HOUSTON (AP) — Lawyers for a condemned inmate scheduled for execution next week are suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and a Texas sheriff, accusing them of harassing the prisoner and interfering with efforts to assemble a clemency petition on his behalf.
Attorneys for death row prisoner Willie Pondexter allege corrections officers at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston in Polk County unexpectedly searched his cell and "knowing Mr. Pondexter to be especially concerned about hygiene, removed his sheets, wiped them across the floor and walls and replaced them on his bed."
The activity first occurred late last month after the Polk County Sheriff's Department detained two legal interns working on Pondexter's behalf, lawyer David Dow said. He said Monday it has been repeated at least twice in recent weeks.
Pondexter, 34, from Idabel, Okla., is set to die March 3 for the slaying of an 85-year-old woman at her northeast Texas home more than 15 years ago. A companion, James Lee Henderson, from nearby Sevier County, Ark., also was convicted of the shooting death of Martha Lennox at her home in Clarksville, about 60 miles west of Texarkana.
In his civil rights suit in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Dow said the interns working for the Texas Defender Service, a legal group that represents death row inmates, were detained by Polk County deputies after they were trying to interview death row corrections officers about Pondexter. Information from the interviews would be used to bolster claims in a clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that Pondexter has been a model inmate and has shown he is not a continued threat to society, a finding a jury made in 1994 when they decided he should be sent to death row.
The suit named as defendants Brad Livingston, the corrections department's executive director; Nathaniel Quarterman, director of the department's institutional division; Tim Simmons, the Polunsky Unit warden; and Kenneth Hammack, the Polk County sheriff.
Prison system spokesman Jason Clark said the agency had no comment "because of the pending litigation that has been filed by offender Willie Pondexter."
Hammack wasn't in his office in Livingston Monday afternoon and didn't immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.
Dow said the interns, both law students from Harvard University, were pulled over Jan. 17 after attempting to speak with a corrections officer at home, were ordered to drive to the sheriff's office and given warning tickets for criminal trespassing. If they returned, they were told "there would be a '99 percent chance' that the officers would lock them in jail," according to the suit.
"It would be a traumatic experience for anybody," Dow said. "We didn't prepare them for that because that honestly never happened to any of our interns before. We prepare them for a lot of things but that was not on the list."
The lawsuit initially was filed last week in federal court in Tyler but a judge there didn't believe he had jurisdiction. Dow and fellow attorney Jared Tyler, also with the Texas Defender Service, then took it to the federal appeals court. The suit seeks a reprieve for Pondexter so his lawyers can "investigate the grounds for clemency and judicial relief and file a thorough and complete request for executive clemency upon the setting of a new date."
Pondexter was 19 when he and Henderson were arrested driving Lennox's car in Dallas, about 140 miles to the southwest. It was a few hours after authorities believe Lennox was shot while asleep in her home, not far from the Clarksville town square. Besides fleeing with her car, they took about $18 from her purse. Clarksville police, alerted by Dallas authorities after the arrests of the men driving Lennox's car, went to her home and found her body.
Lennox's family had a long history in the Red River County area and had accumulated substantial real estate holdings. Lennox herself had donated a 374-acre forest preserve north of Clarksville to the Nature Conservancy of Texas.
At the time of the slaying, Henderson was on parole from Oklahoma, where he had been convicted of auto theft. Pondexter had no previous record. In 1997, he nearly escaped with another condemned inmate from death row by cutting through a recreation yard fence with a hacksaw blade.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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