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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Texas 'sleeping lawyer' verdict overturned
Death chamber table
Calvin Burdine came within minutes of execution
A US appeals court has ruled that a man on death row should have a new trial because his lawyer fell asleep during the original murder trial.

Jurors and court officials agreed that lawyer Joe Cannon dozed off up to 10 times for as long as 10 minutes each during Calvin Burdine's 1984 trial in Texas.


A sleeping attorney is the same as no attorney

Lawyer Robert McGlasson
Burdine, 48, was found guilty of murdering his gay lover and sentenced to death.

In October 2000, a lower court had ruled that although Mr Cannon had fallen asleep, it had not been during important bits of the trial and therefore the murder conviction and death sentence were upheld.

He originally confessed to police but now denies the murder.

Reprieve

In 1987, Burdine came within minutes of being executed before a court ordered a reprieve.

His new lawyer, Robert McGlasson, welcomed the 9-5 majority ruling, saying: "Today, finally, common sense has prevailed."

"The full court has affirmed what we have said all along - namely that a sleeping attorney is the same as no attorney and that a death penalty trial conducted under these circumstances violates basic notions of fairness and decency," he said.

US death penalty
38 states have the death penalty
More then 3,700 inmates are on death row
Execution can be by hanging, electrocution, gassing, firing squad or lethal injection
Four states still use the electric chair

This is the third appeal in this case.

In 1999, a new trial was ordered but the Texas Attorney General, John Cornyn, appealed and the original verdict was upheld.

Mr Cornyn has not yet said whether he will appeal again to the US Supreme Court.

If there is no further appeal, Texas prosecutors must decide whether to hold a new trial or set Burdine free.

Flawed convictions

Since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 218 people - more than any other state and about a third of the country's total.

Critics say that this is because of the poor standard of lawyers appointed to those who cannot afford to pay for their own defence.

George W Bush
George W Bush has full confidence in the death penalty

However, US President George W Bush, former Governor of Texas, says he is "absolutely confident" that the process works fairly in his home state.

A Columbia University study recently found that two-thirds of convictions which led to the death penalty in the US were overturned on appeal because of "flaws" in the original trials.

Following a spate of such cases, in January 2000 the Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, suspended all executions.

See also:

19 Jun 01 | Americas
US minorities crowd death row
09 Jun 00 | Americas
US re-thinks death penalty
12 Jun 00 | Americas
Most US death sentences 'flawed'
06 Jun 01 | Americas
Spotlight on US death penalty
02 Jun 00 | Americas
Bush blocks execution
22 May 00 | Americas
Serial killer gets death penalty
25 Feb 00 | Americas
US grandmother executed for murder
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