Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
What the State of Texas has done, and continues to do, to Syed Rabbani creates a new definition of injustice in the Lone Star State—a state immensely proud of longhorn cattle, state fairs, and rodeos but not so much about justice.
That is what the case of Syed Rabbani, a Bangladesh immigrant, demonstrates.
On November 1, 1987, Rabbani and fellow Bangladeshi immigrants robbed a convenience store in Houston, during which another Bangladeshi immigrant was killed.
Rabbani was indicted by a Harris County grand jury of capital murder, convicted as charged, and sentenced to death. It was never clearly established—certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt—who fired the fatal shot that killed the store clerk. But, given the law of parties’ doctrine under which Rabbani was prosecuted, the prosecution did not have to prove Rabbani fired the fatal shot, only that he participated in the robbery.
Rabbani was placed on Texas’s death row on July 25, 1988. That was more than 35 years ago.
After Rabbani was placed on death row, his attorney timely filed a direct appeal. The attorney, Wayne T. Hill, raised 16 points of trial error: an en banc panel of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals focused its attention on the sole issue of whether the prosecution had presented sufficient evidence to sustain Rabbani’s conviction.
On September 23, 1992, the appeals court upheld Rabbani’s conviction, finding that while the prosecution had not affirmatively shown that Rabbani fired the fatal shot, there was sufficient evidence that he had participated in the robbery, justifying his capital murder conviction and death sentence under the law of parties doctrine.
That is when the injustice against Syed Rabbani began.
Two years after the denial of his direct appeal (1994), Rabbani initiated a post-conviction constitutional challenge to his death sentence. His attorney at the time argued that the trial court had precluded the jury from hearing significant mental health issues that would have made him ineligible for the death penalty.
But, as the Houston Landing reported this past June, Rabbani’s post-conviction application disappeared into some dark hole in the Harris County Clerk of Court’s office. There is no indication that the District Attorney’s Office, then headed by the infamous Johnny Holmes, received a copy of the application for a writ of habeas corpus, or if it did receive a copy, whether the office filed a response.
Following an intensive investigation in June 2023 by the Houston Landing, the Clerk of Court’s office admitted that in 2022 it had discovered roughly 100 criminal cases involving challenges by defendants to their convictions—all of which had lay dormant in its office since the mid-1990s.
One of those cases was Syed Rabbani.
The Clerk’s office immediately started forwarding the cases, including Rabbani’s, to the Court of Criminal Appeals for disposition. That task was completed by the end of 2022.
Ben Wolff, Director of the Austin-based state Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, noticed Rabbani’s case was filed in August 2022 with the Court of Criminal Appeals. Wolff’s attention was triggered by the fact that Rabbani’s post-conviction application had actually been filed in Harris County in 1994—some 26 years earlier. That was not normal by any stretch of logic.
Wolff started to investigate. He learned that just months after Rabbani filed the 1994 challenge to his death sentence, what is now the Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities had declared him incompetent to face execution.
What Wolff learned next was nothing short of a criminal justice tragedy.
Over the next two decades while on Texas’s death row, Rabbani’s mental and physical health spiraled down into a dark hole of neglect operated by the state’s prison system—one of the worst in the nation.
By 1999, as reported by the Houston Landing, Rabbani was writing letters to his trial judge telling the jurist that he (Rabbani) was a CIA agent and a “red belt” karate expert. Those letters impressed the judge so much that when Rabbani’s trial attorney died in 2008, he assigned an attorney to Rabbani’s case who was not qualified to represent capital cases, according to Wolff. The new attorney did not even make an appearance in the case, did not take any action on behalf of Rabbani for the next 12 years, and the record does not if the attorney even knew they had been appointed to the case.
It was at this point that Wolff took action on his own. He filed pleadings with the Court of Criminal Appeals, suggesting that the Rabbani’s case be remanded back to the trial court for a hearing at which he would be represented by qualified counsel. The court agreed, appointing Wolff as his counsel.
Once back in the trial court, this past May, the District Attorney’s Office filed pleadings with the court agreeing that Rabbani was entitled to a new sentencing hearing at which the mitigating mental health issues could be presented. Joshua Reiss, chief of the DA’s Post-Conviction Writ Unit, was quoted by the Houston Landing as saying: “The facts of this case are just disturbing, procedurally. [Rabbani] fell through the cracks.”
Rabbani has now been resentenced to life, he has been taken off death row, and he now awaits parole from another bureaucratic, heartless institution.
While his 1994 challenge to his death sentence languished in some dustbin in the Clerk of Court’s office, Rabbani’s mental health continued to decline. He wrote letters to the court telling the trial judge how horrible conditions were on death row and the suffering he was enduring. He eventually fell into a vegetative state last year, with prison staff trying to get the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to place him in hospice care. The department refused, saying his death sentence precluded such a transfer.
This past spring Wolff visited Rabbani at the Estelle prison unit where he was confined in a medical cell. What the attorney found brought him to tears. Rabbani’s soiled bed pads lay on the floor, and mold was in his toilet. He walked away knowing that Rabbani’s continued confinement under those circumstances was nothing short of state-sanctioned torture.
At a November 14, 2023 hearing to determine the merits of Rabbani’s 1994 legal challenge, Wolff told the court that Rabbani’s case “is a stain on the criminal legal system.” He urged criminal district court Judge Lori Chambers Gray to recommend to the Court of Criminal Appeals that Rabbani be placed in hospice care and released on parole to the care of his family in Bangladesh, who have the means and resources to care for him until he dies.
The Houston Landing reported that Judge Chambers was initially receptive to hospice care but reticent about ordering parole release until she reviewed the entire record. Judge Chambers Gray has since denied making a recommendation for parole, saying it is up to the executive branch of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
While we understand the judge’s reluctance to go outside her judicial powers, given what her court has done to Rabbani for the past three decades, a recommendation for parole to the Board of Pardons and Paroles could have been impactful.
What the criminal justice institution has done to Rabbani far exceeds any definition of injustice. The dying man deserves immediate justice. The man is in a dying vegetative state today.
There is no way to undo the horrible, tragic injustice done to Syed Rabbani. The very least the State of Texas can now do is release him—a move not opposed by the District Attorney’s Office— and let him return to Bangladesh where he can die in his homeland among his family.