Lady Justice Holding Scales | Spolin Law

Lady Justice holding scales.

In Austin, TX on April 14th, 2021, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the death sentence of the state’s longest-serving death row inmate. Raymond Riles, now 70, was sent to death row 45 years ago following a conviction for murder and attempted robbery that took place in 1974. The court recently ruled that Riles’ death sentence “can no longer stand,” because the jurors in his trial were not instructed to properly consider his mental illness as a possible mitigating factor.

Raymond Riles has spent more than 45 years wrapped up in Texas’ criminal justice system, starting with his initial death sentence in 1976. Riles spent the next few decades on death row after numerous execution dates would be set and then canceled as he was repeatedly deemed too mentally incompetent to be executed. Thea Posel, one of Riles’ attorneys, noted, “the first time they found him incompetent was in 1987 and 1988 and he has never been restored.”

Riles’ 1976 conviction was overturned shortly after he was sentenced. Riles claimed an insanity defense at his retrial in 1978 and had a number of experts testify that he had schizophrenia with paranoid delusions and psychosis. Relatives also cited a family history of severe mental illness and testified about his own history of “odd and often violent behavior” that persisted throughout most of his life. Despite these well-supported claims, doctors for the prosecution argued that Riles was faking a mental illness. As a result, the jury rejected Riles’ insanity defense. When jurors were later deliberating the sentence, they were only to decide if the murder was deliberate and if Riles is likely to be a danger to society in the future, in accordance with Texas law at that time. Once again, the jury voted to convict Riles of capital murder in 1978.

Things changed in Texas in 1989 when it was ruled that death penalty juries are required to consider mitigating evidence, including a mental illness, that may influence juries to decide for a lesser punishment. In their ruling, the judges for Riles’ case explain that the evidence of mental illness that Riles presented at trial “is the type of evidence that both [the Court of Criminal Appeals] and the Supreme Court have come to regard as the kind of ‘two-edged’ mitigating evidence calling for a separate, mitigation focused jury instruction.” Since the jury in Riles’ trial did not receive this instruction, the Court said his death sentence can no longer stand.

Herbert Washington, Riles’ co-defendant, was also sentenced to death on related charges, but his death sentence was commuted in 1978 to 50–25 years after he pleaded guilty.

Riles’ case has now been sent back to Harris County, where it was originally tried, to again determine his punishment now with an informed and properly instructed jury. While the Harris County DA’s office supported tossing the death sentence, they have not yet shared whether or not the office would seek the death penalty again. Riles’ capital murder conviction remains unchanged.