Death Watch: Not Their First Rodeo

Freeman will be the second Texan executed this year


Wharton County native James Freeman is currently scheduled for execution on Wed­nes­day, Jan. 27. Freeman, 35, was arrested in the early morning hours of March 17, 2007, for shooting and killing Texas game warden Justin Hurst after a one-hour high-speed chase through the southeast Texas county that began after Hurst, DPS, and county sheriff's officers were alerted to Freeman shooting a bird on a fence with a .22 rifle. Freeman dodged road spikes and hit speeds as high as 130 miles per hour as he tried to elude pursuing law enforcement, but ultimately lost control of his truck. He got out of the cab and started firing a handgun at pursuing officers. When he ran out of ammo, he "disappeared for a second," and came back with an AK-47, which he used to shoot Hurst in the left arm and torso.

Freeman's attorneys, Stanley Schneider and Lee Cox, retained by Freeman's family for a six-figure fee, argued during a trial in late 2008 that Freeman's intention during the shoot-out wasn't to kill Hurst, but rather to coerce Hurst or one of his colleagues into killing Freeman. They cast Freeman as depressed, but not somebody who intended to do any killing. The state, however, noted the number of guns Freeman had brought along, and said he had prepared for a shootout. Proceedings during the punishment phase found Schneider calling 48 witnesses to the stand to expound on Freeman's strong character and lack of violent outbursts. Jail guards said that Freeman was generally no issue while in their custody. But the prosecution was able to point out past experiences that demonstrated anger issues, and Free­man was sentenced to death.

John Wright and Donald Vernay, Free­man's attorneys through habeas proceedings, have tried to argue in a series of testimonials that Freeman had suffered from extreme mental illness and should be considered ineligible for execution. They've also raised claims that Schneider's counsel was ineffective, but the courts have had no use for it. A June 2015 appeal denial from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals put it succinctly: "This was not defense counsel's first rodeo." Freeman was denied relief at both the state and federal level. A final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was refused on Jan. 11.

Freeman will be the second Texan executed this year, the 14th since Gov. Greg Abbott took over as the state's governor, and the 533rd since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

James Freeman, Justin Hurst, Texas executions, Stanley Schneider, Lee Cox, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

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