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Who is Raymond Riles? Inmate on death row for 45 years won’t be killed, Lester Bower wasn’t so lucky

Doubts on whether Bower’s execution in 2015 was unjust still persist. However, another Texas inmate, Raymond Riles, has had his sentence overturned
UPDATED MAY 30, 2021
Raymond Riles was awarded the death sentence in 1976 for killing Houston used-car salesman John Henry (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)
Raymond Riles was awarded the death sentence in 1976 for killing Houston used-car salesman John Henry (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

HOUSTON, TEXAS: The death sentence of Raymond Riles, who was convicted of the 1974 capital murder of a Houston used-car salesman John Henry, has reportedly been overturned by an appeals court. The 70-year-old is said to be Texas' longest-serving death row inmate. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the sentence in April saying his mental illness history was not accurately reviewed by jurors.

However, that does not mean Riles is a free man now as his case will now go back to Harris County, where he was initially tried, for a new punishment proceeding. Reportedly, Riles was awarded the death sentence in 1976 after he was found guilty of murdering Henry. When he was on trial, at the time, Texas law did not expect jury members to consider factors like mental illness while deciding if someone should be executed or not. But a change was brought in 1989 when the US Supreme Court ruled that not considering intellectual disability or mental illness or other issues as mitigating evidence in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial is unconstitutional.


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However, that ruling also did not help Riles much since according to Jim Marcus, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and one of Riles’ lawyers, lower courts did not incorporate Supreme Court’s verdict until 2007. Prisoners like Riles are “housed on death row because their judgment is a sentence of death, but it can’t be carried out because they’re too mentally ill. In Texas, that means people are left to languish in the Polunsky Unit (the location of Texas’ death row), where the conditions are basically solitary confinement,” Marcus stated.

Though during Riles’ trial prosecutors repeatedly claimed that he was mentally sound, a number of psychiatrists and psychologists rejected it and said he was psychotic and has schizophrenia. The man’s brother also stated that his “mind is not normal like other people. He is not thinking like other people.” Thea Posel, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and one of Riles’ lawyers said: “All parties (now) agree that he is mentally ill. The state of Texas has treated him as such for the 45 years he’s been on death row.”

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg told Time magazine, “We are glad Texas’ highest (criminal) court agreed with prosecutors and defense lawyers that jurors must be able to consider a defendant’s mental health history before deciding punishment.” Marcus hinted towards the possibility that his client may now get life imprisonment, before adding, “This would be a very difficult case for Harris County to pursue further because Mr Riles is so mentally ill, that it’s unlikely he would be found competent to stand trial.”

Lester Bower on death row for decades like Raymond Riles but didn't survive

There are not a lot of similarities between Riles’ case and Lester Bower’s, and some things are common between the two men's cases. Like Riles, Bower was also on death row for a very long time before he was executed. Also, in Riles’ case, serious doubts were there [because of his mental health] whether to execute him or not and if he would have been, it could have been categorized as injustice -- much like Bower’s case seemingly was.

Lester Bower was on death row in Texas for 31 years before being executed in 2015 (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Doubts on whether Bower’s execution was unjust

In 2015, Bower at the age of 67 became the oldest prisoner executed by Texas in modern times after his last-day appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court. The Arlington man was put to death with a lethal dose of the sedative pentobarbital after he spent 31 years on death row for the 1983 killing of four men at an aircraft hangar near Dallas. The victims were -- Bob Tate, Jerry Brown, Philip Good, and Ronald Mayes.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in his final statement, Bower said, “Much has been written about this case, not all of it has been the truth. But the time is over and now it is time to move on. I want to thank my attorneys for all that they have done. They have afforded me the last quarter of a century. I would like to thank my wife, my daughters, family and friends for unwavering support, and all of the letters and well wishes over the years. Now it is time to pass on. I have fought the good fight, I held the faith. I am not going to say goodbye, I will simply say until we meet again. I love you very, very much. Thank you warden.”

Until his last moment, Bower had maintained his innocence. He also claimed that jurors failed to take his earlier faultless character into account during his sentencing. Besides, The Intercept’s Jordan Smith at the time branded his execution “a travesty of justice”.  In her June 2015 report, Smith wrote about the state’s stance on Bower, which claimed he alone fatally shot four men so that he can run away with a $4,500 ultralight aircraft. She then questioned the state’s investigation and Bower’s prosecution, though she also mentioned that in 1989 after Bower was sent to death row, “the conviction began to unravel.” “Documents challenging the state’s case surfaced — thanks to the dogged work of Bower’s pro bono attorney team — and a woman came forward to say that she knew who killed the four men, and that it wasn’t Bower. She has maintained her story — corroborated by others — for nearly 26 years,” the journalist noted.

Smith also wrote another article on Bower’s case and raised important questions about the US criminal justice system. She asked, “How much prosecutorial misconduct is acceptable? Is a defendant entitled to a reasoned defense? If a compelling alternative theory of a crime exists, should a defendant be permitted a second chance at trial? And, does three decades behind bars render an execution cruel and unusual punishment?”