August 6, 2008

Illegal immigrant from Honduras facing execution

By MICHAEL GRACZYK Associated Press Writer © 2008 The Associated Press
Aug. 6, 2008, 11:33AM

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — When Heliberto Chi showed up at a men's clothing store in suburban Dallas, he was a familiar face because he'd once worked there as a tailor.

And when he returned after closing time the same evening to say he'd left his wallet behind, his former boss, Armand Paliotta, let him in.

Then Chi pulled a gun.

By the time he fled with a money bag, Paliotta was shot dead and another employee had been shot and wounded. A third employee, an assistant manager, hid beneath a rack of clothes, called 911 and left the phone line open. Chi's voice was captured on tape as he hunted for the hiding assistant manager, urging her in Spanish to "Come to the front" of the store.

He jumped into a waiting car as police were en route to the Arlington store. The tape would be played for jurors at Chi's capital trial, where he was convicted and condemned.

Chi, 29, was set for execution Thursday evening. He'd be the second convicted murderer executed in Texas this week.

"Not only was there eyewitness testimony, but that assistant manager got out a 911 call, and you could hear Chi in the background on the phone," said Mick Meyer, a former Tarrant County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Chi. "It was pretty solid evidence right there."

Witnesses said when Paliotta, 56, shoved the gun-wielding Chi and started running, he was fatally shot. An 18-year-old store employee also tried to run and was shot. He would recover and testify against Chi.

"Armand was a beautiful soul, a beautiful, beautiful man," his wife, Acela Paliotta, told The Dallas Morning News this week. "He lives inside of me. He loved to help people. There are many friends who have been affected. My husband never would have hurt anyone. He only wanted to help people."

Last September, Chi was spared from execution when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped his scheduled punishment after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider whether lethal injection procedures were unconstitutionally cruel. When the Supreme Court earlier this year upheld the method as proper, his date was reset for Thursday.

Chi, from Honduras, was in the United States illegally at the time of Paliotta's 2001 slaying. Lawyers for the Central American country said Chi was unable to contact anyone from his government, a violation of an international treaty, after he was arrested in California and extradited to Texas.

It's an argument similar to the one raised earlier this week by another condemned Texas prisoner, Mexican-born Jose Medellin, who was executed late Tuesday night for his part in a gruesome gang rape-slayings of two teenage Houston girls 15 years ago.

Unlike Medellin, Chi was not among some 50 death row inmates around the country, all Mexican born, who the International Court of Justice said should have new hearings in U.S. courts to determine whether the 1963 Vienna Convention treaty was violated during their arrests.

President Bush asked states to review the cases and legislation to implement the process was introduced recently in Congress, but the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year neither the president nor the international court could force Texas to wait. State attorneys had argued against a punishment delay, saying there was no certainty the legislation ever would pass.

A divided high court agreed, and Medellin's punishment was carried out, making him the fifth inmate executed this year in the nation's busiest capital punishment state.

While Medellin's case was being considered Tuesday by the Supreme Court, a state judge in Tarrant County refused a request from Chi's lawyer, Wes Ball, to withdraw Chi's execution date until legislation was enacted to formalize procedures for reviews of capital cases involving foreign nationals.

Chi would say little about the crime in an interview with The Associated Press shortly before his execution date last year.

"My situation is not about being innocent or guilty," he said, saying only that his trial was unfair. "My rights were violated. I'm a Christian. I know about the Lord. If it's the Lord's will, things happen. I have great peace in my mind and soul."

He said he slipped into the United States through Vancouver, in Canada, and had "three kids here, maybe more."

"I'm not sure," he said.

Chi was arrested in Reseda, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles, about six weeks after the robbery and shootings when his 18-year-old pregnant girlfriend turned him for assaulting her. The couple had been on the run for 43 days, crisscrossing the country from Iowa to Minnesota to West Virginia and eventually to California. Authorities said at the time of the arrest, they had been planning to flee to Honduras.

His girlfriend's brother, Hugo Sierra, is serving a life prison term for being Chi's getaway driver at the clothing store.

"He was identified by survivors, he had fled Texas, which is not particularly helpful," Bill Harris, who was one of Chi's trial lawyers, said. "He never was willing to acknowledge he committed the crime. We really didn't have evidence to put on."

Other evidence showed he had gotten into fights while in jail awaiting trial, wrote on his cell walls that he'd converted to Satanism and scuffled with a bailiff in the courtroom during a break in his trial.

Four other prisoners are set to die this month, including two more next week. They're among at least 15 Texas inmates with execution dates in the coming months.

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