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A jury found Jennings guilty of capital murder in July 1989 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in January 1993.
David Lee Harvell had several previous convictions for theft and unlawfully carrying a weapon. He had been sent to prison, paroled, had his parole revoked for new violations, and was on parole for the second time the night Officer Howard was killed. He was convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to 55 years in prison. He has since been paroled.
Jennings's appeals focused on his trial lawyer's decision not to call his mother and sister as witnesses at his punishment hearing and not to present evidence of his alleged mental impairment. His attorneys testified that they interviewed Jennings's mother and sister and determined they were "not very sympathetic" to him and would not have been good witnesses on his behalf. The lawyers acknowledged that they failed to review a report by Dr. J.M. Bloom, which suggested that Jennings suffered from mild retardation and organic brain dysfunction. Bloom also, however, noted that he believed Jennings was malingering, or deliberately behaving in such a way as to give the impression he was retarded.
A state district court found that the tests suggesting Jennings was retarded were contradicted by other evidence, such as the fact that he earned his G.E.D. and completed over 40 hours of college credit while incarcerated. The state courts denied his appeals.
In 2009, Jennings took these same claims to the federal courts. A U.S. district court ruled in April 2012 that the defense's decision not to call Jennings's mother to testify was reasonable, but that his sister should have been called to testify about his disadvantaged background. The district court also ruled the lawyers were deficient for failing to investigate the Bloom Report because even though Dr. Bloom's findings were mixed, if the lawyers had reviewed his report, they would have performed a deeper investigation into Jennings's mental state. The federal court dismissed, on procedural grounds, a claim by Jennings, known as a "Spisak claim," which is that his lawyer expressed acquiescence to a death sentence during its closing arguments when he said he could not "quarrel with" a death sentence. The effect of the federal court's ruling was to vacate Jennings's death sentence, requiring the state of Texas to either reduce his sentence to life in prison or hold a new punishment hearing.
Both parties appealed the district court's ruling to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals - the state of Texas appealing the two claims that were decided in Jennings's favor, and Jennings appealing the dismissed Spisak claim. In July 2013, the Fifth Circuit decided all three claims in the state's favor, thus reinstating Jennings's death sentence.
Jennings then appealed all three claims to the U.S. Supreme Court. That court issued a minimal ruling in January 2015 that simply ordered the district court to hear Jennings's Spisak claim.
The district court then held a hearing on the statement Jennings's lawyer made during closing arguments, in which he allegedly acquiesced to the jury imposing a death sentence. In the statement, he was asking the jurors to vote "No" on one of the three so-called "special issue" questions that determine whether a death sentence should be imposed:
"If you can, if you can see some way - maybe you can't, folks - I told you before, I can't quarrel with that ... Shoot, I'm a citizen here just like all of you. I live here. I work here. I'm raising my children here just like you. But if you can, I ask you to find that mitigation, to answer one of those issues 'No' ..."
The district court found that the above statement by the lawyer could reasonably be considered a plausible defense strategy. The court explained, "It is clear from the record that counsel was trying to identify with the jurors, and to convince them that he was a reasonable man who shared their interest in a safe community." The court denied Jennings's Spisak claim. The Fifth Circuit court affirmed this ruling in July 2015.
Jennings was scheduled for execution in 2016, but his attorneys won a stay from the Court of Criminal Appeals by arguing that jurors should have been allowed to consider mitigating evidence when deciding Jennings's punishment. The court agreed that this claim should be reviewed by the trial court. The trial court then held a hearing and decided against Jennings. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
In the days leading to Jennings' execution, lawyers filed several last-ditch appeals to attempt to win another stay. They alleged that the issues litigated in the state and federal courts over the last 28 years, including mitigating circumstances and possible mental impairment, were never adequately addressed.
On the evening Jennings was put to death, over 100 police officers stood in attendance outside the Huntsville Unit, known as "The Walls" because of its high red brick walls. As is common when the killer of a peace officer is executed, members of the Thin Blue Line motorcycle club attended and revved their bikes' engines during the punishment, making a roar that could be heard inside the death chamber.
As witnesses entered the viewing rooms adjacent to the death chamber, Jennings asked the prison chaplain standing next to him if he knew the name of the slain officer. The chaplain did not appear to respond.
"To my friends and family, it was a nice journey," Jennings said in his last statement. "To the family of the police officer, I hope this finds you peace and be well and stay safe. Enjoy life's moments, because we never get them back. Life mate, see you at the crossroads." The lethal injection was then started. He was pronounced dead at 6:33 p.m.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told a reporter afterward that the day was "a solemn occasion" and "a celebration of a life well-lived by Officer Howard."
By David Carson. Posted on 31 January 2019.
Sources: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, court documents, Associated Press, Huntsville Item, abc13.com.