Thursday, 29 March 2007

Houston inmate fighting tonight's death date


March 28, 2007, 8:26PM


Houston inmate fighting tonight's death date

LIVINGSTON — Death row inmate Roy Lee Pippin admits he's sold drugs, smuggled drug money, even helped dump a dead body. But he insists he's no killer.

Pippin, a former member of a Colombian drug ring, smuggled millions of dollars — inside modified gas tanks of his air conditioning service trucks and in A/C units — into Mexico. The 51-year-old Houston man knew drug agents could swoop down on his southwest Houston warehouse, but he blithely carried on, indulging in drugs, booze and women.

In 1994, the high-flying lifestyle he had known for about three years came to a swift end when he took part in the kidnapping of four men suspected of pocketing almost $2 million from the operation. But Pippin insists he wasn't the triggerman behind the murders of two of those held captive, cousins Elmer and Fabio Buitrago.

One captive was able to escape; Pippin admits he helped dispose of the body of the other man, Javier Riasco, who was discovered later.

"I wasn't the boss," Pippin said recently from death row. "I didn't orchestrate these murders. I didn't have the power to kill these men."

If his numerous last-minute court filings fail, Pippin will be put to death tonight, becoming the 97th Harris County inmate to be executed in Texas since 1982.

During his trial, the state produced a witness, who pinned the murders on Pippin, and presented evidence that one of the victims, just before he died, had named Pippin as the killer.

Among the issues raised in his appeals include the belated discovery during his trial that two guns were used in the murders.

The finding contradicted earlier testimony in which Pippin was said to have shot the victims with one gun. Defense attorneys were caught unaware and argued that the prosecution purposely hid the information.

Prosecutor Julian Ramirez said he learned about the use of two guns the day a firearms expert testified. He said the use of two guns still does not exonerate Pippin.

"The jury had that information when they convicted Pippin of capital murder," Ramirez said. "The claim that we somehow hid evidence, which I consider to be a red herring, was not only raised in front of the jury, but on direct appeal and at every level of state and federal appeals and each time it has been rejected."

The firearms examiner, C.E. Anderson of the Houston Police Department, testified that bullets from Fabio Buitrago's body and two bullets removed from his cousin's body were from the same gun. On cross-examination by the defense, however, Anderson testified that another gun had been used. He acknowledged this fact was not in his reports to the prosecution and defense, but he said he discussed the issue with Ramirez before he testified.

Joan Campbell, one of Pippin's defense attorneys and now a state district judge, claimed the omission was intentional and punched holes in the state's star witnesses' testimony.

"I don't think the case would have been tried for the death penalty if there had been evidence of two guns," Campbell stated in a 2004 deposition. "They would have a hard time getting the death penalty when there's more than one person involved."

Jani Maselli, one of Pippin's former appellate attorneys, said Pippin deserves another trial.

"The gun evidence permeates throughout the entire trial," Maselli said. "Every strategic choice was based upon one gun being used."

Pippin also filed an appeal in which he claims lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment because the procedure may cause unnecessary and excruciating pain. The issue was denied.

On Monday, Pippin gave up his more than monthlong hunger strike. He was protesting what he called deplorable conditions on death row. He lost more than 20 pounds.

Pippin, in his interview with the Houston Chronicle, said that although he could not bear to spend much more time on death row, his son and daughter compelled him to continue to fight to clear his name. For more than a year, Pippin has worked on his case himself and has become known as a "legal eagle" on death row.

"This is absolute torture in this place," he said. "If they kill me it's going to be a blessing."

rosanna.ruiz@chron.com

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