By Michael Graczyk
Associated Press Writer
HOUSTON — The longest-serving prisoner on Texas’ death row won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday that his case must go back to his trial court in Dallas.
Ronald Chambers, 53, has been on death row for more than 32 years, sent there in 1976 for the abduction and fatal shooting of 22-year-old Mike McMahan, a Texas Tech University student from Washington state.
Without comment, the high court Monday declined to review a federal appeals court’s decision to send back Chambers’ case because questions used by jurors to decide his death sentence were improper.
The Texas attorney general’s office had appealed a ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was based on a Supreme Court decision last year involving jury instructions given to three other condemned Texas prisoners.
“The 5th Circuit had reversed his death sentence,” Jordan Steiker, one of Chambers’ lawyers, said Monday. “The state appealed and the state lost. Now it goes back for resentencing.
“This is very good for him.”
Dallas County prosecutors will have to decide whether to seek the death penalty at a new punishment trial.
In April 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that jurors in three Texas cases were not allowed to give sufficient weight to factors that might cause them to impose a life sentence rather than death.
In those cases, condemned prisoner LaRoyce Lathair Smith, convicted of the 1991 torture-slaying of a fast-food worker in Dallas, won a punishment reversal from the high court. In a similar ruling, the justices also overturned the death sentences of Brent Ray Brewer, convicted of fatally stabbing an Amarillo man during a robbery in 1990, and Jalil Abdul-Kabir, convicted in 1988 of strangling a San Angelo man during a robbery.
The same questions – no longer used – were part of jury instructions used by a Dallas County jury in 1992 that decided Chambers should die.
That trial was Chambers’ third for the abduction and fatal shooting of McMahan. Each trial resulted in a death sentence.
His first conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because a state-appointed psychiatrist who questioned him failed to warn Chambers his responses would be used against him.
He was retried in 1985 and convicted again. The Supreme Court threw out that conviction four years later, ruling prosecutors improperly excluded three black people from his jury. Chambers is black.
In January 2007, Chambers was set to die for the punishment reached at his third trial. The lethal injection, however, was stopped until the justices ruled on the cases of the three other inmates who were challenging the jury instructions.
Chambers, from Dallas, arrived on death row Jan. 8, 1976, three days before his 21st birthday.
He and a friend, Clarence Ray Williams, confronted McMahan on April 11, 1975, as McMahan and his date, Deia Sutton, were leaving a Dallas club.
At gunpoint, the couple was driven to a levee on the Trinity River south of downtown Dallas, where their captors pushed them down an embankment. Testimony showed Chambers fired five shots at them, then pounded McMahan in the back of the head 10 to 20 times with a shotgun as Williams choked Sutton and tried to drown her in the muddy water. Chambers also struck Sutton three times with the shotgun before both attackers left.
Sutton, however, survived and within days both Chambers and Williams were under arrest. Williams, from Dallas, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and murder, accepted two life sentences and remains in prison. Sutton has testified at each of Chambers’ trials.