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Questions surround convictions in Telford Unit murder case

by Lynn LaRowe | May 25, 2008 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated May 24, 2008 at 9:24 p.m.
A man who was convicted and sentenced to death for strangling a fellow inmate at the Telford Unit in New Boston claims prosecutors violated the law during his trial.
The allegations have led a federal judge to ask Bowie County District Judge Ralph Burgess to take another look at the case.
William “Stay Puff” Speer was already serving a life sentence for shooting the father of a friend in Houston when he and Anibel “Bigfoot” Canales Jr. strangled Gary “Dirty” Dickerson to death in his Telford Unit cell on July 11, 1997.
Dickerson’s death was allegedly motivated by the men’s connection with the Texas Mafia, a prison gang.
Canales was serving a 15-year sentence for an aggravated sexual assault involving violence against a stranger. He and Speer were tried in Bowie County for Dickerson’s murder and sentenced to death. Their convictions were obtained largely as the result of other inmates who testified as witnesses for the state.
Defense attorney Craig Henry alleges that one inmate received a change in classification as a gang member as a result of his cooperation and efforts to obtain evidence incriminating Speer and Canales. That inmate was living in administrative segregation at the Telford Unit because he had been identified as a member of the Texas Mafia. Declassification from gang status meant the inmate would go from 23 hours of daily solitude with one hour of recreation to having a cell mate and living in the general population where he could socialize with other inmates and enjoy more liberty.
Speer’s trial was held in Bowie County before District Judge Jack Carter in October 2001. Burgess now presides over the court where Speer was convicted and sentenced to die. Canales was tried in 2000 and received a death sentence as well.
Since then, Speer has exhausted his appeals at the state level. Henry filed a request for post conviction relief in federal court in May 2005. However, Henry filed a request to have the proceedings halted at the federal level and moved back to the state District Court for review because he believes the state knowingly presented false testimony at Speer’s and Canales’ trials.
“Evidence developed during the post-conviction investigation by counsel for Mr. Canales demonstrates that the state suppressed material favorable evidence and knowingly presented false testimony during Mr. Speer’s trial, namely that the prisoners called to testify on behalf of the state had not received benefits in exchange for their testimony,” Henry wrote.
The case was prosecuted by Mark Mullin of the Special Prosecutors Office in Huntsville, Texas. He strongly denied the allegation he withheld information regarding incentives given to inmate witnesses at Speer’s trial.
“That did not happen and I’ll stand by that when I stand in front of God,” Mullin said. “If someone can show that I knowingly hid information about deals, I will step down as special prosecutor.”
The SPO handles many cases that stem from alleged criminal conduct in the Texas prison system. Guards, civilian staff and visitors have been prosecuted by the SPO in addition to prisoners who have committed new crimes while behind bars.
During Speer’s trial, jurors were told the inmates who testified against him received nothing in exchange for their testimonies. That belief would presumably give jurors the impression the inmates had no reason to lie and that there was little doubt they had been truthful.
“The claims are based upon the prosecution’s failure to disclose to his trial counsel that it had offered incentives to inmate witnesses in exchange for their testimony,” federal Judge T. John Ward wrote in his May 13 opinion.
The testimony of inmates was critical to the prosecution’s case. If Speer’s and Canales’ defense teams had known the inmates were being compensated for testifying, that fact could have been used by them to discredit the inmate witnesses.
Speer was represented by David Carter and Canales was defended by Jeff Harrelson and Paul Hoover.
If jurors had doubted whether those inmates whose testimony was used to convict the accused were telling the truth, the verdict rendered might have been different, Henry argues.
Henry’s motion asks the state to overturn Speer’s conviction based on the new information he claims to have been made aware of in October 2007.
Because federal courts prefer for matters to be addressed by and resolved if possible by the state courts, Ward wants the State of Texas to address the issue before he continues to address Speer’s appeal at the federal level, he wrote.
Henry said he will ask the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for permission to have the case reviewed again by Burgess. If they allow it, Burgess will have the responsibilty of deciding whether the claims being made by Speer are supported by the facts. If he finds the prosecution did withhold information from the defense, he will then find it necessary to determine if that swayed the jury in a different direction. If a judge finds the new evidence could have changed the outcome of Speer’s trial he may overturn the conviction and the whole process would begin anew.
Henry wants the court to allow him to examine a copy of the prosecution’s file. He is also requesting permission to depose Mullin, prosecutor Candace Norris, who assisted Mullin, several of the inmates who testified in Speer’s trial and an investigator with the Special Prosecutor’s Office.
If the state courts decline to address the issue or find that the claims of prosecutors withholding information about incentives either didn’t happen or made no difference in how the jury voted, the case will again be taken up by Ward.
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