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Texas death row inmate claims lawyer had 'secret deal' with judge

February 21, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Texas death row inmate Stephen Barbee is seeking an appeal.
Texas death row inmate Stephen Barbee is seeking an appeal. (Texas Department of Criminal…)

Reporting from Houston — A Texas death row inmate convicted of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her 7-year-old son in 2005 is seeking a new trial, alleging that his attorney had a "secret deal" with the judge to quickly dispose of his case.

Attorneys for Stephen Barbee, 44, plan to argue in a Fort Worth state court this week that his defense in the double murder case was tainted.

The proceeding, scheduled to begin Wednesday, was ordered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after a 2010 Associated Press story showed that presiding Judge Robert Gill had negotiated plea deals in certain cases, many of which were handled by Barbee's court-appointed attorney, William H. "Bill" Ray.

Ray gave details about the plea deals, which expedited Gill's docket, during testimony in a 2009 federal court case that a judge subsequently sealed. The issue was kept quiet until the AP story ran.

Prosecutors presented evidence at Barbee's trial that he had confessed to suffocating bagel shop owner Lisa Underwood and her son Jayden, and that he wanted to hide Underwood's pregnancy from his wife.

The trial, including sentencing, lasted less than three days.

Barbee's attorneys claim the trial was cut short because Ray and his co-counsel, Tim Moore, presented a limited defense as part of their deal with Gill.

"It was open and shut because the attorneys never opened the door," A. Richard Ellis, Barbee's new lead attorney, who is based in Mill Valley, Calif., told the Associated Press. Ellis could not be reached Tuesday.

Barbee's application for a writ of habeus corpus in state court claims his original attorneys tried to pressure him into pleading guilty, failed to investigate or present a case of actual innocence, fired a mitigation expert "for no apparent reason" and failed to prepare a false confession expert.

The filing contends that the way the case unfolded is "understandable when viewed through the prism of what we now know about Judge Gill's manner of running a court."

Gill, who left the bench in 2007 and is now an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is located, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Ray did not return calls Tuesday. He told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Monday that he "emphatically" denied making any secret deal with the judge at the time he represented Barbee.

"I did not have a deal with Judge Gill at all to do what he's saying," Ray told the Star-Telegram. "It's just a complete and total lie."

Both men are expected to testify at the hearing Wednesday before Gill's successor, Judge Louis Sturns.

Steven Conder, chief of post-conviction writs in the Tarrant County district attorney's office, told The Times he couldn't comment on the case other than to say his office "vigorously opposes" Barbee's position.

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