(CN) – A Texas appeals court granted a new trial Wednesday for a death-row inmate because his attorneys disregarded his claims of innocence and, convinced he was delusional, told a jury he had killed his wife and mother-in-law.
The day after Christmas 2009, prosecutors claim Albert James Turner walked into his in-laws’ home and cut the throats of his wife Keitha Turner and his mother-in-law Betty Jo Frank.
Four of his children were at the home at the time. His then-12-year-old daughter called 911 and told the dispatcher she had seen him stab her mother and grandma, according to the case record.
Turner went on the lam. Police arrested him two months later in North Carolina, where he was using an alias, after his photo ran on a promo for the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.”
A jury in Fort Bend County, part of Greater Houston, convicted him of capital murder in 2011 and he was sentenced to death.
Turner, a 6-foot, 255-pound African-American, clashed with his court-appointed defense attorneys Pat McCann and Tyrone Moncriffe before and during his trial, once accusing them of trying to poison his coffee, court records show.
He claimed they were involved in a conspiracy to get him convicted with the mayor of Kendelton, Texas, with whom he thought his wife was having an affair, along with the mayor’s cronies, a police chief, the trial judge and prosecutors.
Turner believed the mayor had hired someone who looked like him to kill his wife and mother-in-law.
But convinced of his guilt, McCann told the jury in opening statements Turner “can’t admit what he did, to himself or anybody else,” and said Turner’s murder of his wife was a crime of passion, and he had accidentally killed his mother-in-law, so the proper conviction was for murder, which would have precluded the death penalty.
After Turner testified that he did not kill the women and that his daughter had mistakenly fingered him as the killer, McCann moved for a competency hearing. The trial judge denied his motion.
Turner appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing the trial court had erred in not granting him a competency hearing.
The TCCA agreed last year and remanded the case for a retrospective competency trial, which ended with a jury finding he was competent during his trial.
Despite the TCCA’s upholding of the verdict on Turner’s competency, the appellate court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McCoy v. Louisiana to toss Turner’s conviction and grant him a new trial Wednesday.
In that case, Louisiana prosecutors charged Robert McCoy with first-degree murder on allegations he had killed his mother, stepfather and his estranged wife’s son.
Though McCoy maintained his innocence, his attorney Larry English told the jury he was guilty, but argued he did not deserve the death penalty because the murders were not premeditated.
In a 6-3 decision overturning McCoy’s convictions and remanding for a new trial, the Supreme Court ruled in May that McCoy’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated.
“A defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
Noting the “striking” similarities between McCoy’s and Turner’s cases, the TCCA in a 7-1 ruling found the case record clearly shows Turner’s attorneys knew their defense strategy contradicted his statements that he did not murder the victims.
Judge Mary Lou Keel dissented but did not write a dissenting opinion. Judge David Newell did not participate in the case.
McCann said he is pleased with the order, but still does not believe Turner was competent to stand trial.
“I respectfully disagree with the Court of Criminal Appeals that he is or ever was competent, but however he gets a new trial, I am thrilled,” he said in an email.
Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey said Turner will be returned to Fort Bend County and jailed on capital murder charges. Healey did not seek re-election this year, so he said the decision on whether to seek the death penalty for Turner will fall to his successor Brian Middleton. Healey also said he is considering filing a motion for rehearing with the TCCA.
McCann said he hopes Middleton, who takes office in January, will resolve the case without a retrial.
“I am … hopeful that the new DA in Fort Bend will consider the tragedy that the Turner family has already endured, and put this case to rest without seeking death again. They should not have to re-live this again,” the defense attorney said.
There are 260 Texas death row inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
There will be one less by Thursday, as the state is set to execute Robert Moreno Ramos by lethal injection Wednesday night for the February 1992 slayings of his wife, his 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
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