Death Watch: Represented by Wikipedia

Taichin Preyor did not get the legal expertise he deserved

Death Watch: Represented by Wikipedia

The exact details of the crime that delivered Taichin Preyor to death row remain unclear and continue to be investigated by his current team of attorneys. What's clear is that Preyor was denied certain constitutional rights during both his trial and the appeals process. But unless Gov. Greg Abbott grants him clemency or he receives a stay, he will be executed next Thursday, July 27.

Three recently filed motions by Preyor's latest attorneys argue that Preyor was represented through his appeals by a disbarred attorney, Phillip Jefferson. His current lawyer, Catherine Stetson, of the Washington, D.C., firm Hogan Lovells, told the Chronicle that Jefferson used Brandy Estelle, a California attorney who works in real estate, as his legal stand-in to represent Preyor. A federal court in San Antonio originally denied Estelle's motion to represent Preyor, but the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals later granted her request and began paying the real estate lawyer for her services. (Estelle was also collecting money from Preyor's mother for much of the same work.) What's more egregious is the possibility that Estelle may have relied on Wikipedia to file Preyor's federal appeal. The latest motion, filed on July 14, states within Estelle's files was "a copy of the Wikipedia page" titled "Capital punishment in Texas" on the printout with a Post-It note reading "Research" next to highlighted passages of "Habeas corpus appeals" and "Subsequent or successive writ applications."

A July 11 supplement also argues that Preyor's previous attorneys "completely overlooked" the physical and sexual abuse Preyor experienced as a child. The mitigating evidence, says Stetson, could have convinced the trial jury to spare him a death sentence. Stetson said she and her team are currently investigating Preyor's past as well as the crime itself that landed him on death row.

The state claims that Preyor "fatally stabbed" his "girlfriend" Jami Tackett after breaking into her San Antonio apartment in February 2004, and in the process stabbed another man. But in Preyor's appeals, Estelle argued that Tackett was actually his drug dealer (not his girlfriend), and that Preyor acted in self-defense against her and her male companion. Preyor was arrested shortly after the attack, covered in Tackett's blood.

In March 2015, a judicial clerk reviewing death penalty cases contacted the Texas bar to seek new counsel for Preyor. The clerk, Stetson said, had concerns about how Estelle and Jefferson had handled the case. "When the federal court system sees this and asks for help, it tells you something awful happened," said Stetson. Austin attorney Hilary Sheard took over Preyor's case (one year after the 5th Circuit denied his appeal), and ushered in Stetson's firm in May after she fell ill. That month, the court approved her budget request of $45,000 to further investigate the case. The new motions seek a stay on Preyor's execution so that his new attorneys can prepare a case for mitigation.

A week before Preyor's execution date, Stetson said his team remains "in the dark" about what or when a ruling will come, but they're "continuing their investigation to better expose" Estelle and Jefferson's fraud. Should their efforts be unsuccessful, Preyor will be the first Texan killed by the state since James Bigby in March, and only the fifth this year. 542 Texans have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Death Watch, TaiChin Preyor, Greg Abbott, Hilary Sheard, James Bigby, Phillip Jefferson, Catherine Stetson, Brandy Estelle, Jami Tackett

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