A “Texas 7” escapee on death row has filed an appeal claiming a former Dallas County judge referred to him with obscenity-laced anti-Semitic language, part of an alleged pattern of racism and bias so serious that he says the jurist should have recused himself before the man’s 2003 trial.
The federal appeal filed by Randy Halprin, a Jewish man who was sentenced to die under the controversial law of parties, contends that ex-Judge Vickers Cunningham routinely used racial slurs, including the n-word. He allegedly told a friend that he wanted to run for office so he would save Dallas from “(n-words), Jews, ‘w******s,’ and dirty Catholics” and that he took extra pride in overseeing the death sentences of the Latino and Jewish members of the Texas 7
A judge’s religious and racial prejudices are uniquely offensive to the Constitution and the legitimacy of the criminal justice system,” Halprin’s attorney’s wrote. “Given his lifelong views, Judge Cunningham must have been aware that he was required to recuse himself given his bias.”
Cunningham has faced allegations of bigotry before; the erstwhile jurist drew heat last year after he admitted to the Dallas Morning News that he’d set up a living trust that rewarded his children if they married a straight, white Christian.
“I strongly support traditional family values,” he told the paper in a video interview during his 2018 campaign for county commissioner. “If you marry a person of the opposite sex that’s Caucasian, that’s Christian, they will get a distribution.”
Days later, he lost in the Republican run-off – by just 25 votes. Cunningham did not respond Monday to the Chronicle’s request for comment.
The case at the center of the appeal was a high-profile police killing from December 2000. That month, seven prisoners broke out of a maximum security prison 60 miles south of San Antonio.
Led by George Rivas, a charismatic thief already serving 17 life sentences, they overpowered a maintenance supervisor at the Connally Unit and tied up civilian workers as hostages before seizing control of the guard tower. Then, they loaded up with weapons and supplies and drove out the gate in a stolen prison truck.
After pulling off two robberies in Houston, they headed up to the Dallas area and on Christmas Eve, the men held up an Oshman’s sporting goods store in Irving. They made off with $70,000 and 44 guns – but on the way out, they ran into Officer Aubrey Hawkins, the first lawman responding to the call.
In a chaotic scene, five of the men started firing. When it was over, Hawkins lay dead in the parking lot, shot 11 times and dragged 10 feet by an SUV as the panicked prisoners fled.
Some of the men admitted to to their roles, but Halprin has consistently maintained he never fired a shot – and that he didn’t even want to bring a gun.
“You know, I, before the robbery, I even told them, I’m not going to go in and carry a gun, and there was a little argument,” he told the jury during trial. “And so I told them I wasn’t going to pull a gun and they said, fine, just gather clothes, grab a shopping cart, and gather clothes.”
Under the law of parties – a Texas law that holds co-conspirators just as criminally liable as shooters – Halprin was sentenced to death, along with the other five surviving members of the crew. One man killed himself before they were captured in Colorado.
Initially, it was Judge Molly Francis who oversaw the trial. But once she snagged an appointment to a federal appeals court, then-Gov. Rick Perry assigned Cunningham to take over her bench.
Born and raised in a religious, Republican family near Dallas, Cunningham believed it was his “destiny” to become a judge. But, according to his childhood friend Tammy McKinney, even growing up he “did not like anyone not of his race,” an alleged bias that she said only seemed to grow over time.
By the time he hit 30, Cunningham allegedly used racial slurs regularly, McKinney wrote in a statement.
“If someone were actually African-American he would call them (n-word) and their first name,” McKinney wrote. “It was his signature way of talking about people of color.”
Two years after trial, he launched a bid for Dallas County district attorney, running as a Republican. At the time, he allegedly told campaign volunteer Amanda Tackett that he wanted to return the county to one where people didn’t have to worry about Jews and other minorities.
“My job is to prevent (n-words) from running wild again,” he allegedly said once when discussing the Texas 7 cases. One of the men he allegedly referred to as a “god**** k***” and “f***in Jew.”
After losing the 2006 race, he didn’t run for office again until 2018. Just before the Republican run-off, the Dallas Morning News published an investigation outlining Cunningham’s alleged history of bias, based on interviews with Cunningham’s friends and family.
To the paper and in a publicly posted statement, Cunningham denied ever using the n-word – though he admitted, on-camera, to the details of the living trust he’d set up.
Though Halprin was sentenced to die more than 15 years ago, his legal team only learned of Cunningham’s alleged bias through last year’s reporting in the Dallas paper. Afterward, investigators interviewed people who’d know the former judge to ask about his views toward Jewish people, findings that formed the basis of the latest appeal.
“An objective observer would conclude that Judge Cunningham could not prevent his personal prejudice against Jewish people from affecting his treatment of Mr. Halprin, whom he knew to be Jewish,” defense attorneys Tivon Schardl and Timothy Gumkowski wrote in Halprin’s latest appeal. “This Court should find that Judge Cunningham had an intolerably high risk of bias in violation of the Constitution.”
Along with the May court filing, an earlier federal claim in the case still being litigated. Even so, according to Halprin’s attorneys, prosecutors have requested an October execution date. A judge has yet to rule on that request.