Death row inmate sues Texas parole board for having too many ex-LEOs

Joseph Garcia is slated to die on Tuesday, close to two decades after busting out of a maximum-security prison and going on a crime spree that left a police officer dead


By Keri Blakinger
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON, Texas — A 'Texas 7' escapee scheduled for execution filed a lawsuit this week alleging that there are too many men and too many former law enforcement officials on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Joseph Garcia, who is slated to die Tuesday, currently has a plea for clemency in front of the seven-member board, asking them to recommend a commutation nearly two decades after he was sentenced to die for a prison break-out and crime spree that left a police officer dead.

The board would normally be expected to issue a recommendation Friday - two business days before the planned execution. But mid-day Thursday, Garcia's attorneys filed a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the board from making a decision until a more representative set of members can be appointed. Currently, the suit notes, the board is "stacked with individuals whose background places them firmly on the side of the State and law enforcement."

A spokesman for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles did not respond to a request for comment.

By law, the there's a limit on the number of former prison employees who can be on the parole board, though it hasn't always been that way. When the legislature first began regulating the board's membership in 1997, the only requirements were that members had to be representative of the "general public" and that they had to have lived in Texas for two years.

In the late 1990s, a number of inmates sued the parole board, including notorious Houston ax killer Karla Faye Tucker, who alleged that the whole clemency process was so "inadequate" as to violate her due process rights. She lost, but in another lawsuit that same year a federal court found that "a flip of the coin would be more merciful than [the Board's] votes."

On the heels of public criticism and media scrutiny, the legislature added a new requirement in 2003, limiting the number of former Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees who could be on the board at any time to three.

Even though the current board includes only two former TDCJ employees, attorneys allege, all but one of the seven voting members has a law enforcement background, including past jobs as police officers and county sheriffs.

"Eighty-five percent of the Board members, then, are either former employees of TDCJ, law-enforcement officers, or both," Garcia's lawyers wrote. "The failure of this Board to be 'representative of the general public' is highlighted by the fact that approximately 0.4% of the Texas population are law-enforcement officers and 0.15% are TDCJ employees."

The seventh board member is a former adviser to Gov. Greg Abbott.

On top of that, six of the board's members are men, a distribution that's also not representative of the general population.

Given all that, the lawsuit asks for an injunction to bar the parole board from making a decision on clemency until the governor appoints a more representative board.

The newly filed lawsuit came hours after Garcia's attorneys sent the governor a letter begging for a 30-day reprieve in light of media reporting regarding the source of the state's execution drugs.

Citing unidentified documents, a BuzzFeed News report on Wednesday identified the Houston compounding pharmacy believed to be one of two that mixes up the batches of pentobarbital used in the Huntsville death chamber.

Since the Braeswood-area business had a track record of safety violations documented by the state, Garcia's attorney's asked the governor for a reprieve to give them time to investigate.

The governor's office did not respond Thursday to the Chronicle's request for comment on the letter.

At the time of the notorious escape that eventually landed Garcia on death row, he was already in prison for a crime out of Bexar County, where he stabbed a man at least a dozen times. Since then, he's repeatedly framed the slaying as self-defense and not murder.

In December 2000, he was serving time at the Connally Unit when he teamed up with six fellow prisoners to plot the biggest break-out in Texas prison history.

In a carefully orchestrated plot months in the making, the seven inmates took hostages, busted into the prison armory, stole weapons and stormed out of the unit in a prison truck. After a crime spree across the state, on Christmas Eve the men held up an Oshman's sporting goods store and ended up killing Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins.

Afterward, the crew fled and were captured a month later in Colorado, living in a trailer park and posing as Christian missionaries. Though one of the men killed himself rather than surrender, the other six were captured and sent to death row. Three have since been executed.

Though Garcia said he never fired a shot, he was convicted under the law of parties and sentenced to die. If his appeals, request for reprieve, and clemency plea all fail, he'll become the 12th Texas prisoner put to death this year.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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