HUNTSVILLE, Texas (KETK) – The State of Texas is set to put a Fort Worth man to death on Wednesday for the 1993 murder of an elderly East Texan when he was just 18.
The execution would be the first-ever for Titus County, a small East Texas community with a population of just over 32,000, and the first for the state since the coronavirus pandemic began this year.
Billy Joe Wardlow, 45, was just 18-years-old when he and his then-girlfriend Tonya Fuller robbed 82-year-old Carl Cole at his Titus County home.
Both victims of child abuse and neglect, Wardlow and Fuller had hoped to begin a new life together in Montana that would start by stealing Cole’s car.
But the plan went sideways when, unexpectedly, Cole put up a fight and rushed toward Wardlow. A struggle ensued and Cole was shot between the eyes, dead before he hit the ground.
Two days later, the pair was arrested in Madison, South Dakota and extradited back to the Lone Star State.
While waiting for trial, Wardlow wrote a confession letter to the sheriff investigating the murder. Part of it read:
“Being younger and stronger, I just pushed him off and shot him right between the eyes. Just because he pissed me off. He was shot like an executioner would have done it.”BILLY WARDLOW CONFESSION LETTER
He later recanted this confession, saying he believed the sheriff, who was a family friend, told him the letter was for his mental health and would be inadmissible.
What has started since is a legal battle over how Texas sentences capital criminals, particularly younger offenders, to death.
In the sentencing phase, the jury is asked to consider factors that could help predict the inmate’s future risk if he were to be handed life in prison without parole.
While there were a number of mitigating factors that could have persuaded the jury to not hand down the death penalty, including his ongoing abuse as a child, the prosecution hammered home the confession letter and his repeated outbursts toward guards before his trial to paint a picture of Wardlow as too dangerous to not be kept on death row.
The jury handed down the death sentence, which would unknowingly set forth a protracted legal battle that would last nearly three decades.
Over the nearly 30 years that he has spent in Huntsville while waiting to die, Wardlow has spent 60% of his life on death row.
As it turns out, Wardlow turned into a model prisoner on death row and has earned respect from the prisoners and even the guards.
Some members of the jury that sentenced him to death have sent letters to support his petition, with most saying they regretted it. Below is an excerpt from juror Bob Seale, which was featured in Newsweek:
“I knew Mr. Wardlow was only 18 years old when he killed Mr. Cole, and it bothered me to end the life of someone that young, but I felt we had no other meaningful option. I have since that time also come to the conclusion that because of Mr. Wardlow’s youthful age at the time this crime was committed, we could not have predicted how he would turn out when he grew into adulthood.”Bob Seale, Juror at Wardlow’s trial
Another argument that Wardlow’s attorneys are making is that recent research into neuroscience shows that the brain does not fully develop until a person is 25 and that it should be taken into consideration for inmates convicted of capital murder at such a young age.
A separate juror, Bobby Schaller, wrote that “…Billy should have a life sentence instead of a death sentence. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially a kid whose brain was still growing at the time he did something horrible like Billy did.”
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence a person to death for a crime they committed while 17 or younger. A key sentence from the ruling that Wardlow’s attorneys have based their argument on is: “The qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18.”
The Appeals Process
After being convicted of the crime in 1995, Wardlow sent a letter to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that he did not wish to pursue any appeals to his case. Before the official deadline was reached, a lawyer for Wardlow filed an appeal anyway.
However, the Court granted Wardlow’s wishes that his appeal be ignored before the lawyer submitted the application and Wardlow never informed the court that he had changed his mind.
In October 2018, Wardlow filed a motion in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to overrule the state court, but it was denied. The court found because Wardlow never filed a notice to the court that he had changed his mind, it did not matter that his lawyer had filed an application.
To read the court’s full decision, click here.
Back in the spring, Wardlow’s execution was scheduled to take place on April 29, but was delayed after Titus County prosecutors requested it be postponed until July due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Texas Court of Criminal appeals already ordered three executions temporarily halted, including Tracy Beatty from Whitehouse.