Texas Appeals Court Rejects Appeal Of Innocent Man On Death Row For 28 Years

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
November 18, 2009 4:52 pm

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Death Sentence Upheld Despite Overwelming Evidence Pointing To Innocence

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AUSTIN, TX– The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today rejected the appeal of an innocent man represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Innocence Network (TIN) who has been incarcerated on Texas’s death row for more than 28 years.

Max Soffar, whose mental illness left him particularly vulnerable to giving a false confession, stands convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly killing four victims during an armed robbery in a Houston bowling alley in 1980. Soffar appealed on the grounds that the trial court in 2006 prevented him from proving his innocence to the jury.

“Once again, this case demonstrates that serious error riddles the criminal justice system,” said Brian Stull, staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “When the state seeks a person’s death as punishment, we must demand a process that produces accurate and reliable results. When an innocent man sits on death row for 28 years having never received a fair trial, when juries are not allowed to hear the evidence, and when appeals courts do not intervene to fix these problems, no one can trust the process.”

In 1981, Soffar was convicted and sentenced to death based upon a false confession, but a federal court overturned the conviction in 2004 because his trial lawyers failed to argue that Soffar’s confession contradicted the other evidence in the case.

In today’s opinion, the court ruled that the false confession given by Soffar should stand, and that his constitutional rights were not violated when his 2006 trial court judge refused to allow him to show that the only correct details in his false confession were not the result of his involvement in the crime but instead had been obtained through widely disseminated media reports. The prosecution claimed, in an argument to the jury, that these details — although broadcast throughout Texas — could only have been known by the person responsible for the crime. Making an argument that not even the prosecutor made on appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said in today’s decision that even if the trial court judge erred by refusing to allow Soffar to utilize the media reports as part of his defense, the error was “harmless.”

False confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions, and evidence shows that people like Soffar who are impulsive, have low intelligence, low self esteem and are prone to fantasy and disassociation are the most likely candidates for false confessions.

The appeals court today also rejected Soffar’s argument that the trial judge erred by refusing to admit evidence that another man confessed to committing the murders, and that this man committed a series of highly similar robbery-murders in Tennessee. The man, Paul Reid, formerly of Houston, now awaits execution on Tennessee’s death row. A photograph of Reid, taken in Houston nine days after the crime, strongly resembles the composite sketch the police prepared based on the description of the sole witness to the crime.

Soffar’s false confession also contradicts the account of the sole surviving witness and other reliable evidence.

“This case represents a textbook example of a miscarriage of justice,” said David Dow of TIN. “From a false confession to two unfair trials and death sentences, the problems with Max Soffar’s case show the grave failures of the criminal justice system. With the court’s ruling today, Texas comes closer to executing another innocent man.”

Soffar intends to appeal his conviction and death sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as pursue any and all additional appeals.

A copy of today’s decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/capital-punishment/texas-court-criminal-appeals-decision-max-soffar-case

Additional information on Max Soffar’s case is available online at: www.aclu.org/capital/innocence/29715res20070430.html

Lawyers on this case are Stull of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and Dow and Jared Tyler of the Texas Innocence Network.

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