HOUSTON — A 69-year-old prisoner on Texas death row for almost three decades for the slayings near Waco of three people — including the parents of his estranged wife — has lost a federal court appeal, moving him a step closer to execution.
Attorneys for Billie Wayne Coble contended testimony from a prosecution psychiatrist during his 2008 punishment retrial was unreliable and that a prison expert called by prosecutors gave fabricated testimony.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late Tuesday the psychiatrist's testimony was not unconstitutional and that a fabricated incident within the prison expert's testimony was harmless because it accounted for "only a small part" of the state's case against Coble.
Coble would turn 70 in September and is among the oldest of the state's 230 condemned inmates.
His lawyer, A. Richard Ellis, said Wednesday he had not yet decided whether to seek a rehearing before the appeals court "but either way I will petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court," meaning a review of the case by the justices.
In 2007, the 5th Circuit threw out Coble's original death sentence and ordered a new punishment trial. In that ruling, the court said two special issues that jurors had to answer to decide on the death penalty - whether Coble committed murder deliberately and would be a future danger to society - were unconstitutional as they were applied in his case.
The ruling then reflected changes in Texas statutes made since Coble's original trial in 1990, a year after he was charged with the shooting deaths of his estranged wife's parents, Robert and Zelda Vicha, and his wife's brother, Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha, at their homes in Axtell, northeast of Waco.
Evidence showed Coble was distraught over the breakup of his marriage and killed his wife's parents and brother Aug. 29, 1989.
Waco attorney J.R. Vicha, a former McLennan County prosecutor, was 11 when Coble killed Vicha's father and his grandparents.
"In my opinion, it's a great miscarriage of justice that this person has been able to live to see the age of 70," Vicha said. "But I guess him being one step closer to execution is better than nothing at this point."
Coble tied up J.R. Vicha and his cousins and told the girls to say goodbye to their mother. He then kidnapped Karen, his estranged wife, assaulting her and threatening to rape and kill her before they were injured in a wreck after a high-speed chase with police in neighboring Bosque County.
Crawford Long, who prosecuted Coble with former District Attorney John Segrest in the 2008 punishment retrial, once referred to Coble as having a "heart full of scorpions."
"Coble absolutely deserves the death penalty verdict, which I hope will be carried out in the near future," Long said. "He was able to escape the ultimate punishment in his first trial when the court was led to believe that he had mental problems, which it turned out he did not actually have. So he was essentially given what appears to be an unfair second bite at the apple. The second jury also believed he deserved the death penalty."
Long recalled evidence from the retrial that he said showed Coble's character and sealed his fate with the jury.
"He had stolen Karen Vicha's car and wrecked it after slaughtering her parents and Bobby Vicha, and the first thing he said was, 'I guess you are going to get a new car now,' " Long said. "I heard a sound of absolute loathing and disgust toward Coble from the jury that I have never heard in any trial. I think the jury felt justifiably from the evidence that he had absolutely no humanity."
Tribune-Herald staff writer Tommy Witherspoon and the Associated Press contributed to this story.