Woman on Texas death row to be re-sentenced; life term expected
A female inmate on death row in Texas won a new sentencing hearing Wednesday after an appeals court ruled that prosecutors improperly withheld evidence from her lawyers.
Chelsea Richardson has worked out a plea deal and is expected to be sentenced -- within 30 to 45 days -- to life in prison, according to a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney's office. The office is based in one of the dozen counties that make up the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“This office will not be a party to the infliction of death as a punishment when there is even an appearance of impropriety on the part of a prosecutor who formerly worked in this office," Tarrant County Dist. Atty. Joe Shannon said in a statement released to The Times. "If the death penalty is to be used, it must be obtained legally, fairly and honestly and without the hint of a possible injustice.”
It was not clear whether Shannon planned to ask the Texas attorney general to investigate misconduct by prosecutor Michael Parrish, who has since retired.
"It ought to be addressed so it doesn't happen again," Richardson's Fort Worth-based attorney, Robert Ford, told The Times. "This guy in my opinion is a criminal and we need a special prosecutor to look into it."
The State Bar of Texas is investigating similar allegations that prosecutors in an Austin suburb withheld evidence in the 1987 trial of Michael Morton. Morton, 57, was released Oct. 4 after serving 25 years of a life sentence in connection with his wife's 1986 slaying, a crime that DNA evidence has since linked to a male suspect wanted in connection with another killing.
Last year, a Texas committee that was convened to prevent wrongful convictions noted that, of the state’s first 39 DNA exonerations, seven involved evidence suppression or other prosecutorial misconduct.
Richardson, 27, was convicted of masterminding the 2003 murder of her boyfriend's parents so he could inherit $1.56 million. The boyfriend, Andrew Wamsley, and the other woman implicated in the case, Susana Toledano, are both serving life terms in connection with the killings. Richardson is among 10 women on Texas's death row.
Her attorney had argued on appeal that during the trial, Parrish failed to turn over to the defense notes from a psychologist that suggested another woman plotted to kill the couple, Rick and Suzanna Wamsley of Mansfield, Texas. He argued that Parrish was required to share the evidence by law, a landmark 1963 Supreme Court case called Brady, since it might have shown his client was not guilty.
On top of the Brady requirements, Ford noted that the Tarrrant County district attorney's office has an "open file" discovery law that requires it to turn over significant evidence to defense lawyers.
Parrish testified during the appeal, denying he withheld information, according to court records.
Prosecutors initially argued that the notes would not have changed the jury's verdict, but later agreed to a plea deal that would allow Richardson to leave death row.
On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent the case back to Tarrant County for a new sentencing hearing, noting, "The state, through its prosecutor Mike Parrish, failed to reveal
Brady material regarding an examination of its key witness by a psychologist, which affected
the punishment phase of her trial."
According to the State Bar of Texas, Parrish has no public disciplinary history. But Parrish testified during the Richardson appeal that he had previously been issued a private reprimand by the State Bar of Texas in connection with withholding evidence in the death penalty case of Michael Roy Toney, Ford said.
A decade after Toney was convicted of arson and murder in connection with a 1985 mobile home bombing and sentenced to die, his conviction was overturned after it was revealed that prosecutors withheld more than a dozen documents of evidence. He was released in 2009, and died a month later in a car crash.
Parrish did not return calls Wednesday.
Ford urged the district attorney and Texas attorney general to investigate Parrish to deter other prosecutors from ignoring Brady and "open file" requirements and withholding evidence to score convictions.
"Prosecutors who want to cheat won't cheat if there's a penalty attached to it," he said.
[For the Record, 1:39 p.m. Nov. 3: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott's office would act as special prosecutor in investigating allegations that prosecutors in an Austin suburb withheld evidence in the 1987 murder trial of Michael Morton. Abbott's office is acting as special prosecutor investigating the murder case. The State Bar of Texas is examining allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the case.]
-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston
Photo: A Texas judge has granted death row inmate Chelsea Richardson, 27, a new sentencing hearing at which she probably will receive a life sentence. Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice