Convicted killer of Houston opera singers executed

Derrick Jackson, 42, was condemned for the slayings of two opera singers nearly 22 years ago.

July 20, 2010 4:49:56 PM PDT
A man convicted of killing two opera singers nearly 22 years ago in Houston was executed Tuesday evening. Derrick Jackson, 42, contended he was unfairly convicted by a Harris County jury of the fatal beatings and slashings of Forrest Henderson and Richard Wrotenbery. The two 31-year-old men were in the Houston Grand Opera chorus.

Their September 1988 slayings inside Henderson's apartment went unsolved for years until a bloody fingerprint from the murder scene was matched to Jackson. By then, in 1995, Jackson already was in prison serving a 12-year term for aggravated robbery.

Jackson said nothing when the warden asked if he would like to make a final statement. He never moved, staring at the ceiling of the death chamber, as the lethal drugs began, then gasped several times as they took effect.

Eight minutes later, at 6:20 p.m. CDT, he was pronounced dead.

Jackson's father, who wept quietly, and two brothers were among people watching the execution. Carl Wrotenbery, the father of one of his victims, was in an adjacent witness room.

No last-day appeals were made to the courts Tuesday to try to block the 15th lethal injection this year in Texas, the nation's most active death penalty state. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected an appeal Monday, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles turned down a clemency request.

In a recent interview from death row, Jackson told The Associated Press he didn't want to die but wasn't scared.

"It's more a reluctance that it had to come to this," he said. "It's like you have terminal disease for a number of years and finally they say you're not going to be able to live with it any longer so you're going to have to get your affairs together with your family and within yourself."

Jackson was arrested in 1992 for three robberies and took a plea bargain that sent him to prison. He was there when detectives working cold cases and using new computer databases matched his fingerprint to one at the scene of the murders.

Jackson said bad decisions led to burglaries and robberies and ultimately the prison term, but he denied involvement in the killings.

Fingerprints on a beer can, a glass and a door knob were linked to Jackson. Stains on bathroom towels matched his DNA.

"Technology caught up with him," said Bill Hawkins, a Harris County district attorney who prosecuted the case.

Hawkins said the odds against the DNA match actually belonging to someone other than Jackson were "off the charts."

Richard Wrotenbery also taught music at an elementary school in the Houston suburb of Deer Park. He'd been house-sitting at Henderson's apartment following a divorce until he could find a place of his own. Henderson had just returned to Houston after performing with the opera in Scotland.

The day of the slayings, Sept. 10, 1988, Wrotenbery and Henderson, both tenors, had been rehearsing for an opera production of Bizet's Carmen. Wrotenbery went to the apartment after rehearsals. Jackson hit some bars, may have met Jackson there and took him home.

Evidence showed Henderson was stabbed in the chest. Wrotenbery's throat was slashed. Both were bludgeoned with a heavy metal bar that could have been part of a weight set. Wrotenbery may have been asleep when he was killed.

"It's not something I look forward to," Carl Wrotenbery, 80, said before watching his son's killer die. "I feel a personal obligation. I feel this is something I need to see through.

"As father of a 31-year-old, a man expects in his old age for his children to take care of him. This was just a total shock to lose someone at that age. ... It was all for nothing. There was nothing accomplished by a crime like this."

Jackson said from prison he realized "two people lost their lives and I feel for their families."

"I saw the pictures. It was a savage scene," he said, adding that he understood jurors had to "do something when two guys were killed like that."

But when they found him guilty, "It kind of blew me away," he said. "I didn't do it."

The men's wallets were taken along with Henderson's car. A Houston traffic officer tried to pull over the car for speeding, but the driver fled, leading police on a chase until the car crashed. The driver managed to run off and escape.

An administrator from the school district where Wrotenbery taught called the apartment manager when the teacher didn't show up for work. The manager found the bloody scene.

At least three other condemned killers in Texas have execution dates in the coming months.


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