In two weeks, two Texas executions have been stopped by the courts.
On Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the Thursday execution of Mark Robertson, who was convicted nearly 30 years ago in the Dallas shooting deaths and robbery of an elderly woman and her grandson.
His appellate lawyers asked the Texas court to stop his death because Robertson’s original trial lawyer discriminated against potential jurors who were black, claiming they would “not be sympathetic” toward his client. Robertson’s trial was held before an all-white jury.
The court ruling stayed the execution of Robertson, who is white, pending further order without any comment.
Robertson, 50, first asked the court to look into the claim of racial discrimination more than 20 years ago, but the Court of Criminal Appeals denied his appeal. Last week, his lawyers asked the court to reconsider the denial, in part because recent court decisions have condemned racial discrimination in the criminal justice system — like in the Texas case of Duane Buck.
In 2017, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that Buck’s death sentence was tainted by racist testimony that indicated Buck was more likely to be a future danger to society because he is black. In an oft-cited opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts indicated any racial bias in testimony affects fairness, claiming “some toxins can be deadly in small doses.” Buck has since been resentenced to life in prison.
“By now there should be no confusion on this matter — racial discrimination in the administration of justice is intolerable,” said Jeremy Schepers, Robertson’s current attorney, in a statement last week before the ruling.
Less than two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the Texas execution of Patrick Murphy after he claimed the state's policy prohibiting Buddhist chaplains in the execution chamber was religious discrimination. Since then, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has changed its policy to allow no advisers of any religion into the death chamber.
Robertson was first sentenced to death in 1991 in the 1989 murders of 81-year-old Edna Brau and her 19-year-old grandson, Sean Hill. Robertson, 21 at the time, was friends with Hill and had gone over to his house and used drugs, according to court records. Later, while Robertson and Hill were fishing behind the house, Robertson shot Hill once in the head. He then went inside and killed Brau before stealing Hill's drugs and Brau's purse, jewelry and car.
He was arrested more than a week later in Las Vegas in Brau's car and confessed to police, telling them he "didn't know what to do" and was relieved to be arrested "because I didn't have to run anymore."
Robertson received the death penalty for Brau's death. He also confessed to the murder of a 19-year-old convenience store clerk, Jeffery Saunders, which he committed 10 days before the other killings. He took $55 from the register.
Thursday was Robertson's second execution date. He was previously set for death in 2003 but his execution was stopped as the courts wrestled with jury instructions in death penalty cases. In 2008, the Court of Criminal Appeals tossed Robertson's death sentence and he got a new punishment trial — where jurors opt for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole or death. He was again sentenced to death.
Two men have been executed in Texas so far this year. With Robertson's stay, the courts have stopped the scheduled deaths of three men in 2019.