Robert Will was born in Harris County, Texas in June 1978. Raised in an extremely turbulent household. Rob’s early years were far from idyllic. He was physically and sexually abused from a very young age throughout his childhood. When Rob was ten years of age, his father was murdered. Always a bright student, Rob started to get into trouble with the law at around age 17 and was sent to boot camp for 18 months. This structured environment allowed Rob to excel and earn his GED with a high grade point average. After this, he enrolled in Child Psychology courses at Houston Community College because he wanted to help children who, like himself, were having a hard and painful life.
In 2000, Rob’s son was born. Rob was overjoyed, although this now left him with the responsibilities of being a father to his newborn son as well as stepfather to his girlfriend’s older child.
On the night of December 4th, 2000 Rob and a friend were stealing parts from a parked car in a residential Houston area. Two police officers spotted them and Rob and his friend fled, while the officers chased after them. Deputy Barrett Hill caught and apprehended Rob, put him in handcuffs and radioed in, “I have one in custody”. Moments later, Rob’s friend arrived at the scene of the arrest, pulled his weapon and shot Deputy Hill several times, killing him. During the shooting, Rob was also shot in the hand. Rob’s friend then uncuffed him and the two quickly left the scene. Rob, injured and bleeding, was caught and arrested soon after. Despite the lack of gunshot residue or other forensic evidence pointing to Rob as the shooter, he was charged with capital murder. His friend, the son of a high ranking Houston police officer, was charged with auto theft despite confessing to being the actual murderer to no less than 5 different witnesses.
During the trial, Rob was prosecuted by Chuck Rosenthal, Houston’s highest ranking District Attorney, while Rob was defended by much less experienced and effective court-appointed defense attorneys. This inequality in the skills of the lawyers was one of the first startling issues Rob faced during his two and a half week murder trial. Some of the other problems he faced at this stage are as follows:
Since the victim was a Sheriff’s Deputy, The Police Officers Union had many uniformed officers in the courtroom wearing ribbons of support for their fallen comrade seated right by the jurors. This is a common tactic known to effectively sway juries.
Two members of the jury had close ties to the Houston Police Department, creating clear juror bias from the onset.
The trial was not long after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Rosenthal preyed on the feelings of fear and insecurity in the U.S. at that time by comparing Rob to a terrorist:
“What we know from September 11 is that evil exists in the world: it is embodied in Robert Gene Will.”
January 24th 2002:
Rob is sentenced to death.
THE APPEALS PROCESS
Unfortunately, Rob’s initial appeals process was even more ineffectual than his trial. His court- appointed appellate lawyer, Leslie Ribnik, filed identical appeals (down to a capitalization error on page 17) for both Rob and Angel Maturino Resendiz, “The Railroad Serial Killer”, who was executed in 2006. Journalist, Chuck Lindell, commented on Ribnik’s performance in his article for the Austin American Statesman:
“Critics call Ribnik’s effort, or lack of it, another blot on Texas’ capital punishment system which relies on court-appointed defense lawyers of varying experience, skill and motivation”
Within the article, California attorney Richard Ellis also states that although the duplicate appeals were very troubling:
…he was more concerned with an apparent lack of substance in Will’s state habeas writ. “It seems a little thin. I average 450-500 pages on habeas writs, not including exhibits which can be another 1000 pages.”
Steven Bright, the President and Senior Counsel of The Southern Center For Human Rights, referred to Rob’s appellate lawyer as:
“Completely incompetent. This poor quality of lawyering is so common in these courts that they just deny the appeals based on briefs that would not receive a passing grade at a first year legal writing course” (Stated before the U.S House of Representatives)
October 19th 2011:
Based largely on the many witnesses that have come forward since Rob’s trial claiming that Rob’s friend had confessed repeatedly to killing Deputy Hill, Rob was granted an evidentiary hearing in 2011 in order to give this new evidence an opportunity to be heard in court. Unfortunately this hearing was unsuccessful due to the limitations placed on the court, much to the frustration of the presiding District Court Judge, who stated:
“The questions raised during post-judgment factual development about Will’s actual innocence create disturbing uncertainties …,” The judge wrote in a Jan. 17 memorandum. “On top of the considerable evidence supporting Will’s innocence and the important errors in the trial court, there must also be addressed the total absence of eyewitness testimony or strongly probative forensic evidence. With facts such as these, and only circumstantial evidence supporting Will’s conviction and death sentence, the court laments the strict limitations placed upon it.”
He called one of the original trial judge’s rulings an “error of grave proportion” and said that the presence of rows of uniformed law enforcement officers in the courtroom “would have likely justified post-trial relief had the issue risen on direct appeal.”
In January of 2012, Rob was appointed new counsel yet again as he faced the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. In May of 2012, the 5th Circuit Court remanded his case back to the U.S. District Court. This is a positive step on Rob’s long journey to prove his innocence.
On September 26th 2018, the District Court unfortunately reconfirmed that despite “the troubling possibility of Robert Will’s actual innocence”, under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the court did not have the jurisdiction to consider Rob’s petition for an Emergency Motion for Relief.
This has followed several years of back and forth through the courts to consider the Supreme Court’s ruling in Martinez and its application to Rob’s case in regards to ineffective assistance of counsel.
In a rare and sympathetic four-page order, the Judge repeatedly voices his concerns regarding Rob’s innocence but reiterates that under the AEDPA, he does not have the jurisdiction to grant relief.
The outcome of this order is that Rob’s case will now proceed to the notoriously conservative 5th Circuit of Appeals.
Rob has been held now for 19 years in confinement of up to 23 hours a day, enduring conditions of intense loneliness and deprivation, fighting for his life. Breakfast is served at 2:30am, lunch at 9:30 and dinner at 3:30. There are only two meals on weekends in order to save the State of Texas money. It is common for those held in such conditions to give up hope altogether, yet this has not been the case for Rob. He never passes up the opportunity for a chance to better himself. Since his incarceration he has become a certified Yoga instructor, published writing and is pursuing a distance Paralegal degree. Rob is an avid reader and enjoys books on psychology, art, history, and literature. He takes a very active role in his appeals process.
Rob also co-founded The DRIVE Movement. The DRIVE Movement is a group of inmates and activists organizing and participating in non-violent direct actions; fighting for improved prison conditions from within the prison walls.
A passionate and self-taught artist, Rob creates exceptional work given the very limited supplies Texas’ death row allows. He has had art exhibitions in New York and Miami, USA; Hamburg, Germany and Brighton, UK, to great success.