A Texas judge ruled late Monday that the death sentence imposed on Jewish inmate Randy Ethan Halprin was unconstitutional because the presiding trial judge espoused White Christian Nationalist ideology and antisemitism, creating an “intolerably high risk of bias.” The Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case in 2020, but now a state judge has recommended that Halprin’s conviction be thrown out.
Over 41 pages, Dallas County District Judge Lela Mays (D) detailed retired Judge Vickers “Vic” Cunningham’s pervasive bigotry and concluded with a recommendation that the Court of Criminal Appeals vacate both Halprin’s conviction and death sentence.
Halprin was a member of the so-called Texas 7, a group of inmates who escaped from the John B. Connally Unit prison in December 2000. Weeks after the escape, Halprin was involved in the killing of police officer Aubrey Wright Hawkins. Hawkins was shot to death while responding to a robbery committed by the escaped inmates.
Halprin was not directly responsible for Hawkins’ death; however, Halprin was charged under a Texas law that makes co-conspirators liable when they anticipate that a fellow perpetrator would use deadly force in a crime. A Dallas jury found Halprin guilty of capital murder in 2003, then sentenced him to death.
Cunningham presided over Halprin’s trial, then left the bench in 2005 to pursue a failed campaign for Dallas district attorney. The judge had a history of making racist and antisemitic statements, even saying he would reward his children with a trust if they married white Christians of the opposite sex.
Halprin, who is Jewish, appealed his conviction and sentence on the grounds that Cunningham’s bigotry meant Halprin had been denied a fair trial.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Halprin’s execution in October 2019 and directed the trial court to explore Cunningham’s antisemitism.
Meanwhile, Halprin conducted a separate appeal of his conviction under a theory of judicial bias. In April 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Halprin’s bid for a new federal trial under the judicial bias theory. At the time, only Justice Sonia Sotomayor remarked on the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari. She wrote that the facts alleged against Cunningham were “deeply disturbing,” but said she still voted to deny certiorari in part because the issue of judicial bias was already properly handled in state court.
Now, the results of the state-level inquiry are in, and “deeply disturbing” seems an accurate summary.
Judge Mays held a hearing in August 2022 to explore claims of Cunningham’s antisemitism and its effect on Halprin’s case. Mays heard from several witnesses who were family members and coworkers of the judge, and the court’s findings were detailed and abundant.
Mays found that an unnamed witness gave credible testimony that Cunningham “routinely referred to his younger brother, Bill Cunningham, as ‘N***er Bill,’ and used the phrase ‘TND,’ or typical n***er deal to refer to cases involving Black defendants,” and that Cunningham lied to press when he denied having used the N-word.
Another witness credibly testified that Cunningham regularly used racial slurs and “improperly viewed his public office as a means to advance his racist ideas, personal interests, and political aspirations.”
More directly relevant to Halprin’s conviction, Bill Cunningham testified that his older brother had a personal interest in the Texas 7 trials and that the judge’s “anti-Semitism was fully formed by the time he was old enough to drive and that the elder Cunningham took pleasure in disparaging Jews and abusing people of color throughout his life.” Bill Cunningham also relayed a childhood anecdote in which his older brother helped him remember their paper route delivery schedule by saying “throw to Jew” when they passed the house of a respected Jewish neighbor.
Tammy McKinney, who knew Cunningham since childhood and who Cunningham once asked to be his court coordinator, testified that, “Vickers Cunningham is a lifelong bigot who, after the trial, referred to [Halprin] as a ‘kike,'” and that the judge’s bigotry was a “major feature” of his personality, and that he often said things such “filthy Jews” while he was a judge.
The court also found that Cunningham would routinely refer to the Texas 7 defendants as “the Mexican, the queer, and the Jew.”
McKinney further testified that when she attended a Super Bowl party hosted by Cunningham’s brother, Greg Cunningham, she heard the judge say “Goddamn kike” in reference to Halprin, and describe Halprin’s codefendants as “a lot of wetbacks … and a Jew.”
Multiple professors and experts in racism and antisemitism also testified during the hearing, providing general background on racial and anti-Semitic bias. One such witness opined that Cunningham’s racism was “unusually strident,” while another explained that Cunningham’s beliefs align with the ideology of White Christian Nationalism.
The state of Texas put forth its own witnesses to counter the narrative that Cunningham was biased toward Halprin. Judge Mays, however, found that the state’s witness, Randall Isenberg, was not credible, because he “was intent upon defending his friend Vickers Cunningham and was not a reliable or objective source of information.”
Mays did find some of the state’s witnesses “credible,” but also found that each of those who testified that they failed to personally observe signs of Cunningham’s bias in court lacked the requisite training to recognize such signs.
“Judge Cunningham’s avowal of a White Christian Nationalist ideology adds to the weight of evidence that he was unable and unwilling to suppress his anti-Semitic bias while presiding over Applicant’s capital murder trial,” Mays wrote.
Mays ruled that Cunningham not only possessed generalized antisemitic prejudice, but that his specific prejudice against Halprin violated the defendant’s “constitutional right to a trial in a fair tribunal equal protection, and free exercise of religion.”
Mays said that the evidence presented in court “established that Judge Cunningham had a personal interest in convicting [Halprin] and sentencing him to death and that Judge Cunningham decided ‘to get’ those results long before [Halprin’s] trial began.”
Mays further found that Cunningham’s bigotry “motivated him in his private life to use coercion to interfere in the lives of his children, including through the use of his legal training and knowledge to create an irrevocable trust, and motivated him to seek public office in the criminal justice system, first as a prosecutor, then as a judge, and then in his campaign to become the Criminal District Attorney of Dallas.”
Monday’s ruling is not the first time Mays has recommended that Halprin’s sentence be overturned. In 2021, the judge made similar findings and conclusions. However, that ruling corresponded with Halprin’s “judicial bias” action and the current ruling corresponds with Halprin’s separate action based on constitutional rights.
Mays’ recent ruling focused on general fairness of the proceedings and found that Halprin had been denied a fair trial as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that Halprin’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion had been violated, and that Halprin had been denied equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The case will now proceed before the Court of Criminal Appeals for a ruling on Mays’ recommendations.
Tivon Schardl, attorney for Randy Halprin, issued the following statement in response to Judge Mays’ decision:
Due process and equality before the law found their champion in Judge Mays today, as did the people of Dallas County and the State of Texas. As the State conceded, the testimony presented to Judge Mays proved that Judge Vickers Cunningham was biased against Randy Halprin because of Mr. Halprin’s Jewish identity. And the State acknowledges that the Constitution allows only one remedy in cases of judicial bias, and that is to vacate the biased court’s judgment and start over with the chance at a fair trial before an unbiased judge. We are confident the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will follow the law, accept the State’s concessions, and adopt the trial court’s recommendations.
Cunningham did not immediately respond to request for comment. His law practice’s website still announces that he “presided over 800 jury trials and 1,250 bench trials, including the ‘Texas 7’ capital murder death penalty trials.”
[Images via Dallas Morning News/screengrab, Texas Department of Corrections]
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]