‘Your victims have shown you mercy’: Houston cop killer taken off death row, resentenced to life By Keri Blakinger Updated 3:03 pm CST, Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Arthur Lee Williams received a life sentence for the capital murder of Houston police detective Daryl Shirley. Two years after a federal judge overturned his death sentence due to bad jury instructions, a Houston cop killer on Wednesday was given life behind bars for a decades-old crime in which defense lawyers said the state destroyed some of the evidence needed to retry the case.
With graying hair and chains clinking in front of a half-full benches, 59-year-old Arthur Lee Williams shuffled into court Wednesday morning and walked out with a life sentence for the capital murder of Houston police detective Daryl Shirley.
To the slain officer's surviving family it was a deeply disappointing outcome. "The criminal justice system ultimately failed my family by not ensuring your execution," said Jason Shirley, who ultimately went on to become a police officer himself. "You should have been put to death for killing my dad."
The former detective's only daughter - who was 11 months old when her father was killed - sobbed as she showed the court a toy bear, the one stuffed animal she still had from her father. "You deserved the death penalty and I hope you spend every day of the rest of your life knowing that the only reason you are still breathing is because your victims have shown mercy," said Sara Poole. "I'm lying if I say I have forgiven you."
But retrying the case could have posed an uncertain outcome. Since the 1982 killing, multiple witnesses have died, the laws have changed and the 911 tape was taped over, according to a defense filing entered last month.
Had prosecutors taken him back to a jury for a new punishment, he could have been immediately eligible for parole if the state failed to secure a death verdict again. Instead, both sides agreed to two consecutive sentences: one life with parole term for the murder, and one 60-year bid for a prior aggravated assault.
"He won't be eligible for parole until he's nearly 100 years old," said Harris County prosecutor Lori DeAngelo.
In the months before the slaying, Williams was on parole and living in a Minnesota halfway house, according to court records. But in early 1982, he absconded to Houston where he lived with his sister and hid out under the alias Marvin Dean Hogues. Authorities in Minnesota put out an arrest warrant, and sent it over to Houston police. So on the afternoon of April 28, Detective Daryl Shirley - wearing street clothes and a cowboy hat - showed up at the apartment where Williams was staying, looking to make an arrest.
He spotted Williams and a friend walking outside, and called out to the wanted man, using his real name. Williams hollered for help as the officer put a gun to his head, and a scuffle broke out. In the process, Williams shot Shirley twice with his own weapon. Then, he picked up the pistol and ran off. He was arrested two days later.In the decades since, attorneys have wrangled over whether Williams really knew Shirley was a cop when he shot him - and whether the jury should have known to consider that at punishment.
Though he was originally sentenced to death in 1983, the case took decades to make its way through the state court system during appeals, a fact that at one point apparently baffled the federal appeals judge then handling the case."Williams has tried to litigate legal challenges to his trial since the time of his conviction and sentence," Judge Nancy Atlas wrote in 2015. "Inexplicably, the state review took three decades to run its course. For reasons unclear from the record, state habeas review itself plodded on for twenty years, only concluding in 2012."
One long-standing claim stemmed from concerns about why prosecutors had struck six black jurors, removing all African-Americans from the jury panel."Detective Shirley was white; Williams is black," a federal appeals court noted last year. "At Williams' trial, the prosecution used peremptory strikes against six prospective black jurors. The jury that eventually convicted Williams had no black members."
Defense lawyers alleged on appeal that it was the "practice and policy" of the district attorney's office at the time to strike all black jurors. Though the federal judge acknowledged a "suspicious pattern" in Williams' case, the court decided he didn't sufficiently prove that a pattern of racial bias was the reason the jurors were tossed. Ultimately, Williams ended up back in a Harris County court this week as the result of a completely different issue: bad jury instructions.
At the time of his trial, Texas law included three special questions that juries should consider when voting on a death sentence - but none of those questions addressed mitigating evidence. Yet, a later Supreme Court decision required that jurors be told they could consider favorable factors - like personal background or mental disability - when deciding whether to greenlight a death sentence. In Williams' case, the state argued that Shirley had unquestionably identified himself as a police officer.
Defense attorneys disputed that. Plus, they said, Williams had been assaulted a few months earlier when a man claiming to be a police officer forced his way into the apartment and robbed him - so he was already suspicious of strangers posing as lawmen. Though the defense brought that up at trial, the jury was never told to consider it during punishment phase, when they needed to decide whether or not Williams deserved a death sentence. After decades of appeal, a federal court in 2016 - while upholding his conviction - overturned his death sentence. Last month, defense attorney Anthony Osso filed a motion asking to take a death sentence off the table in light of the destroyed 911 tape.
Williams is the second Harris County killer taken off death row this year over bad jury instructions. In June, Michael Wayne Norris was given two back-to-back life sentences - a fate that will keep him behind bars for life. Like Norris, Williams wasn't eligible for life without parole because it wasn't a sentencing option at the time of the slaying.
Instead, in Wednesday's plea deal, he waived the right to a jury trial and was sentenced to life with parole. He also took responsibility for a 1982 aggravated assault, even though the statute of limitations expired and the victim has since died. That agreement will net him 60 years behind bars, after he's formally sentenced for it in June. "We have been dealing with this for 36 years," said the former officer's oldest son, Steven Shirley. "We should have never known your name."