Six months after the Texas death chamber held its latest execution, Barney Ronald Fuller Jr. is set to die Wednesday for the 2003 shooting deaths of his neighbors in rural East Texas.
If it occurs, Fuller's execution will break the longest gap between executions in Texas since 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of lethal injection. It will also mark the first time Houston County has put someone to death since the penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976.
Fuller, 53, was sentenced to death for killing Annette and Nathan Copeland, his neighbors on the outskirts of Lovelady, a small town with around 600 residents at the time about 100 miles north of Houston. In the early morning of May 14, 2003, he fired into their home with an assault rifle before breaking in and killing them both with a pistol, according to court documents.
“We got a call in the middle of the night that our family had been murdered,” said Ona Presto, Annette's older sister who became guardian of the Copelands’ two children.
The tension between the neighbors began several years earlier. In 2001, Fuller was charged with making terroristic threats against the Copelands after he allegedly shot and damaged their electric transformer, then threatened them when they called the sheriff’s office, according to testimony from the sentencing trial. The Copelands called deputies to their home several other times claiming Fuller was firing weapons, but no action was ever taken.
On May 13, 2003, more than two years after charges were filed, Fuller received a letter from the Houston County courthouse about his upcoming trial, sending him into a rage, according to testimony from Fuller’s wife, Linda. He drank through the day and night and eventually sent Linda and their children from the house.
At around 1:30 a.m., he walked the 200 yards to the Copeland’s home and fired 60 rounds into the house with an assault rifle, according to court documents. He then broke down the back door, and first went into the bedroom of the Copeland’s 10-year-old daughter, but left when he couldn’t turn on her light. He went into the master bedroom and fatally shot both Nathan, 43, and Annette, 39, with a pistol before heading to their son’s room. Cody, 14, was shot twice in the shoulder, but survived.
During the initial gunfire, Annette managed to crawl into the bathroom to call 911. During the call, the operator heard a man say, “Party’s over, bitch” before hearing pops, then silence, according to court testimony.
“It’s just a heinous crime,” said Randy Hargrove, an investigator for the Houston County District Attorney’s Office and former sheriff deputy who worked the crime scene in 2003. “The man doesn’t need to be on this earth.”
Fuller was arrested at his home several hours later, and pleaded guilty to the murders in court. After a sentencing trial, the jury handed down the death penalty.
Hargrove said he couldn’t remember another case in Houston County where the death penalty was pursued. Fuller is the only inmate on death row from the county, and no executions from the county are on record. Hargrove said he believes the death penalty is right for Fuller but hopes there will be no future cases.
“It’s really sad for both families,” Hargrove said, adding that he feels for Fuller's mother as well as the Copelands. “But you reap what you sow. If you plant corn, you don’t harvest peas ... That’s just the way it is.”
Presto has always believed the death penalty was the right punishment for her sister’s killer, she said.
Fuller’s direct appeal was denied by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court, and the one other appeal he filed was also denied. Among the appellate claims was his incompetence to stand trial or enter a guilty plea because he acted irrationally and removed himself from the courtroom for most of the jury selection process and trial.“I do believe that God made this determination, and that he is getting justice done for what he did to two innocent people,” she said.
No appeals are currently pending, and Fuller waived all further review of his case in May, according to his lawyer, Jason Cassel. The execution, which will be the seventh of the year, is expected to go forward after 6 p.m. Wednesday. Two other executions are scheduled for 2016.
Presto, along with her sister and the Copelands' two children, plans to witness the execution in Huntsville, though she said she doesn’t know what to expect.
“I don’t know if this is our answer or not,” Presto said of the execution. “We’re hoping to see a closure once this has all happened.”