Ed Asher December 23, 2000, Saturday 3 Star Edition Copyright 2000 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company The Houston Chronicle December 23, 2000, Saturday 3 Star Edition
(HOUSTON, Texas) -- A federal appeals court has overturned the capital murder conviction of a Friendswood man in connection with the 1980 killings of three people during the robbery of a Houston bowling alley.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that police violated the constitutional rights of Max Alexander Soffar by interrogating him after he invoked his right to consult with an attorney.
The court ordered Soffar's release unless state prosecutors seek a retrial within 120 days.
Attorneys in the case could not be reached for immediate comment late Friday.
Soffar was convicted of capital murder in April 1981 in the shooting deaths of three people at Fair Lanes Windfern Bowling Alley and sentenced to death.
Police say Soffar confessed to the shootings after he was stopped for speeding and charged with theft of a motorcycle. But he began recanting his confession immediately after his conviction.
The appellate court found that there was no physical evidence linking Soffar to the crime, but that he confessed to the killings to Galveston police Detective Bruce Clawson.
The court ruled, however, that the confession came after Soffar implied that he wanted to talk to an attorney.
Soffar first asked Clawson whether he should talk to a lawyer, the court said.
"Clawson said, 'If you're guilty, talk to the police; if you're innocent you should talk to a lawyer,' " the court said.
"Based on this, Soffar then asked, 'How do I get a lawyer?' Clawson deflected this question by asking, 'Can you afford' an attorney, implying that if Soffar couldn't afford a lawyer he wouldn't be able to get one."
Soffar continued by asking how he could get a court-appointed attorney and how long it would take, and Clawson again deflected the question by saying falsely that it could take up to a month, the court said.
The court also took note that Clawson testified in an appellate hearing that he understood that Soffar wanted an attorney.
The court ruled, "based upon the undisputed facts . . . that Soffar's conviction and sentence for capital murder are constitutionally infirm by virtue of the state's violation of Soffar's right to counsel during custodial interrogation."
During the robbery July, 13, 1980, Arden Alene Fisher, 17; Tommy Lee Temple, 17; and Stephen Allen Sims, 25, were killed execution-style.