High Court Halts Execution of Texas Death Row Prisoner, Saying Prosecutors Violated Ethical Duties

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
February 24, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The United States Supreme Court today halted the scheduled execution of death row prisoner Delma Banks, Jr., saying that Banks was denied a fair trial 20 years ago when prosecutors withheld crucial exculpatory evidence from the defense.

Delivering a stinging rebuke to Texas prosecutors, the Justices found that officials violated Banks’ constitutional rights by failing to turn over evidence that the main prosecution witnesses received money and lenient treatment in exchange for testimony against Banks.

“”Delma Banks has never had an opportunity to have his case fairly heard in any court,”” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “”Today, 20 years later, he will finally get a hearing on these issues. But that is a long time to wait for justice. This case is a travesty for Delma Banks and for the family of the murder victim, Richard Whitehead.””

Banks was convicted and sentenced to death in connection with the murder of Richard Whitehead of Texarkana but always maintained his innocence and appealed his sentence in several trials.

A unanimous Court today found that Banks should be allowed to appeal his murder conviction because Texas prosecutors failed to turn over relevant evidence that Banks needed to defend himself, including the fact that the state’s key witnesses – Robert Farr and Charles Cooke — were paid informants. Prosecutors also failed to disclose that they had coached the witnesses several times and helped them plan their trial testimony.

Even after Banks obtained new counsel for his appeal and continued his efforts to obtain information about the witnesses, prosecutors continued to withhold it, Rust-Tierney noted. When the defense finally obtained transcripts of the preparatory meetings between the prosecutor and witnesses, the state opposed the defense’s efforts to introduce the information on appeal, claiming that that Banks had waived the issue by not raising the claim earlier – even though the reason the defense had not been able to raise the claim was because the state unlawfully withheld the evidence. Texas courts upheld Banks’ conviction and sentence yet again, thus giving their stamp of approval to the prosecutor’s unlawful tactics.

The Supreme Court had agreed to hear Banks’ appeal last March, just 10 minutes before prison officials in Texas had fed Banks his last meal and were preparing to administer a lethal injection. As a result of today’s ruling, Banks is off death row and now has a fresh chance to contest his conviction.

“”The Banks case dramatically underscores the need for a temporary halt on executions in Texas,”” said Rachel King, State Campaign Coordinator for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “”The Texas death penalty system is irreparably broken. A man who has always claimed his innocence was nearly executed because he had an ineffective lawyer and dishonest prosecutors. Texas must stop all executions until it fixes this broken system.””

The case is Banks v. Dretke, No. 02-8286.

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