restricted access 14 “Dying by littles”
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220 chapter fou r teen “Dying by littles” “The [capital murder] statute fairly well covered the field, but it doesn’t cover this. . . . As far as I am concerned it ought to be.” —Norman Kinne Assistant District Attorney, Dallas County I Not long after Abdelkrim Belachheb shot and nearly killed John McNeill, McNeill met with Norman Kinne as the latter prepared for trial. McNeill fully expected that one day he was going to be able to witness Belachheb’s execution. Kinne had the task of telling McNeill that the crime Belachheb had committed amounted to six counts of murder—not capital murder, meaning no death penalty and certainly no execution. John became angry and the best Kinne could do was assure him that the law was going to be changed.1 “Charlie [Belachheb] got the maximum penalty under the law, which is not enough,” Kinne told the press immediately after trial. “He should have gotten the death penalty.”2 There was even some question as to whether Judge Meier had the right to “stack” Belachheb’s life sentences. In 1984, any sentence could be stacked, except for some instances of theft. Shortly after she sentenced Belachheb, Frank Jackson called Judge Meier at home and said he didn’t think she could make the sentences “DYING BY LITTLES” • 221 consecutive. He referred her to the statute mentioned above, which applied only to theft. “It is an odd turn of events that now he would be tried for death but his sentences, if he did not get death, could not be stacked,” Judge Meier recently said. Had she not stacked his sentences, it is possible that Abdelkrim Belachheb could be on parole today, if he had behaved himself after his arrival there.3 (More on this later.) As soon as the verdict came in, State Representative Tony Polumbo, a Democrat from Houston, filed a bill with the Clerk of the Texas House of Representatives. It was numbered HB 8 (House Bill 8) and was later referred to Polumbo’s Committee on Jurisprudence . Patricia Hill, a Republican from Dallas, signed on as cosponsor . Two weeks after the Belachheb trial, the two legislators joined House Speaker Gib Lewis to announce that the Lewis “Crime Package,” was going to include HB 8. “The Penal Code tells me we think more harshly of robbery than a second murder,” Polumbo said. “Had my bill been in effect, he [Belachheb] could have been sentenced for capital murder.”4 It was only the first echo to bounce off the walls of the Legislature during the next five months. Polumbo’s HB 8 sought to expand the list of capital murder offenses to include the murder of more than one person. The proposed “multiple murder” statute, included murders committed either during the “same criminal transaction” such as an act sometimes referred to as “simultaneous mass murder” like what Belachheb, Charles Whitman, or James Huberty did, or murders “pursuant to the same scheme or course of conduct,” such as serial killing like Henry Lee Lucas and Kenneth Allen McDuff. It further proposed to make murder a capital offense if the defendant had a previous murder conviction.5 From the Committee on Jurisprudence, the bill was referred to a Subcommittee headed by Polumbo. The Subcommittee reported a re-written bill and submitted it as a “complete substitute.” Four other bills in the Senate and two in the House expanded the capi- 222 • CHAPTER FOURTEEN tal murder umbrella, but HB 8 became part of the Speaker’s package .6 Had it been introduced in the absence of the Belachheb murders , HB 8 might well have sailed through the Texas Legislature anyway. But the events of June 29, 1984, left no doubt about the eventual outcome; the Speaker candidly admitted that the publicity generated by the Belachheb trial would make it “easy” for the bill to pass.7 The source of the outrage was that despite the fact that Belachheb had gunned down six people, his life was spared because in 1984 the Texas Penal Code defined only five types of capital murder: • the murder of an on-duty peace officer or firefighter • murder in the course of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, or arson • murder for hire • murder while escaping a penal institution • murder of a penal employee while incarcerated in a penal institution. Abdelkrim Belachheb had done none of those things. While the Belachheb case outraged most lawmakers, great care had to be taken to correct the “loophole” that saved him...


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