"Court rejects inmate’s request to delay execution," is Allan Turner's report in today's Houston Chronicle.
A federal court Thursday refused to delay Tuesday’s execution of Willie Pondexter Jr., who was sentenced to die for the 1993 murder of an 85-year-old Northeast Texas woman.
Represented by lawyers from the Houston office of the Texas Defender Service, Pondexter, 33, claimed that Texas prison officials and Polk County sheriff’s officers wrongfully interfered with efforts to collect information for a clemency petition.
Polk County is the home of the Allan Polunksy Unit, which includes the state’s death row.
Pondexter was sentenced to die for fatally shooting Martha Lennox after burglarizing her Clarksville home.
The panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit gave no reason for its decision.
“I think the Fifth Circuit realized that Pondexter’s legal position is unassailable, and so they decided to run out the clock — to let him die so that they do not have to address the merits of his allegations,” said Texas Defender Service lawyer David Dow.
Named in the civil rights lawsuit considered by the court were top prison officials, Polunsky Warden Tim Simmons and Polk County Sheriff Kenneth Hammack. Pondexter had sought a stay of execution so that his lawyers could interview prison guards to support the contention that he has “become a wholly different man” on death row.
In sworn affidavits accompanying the lawsuit, Harvard Law School students Ariel Rothstein and Andrew Freedman, working with Houston lawyers, detailed their Jan. 17 encounter with a sheriff’s deputy after they left the home of a prison guard they had tried to interview.
The AP report by Michael Graczyk is, "Inmate set to die next week loses federal lawsuit," via the San Antonio Express-News.
The suit also said Polk County sheriff's deputies last month detained two legal interns working for the inmate and intimidated them as they tried to gather information favorable to Pondexter from corrections officers.
"I think the Fifth Circuit realized that Pondexter's legal position is unassailable, and so they decided to run out the clock - to let him die so that they do not have to address the merits of his allegations," one of Pondexter's lawyers, David Dow, said.
State attorneys had argued the court had no legal jurisdiction to consider the case and that condemned inmates have no constitutional right to clemency. They also noted the law students questioned by deputies were not arrested.
Top executives of the corrections agency, the Polunsky Unit warden and the Polk County sheriff were named as defendants in the suit that was rejected.
Dave Mann has more details in a Texas Observer web-only article, "Condemned Inmate: Prison Officials Won't Let Guards Speak Out."
Pondexter was sentenced to death for taking part in the 1993 killing of 85-year-old Martha Lennox in the northeast Texas town of Clarksville. Pondexter, then 19, and James Lee Henderson broke into Lennox’s home, shot her in the head and made off with $18, according to state records.
Pondexter’s guilt is not in doubt. In their case for clemency, his attorneys have contended that Pondexter has changed in his years in prison from a violent young gang member into a peaceful, responsible adult. Many condemned prisoners have made this argument. What makes Pondexter different is that prison guards on death row are vouching for him.
Pondexter has endured almost half his life on death row. The correctional officers in the Polunsky Unit are the people who perhaps know him best. At least half a dozen of them told Pondexter they didn’t want to see him executed and that they would speak up on his behalf.
Last fall, after Pondexter’s execution date had been set, Dow and his legal team set out to talk with correctional officers who knew Pondexter. Hardly any were willing to talk for fear of retaliation. “Those prison guards that we have reason to believe would give affidavits that Pondexter is not dangerous, that he’s fully rehabilitated, that there’s no reason to execute him--they have been prevented from talking to us and we have been prevented from interviewing them," Dow says.
Lloyd Coker, the only corrections officer who did speak with the legal team, told Kate Black, an attorney with the Texas Defender Service, that “Willie Pondexter has never posed any threat within the prison, even when given the opportunity,” according to an affidavit Black filed with the federal lawsuit. “I have seen some guys on death row who are extremely dangerous, and some of them I believe ought to be executed. Willie Pondexter isn’t one of those people…..he could safely live out his days in a structured environment. In fact, if Willie Pondexter were out here in the free world, I would be willing to give him a job working on my property.”
Although Coker spoke with Pondexter’s attorneys, he told them he was too scared to sign any documents advocating for clemency for fear he would incur retaliation. “If people are not talking, it is probably because they are scared to lose their jobs or scared of being written up,” Coker told Black, according to her affidavit. “And I likely wouldn’t talk to you about another inmate either. But Willie Pondexter is one of the few inmates I’d be willing to speak up for. ... I would really hate to see him go.”
Earlier coverage begins with this post.