His has been a long and twisted tale, with a career on Texas death row. Soffar has always maintained his innocence. He was originally convicted in 1981of killing three people during a bowling alley robbery. His court appointed lawyer was the notorious Joe Cannon, known as the sleeping lawyer of Harris County courts.
In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the conviction, ruling Cannon had been ineffective. Soffar was retried in 2006, and again convicted and sentenced to death. His defense attorney was barred from presenting some evidence by the trial judge.
On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction and death sentence in the direct appeal of the trial. The per curiam ruling is here, in Adobe .pdf format.
The matter has not attracted Texas media attention, but today's Tennessean reports, "Paul Reid's role in crime not an issue in Texas," by Kate Howard.
The conviction of a Texas man for a triple murder was upheld Wednesday despite questions about whether Nashville death row inmate Paul Reid was involved.
Max Soffar was convicted in 1981 for killing three people and wounding a fourth during a robbery at a bowling alley in Houston and given the death penalty.
An associate of Reid, who has been sentenced to seven death sentences for murders in Tennessee, wrote to Soffar's attorney in 2000 saying that Reid had confessed to him that he shot four people in a Houston bowling alley on U.S. Highway 290 before the pair went on a crime spree.
Soffar's conviction was overturned by a federal court, but he was re-tried and convicted again in 2006.
No evidence was introduced at that trial about the allegation that Reid had confessed, and his attorneys challenged that decision to the Texas Court of Appeals along with several other issues, including mental health issues and whether the confession was coerced.
The appeals court rejected all of Soffar's claims and upheld his sentence.
Reid was scheduled to be executed in 2006, but a federal judge blocked his execution and ordered a competency hearing.
The ACLU issued a news release, "Texas Appeals Court Rejects Appeal Of Innocent Man On Death Row For 28 Years. Death Sentence Upheld Despite Overwelming Evidence Pointing To Innocence," Wednesday afternoon, following the issuance of the CCA ruling. The release is available via Common Dreams.
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 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.
Soffar will continue to push his innocence in another phase of post-conviction review. In Texas, a death penalty case automatically receives a direct appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The direct appeal is limited to issues raised through the trial transcript; was an objection properly ruled on, was something improper said, and other issues found in the words of the trial. The other phase of post-conviction review inolves the filing of a habeas corpus petition, in which other issues are considered.
One of Soffar's steadfast supporters in Texas entertainer and sometimes politician Kinky Friedman. Friedman has announced his intention to run for governor in the March 2010 Democratic primary. He wrote, "Max Soffar: A Jew on death row," which appeared in the February 2, 2005 issue of the Jerusalem Post. Here's an excerpt:
I've seen Cool Hand Luke and The Green Mile, but I'm not a prison reform
activist. I'd never interviewed anyone on death row until the middle of
January, when I picked up a telephone and looked through the clear plastic
divider at the haunting reflection of my own humanity in the eyes of Max
Max doesn't have a lot of time and neither do I, so I'll try to keep it brief and to the point.I'm sure we'll be hearing more about Max Soffar in the future.
"I'm not a murderer," he told me. "I want people to know that I'm not a murderer. That means more to me than anything. It means more to me than freedom."
On February 2, Max is scheduled to be re-arraigned in Houston before District Judge Mary Lou Keel for the murders of three youths at a Houston bowling alley in 1980. Although Max has been granted a new trial, his release from prison is far from a certainty. His defense team is concerned about critical evidence destroyed by the District Attorney's office and the difficulty of finding witnesses after 23 years, and his lawyers estimate the costs of defending him at a new trial at $250,000 or more.