Court lifts execution reprieve for San Antonio hit man

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Texas' highest criminal court lifted a reprieve on Wednesday that, for the second time in a decade, prevented a convicted hit man from being executed for the 1992 slaying of a San Antonio woman.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals didn't rule on the merits of the appeal filed by 44-year-old Rolando Ruiz, who was five days away from execution when the court stepped in on Aug. 26. Instead, the court ruled that his appeal was not legally proper and dismissed it, clearing the way for prosecutors in Bexar County to seek a new execution date for Ruiz.

Investigators said Ruiz collected $2,000 to kill Theresa Rodriguez at her home in San Antonio at the request of her husband, Michael, and a brother-in-law as part of a life insurance scheme.

Ruiz was convicted of being the triggerman in the plot. Michael Rodriguez also was convicted in the case — but he wound up on death row after becoming one of the notorious Texas Seven gang of inmates who escaped from a prison in December 2000 and killed a Dallas-area police officer. Rodriguez was executed in 2008.

In Ruiz's appeal, his attorneys argued that his trial lawyers and his original appeals lawyers failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence, like his long-term drug abuse and a troubled childhood, that could have convinced jurors to decide on a punishment other than death.

But in a 6-1 ruling with two judges not participating, the criminal appeals court said that claim had been "fully and completely vetted" by the federal courts over the past seven years. The court said the claims of poor legal help at Ruiz's trial had been "inspected, scrutinized, studied, probed, analyzed, reviewed and evaluated by the three main levels of the federal court system."

The court also said it had previously rejected the argument raised in the appeal that executing Ruiz more than two decades after his conviction amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

Ruiz came within an hour of lethal injection in 2007 before a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stopped his execution. In 2-1 ruling, the judges in the majority said they needed more time to review arguments of poor legal help in early stages of his appeals.

The case then was sent back to a federal district court, which denied the appeal. The 5th Circuit denied it again, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the appeal in 2014.

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