Texas set to resume executions this week

Huntsville_The nation's busiest death chamber reopens this week after a nearly nine-month hiatus with the scheduled lethal injection of a former part-time car-wash worker for killing a suburban Houston woman and her son 17 years ago.

The execution Tuesday of Derrick Sonnier, 40, would make him the fourth prisoner put to death in the nation since the U.S. Supreme Court in April upheld lethal injection as a proper method of capital punishment and the first in Texas since Sept. 25. That's when convicted killer Michael Richard was executed in Huntsville - the same day the high court decided to consider a challenge from two condemned inmates in Kentucky who contended that lethal injection was unconstitutionally cruel.

The Kentucky case effectively stalled all executions across the nation until after the court upheld the execution method in April. For Texas, where 405 convicted killers have received lethal injection since the state resumed carrying out capital punishment in 1982, the lull has been the lengthiest in two decades.

"I pretty much figured ... it was just a delay," said convicted murderer Karl Chamberlain, set to die a week after Sonnier for a slaying in Dallas County. "So after they (the Supreme Court) made that ruling, I was expecting a date any time."

Sonnier is among at least 14 Texas inmates with set execution dates in a state that has gained notoriety as the most active in carrying out the death penalty. Of the 42 executions in the United States in the past year, 26 were in Texas. The next busiest states were Alabama and Oklahoma, each with three.

Statistics kept by the Death Penalty Information Center list only nine other inmates in the nation with active execution dates. Sonnier is the first of three Texas prisoners set to be executed over 14 days in June.

Sonnier, who was taken to court in Houston to hear a state district judge deliver the news, declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his death date.

The U.S. Supreme Court in October refused to review Sonnier's case, and his attorney had no plans to raise additional appeals.

"There's just not a lot to work with," lawyer Jani Maselli said. "It's horribly frustrating."

Sonnier, born in Sulphur, La., and raised in Houston, was condemned for the slayings of a neighbor, Melody Flowers, 27, and her 2-year-old son, Patrick, at their apartment in Humble, a northeast Houston suburb. Flowers had been stabbed, beaten with a hammer and strangled. Her child was stabbed eight times. Both victims were found floating in a bathtub.

Prosecutors said he had been obsessed with the woman and had stalked her. Witnesses testified how they repeatedly chased him away from her place, where he peered through her windows and hid in her apartment.

Sonnier's defense was that someone else was responsible for the slayings. Flowers' blouse and a towel belonging to her were found in a trash can in Sonnier's apartment, and his DNA was identified on hair and blood found in her apartment.

Sonnier was scheduled to die in February, but his execution date was withdrawn by Harris County prosecutors because of the Supreme Court's pending review.

Chamberlain is set to die June 11 for the rape and slaying of a Dallas woman, Felicia Prechtl, at the apartment complex where they both lived. Her death occurred in August 1991, one month before Sonnier's crime. Chamberlain acknowledges the killing, blaming drugs and alcohol.

Charles Hood is to die June 17 for a double slaying in the Dallas suburb of Plano in 1989. He maintains his innocence in the deaths of Ronald Williamson and Traci Lynn Wallace.

At least three Texas executions are scheduled for July, four more for August, three for September and one in October.

Among the inmates with dates is Michael Rodriguez, who has ordered his appeals dropped and is volunteering to die for his role in the murder of a suburban Dallas police officer on Christmas Eve 2000. Rodriguez was one of the infamous "Texas Seven" convicts who escaped from a prison south of San Antonio and were caught five weeks later in Colorado. Irving officer Aubrey Hawkins was killed by the escapees during the robbery of a sporting goods store. Rodriguez's execution date is Aug. 14.