Death-Row Inmate Gets One Last Chance

     HOUSTON (CN) — A Texas inmate can argue that his death sentence is invalid because prosecutors did not disclose their deal with a jailhouse snitch who testified that he had confessed to murder, a federal judge ruled.
     A Harris County jury convicted Chuong Duong Tong of capital murder in March 1998 and a judge sentenced him to death.
     The jury found Tong guilty of killing Houston police Officer Tony Trinh, who was off duty working at his parents’ Houston convenience store on April 6, 1997, when Tong entered, pulled a Glock handgun and demanded Trinh’s wallet and jewelry.
     “Tong attempted to open the cash register. Trinh then identified himself as a police officer, showed Tong his badge, and told Tong that he ‘was not going to get away with this.’ Tong shot Trinh once in the head at close range,” according to U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas’ summary in her Sept. 30 order.
     Tong stole Trinh’s jewelry and fled to a waiting car.
     Police arrested Tong, then 21, several months later and he was charged with capital murder. He claimed in a statement he gave police that he accidentally shot Trinh while jumping over the store counter.
     He said he took apart the gun after fleeing from the store and showed police the storm drains where he dumped threw the parts.
     “While in a jail holding tank, Tong told a fellow inmate, Stephen Mayeros, why he was in jail,” Atlas’ 78-page ruling states. “Mayeros asked Tong how close he was when he shot Trinh, and Tong responded by touching his finger to Mayeros’s forehead and saying ‘bang.’ When Mayeros asked Tong if he felt bad about killing Trinh, Tong replied that he felt terrible and cried himself to sleep, and then laughed.”
     Several Houston police officers were clients of Mayeros’ home-cleaning business when he was arrested for driving without a license and placed in the cell with Tong.
     Mayeros testified that after Tong confessed to him, he mentioned the conversation to one of his police clients, who put him in touch with a detective in the Houston Police Department’s homicide division.
     Mayeros’ charges were dropped 10 days after he gave a statement to police.
     Tong asked prosecutors for information about any deals they made with witnesses before trial, but they did not disclose their agreement with Mayeros.
     “Tong now contends that Mayeros admitted to Tong’s prior habeas counsel, John McFarland, that he got a deal for testifying against Tong,” Atlas’ order states.
     Prosecutors must disclose evidence favorable to the defense under the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Brady v. Maryland.
     Finding that Tong’s Brady claims should be vetted at a hearing, Judge Atlas ordered his defense and Texas prosecutors to submit a joint report proposing a discovery, briefing and hearing schedule by Oct. 31.
     Though Tong raised 16 categories of habeas claims, Atlas approved only his Brady claims. She dismissed all his other claims with prejudice.
     “We’re happy that we’re getting a hearing,” Tong’s attorney Jonathan Landers said in an interview, noting how rarely prisoners win relief in habeas cases.
     “We’re disappointed that our other claims weren’t granted,” he said.
     Landers mentioned another Harris County case involving Linda Carty, the only United Kingdom citizen on death row in the United States, and an unusual post-conviction hearing she got in July after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals told a state judge to consider allegations of prosecutorial misconduct made in witness affidavits.
     Harris County Judge David Garner ruled on Sept. 1 that prosecutors did withhold evidence from Carty, but that that was not enough to prejudice the jury.
     “The State was operating under a misunderstanding of Brady at the time of the Carty trial. … The Harris County District Attorney’s Office did not believe that impeachment or exculpatory evidence needed to be disclosed if the prosecutor did not find the testimony credible,” Garner wrote.
     Garner’s order says prosecutors did not tell Carty’s counsel that they had agreed a witness could avoid prison if Carty received the death penalty.
     A jury convicted Carty of capital murder for the death of Joanna Rodriguez, after prosecutors persuaded them Carty suffocated Rodriguez so she could steal her newborn son.
     A judge sentenced Carty to death in February 2002, four years after Tong received his death sentence.
     Landers said Carty’s case illustrates a pattern of obstruction at the District Attorney’s Office.
     “Harris County during this time period was having some problems at the DA’s office of not notifying attorneys about deals they made with clients,” the attorney said.
     In capital murder cases, Texas district attorneys’ offices represent the state in state post-conviction appeals; the Texas Attorney General’s Office handles federal habeas appeals.
     Harris County Assistant District Attorney Lori DeAngelo is assigned to Tong’s state case. She said Tong’s death sentence should stand even if Judge Atlas decides to suppress Mayeros’ testimony.
     “There is more than enough evidence to uphold Tong’s conviction, even without Mayeros’ testimony,” DeAngelos said in an email. “If a hearing is actually held on the issues Judge Atlas set out in her order, I am confident that the Attorney General’s Office will do an excellent job handling the hearing and will ultimately prevail.”

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