Jewish death row inmate wins appeal days before execution after judge’s ‘regular racism and antisemitism’ revealed

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

For more than 15 years on death row, Randy Halprin filed challenge after challenge to his sentence. The denials began to stack up.

Finally, on Friday, one of his appeals persuaded Texas’ highest court to stay his execution, which had been scheduled for 10 October.

Halprin’s lawyers had found several people who said that the judge who oversaw their client’s murder conviction had regularly used racist language and referred to Halprin, who is Jewish, using antisemitic slurs.

The lawyers had been spurred to investigate the judge, Vickers Cunningham, by an explosive report in The Dallas Morning News last year saying that he had promised to reward his children if they married a white, Christian person of the opposite sex.

The report sank the judge’s campaign for Dallas County commissioner.

Now, a trial court will determine whether Mr Cunningham’s reported views and behaviour warrant a new trial for Halprin.

Randy Halprin in visitation cell on death row won an appeal days before he was due to be executed as judge's 'racism' came to light: AP Photo/Brett Coomer, File

“The ruling is a very strong signal that the court is not going to tolerate bigotry in criminal courts in Texas,” said Tivon Schardl, one of Halprin’s lawyers.

The decision from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is just the latest twist in the sentencing of a group of defendants known as the Texas Seven, four of whom have been executed.

Halprin and six other men carried out a string of robberies after escaping from prison in December 2000. During their last holdup, they were confronted by officer Aubrey Hawkins, and several men opened fire, killing the officer and dragging him with a car.

Halprin has always said he did not fire a gun; at trial, he told a jury that he had not wanted to carry a gun and “freaked out” when the other men began shooting. His lawyers have argued that their client was at the bottom of the Texas Seven hierarchy.

But Halprin was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 under a fiercely debated Texas statute known as the law of parties, which allows accomplices to be punished as if they had been the ones to pull the trigger.

The only other living member of the escapees, Patrick Murphy, saw his execution temporarily blocked by the US supreme court in March.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, said that an impartial judge — one who provides instructions to the jury and rules on lawyers’ motions — was essential to having a fair trial.

The lawyers’ investigation had revealed the judge’s “virulent antisemitism,” Mr Dunham said, and should be grounds for a new trial.

Mr Cunningham, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, has admitted to making the marriage deal with his children, but denied using racist language and said his personal views never affected his decisions during court proceedings.

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In their motion for the stay, Halprin’s lawyers included statements from people who said they had heard Mr Cunningham use antisemitic language to refer to Halprin and racist language to refer to Halprin’s co-defendants, who are Latino, as well as black people who had been before the court in other cases.

Tammy McKinney, who grew up with Mr Cunningham and remained in touch with him, said the judge had taken “special pride” in overseeing the death sentences of the Texas Seven “because they included Latinos and a Jew”, according to the motion.

Ms McKinney said that she heard Mr Cunningham use a slur in reference to Halprin and that he frequently identified people using racist language.

Amanda Tackett, who worked on Mr Cunningham’s 2006 campaign for Dallas district attorney, said in court documents that she heard him using slurs and bragging about running for office to “save Dallas” from racial and religious minorities.

And a man, Michael Samuels, who dated Cunningham’s daughter said the judge had threatened to withhold her law school tuition if she did not break up with him because he is Jewish, according to the lawyers’ motion.

After the stay was ordered Friday, Halprin said that he was relieved and that he would not let down those who had been fighting to keep him off death row, according to Mr Schardl, the lawyer.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the stay.

Mr Schardl said judges are often presumed to be honest adjudicators, and therefore it was not surprising that the accusations of bigotry had not been revealed until long after Halprin’s sentencing.

“You can’t appear in court all the time, always wondering if the judge standing before you is some kind of secret bigot,” Mr Schardl said.

New York Times

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