Death Watch: Cruel & Unusual Confinement

Convicted hit man faces third date with death

Rolando Ruiz has spent the last 22 years on death row. After two stays of execution, he is once again scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday, March 7.

As if in a story taken from prime-time television, Ruiz was hired by brothers Michael and Mark Rodriguez to kill Michael's wife, The­resa Rodriguez, so the brothers could collect on a life insurance policy. Ruiz, 20 at the time, was set to earn $2,000. He shot Theresa as she returned to her San Antonio home one night in July 1992.

Ruiz was convicted of murder in 1995 and sentenced to death. Michael, Mark, and two other accomplices got life sentences for their roles. Michael, however, was part of the Texas Seven jailbreak in 2000, which eventually landed him on death row. He was executed in 2008.

Ruiz has spent nearly half of his life in solitary confinement on death row; his attorneys are currently asserting a Lackey claim to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals – and possibly the Supreme Court should that fail. (Such claims, named after the 1995 Texas death row case Lackey v. Texas, argue that living on death row for a prolonged period of time is cruel and unusual punishment in and of itself, and therefore a violation of consti­tu­tion­al rights.) Burke Butler, an attorney for Ruiz who works with Texas Defender Services, told the Chron­icle Ruiz's two "last minute" stays have "caused immense pain to him and his family."

Ruiz received his first stay just minutes before his execution in 2007. The second came last August, a week before his scheduled death. Both stays stemmed from the inadequacies of Ruiz's original trial attorney, whom the state reappointed as his appellate attorney, even though a new lawyer should have been assigned. "We're here today because Texas didn't provide him with adequate counsel," Burke said. "He committed this crime on the heels of extreme poverty, abuse, and deprivation, but his trial attorney mentioned nothing of this."

Lee Kovarsky, the lead attorney working Ruiz's case, had also filed a motion to amend the March 7 execution date, because it coincides with the expected date of his daughter's birth, which if he goes on leave, could violate Ruiz's right to counsel. The state, federal, and 5th Circuit courts denied that motion. The Bexar County District Attorney's Office also denied the defense's request to reschedule, and Kovarsky's request to withdraw so that a new lead attorney could take over. Ruiz's lawyers are now hoping for an approval of the requests from SCOTUS.

Without an interjection there or through the 5th Circuit, Ruiz will be the third Texan executed in 2017 and the 541st since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Those numbers recalibrated again in February after Tilon Carter became the third inmate spared execution this year, four days before his death date. The Tarrant County court where he was originally sentenced failed to provide proper notice of his signed death warrant, and the Court of Crim­inal Appeals issued a temporary stay. Carter was convicted of capital murder in 2006, but has maintained the death was accidental ("Death Watch: An Intentional Smothering," Feb. 3). He was recently given a new date: May 16.

Buck Victorious at SCOTUS

Last Wednesday, Feb. 22, the U.S. Supreme Court caused a stir when it ruled in favor of Duane Buck, making the Houston native eligible for new sentencing by the state, which will hopefully reduce his sentence to life in prison. In 1997, Buck was convicted on two counts of capital murder. Racial bias played a large role in the jury's decision, however: Walter Quijano, a psychologist testifying for the defense, said that race – or, in his words, "the race factor," being black – could be considered one of several "statistical factors" in gauging Buck's future dangerousness ("Death Watch: Racial Bias Infected Sentencing Hearing," March 21, 2013).

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Death Watch, Rolando Ruiz, Duane Buck, Tilon Carter

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