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HOUSTON -- An unusual court hearing on the constitutionality
of the death penalty in Texas was put on hold Tuesday after the
state's highest criminal court granted a request by prosecutors to
stop it.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered that the hearing be
temporarily halted so prosecutors and defense attorneys can file
motions on whether the legal proceeding should be allowed to
continue.

The hearing, which began Monday and was set to last up to two
weeks, had been ordered by a state district judge in Houston.

District Judge Kevin Fine last spring initially declared the
Texas death penalty statute unconstitutional after granting a
motion in a capital murder case he is presiding over. Under heavy
criticism, Fine clarified then rescinded his ruling and ordered the
hearing, saying he needed to hear evidence on the issue.

Fine is a judge in Harris County, which has sent more inmates to
the lethal-injection gurney than any other county in the nation.

Lawyers for the Houston man who had asked for the hearing had
already presented two days of testimony on whether problems with
such things as eyewitness identification and evidence offered by
informants have created flaws in death penalty prosecutions in
Texas and resulted in a risk that innocent people will be executed.
They said their client, John Edward Green Jr., is innocent and the
case against him uses some of the same faulty evidentiary
procedures that have resulted in others being wrongly convicted.

Green, who is awaiting trial, faces a possible death sentence if
convicted of fatally shooting a Houston woman during a June 2008
robbery.

Green's attorneys said they were disappointed by the appeals
court's decision.

We're confident we'll get a ruling in our favor and the
hearing will continue, said Bob Loper, one of Green's attorneys.
We think our cause is just.

Donna Hawkins, a spokesman for the Harris County District
Attorney's Office, declined to comment. At the hearing this week,
prosecutors said they wouldn't participate during the legal
proceeding and remained quiet.

The appeals court gave both sides 15 days to file their legal
briefs. Loper said he doesn't know how long the hearing could
remain on hold.

On Monday, the prosecutor's office had filed a motion with the
appeals court, asking it to reconsider its decision from last month
to not stop the hearing. In their motion, prosecutors reiterated
their arguments that the claims being made by Greens' attorneys
were well-settled case law and that Fine didn't have the authority
to prevent the state from seeking the death penalty in the case.

The appeals court is dominated by Republicans and led by a chief
judge who was disciplined for closing the court promptly at 5 p.m.
while a death row inmate tried unsuccessfully to file an appeal
hours before he was executed.

Prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to get Fine removed from the
case, saying he is biased against the death penalty.

Fine has said he believes capital punishment is constitutional
and the hearing would focus only on the specific legal issues
raised by Green's attorneys.

The hearing had been set to present testimony on Wednesday about
the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution is under
heavy scrutiny. Willingham was executed for a fatal house fire that
killed his three daughters. But at least nine fire experts have
said the fire was an accident, not arson.

Green's attorneys say Willingham's case is a prime example of
flaws in Texas' death penalty system. Attorneys with the Innocence
Project, a New York legal center that uses DNA to exonerate inmates
and worked on the Willingham case, had been set to help Green's
attorneys and question witnesses on Wednesday.

If Fine were to rule the state's death penalty statute is
unconstitutional, prosecutors have said they would appeal the
decision, which would have a good chance of being overturned,
according to legal experts.

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