A Texas death row inmate whose execution was halted in 2019 after he accused the judge in his capital murder trial of antisemitic bias is entitled to a new trial, a district judge ruled Monday.
The recommendation from Dallas Criminal District Judge Lela Mays paves the way for the state's highest criminal court to decide whether the inmate, Randy Halprin, who is Jewish, should get another trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution less than a week before Halprin had been set to die, allowing for Mays to review whether the judge in his case, Vickers Cunningham, was prejudiced and may have discriminated against him because of his religion.
Mays agreed in her findings that Cunningham, who is white, "harbored actual, subjective bias against Halprin because Halprin is a Jew, and that Judge Cunningham's anti-Semitic prejudices created an objectively intolerable risk of bias."
She said a "new fair trial is the only remedy" for Halprin, who was convicted by a jury for his role in the Christmas Eve 2000 slaying of a police officer in a case known locally as the "Texas Seven."
The ruling renews the focus on Cunningham, whom Halprin accused in court documents of describing him as "a f------ Jew" after the trial ended and using a derogatory term for a Jewish person.
Former campaign workers and friends also said Cunningham "took special pride in the death sentences [of the Texas Seven] because they included Latinos and a Jew," according to Halprin's petition for a new trial.
In 2018, Cunningham drew national attention when he ran in the Republican primary for a Dallas County commissioner's seat and his estranged brother, who is married to a Black man, claimed that he was a lifelong racist who promised to financially reward his children if they married people of the opposite sex who were white and Christian.
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Cunningham denied his brother's allegations that he was a racist but acknowledged that he had created a living trust for his children with that specific clause.
"I strongly support traditional family values," Cunningham told the newspaper in 2018. "If you marry a person of the opposite sex that's Caucasian, that's Christian, they will get a distribution."
However, he said, his son was in a relationship with a woman of Vietnamese descent and his views on interracial marriage had changed.
Cunningham denied that his views ever clouded his performance as a judge in Dallas County for 10 years, overseeing criminal cases that involved Black and Hispanic defendants. Judges in each state are bound to moral and ethical standards, and complaints of racial bias can lead to public reprimands and even suspension, although those are rare.
Those who knew Cunningham spoke with The Morning News about the allegations that he used racial epithets. A former campaign worker said she heard him apply a racial slur to Black people on several occasions, which Cunningham denied to the newspaper. The campaign worker also said Cunningham used a derogatory term for undocumented people in the U.S. to describe some of Halprin's co-defendants, according to Halprin's petition. Cunningham did not specifically respond to that allegation.
Despite the rancor involving his campaign, Cunningham lost the race for his party's nomination by only 25 votes.
Cunningham could not be reached now for comment on the new ruling.
More than 100 Jewish lawyers in Texas signed on to a brief in support of Halprin's request for a new trial.
"When you have a judge that has a prejudgment against you and says horrible things about your religion or your race behind your back, you don't have a fair trial," one of the lawyers, Marc Stanley of Dallas, told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.
Halprin, 44, was initially serving a 30-year prison sentence on a felony child abuse charge when he escaped from prison with six other inmates in 2000. Prosecutors said the men robbed a sporting goods store in the Dallas suburb of Irving. A police officer who responded was fatally shot as the group fled.
A manhunt led to the capture of the so-called Texas Seven, who were featured on "America's Most Wanted." One of the men killed himself before he could be arrested. Each defendant was tried separately, with Cunningham overseeing five of their trials, including that of Halprin, who was sentenced to death in 2003. Four of the six defendants have been executed.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Halprin's execution two years ago, and a review was opened this year over the allegations against Cunningham. At a hearing in July overseen by Mays, prosecutors and trial attorneys who originally represented Halprin denounced Cunningham's remarks but denied that Halprin didn't get a fair trial.
While Cunningham's alleged comments "are reprehensible and egregious, they show post-trial hostility that does not demonstrate a due process violation against this man at the time of trial," Tarrant County prosecutor Anne Grady said at the time.
The Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney's Office declined to comment Tuesday because the litigation is ongoing.
Halprin's federal public defender, Tivon Schardl, said in a statement that Mays "undoubtedly made the right call."
"Contrary to what the State said, the Constitution protects Texans from religious bigotry in the criminal justice system," Schardl said. "We're confident the Court of Criminal Appeals will reach the same conclusion and order a new, fair trial for Randy Halprin."
It was not immediately clear when the court plans to revisit the case.