Convenience store clerk killer becomes 400th executed in Texas

MICHAEL GRACZYK
Associated Press Writer

HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Condemned killer Johnny Ray Conner asked for forgiveness and said he'd be waiting in heaven for loved ones, including his victim's relatives, as he became the 400th Texas inmate executed since the state resumed carrying out the death penalty a quarter-century ago.

"Shed no tears for me," Conner, 32, said as tears flowed from witnesses on both sides of the death chamber Wednesday evening.

He received lethal injection for the slaying of Kathyanna Nguyen, 49, during a failed robbery at her Houston convenience store in 1998. Conner's two sisters were among people watching through a window as he died. Nguyen's daughter and a sister were among those watching through another window.

"When I get to the gates of heaven, I'm going to be waiting for you," he told them. "I will open my arms for you."

He had asked the warden for permission to speak longer than the usual alloted two to three minutes, specifically wanting to talk to his victim's daughter, and spoke slowly and with emotion.

"What's happening now, you are suffering," he told his family. "I didn't mean to hurt y'all.... This is destiny. This is life. This is something I have to do."

He ended by saying what was happening to him was "unjust and the system is broken," then invoked Allah. "To Allah I belong and to Allah I return," he said.

Eight minutes after the lethal drugs began to flow, he was pronounced dead, making him the 21st condemned killer executed this year in the nation's busiest capital punishment state. Three more executions are scheduled for next week.

The 400-execution milepost prompted an outcry from death penalty opponents. Only a handful of protesters, however, gathered down the street from the prison entrance Wednesday evening. The first in Texas was carried out in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume.

"I know it's just a number, but 400," said David Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "Sometimes when I think about it I'm numbed, but still shocked. I'm very sad we're still doing this.

"It's hard to tell what these have done," he said of the protests, which now typically draw just a few people. "But it's better to do something than nothing."

About 4 1/2 hours before he was executed, Conner's lawyers lost their final appeal to the Supreme Court. Conner contended his trial attorneys were deficient for not investigating an old leg injury that he insisted left him with a limp.

According to the argument, the disability would have prevented Conner from running away quickly from the store where Nguyen was gunned down on a Sunday afternoon in May 1998.

Witnesses who identified Conner as the gunman said they saw a man running from the scene. No one mentioned a limp.

A federal judge agreed with the argument and granted Conner a new trial, but a federal appeals court disagreed in January and overturned that ruling, clearing the way for Conner's execution date.

Conner's trial lawyers denied they were ineffective, saying the injury never was an issue because Conner never told them the old injury was a problem.

But Kenneth Williams, a University of Miami law professor who represented Conner in his final appeals, argued that since trial attorneys failed to look into the leg injury, they weren't able to question witnesses properly about what they saw and raise reasonable doubt among jurors.

On Wednesday, as Conner was brought into the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where executions are carried out, prison officials detected nothing unusual about his gait, department spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said.

Lyn McClellan, the Harris County district attorney who prosecuted the case, said Conner's complaint was a fabrication.

"They had video of him in jail walking down the hallway just fine without any limp," he said. "That's the problem with some made-up defense. You've got to live it out all the time or you get caught."

Julian Gutierrez, a customer walking inside Nguyen's store to pay for gasoline, interrupted the holdup, tried to run back outside and was shot in the shoulder. Nguyen was fatally shot in the head.

Gutierrez survived and was among at least three people to identify Conner, whose fingerprint also was found on a bottle at the shooting scene.

Conner, a Shreveport, La., native, had a history of assaults and drug offenses starting at age 12.

Scheduled to die next is DaRoyce Mosley, set for lethal injection Tuesday for his part in the slayings of four people in the robbery of a bar in Kilgore in East Texas in 1994.

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