Condemned killer wins new punishment trial

HOUSTON Harris County jurors who decided Roy Gene Smith should be executed were not allowed to properly consider mitigating evidence of his crime-ridden Houston neighborhood and that he was surrounded by poverty and crime throughout his life, Texas' highest criminal court ruled.

The decision is in line with changes in punishment evidence rules ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in death penalty cases since the time Smith was tried in 1990. The appeals court ordered Smith's case returned to Harris County court for a new punishment trial.

Smith, 51, was condemned for the October 1988 fatal shooting of James Whitmire, 67. Evidence showed he used some of the $4.27 taken from his victim to buy his girlfriend a hot dog. Smith also was sentenced to a life prison term for a murder he was convicted of committing three days before the Whitmire slaying.

The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the convictions and sentences for three other Texas death row inmates Wednesday.

Yokamon Hearn, 31, lost an appeal contending that he is ineligible for execution under Supreme Court rules that bar the death penalty for the mentally impaired. In 2004, Hearn got within an hour of his scheduled execution time before a federal appeals court stopped the punishment so his mental impairment claims could be examined.

Hearn was convicted of the March 1998 slaying of a Dallas-area stockbroker. Frank Meziere, 23, of Plano, was carjacked at gunpoint from a self-service car wash in Dallas. He was found dead in a south Dallas neighborhood and had been shot 10 times in the head.

In the second case, Randall Wayne Mays, 50, was convicted of killing an east Texas deputy sheriff in 2007. Henderson County sheriff's deputies Tony Price Ogburn and Paul Steven Habelt died and a third deputy was injured in a shootout at Mays' house in Payne Springs, about 50 miles southeast of Dallas. They were responding to a call made by a neighbor who reported hearing gunshots on Mays' property.

After appearing to cooperate with the deputies, Mays barricaded himself inside his house, where he used a high-powered rifle to shoot at officers. He was convicted in Ogburn's death.

His appeal raised 21 points of error from his trial, many of them focusing on what his lawyers contended were improper jury instructions from the trial judge. Other unsuccessful arguments focused on the sufficiency of evidence and what they argued were improper remarks to jurors by prosecutors during the punishment phase closing arguments.

Mays' brother, Noble Mays Jr., was executed in 1995 for a fatal stabbing.

In the third case, the court upheld the death sentence of a North Carolina parolee convicted of killing a sales agent inside a model home in suburban Dallas.

Kosoul Chanthakoummane, 29, was condemned for the July 2006 slaying of Sarah Walker, 40, a top-seller for home builder D.R. Horton. She was stabbed 33 times and her body found by a house-hunting couple in the kitchen of a model home in McKinney, about 30 miles north of Dallas.

Chanthakoummane had been paroled to Dallas to live with relatives after serving time in North Carolina for aggravated kidnapping and robbery convictions.

His appeal unsuccessfully raised 15 points of error from his trial, including claims the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction, that shackling his legs in the courtroom in the presence of prospective jurors violated his constitutional rights and that jurors improperly were excused from serving. Another claim rejected by the court was that jurors improperly were shown a photo of him acting as if he was going to bite a small dog.

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