Convicted of Crimes Committed by Another

Dear Supporters,

Michael Highfill serving life in prision
Michael Highfill

The promise of the American legal system is that people will be held accountable for their own actions. In Texas, we fail to follow through on that promise. 

Under Texas’s Law of the Parties, people are  spending decades prison—and have even been sentenced to death and executed—because they were convicted of crimes committed by other people.

One example of the Law of the Parties in action is the case of Michael Highfill, a TDS client who is serving life imprisonment because his friend shot a man who had previously attacked her. Michael was with his friend at the time, but he did not know she was going to commit murder; she just suddenly fired her gun. But the prosecutor charged Michael under Texas’s Law of the Parties, which allows a person to be culpable for a crime committed by another even if they “had no intent to commit it.”

Michael’s friend, the person who actually pulled the trigger, received a term of years; Michael, who had nothing to do with the murder, was sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Michael Highfill Artwork from prision, Be Fearless
Artwork by Michael

The Law of the Parties leads to cruel, nonsensical outcomes and causes incredible suffering.  It is also a waste of human potential. Michael has been an exemplary member of prison society. In prison, he has earned his GED and Associate’s Degrees and has received counseling for his addiction. He is a gifted artist and mentors others in prison. Michael wants to go home and apply the skills he’s developed on his journey to recovery to give back to others in the outside world.

Because so many of our clients have been sentenced under Texas’s Law of the Parties, we wanted to tell you more about this horrific law – and what we need to do to fix it.Read below for the first part of TDS Staff Attorney Kevin Trahan’s three-part Explainer on Texas’s Law of the Parties!

With gratitude,

Burke Butler
Executive Director
Texas Defender Service

Texas’s Law of the Parties, Explained

This is part one of a three-part explainer on the problems with Texas’s law of the parties – and what can be done about it.

By Kevin Trahan, TDS Staff Attorney

The promise of the American legal system is that people will be held accountable for their own actions. But in Texas, many people are spending decades in the prison system—and have even been sentenced to death and executed—based not on their own conduct, but on the conduct of another. This now-infamous law is termed the “Law of Parties.” This article will explore how so many people in Texas are serving sentences vastly disproportionate to their culpability—sentences that would offend the sense of justice of anyone concerned about fairness in the American legal system.

How Texas Prosecutors Obtain Convictions Based on the Conduct of Someone Other Than the Defendant

Under Texas law, a person can be charged for any offense to which they are a “party,” even if they did not actually commit that offense. This includes actions in which the party who did not actually commit the crime is roughly as culpable as the person who did, such as a person who solicits, promotes, directs, or aids, the commission of the offense; a person who causes or aids an innocent person to commit the offense; or a person who has a legal duty to prevent commission of the offense and fails to make a reasonable effort to prevent it.[1]

However, a second prong of the law allows for the conviction of parties for offenses that they had very little role in committing. It states that a party can be held responsible for a crime committed by another, even if the party had “no intent to commit it,” as long as the offense “was committed in furtherance of the unlawful purpose and was one that should have been anticipated as a result of the carrying out of the conspiracy.”[2]

In short, a “co-conspirator”[3] can be convicted of an offense if they merely “should have anticipated” that it would occur. This standard is similar to that of negligence,[4] yet it applies the same level of culpability to negligent actors as it does to people who acted with specific intent to commit an offense. 

The law of parties is most infamous for prosecutors’ use of it to obtain murder convictions against people who have never killed anyone. That is particularly true for capital murder cases.

The law of parties is potentially problematic in any case involving multiple defendants because it allows the State to obtain a conviction and sentence that is disproportionate to an accomplice’s conduct and personal culpability for the offense. Because Texas law generally provides for a broad sentencing range in non-capital cases, prosecutors and judges can exercise their discretion to ensure that a defendant who has minimal culpability for an offense committed by a more culpable co-defendant receives a lesser sentence. For example, a first-degree felony is punishable by anywhere from five to 99 years or life in prison.[5] So if a person is convicted of (non-capital) murder—in most cases a first-degree felony[6]—despite being only minimally culpable for or having little role in the murder itself, they can be sentenced roughly commensurate with their culpability.

However, there is no such discretion to impose a lower sentence more commensurate with a party’s culpability if the prosecution obtains a capital murder conviction under the law of parties. This is because the only sentencing options for a person convicted of capital murder are life in prison without possibility of parole or the death penalty.[7] So in a capital murder prosecution, even if one defendant is much less culpable than another—something that could be taken into consideration at sentencing if the charge were first degree murder—the only possible sentences for both defendants would be life without parole or death.

The interaction between the law of parties and the capital murder sentencing scheme has created enormous injustices in which people with extremely minimal roles in capital murder offenses are serving exorbitant sentences that nobody could credibly describe as fair and just.

One of Texas Defender Service’s clients, Michael Highfill, is facing one such sentence. Mr. Highfill was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison,[8] even though his co- defendant testified that he had nothing to do with the murder and had no idea it was going to occur. Mr. Highfill was living on the streets in Austin, Texas, at the time due to a drug addiction; as a gay man living with HIV in the 1990s, he was extremely vulnerable. He needed a protector, which he found in his co-defendant, Rebecca Walton, an older, unhoused woman who had a history of drug abuse and took Mr. Highfill under her wing.

One night, Ms. Walton and Mr. Highfill were together when they met up with a man they knew as “Chico” Flores. Mr. Flores and two other men had recently beaten Ms. Walton and stolen her belongings, but he had some drugs, so Ms. Walton decided to ride around with him, and Mr. Highfill tagged along. At one point in the night, Ms. Walton retrieved a gun that she planned to sell to Mr. Flores, and they drove out to the country to shoot it. When they parked, Mr. Flores reached over to grab the gun, and Ms. Walton, scared that he would hurt her again, suddenly shot him. At the time of the shooting Mr. Highfill was unarmed and in the back seat; he played no role in Mr. Flores’ murder. By Ms. Walton’s own account, Mr. Highfill was in shock after she shot Mr. Flores and he remained in shock the rest of the night while Ms. Walton tried to cover up the crime scene.

Ms. Walton and Mr. Highfill were eventually arrested and prosecuted in separate trials. Ms. Walton was tried first, and while the prosecution sought a capital murder conviction based on her own conduct, the jury acquitted her of capital murder and convicted her only of non-capital murder. In short, Ms. Walton’s jury rejected the prosecution’s contention that she killed Flores in order to commit a robbery. She was sentenced to 60 years in prison and will be parole eligible after 30 years. Even though Walton’s jury had already determined that the offense of capital murder did not occur, the prosecution still elected to pursue a capital murder charge against Mr. Highfill. This was despite the prosecution conceding that Highfill was criminally responsible for Flores’s death, if at all, only as a party to Walton’s conduct. In front of a different jury than Ms. Walton’s, Mr. Highfill was found responsible for a capital murder committed by Walton and sentenced to life in prison. Because of the limited sentencing range for a conviction of capital murder, the judge had no discretion to impose a sentence commensurate with Highfill’s minimal culpability for the offense; instead, the judge was required by law to impose a greater sentence for Mr. Highfill than Ms. Walton received, despite the fact that he was indisputably less culpable for the offense.

While Mr. Highfill’s life sentence is a particularly troubling example of an unjust sentencing outcome produced by the law of parties, it is by no means unique. By imputing the actions of one person to another, the law of parties will always create opportunities for unjust convictions and sentences as long as it is on the books.

[1] Tex. Penal Code § 7.02(a).

[2] Tex. Penal Code § 7.02(b).

[3] Texas has abolished “accomplice liability,” but a “co-conspirator” can be thought of as a person who is colloquially considered an “accomplice” in common parlance.

[4] See Criminal Negligence, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

[5] Tex. Penal Code § 12.32.

[6] Tex. Penal Code § 19.02.

[7] Tex. Penal Code § 12.31.

[8] At the time, if the State did not seek the death penalty, a person convicted of capital murder was automatically sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years. In 2005, the only non-death sentencing option for capital murder was changed to life without the possibility of parole.