Crime & Punishment

Ten years ago, Anthony Ray Westley entered a bait shop to commit a crime. Was it a crime worth dying for?

Sitting inside a five-by-five cage in the visiting area of Texas' death row, convicted killer Anthony Ray Westley looks calm, even pleasant. But as he talks to some visitors through a glass-and-wire partition, that image of calm is shattered by the reminder of a literally scarred past. Pulling up his white prison shirt, Westley reveals, stretched across the lower right of his abdomen, the visual evidence of a gunshot wound. The disfigured flesh is a result of a night of gambling gone bad. Disputes over women, debts and drugs -- both in and out of prison -- have left Westley's arms similarly marked. During his 33 years of life, Anthony Ray Westley has burgled, robbed, stabbed, shot and terrorized people on the mean streets of Houston as well as in the precarious environs of the Ellis-I prison unit near Huntsville. Through it all, he has somehow managed to stay alive. That's a fact the State of Texas intends to change.

As the result of a capital murder conviction in connection with a 1984 robbery and murder on the outskirts of Houston, Westley is sentenced to die. But despite Westley's violent history, some people -- among them, as might be expected, his attorney, but also, unexpectedly, the judge that presided over Westley's trial -- believe the state may have convicted a guilty man of the wrong crime.

A special master who pored over the facts of Westley's trial concurs, suggesting that Westley's life and death situation is due to a lack of effort by a defense attorney combined with a less-than-forthcoming Harris County district attorney's office.

It's a case that raises the question of how much sympathy Houston's courts have, or should have, for an unsympathetic man. And it's a case that suggests that in an effort to curb crime, justice may be swinging blind. As Westley's present attorney, Barry Abrams, notes, "Anthony Westley is not innocent." But, Abrams continues, "He's just not guilty of what he was charged with. He deserves punishment, but he doesn't deserve to die."

Be that as it may, Westley would have trouble laying the genesis of his troubles at anyone's feet but his own. His plight is a dead-end result of a blood-stained day -- Friday, April 13, 1984 -- when his lifetime of luck at avoiding serious trouble finally played out.

In 1984, Eileen's Bait and Tackle was located on C.E. King Parkway in northeast Harris County near the entrance to Lake Houston. On April 13 of that year Frank Hall, a 38-year-old volunteer fireman and ambulance driver, and his wife, Eileen, a volunteer paramedic, arrived at their four-year-old store in the darkness before dawn in anticipation of selling nightcrawlers, minnows and other supplies essential to early-rising fishermen.

The Halls were on a first-name basis with many of their regular customers. Amidst the hooks, snaps and swivels, the minnow tank, a Coca-Cola cooler that chilled the beer, the Dr Pepper machine, the catfish tank and the freezer for bait was a sink where the day's catch was cleaned. Near the sink was a set of scales to weigh the scaly creatures. Stapled to the walls were pictures of the Halls' friends and customers posing with the ones that didn't get away.

Eileen and Frank had been married a little over seven years and had three children living at home with them -- a young daughter of their own, and Eileen's two sons from a previous marriage. Added to the extended family was Debra Eubanks Young, a close friend and another member of the Beaumont Road Volunteer Fire Department whom the Halls employed as a clerk.

Around 8:30 that morning, Young showed up to work her shift at the bait shop. Shortly after Young's arrival, Frank Hall left the store and drove to a nearby cafeteria where he had a second job mowing the lawn. Eileen Hall went shopping. At noon, the couple rendezvoused for lunch. After eating, Frank loaded up his lawnmower while Eileen headed back to check the bait shop. It was the last time she would see her husband alive.

When Frank and Eileen had left the bait store that morning, Debra Eubanks Young had been on her own. It was a warm and sunny day and, given the good weather conditions, Young was surprised that the bait and tackle business was so slow. When Eileen showed up, nothing much was happening, so she decided to head home and put away the items she'd picked up earlier while shopping. Shortly after his wife left, Frank Hall returned to the store. He and Young sat for a short time in the shop's office and talked about the rods and reels she was supposed to have been working on. They also talked about what Hall's wife had bought that morning. Just normal chitchat. Frank then left for home. He would never make it there.

At about the same time that Debra Eubanks Young had arrived at work that morning, Anthony Ray Westley, then 23 years old, was being awakened in his Fifth Ward hovel by two friends, John Dale Henry and Tyrone Dunbar. According to Westley, the two men cajoled him out of the house, which authorities say he shared with other thieves and prostitutes, for a "joy ride" -- a five-hour cruise during which the trio was packing heat and their noses, smoking marijuana and sipping Bacardi 151 rum.

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