State of Texas v. Max Soffar
Innocent Man Remains on Death Row Despite Evidence Someone Else is Guilty
Near midnight on July 13, 1980, someone shot four youths in a Houston bowling alley in the course of a robbery. Three of the youths died, while the fourth survived. Max Soffar, a wannabe police informant who self-treated his mental illness with heavy drug use, was found guilty of the murders and sent to Texas’ death row, where he has been for nearly 30 years. After trying to turn in an acquaintance for the bowling-alley murders, Soffar eventually implicated himself in a series of written statements that he signed but were written by the police and based on mostly unrecorded interrogations. The police discovered almost immediately that one of Soffar’s claims – that he had burglarized the bowling-alley the night before – was completely false.
In 1981, Soffar went to trial represented by a Houston lawyer known both for having slept through his clients’ capital-murder trials and for having stacked up a long list of clients sentenced to death. Based on his statements, Soffar was convicted and sentenced to death.
At the same time, a dangerous criminal named Paul Reid was living in Houston. Reid made his living by robbing people at gunpoint, and was eventually convicted of armed robbery in 1982. Reid now resides on Tennessee’s death row for killing seven different people in three different robbery murders.
Meanwhile, one day after the bowling-alley murders, police interviewed a witness who worked at the bowling alley and who told the police that he and one of the murder victims – bowling alley manager Stephen Sims – had to kick out an unruly customer shortly before the crime. The man they kicked out later phoned the bowling alley and said, you “better have eyes in the back of [your] heads, because ‘I am going to blow your heads off.’” The witness’s telling report to the police sat unnoticed in a file for nearly 28 years until it was found by lawyers for Soffar. In 2008, the bowling alley witness was shown a photograph of Reid from the 1980’s and immediately identified him as the person they had kicked out of the bowling alley, and who later called to threaten to kill them.
In 2004, a federal court found Soffar had received ineffective counsel and reversed his conviction. In 2006, Soffar was again tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. As before, his conviction was based solely on his own statements. The jury did not hear anything about Reid – including incriminating statements he had later made about the bowling-alley murders, and that Reid’s Tennessee crimes were startlingly similar to the bowling alley murders – because the trial judge ruled he was not sufficiently connected to the crime. As it turned out, the missing connection was the bowling alley witness.
A Texas district court judge is now considering whether to awared Soffar relief based on his showing that Paul Reid committed this crime and that his trial lawyers were ineffective for failing to bring the bowling alley witness’s statements to the jury’s attention.