A Texas death row inmate widely thought to be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted has died in prison just three days before a hearing may have cleared his name, the Houston Press has confirmed.
Max Soffar passed away on Sunday at the age of 60 after a battle with liver cancer; he had spent the past 35 years on death row after he reportedly confessed falsely to the 1980 execution-style shooting of three employees at a Houston-area bowling alley.
According to the Houston Press, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had recently agreed to hear his case in what may have been “one of the last chances he would have had at an exoneration.” The court was scheduled to hear oral arguments tomorrow.
In a press release marking Soffar’s passing, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, Brian Stull, argued that Soffar’s treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system had been a “disgrace.”
“Max was 24 when he succumbed to extreme pressure by police and confessed to crimes he didn’t commit,” declared Stull. “That confession should never have held up in court, yet it sent Max to death row, where he spent the rest of his life.”
Soffar was represented by the law firm Kirkland Ellis and the ACLU, which long advocated on Soffar’s behalf, pushed his case through the appeals process and urged the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for clemency. Most recently, the ACLU called for Soffar to be allowed to return home to his wife where he could die “privately and peacefully” instead of enduring “the horrors of terminal cancer under guards’ constant watch,” according to the organization’s press statement.
In its account of the 1980 case, the Houston Press suggests that Soffar had characteristics that made him vulnerable to falsely confessing. A seventh-grade drop-out who had been addicted to drugs his whole life, Soffar had also been born with liver and brain damage at birth because of fetal alcohol syndrome.
When interrogated by police about the events that transpired in the Houston bowling alley, his account “in no way synced with the actual crime scene.” Nevertheless, the outlet adds, “police were able to pressure Soffar into changing his story several times—from never even being present and only waiting in the getaway car, to only witnessing the murders, then, finally, to being forced by his accomplice to shoot people.” During his trial, it would be this twisted confession that would convince jurors to convict him and send him to death row.
In a 2015 open letter urging Texas Governor Rick Perry to intervene and allow Soffar to die at home, Innocence Project Co-Founder and Co-Director Barry Scheck similarly observed that Soffar’s case bore all the hallmarks of false confession.
“The three days of interrogation weren’t recorded. No other evidence inculpates him—no fingerprints, no witness identification and no forensic evidence,” wrote Scheck, adding that Soffar’s case, like so many others he has seen during his years with the Innocence Project, could have benefitted from the mandatory videotaping of the interrogation.
“The lesson we should learn is that the practices leading to wrongful convictions—including coercive and manipulative interrogations—occur throughout the criminal justice system,” he concluded.
“And they occur whether or not DNA evidence exists that proves innocence.”