By Michael Graczyk
HOUSTON — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday overturned a lower court’s ruling that upheld a judge’s instructions to jurors about to deliberate a second inmate’s role in a 2007 escape attempt that left a corrections officer dead.
The 7-2 decision from the state’s highest criminal court favors arguments made by Walker County prosecutors seeking a capital murder conviction against John Falk Jr. The ruling would appear to clear the way for Falk’s trial to resume after being on hold for about a month.
District Attorney David Weeks contended the jury instructions from state District Judge Kenneth Keeling were too limiting by allowing the jury to consider Falk a conspirator and not party to the death, improperly increasing his burden of proof.
Falk, 45, is facing a possible death sentence in the slaying of Wynne Unit Officer Susan Canfield, 59. Canfield died of head injuries after being thrown from a horse that was hit by a truck stolen at the Wynne Unit.
Inmate Jerry Martin, who was driving, already has been convicted in the case and was sentenced to death. Falk, who was nearby, is charged with being equally liable for Canfield’s death.
Falk’s trial was moved from Huntsville to Bryan, where testimony began Nov. 26. All the evidence has been presented, but the trial’s on hold as prosecutors have challenged jury instructions related to the Texas law of parties, which says an accomplice and the actual killer are equally liable.
A state appeals court in Waco had allowed Keeling’s instructions and Weeks took his appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
“The trial judge’s task in a jury trial is not to determine whether the state is correct that the defendant is liable under the law of parties,” the court said in its majority opinion written by Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller. “Rather, the trial judge’s task is simply to determine whether the evidence raises the issue. It is up to the jury to resolve conflicts in the evidence.”
The order also specifies that jury instructions aren’t required to show Falk should have anticipated how Canfield could have been killed.
In a dissent, Judge Tom Price said it was “extraordinary” for the appeals court to intercede in an ongoing trial and order specific jury instructions.
“I certainly would not slam on the brakes in the middle of a capital murder trial — especially at the point at which the jury has heard all the evidence and awaits only instruction from the trial court and argument of the parties before retiring to deliberate — in order to address the question,” he said.
A gag order from Keeling prohibited attorneys involved in the case from commenting on Wednesday’s ruling.
At the time of the September 2007 escape attempt, Martin was serving 50 years for attempted capital murder out of Collin County in suburban Dallas. Falk had been in prison since 1986 with a life sentence for a murder conviction in Matagorda County.
Both inmates had been classified as minimum security prisoners based on good disciplinary records and were assigned to do field work outside the prison at the northern edge of Huntsville.
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They sped off in the stolen truck, dumping it about a mile away, then carjacked a woman in a bank drive-thru. Huntsville police pursuing them shot out a tire in the car and the inmates fled on foot. Falk was apprehended within an hour, and Martin was caught hiding in a tree about 3½ hours later.