Texas prepares for its 400th execution

An old leg injury has surfaced as a key element in an appeal that seeks to keep a condemned Texas inmate from being executed this evening.

An old leg injury has surfaced as a key element in an appeal that seeks to keep a condemned Texas inmate from being executed this evening.

Johnny Ray Conner’s pending execution would be the 400th in the state since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume, prompting an unusual direct appeal from the European Union urging a death penalty moratorium.

Conner was convicted of murdering a Vietnamese immigrant during a Houston convenience store robbery. His attorneys argued before the US Supreme Court that his trial attorneys fell short and did not pursue medical evidence about the injury that could have exculpated him.

Conner, 32, claims his limp is evidence that he could not be the man who witnesses identified as the gunman who ran from the scene of the killing in Houston nearly 10 years ago.

Kathyanna Nguyen, 49, was fatally shot in the hold-up attempt while she was in a glass-wrapped cage intended to protect her from such an attack.

Conner would be the 21st condemned prisoner to receive lethal injection this year in Texas and the 400th since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the death penalty. Both totals by far are the highest among US states that have the death penalty.

The prospect of Conner becoming number 400 prompted an unusual direct appeal to Gov Rick Perry from the EU, which opposes capital punishment and bans it in its 27 nations, urging him to stop Conner’s execution and impose a death penalty moratorium.

“Texans long ago decided that the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens,” Perry spokesman Robert Black replied, brushing aside the suggestion. “While we respect our friends in Europe, welcome their investment in our state and appreciate their interest in our laws, Texans are doing just fine governing Texas.”

On January 5, US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district judge’s decision granting Conner a new trial because his trial lawyers did not pursue medical evidence about the leg injury he suffered several years before Nguyen’s death.

Conner’s trial lawyers said the injury never was an issue because Conner told them his broken leg long had been healed. The appeals court said there was no testimony at his trial about his limp and none of his lawyers ever noticed a limp.

Kenneth Williams, a University of Miami law professor now representing Conner, argued in his appeal before the Supreme Court that because trial attorneys failed to look into the leg injury, they were “not in a position to undermine the eyewitness testimony further and …. Not able to argue to the jury that there was reasonable doubt that Mr. Conner was the assailant.”

State lawyers argued Conner downplayed the injury in discussion with his trial attorneys and never told them his leg was a problem.

It was mid-afternoon Sunday, May 17, 1998, when customer Julian Gutierrez went inside Nguyen’s store to pay for some gasoline and walked in on the robbery. Gutierrez tried to run back outside and was shot in the shoulder. Nguyen was shot in the head.

Gutierrez survived and was among at least three people to identify Conner, who left behind a fistful of cash. His fingerprint also was found on a bottle at the shooting scene.

Conner declined to speak with reporters in the weeks preceding his scheduled punishment. On an anti-death penalty Web site, he called his conviction an “atrocious act of barbarity against the law and mankind.”

Conner had a history of assaults and drug offences, including cocaine possession when he was 12.

At his capital murder trial, a jury took less than an hour to convict him, then deliberated about five hours before returning with the death sentence.

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