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Texas cop killer to die Thursday

Associated Press Writer

HUNTSVILLE, Texas- It was a broken headlight that caught the attention of Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Bill Davidson, prompting him to pull over the GMC Jimmy on a South Texas highway.

The music blaring from the radio would make the traffic stop all the more notorious. At the wheel of the SUV, Ronald Ray Howard, then 18, gangsta rap music enveloping him, kept the truck in gear and his foot on the brake as Davidson walked up.

"Should I shoot him or not?" Howard later would say, describing his thoughts the night of April 11, 1992.

He leaned out of the stolen truck, raised his 9 mm pistol loaded with hollow-point bullets and fired. Davidson, a 43-year-old married father of two and a trooper for 19 years, was hit in the neck and died three days later.

Howard, who at 18 already had at least four children and was on probation for burglary, is set for lethal injection Thursday for the slaying. He'd be the 14th convicted killer executed this year in the nation's most active capital punishment state.

After the shooting, Howard sped down U.S. Highway 59. A passing motorist used the trooper's radio to summon help. Howard wrecked in Victoria, ran off but was caught by police.

"I heard him scream as I was leaving," Howard told a grand jury about the shooting.

At Howard's capital murder trial, his lawyers blamed hours and hours of incessant gangsta rap music _ with lyrics advocating the death of police officers _ as contributing to his actions. The defense sparked a national debate on the violence-laden anti-police music and censorship.

"No doubt he was blasting that cop-killer music on his radio when he was pulled over by that trooper," lawyer Allen Tanner recalled last week. "He grew up in the ghetto and disliked police and these were his heroes, these rappers ... telling him if you're pulled over, just blast away.

"It affected him. That was a totally valid serious defense. It really was."

Jurors in Austin, where Howard's trial was moved because of publicity in Jackson County, convicted the seventh-grade dropout after 40 minutes of deliberation. The same panel deliberated six days before decided Howard should die.

Howard told a grand jury he was listing to "Soulja's Story" by Tupac Shakur before he shot Davidson. The song makes references to a young black male being pulled over by police, remembering Rodney King, then opening fire on an officer. Shakur himself was gunned down in 1996 in Las Vegas, a slaying that remains unsolved.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Howard's death sentence in 1996 because a potential juror improperly was eliminated from the jury pool. At that second trial, in Corpus Christi in 1999, Howard again was sentenced to die.

Testimony showed Howard, from Houston, was a drug dealer and gang member who beat his girlfriend and slept with a gun. Prosecutors argued the rap music defense was a diversion intended to mitigate Howard's viciousness.

"Teenagers do crazy stuff," Tanner said. "He did something crazy and now is grown up. This is a case that's really sad. This kid should not be executed. He's always been really remorseful."

Howard, on an extensive Web site, said he hoped his experiences "would be an example of the realities of life on the streets and where it could lead," and that some at-risk youth "might see my message and choose to do better with their lives."

"I have never asked anyone for sympathy, for I realize no matter what, I was wrong for my actions many years ago," he wrote. "It took time to understand that. But I understand."

Department of Public Safety Maj. Art Garza, who worked out of the agency's Edna office with Davidson, recalled his former partner and colleague this week as "a good husband, great father, excellent trooper and good friend."

"He wore that uniform so proudly," Garza said. "I always knew Bill Davidson as just a strong man. I don't remember him ever being scared. He was a true police officer. What a great guy. We miss him."

Howard was one of three Texas inmates with execution dates this month. At least six are scheduled for November and another in December.


On the Net:

Ronald Howard: http://www.ronrhoward.org

Texas execution schedule: http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/scheduledexecutions.htm

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