A federal district court ruled this week that a Houston man on Texas death row for 20 years for killing his boss during a robbery was not mentally competent to stand trial back in 1990 and ordered his release within 180 days unless the Harris County District Attorney's Office plans to retry him.
In a strongly worded opinion, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller said the state had forfeited its right to act on Rulford Garfield Aldridge's case by failing to acknowledge his appeals.
“It is unconscionable that full inquiry into Aldridge's mental state has taken two decades,” Miller wrote in his ruling this week.
Lawyers for Aldridge, also known as Salim El-Anwar Shabazz, called the ruling an “extraordinary development” that is “highly unusual.”
“It really is amazing after being on death row for 20 years to finally have a court listen and evaluate what should have been considered initially,” Aldridge's appellate attorney, Philip Hilder, said Friday. “The heart of the ruling is that Mr. Aldridge was never competent to stand trial.”
Aldridge, now 56, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for robbing and fatally shooting his boss, 32-year-old Ben Stone, twice in the back of the head at the McDonald's restaurant where they worked on Jan. 3, 1990. Several psychologists have concluded over the years that Aldridge suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.
Aldridge, one of 14 children of a Houston preacher, has a long criminal history. As a teen, he was sent twice to reformatories for thefts, burglaries and stealing a car. He was arrested by Houston police in 1972 and convicted of attempt to commit murder and nine counts of robbery by assault, which earned him a 25-year prison sentence, records show.
‘Clear and present threat'
Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos said her office will vigorously pursue every legal option to “safeguard our citizens” from Aldridge and other allegedly mentally ill violent offenders.
“Rulford Aldridge is a dangerous man who is a clear and present threat to society,” Lykos said Friday. “Anyone who comes into contact with him is at risk.”
Lykos said the case illustrates deficiencies in Texas mental health statutes governing the criminal justice system when violent defendants claim to suffer from mental illness.
“The next Texas Legislature should rewrite and consolidate mental health laws to both ensure due process and to protect the public,” she said.
The Texas Attorney General's Office can appeal Wednesday's federal ruling. The 180-day timeline ordered for Aldridge's release or retrial will not begin until the attorney general's office exhausts all appellate options.
The inmate's family, who could not be reached for comment Friday, previously testified that he began acting strangely in 1976 after he was hit on the head with an ax while in prison. His letters from prison after the head injury expressed “very strange” thoughts, his family said.
When Aldridge was released from prison in 1986, he lived with an older sister for a time, but “acted bizarrely and described delusional, conspiratorial fears.”
He became interested in Islam, and while working at the McDonald's, he opened a checking account to save money to go to Egypt, court papers show. He told a psychologist that Stone, the man he killed, followed him around.
Eluded police 10 days
On the day Stone was killed, Aldridge met him at the restaurant at 7719 W. Bellfort to help open the business by 5 a.m. Stone was shot twice in the head, and about $2,100 was stolen from the restaurant's safe.
Prosecutors argued that Aldridge's efforts to elude capture demonstrated his mental competency. He was arrested 10 days after Stone's death.
A court-appointed psychologist suggested Aldridge suffered from a paranoid schizophrenic disorder and adult antisocial behaviors but found him competent to stand trial later that year, when a jury convicted him of capital murder and sentenced him to death.
Almost immediately, Aldridge began filing bizarre, rambling appeals himself in both state and federal courts. In 1994, he wanted to fire his appellate attorney, but two psychologists found Aldridge mentally incompetent to represent himself.
His appeals then ground to a halt in state District Judge Brian Rains' court. From that point on, Rains never acknowledged Aldridge's pleadings, Wednesday's ruling states.
“The state courts responded with silence,” Miller wrote in his ruling this week.
Calls to Rains seeking comment Friday were not returned. The Republican judge lost his seat on the bench during the Democratic sweep in the fall 2008 elections.
In 2006, appellate attorneys filed new pleadings in federal court, claiming Aldridge was incompetent to stand trial back in 1990 and was still incompetent due to his mental illness. Miller concluded that Aldridge is entitled to a new trial and punishment hearing because constitutional error “infected” his conviction and death sentence.
Aldridge's competency to stand trial must be evaluated again if the District Attorney's Office moves to prosecute him again for Stone's death. If found mentally incompetent, Aldridge could be committed to a hospital.
Aldridge's mental illness has never been treated while he has been incarcerated, his appellate lawyer James