Texas set to execute man convicted of 1989 murder of three in-laws

By Alex Dobuzinskis

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) - A man convicted of murdering his estranged wife's parents and brother in 1989 was due for execution in Texas on Thursday, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition seeking a reprieve on grounds he received inadequate defence at his trial.

The high court's action cleared the way for the Texas Criminal Justice Department to proceed in putting Billie Wayne Coble, 70, to death by lethal injection at 6 p.m. CST (0000 GMT), as scheduled, at the state's death chamber in Huntsville.

It would mark the third execution this year in the United States and the second in Texas, which has put more inmates to death than any other state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Coble, a Vietnam War veteran and electrician, was convicted in 1990 of murdering his estranged wife's parents, Robert and Zelda Vicha, and her brother, John "Bobby" Vicha, who was a police sergeant. Coble's wife had sought a divorce at the time.

Coble ambushed the three victims and shot them at their home in Axtell, a small community 100 miles (160 km) north of the state capital, Austin, authorities said in court papers.

He then kidnapped his estranged wife and drove off with her.

He was chased by police and, while driving, stabbed her with a knife. He eventually crashed into a parked car and was arrested. His wife survived.

A lawyer for Coble earlier this month petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay of execution, arguing that his trial attorneys had deprived him of his constitutional right to a fair trial by putting on a shoddy defence.

According to Coble's pleading, his defence team played Vietnam War footage for the jurors and reminded them that Coble had fought in the conflict as a U.S. Marine. But his lawyers also conceded his guilt.

"Nobody expected defence counsel to proceed in this feeble manner," Coble's appellate attorney, A. Richard Ellis, wrote. "The move stunned the prosecution, the media, and most importantly the defendant (Coble) himself."

The Texas attorney general's office countered in court papers that Coble had told the trial judge he was satisfied with the work of his defence team.

"The public's interest is not advanced by staying Coble's execution to consider a procedurally defaulted and meritless claim based on a decision handed down three decades after Coble terrorized and murdered his ex-wife's entire family," Texas Assistant Attorney General Gwendolyn Vindell wrote.

Coble's application for a stay and petition for review by the Supreme Court was denied on Thursday afternoon without comment.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Peter Cooney)