A district court judge on Friday declined to recommend hospice or parole for former death row inmate Syed Rabbani, who remained in prison for decades as his legal appeal challenging his sentence was effectively “forgotten” in the Harris County courts.
In her denial, Judge Lori Chambers Gray wrote that such recommendations represented “relief” that properly should be decided by “the executive branch (or) the Board of Pardons and Paroles.” Chambers Gray declined to comment on her decision Friday.
In declining to recommend either hospice or parole, Chambers Gray denied an impassioned plea from Rabbani’s defense lawyer, Ben Wolff, who spoke at length about his client’s extensive medical issues at an emotional sentencing hearing Tuesday.
“I don’t want him to be lost again,” he said. “It’s still up to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. But, your Honor, put your thumb on the scale. Recommend parole.”
The Board of Pardons and Paroles could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
Chambers Gray had previously signaled a willingness to consider making a recommendation for hospice at Rabbani’s resentencing hearing on Tuesday, when he was officially taken off death row. Rabbani is now serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for his 1988 conviction in the fatal shooting of fellow Bangladeshi immigrant Mohammed Jakir Hasan in Houston.
Rabbani saw his death sentence overturned in September after a bizarre series of events that left his appeal effectively forgotten by the Harris County courts for nearly three decades.
“This was a due process disaster,” said Joshua Reiss, a prosecutor and post-conviction writ division chief for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “The ball got dropped (in) numerous places. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
More than 100 post-conviction appeals were lost in Harris County between 1994 and 2013, though Rabbani was the only defendant serving a death sentence.
Were he to be paroled, Rabbani would immediately be deported to his native Bangladesh because he is a foreign national convicted of a violent felony.
There, his family is eager to reunite with their loved one and provide the medical care he requires, Wolff said.
Wolff connected with Rabbani’s family after they discovered Houston Landing’s recent coverage of the case while searching for information online. On Tuesday, Wolff called the serendipitous connection “kismet,” or fate, and cited the Houston Landing’s reporting when making his recommendation to the judge.
Rabbani, who suffers from a host of psychological and physical ailments, has been in a semi-vegetative state since early 2022 and requires round-the-clock care. His family, Wolff said, is aware of the medical issues and believes Rabbani may improve in changed circumstances.
“I will take care (of) my Brother,” Syed Fasaini, Rabbani’s younger brother, wrote to Chambers Gray in a letter Wolff read aloud in court.
It was not immediately clear Friday when the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole will take up Rabbani’s case or issue its decision.
In the meantime, Rabbani’s future remains uncertain. At the hearing Tuesday, Wolff argued for hospice by enumerating a raft of medical issues that have left Rabbani in a semi-vegetative state.
Rabbani, who is confined to a prison bed in the Estelle unit in Huntsville, is blind from cataracts and “suffers from an epileptic condition and… brain damage” following an episode of hypothermia, heart attack and acute pancreatitis in early 2022, Wolff wrote in a letter to the court.
In that letter, Wolff and his co-counsel, Heather Richard, also noted that Texas Department of Criminal Justice staff have repeatedly recommended Rabbani be transferred to hospice. A medical director denied the recommendations, however, because Rabbani was serving a death sentence – the sentence later determined to be unconstitutional.
At the hearing, Wolff also provided a graphic description of the state of Rabbani’s prison cell. Wolff described soiled bed pads on the floor and mold in the toilet, among other issues, calling the cell the most “disgusting” he had ever seen in his 25-year career.
“Continued confinement for Mr. Rabbani amounts to torture,” Wolff said.