Death Row Inmate's Sentence Reduced to Life

Delma Banks Jr., who has been on death row for three decades, on Wednesday accepted a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2024 under an agreement with Bowie County prosecutors.

Banks, 53, was convicted of the 1980 shooting death of 16-year-old Richard Whitehead. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Banks’ death sentence in 2004, finding that Bowie County prosecutors who tried the case suppressed evidence and deliberately covered up their mistakes for decades. A trial to decide a new sentence for Banks was scheduled for October.

Bowie County District Attorney Jerry Rochelle told the Texarkana Gazette that Whitehead’s family wanted the case to end.

“They were ready for some closure,” Rochelle told the newspaper. “After 32 years of dealing with the offense, the death of their son, the original trial, the appeals and the prospect of a new trial, they were ready for it to end.”

Banks, who is black and was 21 when the crime was committed, was convicted of killing Whitehead, who was white, so that he could take his car. Police found Whitehead’s body in a park near Texarkana and soon discovered that Banks had been with him on the last night he was seen alive. There were no witnesses to the killing and no physical evidence linking Banks to it. The prosecution’s case relied largely on the testimony of Robert Farr and Charles Cook, both admitted drug users; Cook also had convictions for robbery by assault and forgery.

Banks had no criminal history, and people who were with him and Whitehead on the last night that Whitehead was alive testified there was no ill will between the two. Nonetheless, an all-white Bowie County jury convicted Banks, who was sentenced to death.

Almost 20 years after the trial, in 1999, a federal judge forced Bowie County to open its case records. Banks’ lawyers discovered a transcript showing that Cook’s testimony had been extensively rehearsed and coached. They also learned that the police had paid Farr, an informant who had an unreliable record, $200 for his role in the investigation.

Farr, in an affidavit, said he was afraid that the police would arrest him on drug charges. In exchange for the money, and to avoid jail, he agreed to set up Banks, he said. Prosecutors allowed Cook and Farr to lie in court and never told jurors that their information was false, the U.S. Supreme Court found. 

In arguments before the Supreme Court, state lawyers did not dispute that Cook had been coached and that Farr was paid for his help. But they said Banks’ lawyers were at fault for not uncovering the information sooner. At a hearing in the case last year, prosecutor James Elliott, who tried Banks in 1980 and had vowed to see his death sentence restored, said that during the original trial he had not known that Farr was a paid informant or that Cook’s testimony had been coached.

In previous motions, Banks' had sought to also challenge the jury's decision that he was guilty, based on the court's findings that prosecutors had erred in the trial. But in the agreement signed Wednesday, Banks agreed not to attempt any additional challenges of his conviction. And he waived his right to seek clemency. He will be 65 when he is eligible for parole, and he will have served 44 years in prison. 

George Kendall, attorney for Delma Banks, issued a brief response to Wednesday’s agreement: “After 32 years, the State has decided to no longer seek the death penalty in this case. We hope the resolution of this case will bring closure to all concerned.”

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