Texas Appeals Court Rejects Appeal Of Innocent Man On Death Row For 28 Years

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org
David Dow, Texas Innocence Network, (713) 222-7788; ddow@texasdefender.org

Texas Appeals Court Rejects Appeal Of Innocent Man On Death Row For 28 Years

Death Sentence Upheld Despite Overwelming Evidence Pointing To Innocence

AUSTIN, Texas - The
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today rejected the appeal of an
innocent man represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the
Texas Innocence Network (TIN) who has been incarcerated on Texas's
death row for more than 28 years. 

Max Soffar, whose mental illness
left him particularly vulnerable to giving a false confession, stands
convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly killing four victims
during an armed robbery in a Houston bowling alley in 1980. Soffar
appealed on the grounds that the trial court in 2006 prevented him from
proving his innocence to the jury.   

"Once again, this case demonstrates
that serious error riddles the criminal justice system," said Brian
Stull, staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. "When
the state seeks a person's death as punishment, we must demand a
process that produces accurate and reliable results. When an innocent
man sits on death row for 28 years having never received a fair trial,
when juries are not allowed to hear the evidence, and when appeals
courts do not intervene to fix these problems, no one can trust the
process." 

In 1981, Soffar was convicted and
sentenced to death based upon a false confession, but a federal court
overturned the conviction in 2004 because his trial lawyers failed to
argue that Soffar's confession contradicted the other evidence in the
case.

In today's opinion, the court ruled
that the false confession given by Soffar should stand, and that his
constitutional rights were not violated when his 2006 trial court judge
refused to allow him to show that the only correct details in his false
confession were not the result of his involvement in the crime but
instead had been obtained through widely disseminated media reports.
The prosecution claimed, in an argument to the jury, that these details
— although broadcast throughout Texas — could only have been known by
the person responsible for the crime. Making an argument that not even
the prosecutor made on appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said
in today's decision that even if the trial court judge erred by
refusing to allow Soffar to utilize the media reports as part of his
defense, the error was "harmless." 

False confessions are among the
leading causes of wrongful convictions, and evidence shows that people
like Soffar who are impulsive, have low intelligence, low self esteem
and are prone to fantasy and disassociation are the most likely
candidates for false confessions.
 
The appeals court today also
rejected Soffar's argument that the trial judge erred by refusing to
admit evidence that another man confessed to committing the murders,
and that this man committed a series of highly similar robbery-murders
in Tennessee. The man, Paul Reid, formerly of Houston, now awaits
execution on Tennessee's death row. A photograph of Reid, taken in
Houston nine days after the crime, strongly resembles the composite
sketch the police prepared based on the description of the sole witness
to the crime. 

Soffar's false confession also contradicts the account of the sole surviving witness and other reliable evidence.

"This case represents a textbook
example of a miscarriage of justice," said David Dow of TIN. "From a
false confession to two unfair trials and death sentences, the problems
with Max Soffar's case show the grave failures of the criminal justice
system. With the court's ruling today, Texas comes closer to executing
another innocent man."

Soffar intends to appeal his
conviction and death sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as
pursue any and all additional appeals.

A copy of today's decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/capital-punishment/texas-court-criminal-appeals-decision-max-soffar-case

Additional information on Max Soffar's case is available online at: www.aclu.org/capital/innocence/29715res20070430.html

Lawyers on this case are Stull of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and Dow and Jared Tyler of the Texas Innocence Network.

 

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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