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These Inmates Didn't Kill Anyone. Now, Two Teenage Girls Are Fighting To Keep Them Off Of Death Row.

Joy Diaz/Texas Standard
Heidi Ellis and Sebe Shearer

From Texas standard:

It's not common for a teenager to hang out in the office of a pro bono attorney whose clients are Texas death row inmates. But, that's where 15-year-olds Sebe Shearer and Heidi Ellis are.


"I've known Sebe for a really long time now since elementary school and I also needed volunteer hours – so I decided to come with her,” Ellis says.

The girls laugh because they didn’t get along back in elementary school.

While some of the girls' classmates are cleaning up creeks or fixing meals at their local homeless shelter – Heidi and Sebe are learning the stories of hundreds of men on Texas death row.

"Some of these stories – once you hear them – you can't just ignore them – they are really moving," Shearer says.

One story they’ve been moved by has to do with something called "the law of parties."

"The law of parties is a provision in the Texas penal code that essentially assigns criminal responsibility to one person for the conduct and actions of a third party,"  says Jared Tyler, an attorney and an expert on the law.

Rodolfo "Rudy" Medrano was sentenced to death in Texas under the law of parties. In a 2015 interview, Medrano recounted how he was convicted and is set to die for the 2003 killings of six people in Edinburg.
"I was not even in the city. The crime happened in Edinburg. I was at home in Weslaco – the opposite side of the county – when the murders were committed. And, it's a point that district attorneys do not dispute. But because of that law – it gave them what they needed to convict me," he says.

Medrano was involved with the gang members who committed the killings, but even the prosecutor in his case said Medrano himself never fired a gun and was miles away from the crime scene. Since there were some irregularities with his case, Medrano has been pushing to get it reviewed.

"I'm hoping for a new trial,” he says.

Sebe has learned there are a lot of cases like Medrano's.

"It's really upsetting when you hear something like that because these are real people and – for it to be ended for something that they didn't even do – it makes me want to help – more, I guess, is what I'm trying to say," she says.

Recently, Sebe and Heidi were inspired by the story of Kenneth Foster – a man who was also sentenced to death under the law of parties. But, unlike Medrano and everyone else on Texas death row, Foster had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment 10 years ago in an unusual move by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

That case led the girls to believe other capital punishment sentences could be commuted and future such cases could be avoided by making changes to the state's law of parties.

Hope for changes to the law led Sebe and Heidi to – unofficially – lobby the Texas Legislature. They've written letters and visited with lawmakers, hoping they will vote in favor of two bills currently making their way through the Legislature that would change the law of parties in Texas.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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