In this edition:
Scheduled executions: Nine executions already scheduled in Texas this year; three people facing execution file lawsuit regarding expired drugs used in lethal injections
TCADP 2023 Annual Conference: Join us in Austin on February 25, 2023 for a day of inspiration and advocacy
In case you missed it: Death penalty developments in Texas and nationwide in 2022; 17 death sentences commuted in Oregon; Shelton Jones resentenced after 30 years on death row; judge recommends relief for Randy Halprin based on trial tainted by anti-Semitism
Featured events: Local celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 16, 2023; TCADP book group meeting on February 1, 2023 with Michelle Lyons
Quote of the month
“Punishment is designed to constrain people, not to help them grow. And yet people can grow and change and come to know themselves better even in small, dark spaces.”
– Rachael Bedard, “On Death Row, He Is Grasping at Grace”, Guest essay for the New York Times, December 9, 2022
The State of Texas has already scheduled nine executions in 2023, which is more than the total number of dates set last year. Six of the individuals facing execution have spent more than 20 years on death row.
The first person set to die this year is Robert Fratta, a former Missouri City police officer convicted of hiring two men to kill his wife, Farah, in 1994. Fratta is scheduled for execution on January 10, 2023. A recent filing by Fratta presents facts that the State obtained his conviction and death sentence through unreliable and unconstitutional tactics. Fratta has always maintained his innocence.
Fratta raised these and several other violations of his rights in an application for writ of habeas corpus in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. On January 4, 2023, the court denied Fratta’s application on procedural grounds. His Clemency Application is still pending before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Fratta also has joined a lawsuit alleging that Texas is violating its own law and creating a serious risk of pain and suffering during executions by using compounded pentobarbital that expired as far back as 2019. On December 14, 2022, Wesley Ruiz and John Lezell Balentine—whose executions are scheduled on February 1 and February 8, 2023, respectively—filed a petition for a temporary injunction challenging the State’s use of long-expired execution drugs.
On January 4, 2023, the Texas CCA barred the Texas civil courts from considering the lawsuit or issuing any order to stay the executions; two judges dissented from the opinion. Read the attorney statement regarding these developments.
You can contact the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Abbott to support clemency and express your opposition to Fratta’s execution. Contact information for the Board and Governor is available here.
The TCADP Annual Conference: 25 Years of Igniting Change will take place in person on Saturday, February 25, 2023 from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM at St. David’s Episcopal Church in downtown Austin. Join us for an inspirational day featuring keynote speaker, Anthony Graves, a panel discussion with capital litigators, and a variety of breakout sessions on such topics as conservative opposition to the death penalty, advocacy 101, and surviving death row.
During the awards luncheon that day, we will honor six individuals selected by the TCADP Board of Directors as our 2023 Award Recipients. They include a pastor, professors, journalists, and a current District Attorney, all of whom have created awareness of the deep flaws of the death penalty. More details, registration, and sponsorship opportunities here. (Note: Registration rates will increase after February 10.)
For anyone who needs overnight accommodations, TCADP has secured a group rate at the Courtyard by Marriott Austin University Area (5660 N. Interstate Hwy 35, Austin, TX 78751). Call 512-458-2340 to make a reservation; tell them you are with the “Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Conference” to receive the group rate of $129/night on February 24-25, 2023.
State and national death penalty developments in 2022
In December, TCADP released its year-end report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2022: The Year in Review. The report documents the persistent problems with the administration of the death penalty in Texas even as use declines.
Later this month, the TCADP Lobby Corps will hand deliver copies of the report to every legislative office in the State Capitol. The 88th Texas Legislature convenes on January 10, 2023.
The Death Penalty Information Center also released its year-end report in December, calling 2022 “the year of the botched execution” because of the high number of states with failed or bungled executions. Nationwide, there were 18 executions last year and 20 new death sentences.
Outgoing Oregon Governor commutes 17 death sentences
Last month, Kate Brown, the outgoing Governor of Oregon, announced she is commuting every death sentence and dismantling the state’s death chamber. “Since taking office in 2015, I have continued Oregon’s moratorium on executions because the death penalty is both dysfunctional and immoral. Today I am commuting Oregon’s death row so that we will no longer have anyone serving a sentence of death and facing execution in this state,” Gov. Brown said. Two other states (California and Pennsylvania) have an official moratorium on executions, and 23 states have abolished the death penalty through legislative or judicial action.
Shelton Jones resentenced after 30 years on death row
On December 7, 2022, the Harris County District Attorney’s (DA) Office announced that Shelton Jones, who has been on death row since 1992, has been resentenced to life in prison after reaching a plea deal. Jones was convicted of killing Houston Police Sergeant Bruno Soboleski in 1991. Years ago, a federal district court determined Jones was entitled to a new sentencing hearing under the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Penry v. Lynaugh, which involved the Texas case of John Paul Penry. In Penry, the Court found jurors must have an opportunity to fully consider and give effect to mitigating evidence during the punishment phase of death penalty trials. The decision resulted in new punishment trials for dozens of individuals on death row, returning almost 20 cases to Harris County alone. Many of these cases have been resolved with sentences other than the death penalty.
The DA’s Office planned to seek another death sentence for Jones after his case returned to Harris County for a retrial in 2019, but it recently determined that “so much time has passed that it makes re-trying the case extremely difficult and risky.” According to its statement on the case, more than twelve witnesses have died or been declared incompetent since the 1991 trial. Only eleven people still on death row have been there longer than Jones. As part of the plea deal, he waived the right to seek any further relief.
Judge once again recommends new trial for Randy Halprin
Randy Halprin, a Jewish man on death row, faced execution in 2019 but was granted a stay by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) based on evidence his trial was tainted by the anti-Semitic bias of Judge Vickers Cunningham. The State—as represented by the Tarrant County DA’s Office—now agrees Halprin is entitled to relief “…on the ground that Applicant’s trial judge harbored actual bias against him at the time of trial.” In 2021, Judge Lela L. Mays recommended that the Texas CCA overturn the conviction and death sentence imposed by Judge Cunningham on Halprin in 2003, calling the facts of the case “extreme by any measure.” The Texas CCA did not act on the recommendation but rather ordered Judge Mays to conduct a live hearing, which then took place in August 2022. Shortly thereafter, the Tarrant County DA’s Office filed its Post-Hearing Proposed Memorandum, Findings of Fact, and Conclusions of Law in support of relief for Halprin. On December 13, 2022, Judge Mays once again concluded that Halprin did not receive a fair trial and recommended relief. The Texas CCA now will make a final determination on whether to overturn Halprin’s conviction and death sentence and order a new trial.
Local celebrations in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
TCADP staff and members will participate in local activities to honor the life and mission of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in several cities on Monday, January 16, 2023.
In Austin, TCADP will have an information table at the 2023 Annual MLK Community Festival, taking place on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University (900 Chicon Street). The festival will begin around 10:30 AM. If you would like to join other TCADP members for the march through downtown Austin, contact Kristin Cuellar at email@example.com or check the TCADP website for details.
In Dallas, TCADP Deputy Director Tiara Cooper will lead a contingent in the 2023 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade, which will start at the intersection of Holmes Street and MLK, Jr. Blvd. at 10:00 a.m., and proceed approximately one mile down Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, ending at Fair Park. Contact Tiara at TCooper@tcadp.org for information on when and where to gather that day.
In San Antonio, TCADP members will participate in the city’s 36th Martin Luther King, Jr. March and Celebration, which begins around 10:00 AM. If you would like to walk with the TCADP contingent in the March, contact coordinator Mardi Baron at firstname.lastname@example.org for details about where to meet.
TCADP Book Group
The TCADP book group meets on Zoom every six to eight weeks and reads a mix of fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs. Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday, February 1, 2023 at 7:30 PM CT, when we will discuss Death Row: The Final Minutes with author Michelle Lyons.
All are welcome! Register here. You’ll receive the Zoom link that morning.