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Harris County death row inmate’s intellectual disability claim gets another look

November 11, 2018

A Harris County court will determine whether a death row inmate from Houston is too intellectually disabled to execute.

Eric Cathey, who has repeatedly professed his innocence, was convicted in a 1995 kidnapping-murder. But on Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent his back to a lower court, which has 60 days come up with findings.

The 47-year-old former mechanic was sentenced to die for the killing of Christina Castillo, who was abducted by a group of men intent on robbing her boyfriend of his drugs and money. The woman’s body was found two weeks later, decaying by railroad tracks in the northeast part of town.

Testimony indicated Cathey was the ringleader, but he claims he spent the night of the slaying at home watching TV with his girlfriend.

“I am not guilty of the crime,” he said in a 2008 interview. “I never met the woman.”

The year after he arrived on death row, Cathey made headlines for his role in a daring prison escape. On Thanksgiving, he and six other condemned inmates used hacksaw and dummies in prison garb to slip out of the unit and make a run for freedom. Only one of the men — Martin Gurule — made it through the hail of gunfire and outside the fences. He later died when he drowned in a nearby creek.

Cathey never made it off the prison property.

In the 20 years since that failed bid, death row moved from Huntsville to Livingston and most of the would-be escape artists have been executed. But the Houston man is still fighting his appeals.

The decision last week marks the second time Cathey’s case has been bounced back to a lower court over intellectual disability claims stemming from his low IQ. In 2008, four hours before he was set to be executed, he won a stay from the same Texas appeals court.

Ultimately, the Texas court decided he didn’t qualify as disabled — but a 2017 Supreme Court decided prompted the justices to reconsider. The nation’s highest court had already deemed it unconstitutional to execute mentally disabled prisoners in 2002 decision. But last year, while evaluating the case of another Harris County death row inmate, the high court decided that Texas had been using an outdated, nonclinical standard to evaluate intellectual disability.

The groundbreaking split decision forced the Lone Star State to come up with a new standard for making that determination, and sparked a slew of new appeals from inmates who — like Cathey — argue that they’re not eligible for execution under the updated standard.

The inmate at the center of the 2017 case, Bobby Moore, is still on death row because in his case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to grant relief, even though prosecutors and defense lawyers agree they should.

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