Yet another death row inmate in Texas may in fact not be guilty of the crime that put him there. Robert Gene Will was convicted in the 2000 slaying of Deputy Sheriff Barrett Hill in Harris County, Texas. Will and another man, Michael Rosario, were caught trying to break into a car in December 2000. Both men fled, but Will says he was apprehended and placed in handcuffs by police. That’s when someone shot Deputy Sheriff Hill.
Will says that the shooter couldn’t have been him, on account of his hands literally being tied behind his back. And his lawyers argue that Rosario, the accomplice in the attempted car burglary, has admitted to at least five people that he was the one who pulled the trigger that morning. And now, Will’s case is attracting even more attention after a U.S District Judge voiced his own reservations about the initial conviction and the appeal that was conducted. The Houston Chronicle reports:
“The questions raised during post-judgment factual development about Will’s actual innocence create disturbing uncertainties …,” [Judge Keith] Ellison wrote in a Jan. 17 memorandum. “On top of the considerable evidence supporting Will’s innocence and the important errors in the trial court, there must also be addressed the total absence of eyewitness testimony or strongly probative forensic evidence. With facts such as these, and only circumstantial evidence supporting Will’s conviction and death sentence, the court laments the strict limitations placed upon it.”
Judge Ellison was limited in his ability to hear new evidence before making a decision on whether to grant an appeal to Will, and despite his expressed dismay over the lower court’s verdict, was forced to deny the appeal on a technicality. But Will and his defense attorneys still have avenues open to them, including a recent Supreme Court ruling that allows for convicted criminals to, in some cases, challenge the competency of their state-assigned appeals lawyers. For Will, whose appointed attorney filed a legal brief that copied extensively from one he filed previously for a completely different case, the Supreme Court decision offers a ray of hope.
Texas has a well-earned reputation for unsympathetic governors who are undeterred at overseeing more executions than any other state in the country. Current Gov. Rick Perry presided over 235 executions during his time in office, by far the most of any governor in the modern era. This despite several questionable convictions that call into question the use of the death penalty at all.