Judges rip Texas courts in death penalty case - KSWO 7News | Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Judges rip Texas courts in death penalty case

Houston_ A federal appeals court blasted Texas courts for refusing to hold a hearing to consider evidence that a convicted killer may be mentally disabled, therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ordered a federal evidentiary hearing for Michael Wayne Hall, who was sentenced to die for the 1998 slaying of a 19-year-old woman abducted as she rode her bicycle to work.

The panel criticized both the trial court and the state's highest criminal appeals court for relying on written arguments rather than holding an open evidentiary hearing in Hall's case.

"The facts before us are a core manifestation of a case where the state failed to provide a full and fair hearing and where such a hearing would bring out facts which, if proven true, support ... relief," the judges said.

The ruling late Monday reversed the findings of a federal district judge who upheld the state courts' rejection of defense attorneys' claims that Hall is mentally disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mentally disabled people may not be executed.

"The life or death of a defendant, determined without hearing cross examination to resolve disputed material facts, here violates the core principles of due process and Hall's right of confrontation," Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in his own concurring opinion and dissent.

Higginbotham said in his dissent he believed the state should be ordered to hold a hearing within 120 days. Failure to do so should negate Hall's death sentence, the judge said.

"The reality is that determining mental retardation in general and certainly under (the Supreme Court's ruling) engages assessments of testifying witnesses as well as relevant records," Higginbotham wrote. "It is the hearing in open court which offers the opportunity to expose the very core of the evidence, its accuracy, and its weight.

"The judges in each step of Hall's case and collateral review decided they could sort through the complicated scientific evidence and conflicting lay opinions themselves, without the aid of adversarial truthseeking."

Among the evidence in Hall's appeal are three intelligence tests that show his IQ below 70, considered the threshold for retardation.

Hall, now 29, and a companion, Robert Neville Jr., were both convicted and sentenced to death for the slaying of Amy Robinson, a mentally impaired woman who once worked with them at a Dallas-area supermarket. They took her to a remote area and shot her with a rifle as she begged for her life.

Neville, 31, was executed in 2006.

Michael Graczyk, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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