Death Watch: Flawed Testimony Cited to Challenge Death Sentence

Billie Coble challenges second death sentence

Billie Coble, 70, has already evaded death once. In 2007, the U.S. 5th Court of Appeals granted him a punishment-phase retrial, but he once again was sentenced to death for killing his father-in-law, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law (Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha) in 1989 – an extreme response to his failing marriage. Now, unless the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles approves Coble's clemency request or the U.S. Supreme Court grants his not-yet-filed final appeal, Coble will face execution on Thursday, Feb. 28.

His death date was set soon after SCOTUS denied his last appeal in October 2018. Earlier this month, Coble, a Vietnam veteran, filed both an appeal and a stay request in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing that his counsel "improperly overrode his Sixth Amendment right to determine the objective of his defense" and that his death sentence is based on the false testimony of state's witness A.P. Merillat – a claim Coble made in prior appeals after the 2008 retrial, which the CCA dismissed then. On Feb. 14, the state's highest criminal court again denied both pleas, claiming Coble failed to show how a recent Louisiana case applied to his situation and calling his appeal an "abuse of writ."

Coble, who's received several stays during almost 30 years on death row, was granted his retrial after the 5CA ruled that the special instructions given to the jury during the punishment phase of his original trial were likely to have "precluded the jury from giving meaningful consideration and effect to Coble's mitigating evidence." Coble's appeals of his second death sentence cited testimony from two unreliable witnesses – Merillat and Dr. Richard Coons, who testified that Coble would be a future danger using the "same unscientific off-the-cuff, ad hoc 'junk science'" as during his first trial. Coble alleges Merillat has no credentials and "essentially a high-school education," and based his "'methodology' on a hearsay anecdote of prison violence, presented demonstrably false testimony, and harbored extreme bias against the defense." Though Coble also kidnapped his estranged wife Karen Vicha after killing her family and threatened to rape her before he was caught, he had no prison disciplinary record for the 18 years before his retrial – which, the appeal argues, showed that he would not be a future danger. Additionally, the 600-page 2013 appeal claimed Merillat's "unreliable testimony has led to at least two reversals in death penalty cases for false testimony," and he has since been "forced to remove himself from the prosecutorial expert roster." SCOTUS denied this appeal in October.

On Monday, Feb. 18, Coble's lawyer A. Richard Ellis told the Chronicle a final appeal will be filed in the Supreme Court later this week. Without a last-minute stay, Coble will be the second Texas death row inmate executed in 2019.

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Death Watch, capital punishment, Billie Coble, Bobby Vicha, Karen Vicha, A.P. Merillat, U.S. 5th Court of Appeals, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, future dangerousness, Richard Coons

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