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March 01, 2011

Texas Death Row Prisoner in Need of Counsel

The Project is currently seeking counsel for a mentally ill 31-year-old Salvadoran national, “HM”, who is on death row in Texas.  HM was convicted of killing his two children in what was intended to be a murder-suicide.  After shooting his children, HM shot himself, an injury he survived after spending a week in a hospital. 

The trial of the case was plagued by irregularities that denied HM a fundamentally fair hearing.  HM was found guilty of capital murder after he was prevented from presenting expert testimony about his mental state that could have afforded an evidentiary basis for conviction on a lesser offense.  During the trial, the court decided to take a week-long recess based on the request of a jury member.  Defense counsel did not have advance warning of this recess and had made plans to bring in witnesses from El Salvador during this time to testify on HM’s behalf.  The case was ultimately delayed for over a month, and on the day that the court picked to resume testimony, the defense’s mental health expert was unavailable.  Trial counsel insisted that she could not call any witnesses without the expert’s testimony being presented first and she refused to rest her case.  Counsel was thereafter held in contempt and arrested, but she nevertheless refused to participate in the proceedings.  After releasing defense counsel from custody and confirming that she would not call any witnesses, the trial court recalled the jury and advised them that “you have heard all the evidence that you're going to hear . . . in this matter.”

The court asked whether there was any legal reason it could not sentence HM, to which defense counsel responded, “I can’t proceed, Judge.” The court then sentenced HM to death.

On appeal, the court of criminal appeals held there was no due process violation “[e]ven if a denial of a motion for continuance results in a defendant presenting no evidence.”  One judge dissented.

HM was appointed state habeas counsel who has effectively provided no representation.  The petition he filed contains only three pages of text, and that text is merely a list of claims without any factual allegations.  Substitute counsel is sought to represent HM in his post-conviction proceedings, with the hope that the current petition can either be expanded or replaced with a new petition.  It is hoped the representation could continue in federal habeas proceedings, where the preserved due process claims relating to the trial court’s scheduling could be litigated. 

Attorneys interested to learn more about HM’s case should contact Project Staff Attorney Emily Williams at 202-662-1735 or [email protected].