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Three-decade death row inmate Brent Brewer to face execution for murder

By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune

Three-decade death row inmate Brent Brewer to face execution for murder” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Brent Brewer, who has spent three decades on death row, is scheduled to be executed Thursday evening for the 1990 murder of Robert Laminack.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected Brewer clemency appeal on Tuesday. Brewer’s legal team requested a lesser penalty for him on the grounds that one of the state’s expert witnesses used unreliable methodologies to testify and that a juror says they mistakenly sentenced Brewer to death.

Brewer’s legal team has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to pause the execution to consider the issue of unreliable testimony or what his lawyers called “junk science,” but the country’s highest court has yet to rule on that request. Earlier this week, Texas’ highest criminal appeals court declined similar motions to stay Brewer’s execution.

In 1990, Brent Brewer was convicted of killing Laminack, who owned a business in Amarillo, according to court documents. Brewer, who was 19 at the time, asked Laminack for a ride to a Salvation Army with his girlfriend Kristie Nystrom. While en route, Brewer stabbed the 66-year-old Laminack and stole $140 in cash.

Brewer was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder, but in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court found that his jury was not given sufficient opportunity for the jury to consider a less severe punishment. Two years later, another jury also sentenced Brewer to death.

Michele Douglas was one of the 2009 jurors. After listening to the evidence, Douglas believed that Brewer didn’t intend to kill Laminack, “things simply got out of hand, with a tragic outcome,” she wrote in an Houston Chronicle opinion piece last week, requesting clemency for Brewer.

During the trial, Douglas did not want to vote in favor of capital punishment for Laminack’s murder, which she did not think was premeditated. Douglas said she misunderstood the jury instructions.

“Believing — incorrectly — that my vote was meaningless, I acquiesced in the majority’s death penalty verdict. I cried when it was read in court. I was haunted afterwards,” Douglas wrote last week.

A death sentence requires a unanimous vote from the jury in Texas. Over the years, jurors in different capital cases across the state have said the instructions are not clear and they would have voted for life sentences without the possibility of parole if they had known that was an option. Lawmakers in the Texas House have passed legislation during several sessions attempting to clarify the instructions but those bills failed to get support from the Senate.

“There’s nothing political about this — it’s about whether the awesome power of the government to take a life is given to it knowingly rather than by what amounts to trickery,” said Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, in a statement about the role of misleading jury instructions in Brewer’s case. “This simply can’t continue; it’s morally wrong. I call on leaders in both parties and both chambers to pass this legislation swiftly at the next possible opportunity.”

During Brewer’s 2009 sentencing, the state called on forensic psychiatrist Dr. Richard Coons to testify about the danger Brewer posed to those in prison. Coons was a regular expert, called on by the state in dozens of death penalty cases, to forecast how defendants would behave in the future.

Coons asserted that a significant amount of crime goes unreported in prisons, and while Brewer’s record was largely clean, it was likely the defendant would commit more acts of violence.

But three years after Coons testified on Brewer’s dangerousness, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the psychiatrist’s techniques for predicting the risks defendants posed were unreliable.

“We see this case as a kind of an outlier, based on all of these things that have happened in this case, including the junk science that was presented,” Shawn Nolan, Brewer’s attorney, told The Texas Tribune on Monday.

But on Tuesday, the same court rejected Brewer’s motions to stay his execution, which were part of his legal team’s effort to challenge the use of Coons’ testimony in Brewer’s sentencing. Coons never evaluated Brewer yet still told the jury that the defendant would pose a risk to those in prison. The appeals court maintained that Brewer’s lawyer at the time did not sufficiently object to Coons testimony.

“We are deeply disturbed that the CCA refuses to address the injustice of allowing Brent Brewer to be executed without an opportunity to challenge Dr. Coons’s false and unscientific testimony. The State has admitted that testimony should never have been admitted, and Brent’s decades of peaceful behavior on death row confirm it was utterly baseless,” said Nolan in a statement.

Last year in federal court, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk found that Brewer’s 2009 trial lawyers acted reasonably by not objecting to Coons’ testimony before his methodologies were ruled unreliable. Earlier this year the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Kacsmaryk’s opinion.

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Nolan filed a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to pause the Nov. 9 execution date to consider the issue with Coons’ testimony, according to court documents.

Nolan said Brewer joined the religious programming available to those on death row and since then he has grown as a person of faith, which was also cited in Brewer’s clemency application.

“Worries are kind of small when you’ve taken someone’s life, you know, when someone is permanently gone like that. But I am sorry for what I did,” Brewer said in a video included in his clemency application. “Even if it doesn’t change the outcome, at least they get to hear it before I go.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

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