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Death Row Inmate’s Sentence Is Tossed for Faulty Jury Instructions

Cesar Fierro spent four decades on death row. The threat of the death penalty was abruptly removed in late December when Texas’ highest ranking court decided he was given faulty jury instructions at his trial.

Judges at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the Mexican national’s death sentence in December, citing incorrect jury instructions that were given in his trial in 1980. The judges sent his case back to El Paso for a new punishment hearing, the Texas Tribune reported. Fierro’s conviction for the robbery and murder of a taxi driver still stands.

The death sentence followed the fatal shooting of Nicolas Castanon in 1979 as he drove his taxi. His attackers left his body in a park in El Paso. A teenager informed El Paso police he was also in the taxi when Fierro shot the driver from the back seat and abandoned the vehicle in Juarez in Mexico where he lived. Fierro’s criminal defense team argued the only evidence tying their client to the crime was the teen’s testimony. They argued Fierro’s confession was likely coerced by the police.

Fierro was convicted of capital murder in El Paso in 1980. He was sentenced to death. For almost 30 years he has argued his jury trial was given incorrect instructions and deprived of mitigating evidence that could have instead led the jury to recommend a sentence of life in prison.

His lawyers appealed after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1989 that a capital murder defendant has the constitutional right to such a jury instruction.

In an appeal in 1990, Fierro’s lawyers said the jurors were only asked if they believed Fierro deliberately killed Castanon and posed a future danger to society.

Evidence about his history of substance abuse, his difficult childhood, his religion and the way he supported his children was not given to the jury. These mitigating factors might have averted the death penalty.

In contemporary death penalty trials, jurors are asked whether they believe the defendant poses a future danger to society and if there is mitigating evidence that supports a sentence of life in prison instead of death.  The questions are posed after a capital murder verdict is delivered.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed more mitigating evidence should have been allowed at Fierro’s trial.