By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The last time the Texas Seven were together, their crime spree claimed a life. Last week, members of the group came together to try to save one.
Randy Halprin was one of the seven escaped convicts who robbed an Irving Oshman's SuperSports store on Christmas Eve 2000. Halprin carried a gun, had a codename and carried stolen rifles to the getaway car.
Around 6:30 p.m., toward the end of the heist, Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins arrived on the scene after responding to a "suspicious activity" call. He was then shot 11 times before his lifeless body was dragged from his patrol car and run over by the fugitives as they fled in a Ford Explorer.
That is what we know for sure.
The Texas Seven had escaped from Connally Unit near Kenedy, on December 13, 2000. They proceeded to carry out three robberies in Texas, including the Oshman's, before being apprehended near Colorado Springs, Colorado, in late January 2001.
The six surviving members (Larry Harper committed suicide just before capture) were found guilty of murdering Hawkins and were sentenced to death by Dallas County juries. Halprin, the fifth to be tried, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced on June 12, 2003.
Anton and Udashen recently filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Halprin's behalf. The writ, filed after Halprin's capital murder conviction was affirmed on direct appeal, states that "no reasonable juror could find that [Halprin] killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill Officer Hawkins..." They argue that the imposition of the death penalty in Halprin's case violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
On May 22, Judge Rick Magnis of the 283rd District Court of Dallas County began hearing testimony to determine whether, based on new evidence presented by Halprin's attorneys, Magnis should recommend to the appeals court that it grant the writ and spare Halprin's life.
"We have strong mitigating evidence about his involvement and about the kind of person he is, compared to the other guys. If a jury heard it, it would be hard for them to give the death penalty," Udashen said.
Some of the new evidence is based on the testimony of three ex-Texas Seven members: Michael Rodriguez, Patrick Murphy and the mastermind of the group, George Rivas. None of the three were approached by Halprin's first trial team to testify on his behalf.
The first two days of the hearing were conducted on the 14th Floor of the Earle Cabell Federal Courthouse in Dallas, but none of the witnesses were present. Each of the three convicted murderers testified via closed circuit TV from inside the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, where death row inmates string out their final days. Halprin was not present either in person or by monitor. He is being housed in the Polunsky Unit as his death row appeal winds its way through the system.
Under direct examination by the defense, his three ex-cohorts described Halprin as the embodiment of uselessness. All three stated that Halprin's contribution to the escape was minimal with him mostly serving as a lookout. During the three robberies, Halprin bungled whatever assignment he was given.
Rodriguez referred to Halprin as a "180-pound child." Rivas called him an "unnecessary weight." Murphy described him as the "low man on the totem pole."
Each witness testified that he examined Halprin's pistol after the shootout at Oshman's and found it had not been fired. Rivas said he clearly remembers this because, after receiving two gunshot wounds during the altercation, he initially believed that Halprin had shot him. He ordered a weapons check and examined Halprin's .357 pistol. There was no stench of gunpowder, and the smell of the gun-cleaner used on the weapon prior to the robbery was still pungent.
Halprin also was shot during the Oshman's robbery and became so uncooperative and lethargic, according to the testimony of the men, that some of the gang thought about killing him. Rodriguez recalled telling Rivas while they were hiding out in Colorado that Halprin's death might be necessary because he was such a "nuisance and he was useless."
Rodriguez said if he could have spoken with Donald Newberry (another Texas Seven member) before the group's capture, they would have "distributed [Halprin] in dumpsters all around Colorado Springs."
During cross-examination, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office attempted to portray Halprin as an integral cog in the felons' escape. The prosecution brought up prior testimony that Halprin verbally and physically abused Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees whom the group had captured during its break out.
Only Rodriguez remembered Halprin physically assaulting any employees, when Halprin tackled a field officer who entered a maintenance shed.
Prosecutors also gained admissions from the witnesses that Halprin had, in fact, been active during at least two of the robberies, had carried a gun during the Oshman's theft and had received an equal share of the proceeds from each of the perpetrated crimes .
"[Halprin] was convicted as a party," Assistant District Attorney Lisa Smith said. "You can get the death penalty as a party, so he didn't have to shoot the weapons to get the death penalty."
The prosecution strengthened its case by undermining the credibility of the three testifying death row inmates. Murphy admitted that he was Halprin's father-in-law. Rodriguez first told the prosecution that he did not want to come to Dallas to testify, that he didn't enjoy the process. But then Smith showed him an entry from Halprin's online diary. The entry described a meeting between Halprin and Rodriguez in which Rodriguez had told the defendant about a prior time he testified in Dallas. He raved about being able to see trees and people on the van ride north. Rodriguez then told the court that Halprin's lawyers had assured him that testifying for Halprin would result in another trip to Dallas. That has not yet proven to be the case.
Rivas, responding to questions posed by Judge Magnis, admitted to feeling responsible and guilty for Halprin being condemned to death. "They showed their true colors, who they really are," Smith said. "They're a team; they'll always be a team. Together until the end."
Last week's hearing marked the first stage in what is typically a prolonged post-conviction process in capital cases. The court continued the hearing without setting a new date in order to give lawyers an opportunity to further investigate the case and present testimony.