Judge: Texas death row inmate should get new, unbiased trial

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 should have his conviction overturned and get a new trial because the judge who presided over his case “harbored antisemitic bias,” according to a court ruling.

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 codefendants.

Halprin, 45, was among the group of 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.

“Cunningham not only harbored antisemitic bias at the time of trial, but … he did not or could not curb the influence of that bias in his judicial decision-making,” state District Judge Lela Mays wrote in a ruling issued late Monday night from Dallas.

Mays wrote that Cunningham used racist, homophobic and antisemitic slurs to refer to Halprin and the other escaped inmates tried in his court.

“As a judge with the power to influence the trials, Judge Cunningham’s use of these terms to refer to the co-defendants was racist because it combined the attribution of group characteristics with the exercise of power over them.”

Cunningham stepped down from the bench in 2005 and is now an attorney in private practice in Dallas. His office said Tuesday he would not be commenting on Halprin’s case.

Halprin’s case will be forwarded to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which will make the final decision on whether his conviction is overturned and if he gets a new trial. The appeals court had halted Halprin’s execution in 2019.

“The Constitution allows only one remedy in cases of judicial bias, and that is to vacate the biased court’s judgment and start over with the chance at a fair trial before an unbiased judge. We are confident the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will follow the law, accept the State’s concessions, and adopt the trial court’s recommendations,” Tivon Schardl, one of Halprin’s attorneys, said in a statement Tuesday.

In October 2021, Mays had found that Cunningham had violated Halprin’s right to a fair trial and recommended overturning his death sentence. But the appeals court in May had ordered an evidentiary hearing to be held before it could consider the case.

Mays’ decision on Monday comes after a three-day trial in August in Dallas in which several witnesses, including Cunningham’s brother and two lifelong family friends, testified that the former judge had frequently used explicit antisemitic and racial slurs before and after Halprin’s 2003 trial in reference to him and several of the other escaped inmates.

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office had been 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.

In September, Tarrant County prosecutors filed court documents in which they said Halprin should get a new trial because Cunningham showed “actual bias” against the inmate.

Cunningham has denied allegations of racial bigotry after telling the Dallas Morning News in 2018 he has a living trust that rewards his children for marrying straight, white Christians. He had opposed interracial marriages but later told the newspaper that his views on such marriages have evolved. In her ruling, Mays described Cunningham’s views as “the avowal” of a white Christian nationalist ideology.

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.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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