DA: Death row inmate should get new trial over judge’s bias
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HOUSTON (AP) — A Jewish death row inmate who was part of a gang of prisoners who fatally shot a police officer in 2000 after they had escaped is one step closer to getting a new trial after prosecutors agreed with defense claims that the judge who presided over his case held antisemitic views.
Lawyers for Randy Halprin have contended that former Judge Vickers Cunningham in Dallas used racial slurs and antisemitic language to refer to the inmate and some of his co-defendants.
Halprin, 45, was among the inmates, known as the “Texas 7,” who escaped from a South Texas prison in December 2000 and then committed numerous robberies, including the one in which they shot 29-year-old Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins 11 times, killing him.
During a three-day hearing in August in Dallas, several witnesses, including Cunningham’s brother and two lifelong family friends, testified that the former judge had frequently used antisemitic and racial slurs before and after Halprin’s 2003 trial in reference to him and several of the other escaped inmates. One witness testified when Cunningham ran for district attorney in 2005, she heard him say he was running for office to save Dallas County from Latinos, Black and Jewish people, but using racial slurs to refer to these groups of individuals, according to court documents.
“These and other epithets were ‘clearly derogatory’ and show ‘actual bias’ against Halprin during his trial because he is Jewish,” the office of Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said in a statement on Wednesday.
Wilson’s office was appointed to handle legal issues related to Halprin’s allegations after the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, was disqualified from taking part. If Halprin gets a new trial, the case would go back to Dallas County.
Cunningham stepped down from the bench in 2005 and is now an attorney in private practice in Dallas. His office said Wednesday he would not be commenting on Halprin’s case. On his website, Cunningham touts that “he presided over 800 jury trials and 1,250 bench trials, including the ‘Texas 7′ capital murder death penalty trials.”
Tivon Schardl, one of Halprin’s attorneys, said testimony during the August hearing “left no doubt that Judge Cunningham harbored antisemitic bias towards Randy Halprin during his capital murder trial.”
“The Constitution guarantees a fair trial before a fair court, and in the State of Texas, neither the prosecution, nor the defense, nor any reviewing court can let stand a judgment handed down by a biased judge,” Schardl said.
The conclusion by Wilson’s office comes after state District Court Judge Lela Mays in Dallas in October 2021 had found that Cunningham violated Halprin’s right to a fair trial by not recusing himself from the case because of bias.
She had recommended the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals toss Halprin’s conviction and death sentence imposed by Cunningham. But the appeals court in May had ordered that an evidentiary hearing needed to be held before it could consider the case.
Following this week’s conclusion by prosecutors, Halprin’s case will be forwarded to the appeals court, which will make the final decision on whether he gets a new trial. The appeals court had halted Halprin’s execution in 2019.
Cunningham faced allegations of bigotry in 2018 after telling the Dallas Morning News he has a living trust that rewards his children for marrying straight, white Christians. Cunningham was running for county commissioner at the time, and he lost the Republican runoff days later.
Cunningham denied racial bigotry and he told the newspaper in June 2019 that the allegations made by Halprin’s lawyers were “fabrications” from his estranged brother.
Halprin, who has maintained he never fired a weapon at the officer, was convicted under Texas’ law of parties, which holds a person criminally responsible for the actions of another if they are engaged in a conspiracy.
Of the seven inmates who escaped, one killed himself before the group was arrested. Four have been executed, while Halprin and another, Patrick Murphy, await execution.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70