Texas man to be executed this week in auto mechanic's death

AP News
Posted: Jun 17, 2015 1:50 PM
Texas man to be executed this week in auto mechanic's death

HOUSTON (AP) — About eight hours after relatives found 75-year-old James Syvertson fatally beaten inside his auto repair shop in Tyler, Texas, police in nearby Longview pulled over a man driving Syvertson's Chevrolet in front of a known drug house.

The driver was Gregory Russeau, a parolee who authorities say was on a drug binge. He was carrying Syvertson's auto registration, and the keys that Syvertson's family said were always clipped to his belt loop were in the ignition.

Russeau, who was later convicted and sentenced to death for the May 2001 killing, is scheduled for execution Thursday evening. No court appeals are pending.

If the lethal injection is carried out, the 45-year-old Russeau would be the ninth prisoner executed this year in Texas, the nation's busiest capital punishment state.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case in October. Russeau's appeals attorney, Donald Vernay, said he had no plans to make last-minute pleas to the courts to halt the execution.

"As far as guilt goes, I guess driving around in the guy's car is not a good idea," Vernay said.

Syvertson's wife of 44 years went to the garage around lunch time on May 30, 2001. She found it locked, his car parked outside, and she got no answer when she knocked on the door.

She returned later in the day with her daughter, who had a key — and they found Syvertson face down in a pool of blood.

He'd been hit in the head several times with a blunt object. His pants pockets were turned inside out, and his wallet and keys were missing, along with several valuable tools from the shop.

His car also was now gone.

At his trial, witnesses testified seeing Russeau walking in the neighborhood of the auto shop that day. Russeau's DNA, palm print and fingerprint were found in the shop, according to investigators.

Witnesses also said Russeau told them he'd been getting high on crack cocaine that day and was looking to buy more, and had asked about renting Syvertson's Chevy to others in exchange for the drug.

Russeau's attorneys acknowledged he stole the car but argued someone else was responsible for the slaying, and that DNA evidence against Russeau had been planted by a detective.

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Jurors didn't buy it and convicted him of capital murder.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld his conviction but threw out his death sentence in 2005, saying evidence of his disciplinary infractions while in jail and in prison was improperly used during closing arguments.

But jurors in a second punishment trial again sentenced him to death.

Court documents show that Russeau had felony and misdemeanor convictions for organized criminal activity, burglary, theft and possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to prison in 1988, but was paroled after serving nearly three years of a 10-year sentence.

"It's a sad situation for anyone to lose his life," Clifton Roberson, Russeau's lead trial lawyer, said last week.

Russeau's execution is among at least six set for Texas in the coming months. Prison officials say they have enough pentobarbital, the sedative used for lethal injections, to carry them out.

The availability of such drugs has become a problem in some states as manufacturers refuse to sell their products for use in executions.