By Michael Graczyk Associated Press
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The fate of a man facing execution this evening for his role in a fatal robbery was in the hands of Gov. Rick Perry after the state parole board recommended the death sentence be commuted to life in prison.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles made the rare recommendation Wednesday for Robert Lee Thompson, 34, who was not the triggerman in the fatal shooting of a Houston convenience store clerk. The shooter, Sammy Butler, was convicted and received life in prison.
Perry was not required to follow the recommendation of the board, whose members he appoints.
“The governor has received the board’s recommendation but has not made a decision,” spokeswoman Allison Castle said Wednesday.
Thompson’s lawyer, Patrick McCann, also had an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the lethal injection, which would be the 23rd this year in Texas and second in as many nights.
The parole board’s 5-2 vote came in response to a petition from McCann, who argued that the case was similar to that of Kenneth Foster, who was also convicted and sentenced to die under the law of parties. Under that law, offenders conspiring to commit one felony like robbery can all be held responsible for another ensuing crime, such as murder.
Perry commuted Foster’s sentence to life two years ago. Foster became only the second inmate since Texas resumed carrying out executions in 1982 who won a recommendation from the parole board as his execution loomed.
In the first case, in 2004, Perry rejected the board’s recommendation and mentally ill prisoner Kelsey Patterson was executed.
Perry’s explanation for commuting Foster’s sentence was that Foster and his co-defendant were tried together on capital murder charges for a slaying in San Antonio. In Thompson’s case, he and Butler were tried separately for the shooting death of 29-year-old Mansoor Bhai Rahim Mohammed.
At least half a dozen other Texas inmates have been executed under the law of parties.
The U.S. Supreme Court since 1982 has barred the death penalty for co-conspirators who don’t themselves kill. The justices made an exception in 1987, however, ruling that the Eighth Amendment didn’t prohibit the execution of someone who plays a major role in a felony that results in murder and whose mental state is one of reckless indifference.
McCann’s appeal before the Supreme Court raised questions about the competence of Thompson’s trial lawyers, arguing that jurors who decided Thompson should die never learned of his abusive childhood, an upbringing by a mentally ill and drug- and alcohol-addicted mother and a household where he was “raised in and among felons.”
Evidence at his trial showed Thompson, who is black, told detectives he went on a two-month crime spree in 1996 because God told him to do something about Middle Eastern and Asian store clerks who discriminated against blacks.
The killing was one of three he acknowledged to authorities. In two of the slayings, Thompson told detectives he was the gunman.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Thompson said he wasn’t against punishment for crime.
“That’s the foundation of our system,” he said. “But I am against the unfairness of the system, the way it picks and chooses.”
Thompson, a 10th-grade dropout, was 21 at the time of Mohammed’s shooting. Another clerk at the same store was shot four times by Thompson but survived.
“I feel remorse now that I’ve grown and understand certain things now,” he said. “But as far as my motives, I’m not going to feel guilty about standing behind my community.
“I wasn’t thinking of this being wrong. It was more: You’re not doing us right,” he said of the store clerks. “They rob us. They watch us like crazy. We’re all victims.”
Asked if he’d ever killed someone, he replied: “No one died in front of me. I’ve shot at people. Different things happen.”
According to testimony at his trial, Thompson and Butler walked into a Houston convenience store and Thompson demanded money from 32-year-old clerk Mubarakali Meredia. Even though Meredia complied, he was shot. Thompson went around the store counter and shot him three more times, then placed his .25-caliber pistol at Meredia’s head and fired again but the gun was out of ammunition. Instead, court documents show he used a cash register drawer to bash Meredia in the head.
Butler opened fire, hitting Mohammed once, then fired again through the passenger side window of their car as he and Thompson were fleeing. Mohammed was killed with the second shot. Jurors decided Butler didn’t intend to kill Mohammed and gave him life in prison rather than death.
Meredia survived his wounds and testified against Thompson. Evidence showed he and Butler were responsible for at least eight other convenience store robberies, three of them resulting in deaths.
Thompson blamed the spree on the recklessness of youth.
“It was impulsive … nothing planned,” he said. “Just — Bam!”