Texas Schedules Thirteen Executions in Last Five Months of 2019

Introduction Up

The thirteen executions scheduled in Texas in the last five months of 2019 raise troubling questions as to whether the state is executing the most morally culpable individuals for the worst of the worst crimes or the most vulnerable prisoners and prisoners who were provided the worst legal process. Among those scheduled for execution were two men with strong claims of innocence, two who did not directly kill anyone, but were sentenced to death under Texas’ controversial “law of parties,” and eight who exhibited significant mental or emotional vulnerabilities as a result of intellectual impairments/brain damage, serious mental illness, or chronic trauma. Three prisoners were 21 or younger at the time of their crime. Four prisoners scheduled for execution had raised claims that their attorneys did not provide them with constitutionally adequate representation, and six received other forms of deficient legal process — including false testimony at their trials, trial before a racially or religiously biased judge, or execution dates that interfered with ongoing judicial review.

Texas’ aggressive execution schedule also illustrates its status as an outlier in its use of the death penalty and the stark differences in approach between the decisionmakers empowered to end prisoners’ lives and those evaluating whether new defendants should be sent to death row. Nationally, executions have remained near historic lows for the past five years, but Texas has carried out more than any other state. In 2018, Texas executed more prisoners than the rest of the United States combined and, if most of the scheduled executions go through, could do so again in 2019.

A person sentenced to death in Texas is three times more likely to be executed than someone sentenced to death in the rest of the country. This pace of executions continues despite a significant decline in the number of new death sentences being imposed in the state. Fewer death sentences were imposed in the Lone Star State in the last five years than in any other five-year period in the modern era of capital punishment.

The table below presents key information about each case, and is followed by brief case narratives.

LAST UPDATED: November 7, 2019

Prisoners Scheduled for Execution Up

NameExecution DateCountyAge at CrimeRace of Def.Race & Sex of Victim(s)Innocence Claim?Law of Parties?Intellectual Disability/Brain Damage?Serious Mental Illness?Chronic Trauma?
Dexter Johnson8/15/19Harris18BAM, AFYesYes
Larry Swearingen8/21/19Montgomery27WWFYes
Billy Crutsinger9/4/19Tarrant48W2WFYes
Mark Soliz9/10/19Johnson28LWFYesYes
Robert Sparks9/25/19Dallas33BBF, 2BMYesYes
Stephen Barbee10/2/19Tarrant37WWF, WM
Randy Halprin10/10/19Dallas23WWMYes
Randall Mays10/16/19Henderson47WBM, WMYes
Ruben Gutierrez10/30/19Cameron21LLF
Justen Hall11/6/19El Paso21WWFYes
Patrick Murphy11/13/19Dallas39WWMYesYes
Rodney Reed11/20/19Bastrop28BWFYes
Travis Runnels12/11/19Potter30BWMYes

Key: A = Asian, B = Black, L = Latino/a, W = White, M = Male, F = Female

Dexter Johnson Up

Status: STAYED by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Dexter Johnson received a stay of execution to litigate claims that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. His claim of intellectual disability had previously been blocked because courts applied an unconstitutional standard that required him to score 70 or below on IQ tests. In addition, he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he had turned 18 just days before the crime for which he was sentenced to death.

Larry Swearingen Up

Status: EXECUTED

Despite serious questions about the veracity of the forensic evidence used to convict Larry Swearingen, he was executed on August 21. Swearingen presented evidence from numerous forensic experts who said the condition of the victim’s body when it was discovered suggested she had been killed during a time that Swearingen was being held in jail. Two forensic scientists who testified against Swearingen at his trial overstated or mischaracterized their findings.

Billy Crutsinger Up

Status: EXECUTED

Billy Crutsinger raised a claim that Texas provided him with an incompetent appeals lawyer who repeatedly filed frivolous claims and cut and pasted contradictory claims and arguments from prior clients’ court pleadings. He argued in state court that the provision of an incompetent lawyer violated his 14th amendment due process right of access to the courts. In federal court, he argued that he had been improperly denied funding necessary to investigate and present his ineffectiveness claim.

Mark Soliz Up

Status: EXECUTED

Mark Soliz claimed that he should be ineligible for execution because he has fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that impairs brain development. He also presented mitigating evidence of chronic trauma from his impoverished and violent upbringing. He saw his aunt murdered when he was young, and began using drugs as a child.

Robert Sparks Up

Status: EXECUTED

At the time his execution date was set, Robert Sparks still had an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, making the execution warrant premature. He alleges that A.P. Merillat, an expert who testified against Sparks, gave false testimony about the prison system and said that Sparks would pose a threat if sentenced to life in prison. His appeal also alleges that a bailiff biased the jury by wearing a necktie with a picture of a syringe on it while the jury was deciding the sentence. Sparks has also been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, paranoid delusions, and anti-social personality disorder. A Texas federal court denied him funding to hire a neuropsychologist to evaluate him for intellectual disability, despite evidence of cognitive deficits associated with intellectual disability, an IQ score of 75, and difficulty in special education classes.

Stephen Barbee Up

Status: STAYED by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Police claim that Stephen Barbee confessed during an unrecorded conversation with a police officer in a bathroom. Barbee says the confession was coerced and that police withheld videotape of his interrogation. An appellate judge rubberstamped the state’s version of events, “without so much as changing a comma,” according to Barbee’s attorney, Richard Ellis. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Barbee’s execution on September 23, 2019 to determine whether whether to apply the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McCoy v. Louisiana—which prohibits defense counsel from conceding a defendant’s guilt over his protestations of innocence—to Barbee’s case.

Randy Halprin Up

Status: STAYED by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Randy Halprin was convicted under the law of parties for his participation in a prison escape and robbery in which his co-defendants killed a police officer, but he maintains that he did not fire a shot. He has an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that alleges the trial judge who sentenced him to death expressed racist and anti-semitic views and used racial slurs. He allegedly described Halprin, who is Jewish, as a “f***ing Jew” and a “G*****n k**e.” On August 22, Halprin’s lawyers filed a Motion for Stay of Execution in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and in the Texas federal courts. Jewish organizations and interfaith leaders have called for a stay of execution so Halprin can have a trial free of bias. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on September 23 declined to consider Halprin’s claim on procedural grounds.

On October 4, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution and directed a Dallas trial court to consider his claim that his judge’s religious bias violated Halprin’s right to a fair trial.

Randall Mays Up

Status: WARRANT WITHDRAWN

Randall Mays’ attorneys have argued that he is incompetent to be executed due to mental illness. In 2015, he received a stay of execution on his competency claim, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later found him competent.

Henderson County District Judge Joe Clayton withdrew the execution warrant to allow time to “properly review all medical records submitted” regarding Mays’ attorneys’ claim that Mays is incompetent to be executed.

Ruben Gutierrez Up

Status: STAYED

Ruben Gutierrez says that he was present during the robbery of Escolastica Harrison, but maintains that he did not kill her. He is seeking DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene.

On October 22, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution due to irregularities in the issuance of the execution warrant.

Justen Hall Up

Status: EXECUTED

During a 2019 appeal in which Justen Hall’s attorneys sought DNA testing of crime scene evidence, Hall told the court “I’m ready to get it over with, you know,” in reference to his death sentence. His attorneys say that his medical records show “numerous examples of his psychiatric condition deteriorating, basically, during his time at the Polunsky unit,” and said that if he formally tries to drop his appeals, they will challenge his competency to do so. He attempted suicide while on death row.

Patrick Murphy Up

Status: STAYED

Patrick Murphy was convicted under Texas’ law of parties for his participation in a prison escape and robbery in which his co-defendants killed a police officer. Murphy maintains that he left the scene before the officer was killed. Murphy had a previous execution date stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court when he challenged Texas’ policy of allowing only Christian or Muslim spiritual advisors to be present in the execution chamber. Murphy, who is Buddhist, had requested his spiritual advisor be present. Texas responded to the Court’s decision by barring all religious advisors from the execution chamber. A psychological evaluation of Murphy from 2014 revealed chronic childhood trauma.

On November 7, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted a stay to allow time to consider Murphy’s challenge to Texas’ religious advisor policy. The stay is appealable.

Rodney Reed Up

Status: PENDING

Rodney Reed, who is African American, maintains his innocence in the killing of Stacy Stites, a young white woman with whom he was having an affair. He has sought DNA testing of evidence that could prove his innocence. His lawyers also have challenged testimony regarding the time of Stites’ death, presenting affidavits from forensic experts who say she was killed several hours before a state expert claimed. That evidence also supports Reed’s innocence claim. Reed’s lawyers say that Stites’ fiance, a former police officer who later jailed for sexual offenses against women he had stopped, may have killed Stites and framed Reed after learning of their affair.

Travis Runnels Up

Status: PENDING

Travis Runnels has filed a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, arguing that his trial lawyers failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that might have persuaded the jury to spare his life. Runnels says that mental health testing and evidence of his traumatic and unstable upbringing might have persuaded the jury to sentence him to life. He also argues that the prosecution presented false testimony from prison-system expert A.P. Merillat, who misrepresented the conditions in which Runnels would be housed if sentenced to life and suggested that Runnels would pose a continuing threat if sentenced to life in prison under those conditions.