HOUSTON (AP) — A California blogger convinced that a Texas death row inmate was innocent used legal documents he found online from other cases as templates to lead an aggressive and unfunded effort that nearly spared the convicted killer from execution this week.
John Allen, known to his readers as "The Skeptical Juror," worked with an activist in Houston who's a capital punishment opponent to stall the lethal injection of Preston Hughes III on Thursday. Their multiple appeals and lawsuits ultimately failed and Hughes was put to death nearly two hours later than scheduled.
"I think that's meaningless," Allen said Friday of Hughes getting additional hours of life. "He was executed and that's the bottom line."
Hughes, convicted of the 1988 murders of a 15-year-old girl and her 3-year-old cousin in Houston, had two appeals from his own lawyer rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court although the 46-year-old inmate had tried unsuccessfully to fire the attorney who represented him for the last 12 years, saying he disagreed with the legal strategy in his appeal. A federal judge refused to remove the lawyer from Hughes' case.
Allen's name never appeared in any of the documents filed under Hughes' name as "pro se," a legal term that indicates someone acting in their own behalf.
His appeal seeking additional DNA testing of evidence pushed the execution beyond the scheduled 6 p.m. time. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the appeal and he asked the court to reconsider it. The court refused. He also filed some civil lawsuits that state attorneys determined could not halt the punishment.
"I've got a ton of regrets," Allen, 64, said. "But it seems so frivolous in light of what's gone on."
Lynn Hardaway, a Harris County assistant district attorney who handles capital case appeals, including Hughes', said the effort was unusual in light of court deadlines that normally should limit the filing of last-minute appeals.
"The stuff was good," she said of the filings from Allen, who is not a lawyer. "That's what was crazy. It was wrong but it was well put together."
Hughes had no access to computers in prison and had to communicate with Allen by postal mail or through Ward Larkin, a death penalty opponent in Houston who befriended Hughes and was on his prison visitor list.
Allen said his interest in the legal system stemmed from a stint as a juror in a California case several years ago. He was the lone holdout for conviction and that led to a hung jury.
"He was innocent," Allen said of the defendant in that case. "They wanted to put him away for life and it pissed me off."
The defendant eventually walked free, he said.
Allen wouldn't specifically identify where he's based, only saying that it's in Southern California. He described himself as a "recovering engineer" in the aerospace industry. He now works with his wife in their custom computer database business.
He said he discovered Hughes' case months ago, believed Hughes was innocent and wrote about it on his 3-year-old blog.
"I'm officially agnostic on whether or not to support the death penalty," Allen said. "I don't discuss it. It is a distraction from what I do. I write about people I think are in prison and innocent."
Hughes wrote him a letter in August and that led to a working relationship with Larkin, who had filed clemency petitions with the Texas parole board in previous death row cases.
Larkin estimated he spent a few hundred dollars on copying expenses and that the entire effort had Hughes' support.
"He urged me to do everything. He gave me sworn consent," Larkin said. "I had to do what I felt might work.
"Did it work? No."
Evidence examined for DNA testing after Hughes' conviction and at Hughes' request found traces of the 15-year-old girl's blood on his clothing. At his trial, prosecutors showed the girl's glasses were found on a couch in his apartment. Hughes said police took the evidence from the crime scene, planted it in his apartment, illegally searched the place, coerced his confessions to the crimes and copied his signature to them from another document.
"The fact is I didn't kill anyone," he told The Associated Press last month.
He maintained his innocence in his final comments Thursday night from the death chamber gurney, just seconds before he was executed.
Allen said he spent hundreds of hours preparing filings and posted "90,000 words" about the case on his blog, but that his effort cost him no money. He used filings from other cases he found in online searches as models and adapted them for Hughes' case.
"I don't regret a moment of it," Allen said. "Straight answer is I would do it again. But I don't want to go there. This is a shame. This is an absolute shame."