Rough Justice

Through his wire-rimmed glasses, attorney Barry Abrams stared numbly at the Plexiglas window. On the other side, he could see his client, 36-year-old Anthony Ray Westley, strapped to a hospital gurney. Connected to each of the large black man's arms was an IV line dripping neutral saline solution. Abrams dreaded the moment when a lethal combination of drugs would be added to the saline.

Eight years before, when Abrams accepted Westley's case, he knew the odds were against his client. As the lawyer worked on the appeal, those odds grew steadily worse. Since 1982, when Texas revived capital punishment, 116 prisoners had been put to death at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Walls Unit in Huntsville. And on this day -- Tuesday, May 13 -- Westley would make 117, the tenth execution of 1997, which promises to be a record-setting year on the state's death row. Westley's death would just be one more in a long chain little noted in the outside world; four more Texas inmates were scheduled to die this week.

To Abrams, though, the execution about to take place represented a huge miscarriage of justice. A short man with dark hair, the 44-year-old fought to maintain his usual tightlipped composure. Westley was going to die, Abrams thought, for a murder he didn't commit.

Abrams and Westley's family watched from one of the two rooms with a window onto the death chamber. In the other room was gathered the family of Chester Frank Hall, the man Westley was convicted of killing 13 years before.

On the gurney, Westley turned to face the one-way mirror on his left, the window behind which Hall's family had gathered. He directed his last words to Hall's widow.

"I didn't shoot your husband," Westley said. "I really didn't. I want you to believe I didn't kill him."

Hall's wife would say later that Westley's last words angered her, and that she felt justice had been served.

But Abrams believed him. Since beginning work on this case, the lawyer had grown convinced that another man shot Hall. And in the previous 16 hours, he believed he had found new evidence to support that theory. Since early morning, the lawyer and his staff had worked feverishly to win Westley a last-minute stay of execution. But only hours before, his request had been turned down by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court -- and last by Governor George Bush, who said he denied the stay of execution "reluctantly."

The drugs began flowing through Westley's IV line. The prisoner made one last gasp for air.

Abrams had never felt so powerless.

In retrospect, Anthony Ray Westley seemed destined for a life of crime. Raised by his grandmother, he had an IQ of around 70. In his early twenties, he took up with a couple of other men from the Fifth Ward: John Dale Henry, described by friends as "street-smart," and Tyrone Dunbar, who'd served a stint in state prison. Along with Dunbar's wife and children, the three men shared a house in northeast Houston.

On April 13, 1984, Westley and his two friends spent the morning drinking and drugging. They then drove to Eileen's Bait and Tackle, a little shop near the entrance to Lake Houston. Once inside, the three men told the clerk that they were going fishing and wanted night crawlers for bait.

The woman later testified that Westley put a gun to her head and told her that this was a robbery. After he knocked her to the floor behind the counter, she thought she was about to die. But instead of the expected gunshot, she heard the jingling cowbells signaling that someone had walked through the bait shop door.

Chester Frank Hall, the shop's owner, had apparently sensed that something was wrong. He entered with his .22-caliber revolver already drawn. Gunfire erupted.

When it stopped, the clerk looked up from behind the counter and saw Westley and Henry run out the front door, leaving Dunbar lying in a pool of blood. Then the clerk saw Hall. Bleeding from the mouth, he slowly walked toward her, then fell to the floor.

Both Hall and Dunbar died at the scene. Henry had also been shot during the robbery; Westley dropped him off at a hospital, where he was arrested.

The next day, Westley surrendered to detectives from the Harris County Sheriff's Department. He signed a confession saying that he'd participated in the robbery and that he'd carried a .22 during the hold-up.

Later, ballistics experts found that Hall had been killed by a bullet of that caliber. Westley maintained that he'd signed the confession because detectives had told him a bullet from a .38 had killed Hall. The detectives denied that they'd said so.

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Steve McVicker