Tuesday, February 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Texas judge recommends vacating conviction of Jewish death row inmate

The judge who presided over Randy Halprin's capital murder trial called him a "kike" and made headlines in 2018 when he admitted he had set up a trust rewarding his children if they married white, heterosexual Christians.

(CN) — A Jewish Texas death row inmate has convinced a state judge his punishment is unconstitutional because the trial judge insulted him with anti-Semitic remarks, as revealed in testimony by the former judge’s family members, one-time staffers and childhood friends.

Dallas County District Judge Lela Mays ruled late Monday in Randy Halprin’s habeas case that he did not receive a fair trial in 2003 before Judge Vickers Cunningham and recommended the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacate Halprin’s conviction and sentence.

Mays, a Democrat, also urged the appeals court to conclude Halprin was denied free exercise of religion, due process and equal protection rights protected by the First and 14th Amendments.

Citing the testimony of Cunningham’s younger brother, Bill Cunningham, and another relative whose identity was withheld under a protective order, Mays gave gritty details in her ruling of Vickers Cunningham’s racism that took root long before then-Governor Rick Perry appointed him in 2001 to preside over the capital murder trials of Halprin and four other men who were part of a notorious prison break.

Halprin, 45, was serving a 30-year sentence for injuring a child in December 2000 when he and six other inmates escaped from a prison in Kenedy, Texas.

Known as the “Texas Seven,” the men shot white Irving policeman Aubrey Hawkins on Christmas Eve in 2000 after stealing 44 guns from a sporting goods store.

Halprin testified in his trial that he did not help plan the escape, nor did he shoot Hawkins. He said he “freaked out” and ran off when some of the other escapees opened fire on Hawkins.

Nonetheless, the jury found him guilty of capital murder under a controversial Texas statute called the law of parties, which permits such convictions for all accomplices in a murder, even when they did not participate in killing the victim.

But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Halprin’s execution in October 2019 and asked the trial court to explore his claims Cunningham had called him anti-Semitic slurs.

Mays held an evidentiary hearing in late August where Bill Cunningham testified his older brother developed his racist views in childhood under the tutelage of a Dallas pastor who was a segregationist.

Bill and Vickers' parents were prominent members of the Dallas County Republican Party. At a Thanksgiving dinner a month after Vickers' judicial appointment by Perry for the Texas Seven cases, his relatives “exhibited delight” at the assignment and saw it as a “boost for the entire family’s political aspirations,” according to Mays’ ruling.

For Cunningham, there was no question what the outcomes would be of the Texas Seven defendants’ trials, and he made that known to his family at that holiday dinner.

“The credible testimony of Judge Cunningham’s family members establishes that Judge Cunningham was determined ‘to get … the death penalty for applicant [Halprin] in part because he viewed applicant as merely a Jew and in part because getting a death sentence for applicant and his co-defendants would be politically advantageous for Judge Cunningham,” Mays wrote in her findings of fact on Halprin’s habeas petition.

Tammy McKinney, a childhood friend of Cunningham who served as his court coordinator during the Texas Seven trials, testified that Cunningham is a “lifelong bigot” and that he had called Halprin a “kike” after his trial.

The judge also routinely denigrated other minorities, calling Black people “nigger” and “jigaboo” and Middle Eastern people “sand nigger,” according to testimony from his kin cited in Mays’ order.

Cunningham, who resigned from the bench in 2005 to run for Dallas County district attorney, made headlines in 2018 when he admitted in an interview with the Dallas Morning News he had created a trust in 2010 that rewards his children with distributions if they “marry a person of the opposite sex, that’s Caucasian, that’s Christian.”

His statements led the newspaper to revoke its endorsement of his candidacy for a Dallas County Commissioners Court seat and he lost in the Republican primary.

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office took over prosecution of Halprin’s case in September 2020 after Mays granted Dallas County DA John Creuzot’s motion to recuse himself and his office.

The prosecution called three witnesses for Halprin’s habeas proceedings to vouch for Cunningham’s character, including his former bailiff, who testified that either they did not believe Cunningham harbored anti-Semitic or racist views, or they had not seen any signs of his bias.

But Mays found their testimony not credible or of no value because they lacked training to recognize signs of prejudice.

And even the Tarrant County DA’s Office conceded Halprin had “presented sufficient credible direct evidence to establish that Judge Cunningham was biased against him at the time of the trial based on applicant’s Jewish identity,” Mays’ ruling states.

The case now heads back to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is expected to follow Mays’ recommendation to vacate Halprin’s conviction and sentence.

The case would then fall to Dallas County DA Creuzot to decide whether to request a capital murder retrial of Halprin, to seek lesser charges against him or to drop the prosecution entirely.

He had a conflict of interest in Halprin's habeas proceedings because potential witnesses to Cunningham's bias worked in his office.

Once the habeas writ is resolved involvement of the Tarrant County DA's Office will end, its spokeswoman Anna Tinsley Williams said in an email.

Halprin’s attorney Tivon Schardl lauded Mays’ decision.

“Due process and equality before the law found their champion in Judge Mays today, as did the people of Dallas County and the State of Texas. As the State conceded, the testimony presented to Judge Mays proved that Judge Vickers Cunningham was biased against Randy Halprin because of Mr. Halprin’s Jewish identity,” Schardl said in a statement.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...