The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A judge who sentenced a Jewish inmate used anti-Semitic slurs, lawyers say. They want a new trial before he’s executed.

Inmate Randy Halprin, then 26, sits in a visitation cell at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Tex., in 2003. Halprin has filed an appeal claiming the judge who convicted him was anti-Semitic and frequently used racial slurs. (Brett Coomer/AP)

On the stand for his capital murder trial, Randy Halprin stressed that while he did carry a gun with him after escaping a Texas prison with six others, he did not kill a police officer during a robbery that would set off a nationwide manhunt.

“I didn’t intend the death of that officer. I didn’t shoot him. I didn’t pull my gun,” Halprin said in 2003 of the fatal shooting of Irving, Tex., police officer Aubrey Hawkins at a sporting goods store on Christmas Eve 2000. “I didn’t anticipate anyone getting killed.”

Halprin, who was serving a 30-year sentence for injury to a child before fleeing with the “Texas 7” gang of prison escapees, was found guilty days after his testimony, and it did not take long for Dallas County District Judge Vickers “Vic” Cunningham to give him the death penalty. But as Halprin was sentenced to die, the judge who sent him to death row referred to him by an anti-Semitic slur and as “that f---in’ Jew,” while adding that Jews “needed to be shut down because they controlled all the money,” according to attorneys for Halprin.

It didn’t stop there. As the Dallas Morning News revealed last year, Cunningham’s family described him as a “lifelong racist” who regularly used offensive language toward African Americans and Hispanics and even set up a trust for his children that would give them money only if they married another white person.

On Thursday, Halprin’s attorneys filed a notice requesting that their 41-year-old client, who is scheduled to be executed on Oct. 10, be granted a new trial. They contend Halprin’s constitutional right to due process was violated because of Cunningham’s alleged anti-Semitic views, saying he “harbored deep-seated animus towards and prejudices about non-white, non-Christian people.” In addition to the notice to Dallas County and the state’s appeals court, more than 100 Jewish attorneys from Texas filed an amicus brief in support of Halprin’s push for a new trial. (Similar backing has come from the Anti-Defamation League.)

“If Judge Cunningham is the bigot described in the application, a fair trial has not yet happened,” the Jewish lawyers wrote.

Cunningham, 57, has denied the allegations, which were filed in an appeal, based on recent interviews with associates. He did not respond to a request for comment late Thursday, but Cunningham maintained to the Morning News that he was neither anti-Semitic nor racist.

“The fabrications contained in the writ are more of the same lies from my estranged brother and his friends,” Cunningham told the outlet in June, referring to his brother, Bill, who is married to an African American man, according to the Morning News. “I have not communicated with him since our father’s funeral. I will not be commenting further.”

As the Morning News reported in June, a person familiar with Cunningham said the judge “did not like anyone not of his race, religion or creed, and he was very vocal about his disapproval,” and remembered him using slurs in suggesting how minorities “walking into his courtroom knew they were going to go down.” Another associate remembered him calling Halprin “the Jew” during campaign events.

The newspaper previously reported that Cunningham, while rebuking his brother’s claim that he was a racist, acknowledged that he had indeed set up a living trust that would reward his children if they married a straight white Christian. The allegations came to light during Cunningham’s campaign for the Dallas County Commission, which the former criminal district judge lost in a Republican runoff in May 2018.

“I strongly support traditional family values,” he said to the Morning News last year, defending the trust he set up for his children. “If you marry a person of the opposite sex that’s Caucasian, that’s Christian, they will get a distribution.”

Dallas County candidate admits plan to reward his children who marry white, straight Christians

While in jail for violently beating a 16-month-old he was babysitting, Halprin and six other inmates pulled off an elaborate scheme to knock out and impersonate prison guards. They escaped the John B. Connally Unit, a maximum-security facility, on Dec. 13, 2000, a breakout that sparked a nationwide manhunt. They ended up at an Oshman’s Sporting Goods in North Texas on Christmas Eve, looking for more weapons and money. When Hawkins, the 29-year-old police officer, responded to a call at around 6:30 p.m., the officer was shot 11 times and run over. Soon after the escapees were featured on an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” in January 2001, six of the seven men were apprehended in Colorado; one man killed himself before police could arrest him. Four of the six men have already been executed, with Halprin and another man scheduled to die this fall.

But the death row inmate still argues he did not kill Hawkins and expressed hope that he could get a new trial.

“I’m still in shock and reflecting on the news that I had a judge who hated Jews,” Halprin wrote in June from prison. “It’s just a weird thing to have someone hate you for a religious view or how you were raised, or whatever.” He added, “I can only hope the court is fair and pays attention to this.”

Marc R. Stanley, a Dallas attorney who submitted the amicus brief on behalf of the Jewish lawyers, told The Washington Post that while the charges against Halprin are serious, he’s entitled to a new trial given the allegations of anti-Semitism.

“He’s scheduled to die in October, so we had to do something to have some impact and we hope this does,” Stanley said. “The case is clearly outrageous and offends our system of justice and rule of law.”

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