On Thursday, the CCAR joined the Union for Reform Judaism, the Men of Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Committee, and over 100 Jewish lawyers in Texas in filing a brief amicus curiae with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals supporting the appeal of a death row inmate named Randy Halprin. Halprin is Jewish, a fact that was well-known at his trial. He was one of a group of convicts who had escaped the Texas prison system. He was convicted of capital murder, that is being part of a criminal group where someone committed murder, in this case the killing of a police officer.
It is unusual for the CCAR, or indeed the other Jewish organizations and individual Jewish lawyers, to file a brief about a particular death penalty case at a mid-level state appellate court in Texas. It is, after all, the state with by far the highest number of executions in the country, and we just don’t have the resources to file these briefs as a matter of course. But this is an unusual case.
The judge who presided over much of Mr. Halprin’s trial, including the death penalty phase, is named Vickers Cunningham. Credible allegations of a lifetime of vile antisemitic and racist comments and actions by Judge Cunningham have surfaced since Mr. Halprin’s trial and conviction a decade and a half ago. In 2018, the Dallas Morning News ran a story that laid these out.
A long-time acquaintance of Judge Cunningham told the Texas courts in a sworn statement that the judge regularly attacked Jews and people of color using foul epithets, including referring to Mr. Halprin as the “goddamn kike” and the “f…..n’ Jew.” A campaign aide in Judge Cunningham’s 2006 race for Dallas District Attorney provided the courts a sworn statement that she heard him call Jews “dirty” (and slur people of color as well), and that he regularly referred to Mr. Halprin just as “the Jew.” Mr. Halprin suggests that these attitudes influenced several rulings against him by Judge Cunningham.
The CCAR and others who filed this brief are not taking a position on whether Mr. Halprin committed crimes. As the brief says, “[A]t this moment, those issues are irrelevant, because issues of guilt or innocence follow a fair trial; they do not precede it. And if Judge Cunningham is the bigot described in [Mr. Halprin’s] application, a fair trial has not yet happened.” The brief asks for a stay in Mr. Halprin’s execution and a full evidentiary hearing on whether Judge Cunningham was indeed biased against Jews. If he was, a new trial should be warranted.
In the Torah reading for the week when the brief was filed, the Israelite people are instructed to appoint judges. As part of that, they are told lo takir panim, “you shall show no partiality.” Every court system deserving of its name has required the same of its judicial officers. In this case, the Conference asserts that principle remains paramount today.
Rabbi Thomas M. Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.