Texas inmate Syed Rabbani taken off death row decades after filing appeal
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Nearly 30 years ago, death row inmate Syed Rabbani filed a legal appeal challenging the constitutionality of his death sentence, which he received in 1988 for the fatal shooting of a fellow Bangladeshi immigrant at a Houston convenience store.
Now, he has been officially re-sentenced, a major victory for an inmate whose attorneys say was “forgotten” for decades by both the courts and the prison system that confined him.
On Tuesday, the Harris County district attorney’s office, represented by Post-Conviction Writ Division Chief Joshua Reiss, informed a district court judge at a resentencing hearing that the office would not pursue the death penalty, citing “some very serious mental and physical health issues affecting Mr. Rabbani some three decades after the capital murder.”
“This was a due process disaster,” said Reiss at the hearing. “The ball got dropped (in) numerous places. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Texas’ highest criminal court ruled in favor of Rabbani’s long-standing appeal in September, overturning his death sentence as unconstitutional because the judge failed to properly instruct jurors about taking important factors into consideration during the sentencing phase of his trial. Among those factors was potential evidence of mental illness. Since his conviction, Rabbani has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder by doctors at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The reversal in Rabbani’s case 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 over 100 similar cases identified by county officials, according to an investigation by the Houston Landing.
“Everybody in this courtroom — we weren’t around in 1994,” said Ben Wolff, Rabbani’s recently appointed lawyer and director of the state Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, referring to the year Rabbani filed his appeal. “But we all have the opportunity to do something about it.”
Of the defendants in those cases, Rabbani, 58, alone remained on death row as his appeal “gathered dust in the offices of the Harris County District Clerk,” Rabbani’s legal team wrote in a letter to the court.
The district attorney’s decision to drop the death penalty in Rabbani’s case now leaves him serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole, the only other punishment available for capital crimes at the time of his conviction in 1988 for murdering Mohammed Jakir Hasan. Rabbani is now eligible for parole on the basis of time served.
However, Rabbani is seriously mentally ill and also suffers from a variety of other medical issues that have left him in a vegetative state since early 2022 — issues that his legal team says were ignored by Texas Department of Criminal Justice staff for decades, including untreated seizures and possibly diabetes.
Medical records provided by Rabbani’s attorneys show that prison staff has repeatedly recommended Rabbani be transferred to hospice since early 2022, but he was deemed ineligible for such a transfer because he was serving a death sentence — the sentence now deemed to be unconstitutional.
Wolff was visibly emotional in court as he described Rabbani’s current medical condition and living environment, forced to pause to collect himself.
“He is confined to a prison bed in probably the most disgusting prison circumstance I’ve ever seen,” he said, referring to Rabbani’s cell in the medical wing of the Estelle prison unit. Wolff recalled seeing soiled bed pads on the floor and mold in the toilet when he first visited Rabbani in spring 2023. “Continued confinement for Mr. Rabbani amounts to torture.”
“This case is a stain on the criminal legal system,” Wolff added.
Wolff urged district court Judge Lori Chambers Gray on Tuesday to recommend Rabbani be transferred to hospice, then paroled and released to the care of his family in Bangladesh.
“They welcome the opportunity to, one day, reunite with him,” Wolff and his fellow counsel, Heather Richard, wrote in their letter to the court. “They are aware that Mr. Rabbani has pronounced medical and psychiatric issues, but, if given the chance, they hope to take care of him for the rest of his life.”
In remarks following Wolff’s plea, Judge Lori Chambers Gray indicated her openness to recommending hospice. On the subject of parole, she said she would review the full case record, then consider accepting Wolff’s recommendation.
Rabbani’s siblings lost touch with their loved one following the death of their father in 1995, according to a brother, Syed Fasaini. They connected with Rabbani’s legal team earlier this year after reading the Houston Landing’s prior coverage of Rabbani online, a circumstance Wolff described in court as “kismet,” or fate.
Fasaini, Rabbani’s youngest brother, subsequently wrote to Judge Lori Chambers Gray from West Shikarpur, a small village in Bangladesh. In spare sentences, he described his family’s affection for their lost sibling and ended with a promise.
“Dear Honorable Judge,” he wrote. “I shall take care (of) my Brother.”