Governor Perry, Have Mercy on This Man
Max Soffar has been on death row for a third of a century for a crime he didn’t commit. A year ago doctors diagnosed him with liver cancer, and he doesn’t have long to live
Dear Governor Perry,
It’s getting near the end of your time in office, and you’re probably looking for some ways to close out fourteen eventful years. When it comes to criminal justice, you’ve shown how tough you can be on bad guys, yet you’ve also shown how compassionate you can be toward the falsely accused. You were nothing but supportive of the campaign to posthumously exonerate Tim Cole, the innocent young Texas Tech student falsely convicted of rape who died in prison in 1999. Just last month you spoke emotionally about Cole and his legacy at the unveiling of a statue in his honor in Lubbock. “This statue will serve as a reminder that justice must be tempered with wisdom,” you said, “and that we must all stand vigilant against injustice wherever it may be found.”
I’m writing now to ask that you put those words into action. Show the people of Texas how to temper justice with wisdom—but also with mercy.
Show the people of Texas how to stand against injustice.
Show Max Soffar the compassion he deserves.
You may have heard of Max, who is 58 and dying of liver cancer. He’s also on death row, his home for 33 years. Most guys get sent to death row because of serious proof that they did a terrible crime—things like DNA evidence or eyewitnesses. Not Max. Oh, the crime was terrible, all right: three young people were murdered in a Houston bowling alley in 1980, shot in the head execution-style. But Max was convicted without one shred of physical evidence to tie him to the crime—no fingerprints, no blood, no hair, no DNA, no gun, and no witnesses.
Only one thing connected Max to the murders, and that was his confession, though it was at odds with almost every crime-scene fact. Two different juries—in 1981 and 2006—believed that a man wouldn’t confess to something he didn’t do, and they sent him to death. Over the years, though, plenty of people have come to believe he got a raw deal, from dozens of lawyers willing to work for Max pro bono to five different federal and state judges. One is a conservative federal judge named Harold DeMoss, who wrote in 2002, “I have laid awake nights agonizing over the enigmas, contradictions, and ambiguities” in Max’s case. Another is a judge you are quite familiar with, Governor: Cathy Cochran, whom you appointed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals back in 2001. “I find this case quite troubling,” she wrote only two years ago. “There is something very wrong about this case.”
You’ll think so too. And the thing is, you are the only person who can make a difference in Max’s life—well, you and members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. As you know, a majority of the board can recommend that you grant clemency to an inmate, and in August Max’s attorneys filed a petition asking members to do just that, to commute his death sentence to life, which would allow him to be released for time served. But this past Monday, October 6, the board turned Max down. To be more precise, what the board did was send Max’s lawyers a letter saying, “It has been determined that Mr. Soffar’s request will not be considered by the Board at this time.”
Governor, I’m not sure when it will be convenient for the board to consider a last request from a dying man, but I’m writing now to urge you to ask it to take another look at Max’s case—a serious look—and then to take a vote. There’s nothing in the Code of Criminal Procedure preventing the board from doing so, and there’s one big reason for you to urge a second look: Max is innocent. The state of Texas made a mistake. And now he deserves the chance to die at home surrounded by his wife and family. After you’ve read about his case, I think that you’ll agree.
Max was a confused and troubled kid who became a confused and troubled adult. As a newborn, he was given up for adoption by his mother and taken in by George and Zelda Soffar of Friendswood, southeast of Houston. Max was a fussy, wild baby, and the Soffars soon realized he had emotional problems. The boy began seeing a shrink at age six; a fourth-grade teacher said he was “the most disturbed [child] she had ever encountered.”
When he was twelve his parents committed him to the Austin State Hospital, where he stayed for three years, taking Thorazine and receiving electroshock therapy.
by Michael Hall