2nd Texas Inmate In As Many Days Set To Die

This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, shows death row inmate Joseph Bennard Nichols who is scheduled for execution at the Texas prison in Huntsville.
This undated photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, shows death row inmate Joseph Bennard Nichols who is scheduled for execution at the Texas prison in Huntsville.

More than a quarter-century after he and a buddy walked into a Houston convenience store to hold up the place, Joseph Nichols headed to the Texas death chamber Wednesday evening for the fatal shooting of the 70-year-old store clerk.

The lethal injection would be the second carried out in Texas in as many days and the eighth this year in the nation's busiest capital punishment state.

Nichols, 45, and a longtime friend, Willie Ray Williams, were both convicted and condemned for the Oct. 13, 1980, slaying of Claude Shaffer. Williams pleaded guilty and was executed in 1995.

Nichols' appeals and protests from death penalty opponents have focused on the fact that one bullet wound killed Shaffer and that Williams was prosecuted and convicted of being the shooter. They noted that Nichols, who said he'd fled the store when the fatal shot was fired, also was labeled as the shooter by Harris County district attorneys who prosecuted the case.

"One bullet and two shooters," said Nichols' lawyer, J. Clifford Gunter III. "There's no getting around that."

Prosecutors defended Nichols' conviction, saying Texas' law of parties makes non-triggermen just as culpable in crimes like Shaffer's murder.

Gunter took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which previously had rejected Nichols' appeals. Gunter argued, however, that the court had rejected piecemeal appeals and needed to delay the punishment to look at "cumulative errors," saying Nichols had been deprived "of a complete and meaningful post-conviction review of his case."

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles earlier this week rejected a commutation request.

Nichols was tried twice. At his first trial, jurors were unable to agree on the death penalty and a mistrial was declared. Nichols missed by 30 days a change in Texas law that would have given him an automatic life term if jurors were unable to agree on a death sentence.

It's the second trial that Nichols' lawyers are accusing prosecutors of changing tactics, suppressing evidence and arguing he was the shooter so jurors would be more inclined to decide on a death sentence, which they did.

"They had a parties charge (to the jury)," said Roe Wilson, who handles capital case appeals for the Harris County District Attorney's Office, denying any improper manipulations of evidence. "They were told the prosecution thought Nichols was the shooter, but there was no ballistics evidence."

Both Nichols and Williams told police they shot toward Shaffer, and jurors heard testimony from a girlfriend of one of the shooters that when Nichols returned to their car outside the store, he said he thought he shot the victim in the chest.

"They knew both people said: 'I shot toward him,"' Wilson said, referring to the jury. "And even if Nichols wasn't actually the one who hit him, under the law of parties Nichols was still guilty."

The fatal bullet could not be recovered for ballistics tests.

"I never denied being there," Nichols said recently from death row. "I'm not telling you I'm not guilty of anything."

But he insisted that when Williams fired the fatal shot, "I had already left."

Nichols dropped out of high school when his girlfriend became pregnant, then married her.

"You've got two kids trying to play parents, trying to be adults before our time, and I end up going to the streets," he said.

In the robbery, he said Williams "got some change. I got nothing."

He was 20 when he arrived on death row.

"Honestly, I thought I'd be dead at 25," he said, describing his years in prison as good and positive. "I was able to grow and do a few things, experience life and meet different people.

"I don't want to die, but I've come to terms. No doubt, I'm regretful."

Tuesday evening, Robert Perez, 48, who prosecutors said was a high-ranking officer in the notorious Mexican Mafia prison gang, received lethal injection for a double killing in San Antonio in 1994. Perez had been linked to more than a dozen other slayings in the mid-1990s in San Antonio.

Three more Texas inmates have execution dates this month. Next is Charles Nealy, 42, set to die March 20 for the 1997 slaying of Dallas convenience store clerk Jiten Bhakta, 25. A second store employee also was killed in the robbery.

Story courtesy of the Associated Press.