Death Watch: Was Dexter Johnson Condemned by His Own Attorney?

Inmate's new co-counsel seeks to terminate longtime attorney for bad lawyering


Dexter Johnson isn't going to die without a fight. The 30-year-old, who suffers from brain damage and schizophrenia, has filed a flurry of court motions since his death date was set in December by a Houston judge – several months before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last round of appeals. With his execution scheduled for May 2, Johnson has stay requests filed in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and in federal district court in Houston.

Johnson also has a motion pending in the Hous­ton court to terminate his longtime appellate counsel Patrick F. McCann; in February, U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett denied an earlier request to remove McCann but also appointed the Federal Public Defender's Capital Habeas Unit as co-counsel, directing FPD to "explore" Johnson's claims of ineffective counsel assistance. According to FPD's April 5 filing, their review of McCann's work cast "serious doubt on the constitutionality" of Johnson's conviction and death sentence, while leaving "no doubt" that McCann's work on the case "falls far below prevailing professional norms." McCann, who was appointed Johnson's appellate attorney on the day he was sentenced to death in 2007, failed to collect the trial team's "voluminous" files, which FPD calls the "most basic duty of post-conviction counsel in a capital case" and "essential" to provide "competent" representation.

During his years as Johnson's only attorney, FPD alleges, McCann failed to raise "numerous viable claims for relief" in state and federal courts, including Johnson's likely intellectual disability, his trial counsel's conflicts of interest as a former Harris County prosecutor, and errors by the Houston police crime lab, along with numerous mistakes made by McCann himself. Another appeal was filed in the CCA on April 22.

Johnson was sentenced to death in 2007 for the double murder of a young couple whom he and several friends carjacked and robbed before Johnson allegedly raped the woman and shot the pair. During his trial, jurors were told of other murders Johnson was suspected of committing. Despite his age (he was 18 at the time) and his schizophrenia, jurors returned a guilty verdict in two hours.

In closing, the lawyers of FPD offered: "Absent a stay of execution, Mr. Johnson will not receive the meaningful assistance of counsel he is entitled to." After James Byrd's killer John William King was executed Wednesday evening, Johnson is in line to be the fourth man killed by the state this year.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Death Watch, Dexter Johnson, John King, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Patrick F. McCann, Alfred Bennett, Federal Public Defender's Capital Habeas Unit

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