Courts Stall Inmate's Desire to Die

By: AP
By: AP

LIVINGSTON, Texas - The first letter, neatly handwritten on lined paper, arrived at the federal courthouse in Dallas nearly a year and a half ago with a simple address: U.S. District Clerk's Office.

"I am a college graduate and have no delusions what will occur as an end result of these proceedings," death row inmate Michael Rodriguez wrote in the first of a series of notes to the courthouse.

Rodriguez, one of the notorious Texas Seven, a group of inmates who escaped from state prison in 2000 and killed a police officer while on the lam, has dropped his appeals and wants to die.

He can't.

A federal judge signed off on Rodriguez's request on Sept. 27, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review the constitutionality of lethal injection in a Kentucky case. But now a state judge won't set an execution date for Rodriguez until after the high court rules on the Kentucky case.

"We probably won't be able to set the date for the first time until probably late next year at the earliest, even though he has volunteered and is otherwise good to go," prosecutor Lisa Smith said.

Rodriguez told a psychologist who interviewed him before a competency hearing that he "had to accept his death sentence and submit to it as payment in order to be forgiven and obtain salvation."

Rodriguez and six other inmates overpowered workers at a southern Texas prison on Dec. 13, 2000. They took the workers' clothes, grabbed 16 guns from the prison armory and fled in a stolen truck.

On Christmas Eve, while robbing a sporting goods store in a Dallas suburb, they shot officer Aubrey Hawkins 11 times. Police caught up with the gang a month later in Colorado.

Because of publicity surrounding the case, Rodriguez's murder trial was moved 100 miles northeast of Dallas to Franklin County, where a jury sent him to death row in May 2002 for his role in Hawkins' slaying. Rodriguez admitted pulling the 29-year-old officer from his patrol car.

At the time of the escape, he was serving a life sentence for hiring a hit man to kill his wife.

One of the escaped inmates killed himself before he could be captured. The five others are on death row but are still appealing their sentences.

Rodriguez's letters to the federal court became so frequent that he began one in May to Irma Carrillo Ramirez, the magistrate who would preside over his competency hearing, with, "Hello it is me again."

"It is still my intention to vacate all appeals and to proceed with the process," Rodriguez wrote in August. "I am truly sorry for my actions and wish to express solely that to the Hawkins family. ... Since all the issues seem to be covered I will close for probably the last time."

Hawkins' widow declined a request from The Associated Press for comment.

Rodriguez also declined to talk to the AP. In one of his letters to Ramirez, he stated, "I do not give media interviews."

Rodriguez's lawyer, Danny Burns, had urged his client to continue appeals.

"Others will not benefit from your precedent if we get you relief," Burns told Rodriguez in a letter. "If we can get you a new trial, there is always a chance of getting you an opportunity for freedom someday. At this time it does not seem likely, but one never knows what the future will bring.

"Don't throw your life away," Burns pleaded unsuccessfully.

This isn't the first time a court challenge has stalled executions in Texas, the nation's leader in capital punishment. For about a year ending in early 1997, lethal injections were halted while the state's highest criminal court reviewed a new state law intended to speed up the capital punishment process. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals finally gave its OK, 37 inmates were executed that year.

In the Kentucky case before the Supreme Court, justices will consider whether the mix of three drugs used to sedate and kill prisoners and the way they are administered can cause pain severe enough to violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Arguments in the case will take place early next year and a decision should come by late June. The court has allowed only one execution to go forward since agreeing to hear the case.

In Texas, where injection procedures are similar and trial court judges set execution dates, State District Judge Rick Magnis told prosecutors he'll hold off setting a date for Rodriguez until a decision from the high court, said his court coordinator, Kissi Jones.

"He's not doing anything out of the ordinary," Smith said. "I think the judge is doing what most judges are, which is everybody is waiting to see what happens."

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