HOUSTON (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent the cases of six Texas death row inmates, including one of the infamous "Texas 7" gang of escapees, back to a lower court for reviews of whether attorneys in earlier stages of appeals let the men down.
The decisions are in line with last week's ruling in another Texas case where the justices, in a 5-4 vote, said a condemned prisoner had deficient legal help early because appeals lawyers didn't raise challenges that his trial lawyers were ineffective.
The high court returned the cases to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for review. None of the six has a pending execution date, although some had come close to being put to death in the past before their punishment was delayed by the courts.
Among the condemned prisoners is Donald Newbury, 51, one of seven inmates who broke out of a South Texas prison in 2000. One fugitive killed himself as Colorado authorities closed in on the gang. The remaining six were convicted of killing a suburban Dallas police officer Aubrey Hawkins during a Christmas Eve robbery in Irving in 2000. Two of the six already have been executed.
Another prisoner who won a review Monday was John Balantine, 44. He was convicted of the 1998 slayings of Mark Caylor Jr., his ex-girlfriend's 17-year-old brother, and two other teenagers — shooting all three while they slept in Amarillo. In 2011, Balantine got within an hour of execution before the high court stopped it.
"We look forward to representing Mr. Balentine in further litigation," his appeals lawyer, Lydia Brandt, said Monday.
In appeals, Brandt contended lawyers failed to uncover evidence of Balentine's abusive and poor childhood. She also said that Balentine's earlier appeals lawyers didn't question that and allowed the opportunity to do so to expire under court rules.
The other death row inmates whose cases have been sent back are all Harris County cases. They include:
—Carlos Ayestas, 43, a Honduran national convicted of robbing and strangling a 67-year-old Houston woman, Santiaga Pareque, at her apartment in 1995.
—Bill Douglas Gates, 63, convicted of the 1999 rape and strangling of a 41-year-old woman, Elfreda Gans, at her Houston apartment.
—Anthony Haynes, 34, condemned for the 1998 shooting death of off-duty Houston police Sgt. Kent Kincaid. Last October, Haynes got within about 2½ hours of lethal injection before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a reprieve.
—Willie Washington, 54, who's been on death row since 1986 for the 1985 fatal shooting of Kiflemariam Tareh, 27,a Houston grocery store employee, during a robbery where $100 was taken. Tareh was an Ethiopian political refugee.
Last week's precedent-setting case for Monday's decisions involved convicted killer Carlos Trevino, 38, a San Antonio street gang member condemned for the 1996 gang rape and fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old Linda Salinas.
Trevino's attorneys argued his trial lawyers were deficient for not investigating evidence of a horrific childhood that could have swayed the Bexar County jury to give him life in prison rather. Then, lawyers in the initial stages of his appeal were equally deficient for not raising the claim that the trial lawyers were ineffective, Trevino's lawyers argued to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court disagreed with state attorneys who contended Texas law provided ways to accommodate the challenges and that the appeal was without merit.