrongful Convictions, false confessions have played a role in 13% of exonerations nationwide.

Equally troubling is the fact that Max Soffar did not remotely resemble the description of the perpetrator provided by eyewitness and surviving victim Greg Garner.  Substantial evidence supporting the alternative theory of suspect Paul Dennis Reid was never considered by a jury.

Read more about his case in Texas Monthly.

Soffar’s attorneys from the ACLU and the law firm Kirkland Ellis asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend then-Governor Rick Perry commute Soffar’s death sentence so that he could live his final days at home. Many prominent individuals, including former district attorneys, judges, faith leaders, former Texas Governor Mark White, and former FBI Director William S. Sessions supported Soffar’s clemency petition. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the petition citing the absence of an execution date.

In November 2014, clergy members and ACLU representatives delivered more than 116,000 signatures on Sister Helen Prejean’s Change.org petition calling on Governor Rick Perry to allow Soffar to die at home.

Here is the press release on Soffar’s death from the ACLU:

Innocent Man Dies of Cancer on Texas Death Row Three Days Before Hearing to Clear His Name 

Max Soffar Spent 35 Years Behind Bars for Crimes He Didn’t Commit

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 25, 2016

CONTACT: Alexandra Ringe, 212-549-2582, aringe@aclu.org

LIVINGSTON, Tex. – Max Soffar died at the age of 60 yesterday from liver cancer in the prison that houses the state’s death row.

Soffar was sentenced to death in 1981. He was innocent. His death came three days before a hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that could have set aside his wrongful conviction and death sentence.

“Max was an innocent man who should have been able to die privately and peacefully at home with his wife. Instead he had to endure the horrors of terminal cancer under guards’ constant watch, a prisoner until his final breath,” said Brian Stull, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Max was 24 when he succumbed to extreme pressure by police and confessed to crimes he didn’t commit. That confession should never have held up in court, yet it sent Max to death row, where he spent the rest of his life. That is a disgrace.”

Max was represented by the ACLU and the law firm Kirkland Ellis in efforts to overturn his death sentence.

“Max’s punishment for something he didn’t do shows the inherent injustice in the death penalty. Death should never be the outcome of our highly imperfect court system,” said Andrew Horne of Kirkland Ellis. “Max’s case also shows how resistant our courts are to correcting their mistakes, particularly errors in capital punishment. After decades of effort, and despite powerful evidence of innocence, we have not yet cleared Max’s name.”

“Max wasn’t executed, but the death penalty and its haphazard, unjust application stole his life. He was 60 years old when he died on death row, innocent,” said Stull. “The state of Texas was ready to kill him over nothing. He lived with that every day.”

For legal documents and other information about Max’s case, visit: https://www.aclu.org/cases/state-texas-v-max-soffar

For more information about the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, visit: https://www.aclu.org/issues/capital-punishment

This press release is available here: https://www.aclu.org/news/innocent-man-dies-cancer-texas-death-row-three-days-hearing-clear-his-name

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