A Houston man on death row for 35 years will receive a new sentencing hearing following a ruling Wednesday by Texas’ highest criminal court, which granted the prisoner’s appeal after it had languished for decades.
The ruling in favor of Syed Rabbani, 58, marks one of the most significant developments in the 100-plus legal challenges in Harris County that sat dormant for years. The Houston Landing reported in July that state appellate judges were furious with the delays, which local court officials discovered around 2022.
In Rabbani’s case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that a judge failed to properly instruct jurors about taking important factors — including potential evidence of mental illness — into account during the sentencing phase of his trial. Jurors issued the death sentence in 1988 after finding Rabbani guilty of killing a fellow Bangladeshi immigrant, 28-year-old Mohammed Hasan, at a Houston convenience store.
Ben Wolff, Rabbani’s newly appointed lawyer and director of the Texas Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, called the ruling “long overdue.” Wolff added that he’s grateful that prosecutors and the courts “unanimously recognized the need to remedy this injustice.”
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which supported a new sentencing hearing for Rabbani, will now determine whether it will seek the death penalty for a second time.
“This is unquestionably the correct result in this case,” said Joshua Reiss, chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Post-Conviction Writ Division. “If we think a conviction is righteous, we’re going to do everything we can to defend it. But if we think there has been a due process violation, we’re going to acknowledge that. And that is what occurred here.”
The court’s decision follows a bizarre series of events in which Rabbani’s appeal, first filed in 1994, remained pending for nearly 30 years. The Harris County District Clerk’s Office rediscovered the appeal and forwarded it to the Court of Criminal Appeals for review in 2022, one of dozens of similar cases identified by county officials.
“The facts of this case are just disturbing, procedurally,” Reiss said in May. “He fell through the cracks.”
For Rabbani, the stakes are high. Within months of submitting his appeal in 1994, experts at the organization now known as the Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities found Rabbani psychotic and incompetent to face execution.
However, he has remained on death row ever since. If the district attorney’s office decides not to pursue the death penalty a second time in his case, Rabbani would be taken off death row and could be deemed eligible for parole.
“I’m on death row,” Rabbani wrote to his trial judge in 1993. “Life on death row is terrible. I’m suffering.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals has dismissed or denied many of the 100-plus lost appeals, but it has sent back dozens of others to Harris County for further review.
In their opinions, multiple justices have commented on the “extraordinary” situation.
“The situation is extremely troubling, completely unacceptable, and terribly unfair to the applicants who have waited for years for any response regarding their applications,” Judge Michelle Slaughter wrote in January in response to one challenge filed in 2013.
Another judge, David Newell, excoriated the Harris County courts for failing to contend with the incident.
“(This) case is not an isolated incident, but we do not know if it is an island, part of an archipelago, or an entire sub-continent,” he wrote last year in response to a filing from 1995. “Further, there does not appear to be any systemic response in Harris County to what appears to be a systemic failure.”