[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS, CONN.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Wed Feb 2 09:11:12 CST 2005
Max Soffar: A Jew on death row
I've seen Cool Hand Luke and The Green Mile, but I'm not a prison reform
activist. I'd never interviewed anyone on death row until the middle of
January, when I picked up a telephone and looked through the clear plastic
divider at the haunting reflection of my own humanity in the eyes of Max
Max doesn't have a lot of time and neither do I, so I'll try to keep it
brief and to the point.
"I'm not a murderer," he told me. "I want people to know that I'm not a
murderer. That means more to me than anything. It means more to me than
On February 2, Max is scheduled to be re-arraigned in Houston before
District Judge Mary Lou Keel for the murders of three youths at a Houston
bowling alley in 1980. Although Max has been granted a new trial, his
release from prison is far from a certainty. His defense team is concerned
about critical evidence destroyed by the District Attorney's office and
the difficulty of finding witnesses after 23 years, and his lawyers
estimate the costs of defending him at a new trial at $250,000 or more.
My friend Steven Rambam, who is Max's pro bono private investigator, has
contacted the Houston Jewish Federation and area synagogues, although
throughout his death-row years, Soffar has received no assistance from the
local Jewish community.
"The Jewish community doesn't give a damn about him, unfortunately," Rabbi
Ted Sanders, the lead Jewish chaplain in Texas, told newspapers. Soffar
says that his letters to B'nai Brith and other Jewish groups have gone
Somewhere along the line, Max's life fell between the cracks. A
sixth-grade dropout whose IQ tests peg him as borderline mentally
retarded, he grew up in Houston, where he was a petty burglar, an
idiot-savant car thief and a low-level if highly imaginative police
snitch. He spent four years, he says, "in the nut house in Austin," where
he remembers the guards putting on human cockfights: They would lock two
11-year-olds in a cell, egg them on, and bet on which one would be able to
walk out. Max ran away, and it's been pretty much downhill from there.
For the past 23 years, since confessing to that triple homicide, Max has
been at his final station on the way: the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston,
Texas. But he long ago recanted the confession, and many people, including
a number of Houston-area law enforcement officers, think he didn't commit
the crime. They say he told the cops what they wanted to hear after three
days of interrogation without a lawyer present. At the very least, they
say, Max's case is an example of everything that's wrong with the system.
In the words of Rambam: "I'm not anti-death penalty; I'm just
Another observer troubled by Max's case is Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
judge Harold R. DeMoss Jr., who wrote in 2002, after hearing Max's last
appeal, "I have lain awake nights agonizing over the enigmas,
contradictions and ambiguities" in the record.
Chief among these Kafka-esque elements is the fact that Max's
state-appointed attorney was the late Joe Cannon, who was infamous for
sometimes sleeping through his clients' capital murder trials.
Cannon managed to stay awake for Max's, but he did not bother to interview
the one witness who might have cleared him. There are, incidentally, 10
men on death row who were clients of Cannon's.
Then there's the evidence - or the total lack of it. Jim Schropp, a
Washington, DC, lawyer who has been handling Max's case for more than 10
years, also on a pro bono basis, says it seemed cut-and-dried when he
initially reviewed the file.
"But the more we looked into it," he told me recently, "the facts and the
confession didn't match up."
Schropp discovered that there was no physical evidence linking Max to the
crime. No eyewitnesses who placed him at the scene or saw him do it. Two
police lineups in which Max was not fingered. Missing polygraphs. If the
facts had been before them, Schropp says, no jurors would have believed
that the prosecution's case had eliminated all reasonable doubt.
"When you peel away the layers of the onion," he says, "you find a rotten
Okay, so what about the confession?
Rambam says that when Max was arrested on August 5, 1980, for speeding on
a stolen motorcycle, it was the 3rd or 4th time he'd been caught for
various offenses and he thought he could deal his way out again, as he'd
The bowling alley murders had been highly publicized, and Max had seen the
police sketch of the perpetrator, which he thought resembled a friend and
sometime running buddy. Max and the friend were on the outs - they'd
agreed to rob their parents' houses, but after burgling Max's parents'
house, the friend reneged - so to get revenge and to help his own case in
the process, Max volunteered that he knew something about the murders.
Unfortunately, in his attempt to implicate his friend, he placed himself
at the scene, and before long he became a target of the investigation
"The cops spoon-fed Max information, and he gave them what they wanted,"
Rambam says. "He was a confession machine. If he thought it would have
helped him with the police, he would have confessed to kidnapping the
The trouble is, Max's confession - actually, he made three different
confessions - contained conflicting information. First he claimed to be
outside the bowling alley when the murders took place and that he only
heard the shots. Then he said he was inside and saw it all go down. Then
he said his friend shot two people and threw him the gun, whereupon he
shot the other two; it was like a scene in an old Western.
The written record of Max's confession states there were two gunmen,
himself and his friend; the only surviving victim, the witness Cannon
didn't bother to interview, says there was only one. Max also told the
cops that he and his friend had killed some people and buried them in a
field. The cops used methane probes and search dogs and found nothing. He
claimed that they had robbed several convenience stores, which turned out
never to have been robbed. Best of all, when the cops told him that the
bowling alley had been burglarized the night before the murders, Max
confessed to that crime as well. What he didn't know was that the burglars
had already been arrested.
"We won't be needing that confession," the homicide detective reportedly
told him. After signing the murder confession, Max asked the officers,
"Can I go home now?"
You may be wondering: What about the friend? He was arrested solely on the
basis of Max's confession but was released because there was no evidence
(the same "evidence" was later considered good enough to put Max on death
row). Nonetheless, at Max's trial, the prosecutor told the jury that the
police knew that the friend was involved and that they planned to hunt him
down once Max was dealt with. But it never happened, and for the past 23
years, the friend - who is the son of a Houston cop - has been living free
as a bird, currently in Mississippi, with the long arm of the Texas law
never once reaching out to touch him.
Why? Good question.
"It wasn't hard to run him down and pay him a visit," Rambam says. "I
found his name in the phone book."
When the friend was interviewed by Rambam, he told a story of being beaten
so badly by the Houston P.D. that he thought "the detectives were trying
to get a blood sample." The friend revealed that he had provided a solid
alibi to the police which checked out, and that he had passed a lie
detector test. The lie detector tests of Max and the friend have the
unique distinction of being the only files to have ever disappeared from
the offices of the Houston P.D.'s Polygraph Unit.
Rambam and Schropp both say that the person who actually committed the
bowling alley murders may have been identified. He is now on death row for
committing seven nearly identical murders, and a sworn witness affidavit
and other evidence links him to the killings.
So, why would someone confess to a crime he didn't commit? A cry for help?
A death wish? Perhaps it has to do with what the poet Kenneth Patchen once
wrote: "There are so many little dyings, it doesn't matter which of them
Rambam remains optimistic. "When Max Soffar was put on death row," he
says, "Ronald Reagan was president. After 23 years of being locked in a
small cell in Huntsville, Texas, Max finally has a shot at justice and his
As my interview with Max was ending, he placed his hand against the glass.
I did likewise. He said he would like for me to be there with him at the
execution if it happens. I hesitated. "You've come this far," he said.
"Why go halfway?"
I promised him I would be there. It's a promise I would dearly love not to
have to keep.
(source: Kinky Friedman; the writer is an author, musician and columnist
for Texas Monthly, and a candidate for governor of Texas; The Jerusalem
Case of suicidal inmate throws CT death penalty into question
The planned execution of a Connecticut death row inmate is causing state
lawmakers to reconsider state killings. The case of death row inmate
Michael Ross, whose execution was postponed Monday after his lawyers filed
appeals questioning his competency to choose to die, has heated up the
debate over government executions in the New England state.
On Monday, state lawmakers held a hearing on capital punishment, hearing
from victims groups and correctional officers as well as advocates and
opponents of the death penalty. Had Ross been executed as scheduled on
Monday, he would have been the 1st person killed by a New England
government in almost half a century.
Ross has confessed to murders of 8 women, most of whom he also raped. He
has been on death row for more than 17 years, and has tried to commit
suicide at least three times. Ross recently instructed his lawyers not to
file any more appeals on his behalf.
Just before Ross was to be executed, his lawyer filed a last minute
appeal, saying that his client suffers from "death row syndrome" and is
not competent to decide his own fate. Some experts believe that prolonged
incarceration under a death sentence can cause inmates to become mentally
(source: The New Standard)
Execution case revives death penalty debate
If all had gone to plan, a brutal serial killer in Hartford would now be
the 1st person in 45 years to get the death penalty in New England. The
killer, Michael Ross, was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of
eight women under the age of 25 between 1981 and 1984. Ross actually
requested to be killed quickly, but agreed to halt his execution at the
last minute so that his mental competency could be examined. It's getting
interesting here in Connecticut.
His death has been postponed three times in the last week, and now it's
uncertain when he will receive a new execution date, as the death warrant
against him has expired. Because of the rarity of northeast executions and
the drama surrounding the case, the story has received worldwide
attention. If Ross' death sentence is overturned, it could set a major
precedent for the future of the death penalty in New England.
A number of Wesleyan students have also been paying attention. Members of
groups such as WesAmnesty have driven to Hartford a number of times to
protest what was then an impending execution.
Living inside the Wesleyan bubble, the story hasn't gotten the attention
on campus that, say, Ralph Nader's appearance did. Many of us are legal
residents of Connecticut and have spent the bulk of the past few years
here, but all too often local news slips past our collective radar. For
the first time in a while, big news is happening in our backyard, and
doesn't require a bus trip to New York or Washington, D.C. to give our
The media tends to have attention deficit disorder. The death penalty has
not been a serious issue in some years. Similarly, homelessness and the
rainforest are rarely mentioned anymore, but continue to be important. At
Wesleyan we are good at sticking to our guns when it comes to issues that
get pushed under the rug, and with history ready to be made, we have a
great opportunity to be part of it.
(source: Opinion, The Wesleyan Argus)
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