The Austin police officers, each wearing suits and lapel pins replicating their badges, walked single file into the John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building and took their seats, filling half a courtroom.
The somber crowd included about 25 officers from nearly all ranks, some with only a few years on the force and one with almost four decades.
Most had come for one purpose: to hear why the man who killed a fellow Austin officer 30 years ago should be spared execution.
“This shows we still are a family,” said officer Ruth Bullock, who scanned the crowd before walking from a nearby hotel to the courthouse. “It doesn’t take a person to have been here 30 years ago to feel the loss.”
The officers, most of whom traveled to New Orleans at their own expense and used vacation time for the trip, presented a unified front Tuesday at a hearing in which the man who killed officer Ralph Ablanedo in 1978 is seeking a fourth trial.
During the nearly 90-minute hearing before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, lawyers for David Lee Powell argued that Powell deserves a new trial because prosecutors in his 1999 trial did not disclose evidence quickly enough that could have helped the defense’s case.
For the officers, the hearing provided a glimpse into a justice system that some say they fear might give Powell, 57, another chance at life â€” or even freedom. And they said they wanted to support Ablanedo’s sister, Irene, who has attended three decades of trials and hearings, sometimes alone or with only a small cluster of family.
“Hopefully this last appeal will be done and we can move on with setting an execution date so we can move on, and the family of Ralph Ablanedo can finally get closure,” said George Vanderhule, president of the Austin Police Association.
Vanderhule said the union in recent weeks had an outpouring from officers who wanted to attend the hearing. The union paid for five board members to do so, but other officers shouldered the expense for their airfare or drove their personal cars from Austin, he said.
Powell was found guilty and sentenced to death soon after the shooting in the 900 block of Live Oak Street in South Austin. According to court documents, he shot Ablanedo 10 times with an AK-47 during a traffic stop before trying to kill other officers as they closed in on him.
He appealed his conviction and got a new trial in 1991. Powell also appealed that guilty verdict and was given a new sentencing trial in 1999. He was again given the death penalty.
The appeals court judges on Tuesday asked Powell’s lawyers about why they thought information in the parole file of Sheila Meinert â€” Powell’s girlfriend, who was in the car at the time â€” would have helped Powell. The lawyers responded that the information was given to them on the sixth day of Powell’s 1999 trial.
Meinert was later found guilty of being a party to attempted capital murder. She served four years of a 15-year sentence.
Tina Miranda, a Texas assistant attorney general, argued that the information, which included documents that hinted that Meinert might have been more involved in the shooting, would not have helped Powell or swayed jurors.
Judges are expected to make a decision on Powell’s appeal in coming weeks.
After the hearing, Powell’s attorneys declined to comment. His aunt Frida Milone of Dallas said her nephew is not a dangerous person.
“He was under the influence of drugs,” she said.
Ablanedo’s patrol partner and friend, Bruce Mills, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the court will rule against Powell.
He said Powell’s lawyers appeared to be grasping for reasons their client should be spared.
“My sense is that the judges saw through that,” Mills said.
Then he walked over to Irene Ablanedo, who was surrounded by the officers in a cavernous hall leading to the courtroom.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to come to New Orleans and support me,” she said. “To know that my brother is remembered all this time later, there are no words to express it.”