HOUSTON – A man who led authorities on a chase followed by a shootout that left a Texas game warden dead is scheduled to be executed this week in the busy death penalty state.
James Freeman was suspected of illegally hunting at night from his truck in Southeast Texas' Wharton County when a game warden spotted him. Freeman drove off, leading authorities to pursue him for 90 minutes. The chase reached 130 mph at one point and ended near a cemetery with Freeman stepping out of his disabled pickup truck and shooting at officers.
With three of his tires flattened, Freeman kept firing until he emptied his 11-shot .357-caliber handgun. He switched to an AK-47 assault rifle with a 30-round clip.
When it was over, Freeman had been shot four times and Justin Hurst, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden who had joined the March 17, 2007, chase, was fatally wounded. It was Hurst's 34th birthday.
Freeman's execution set for Wednesday would be the state's second this year. Texas carries out capital punishment more than any other state, having lethally injected 13 convicted killers in 2015, which accounted for nearly half of the 28 executions nationwide.
Freeman, 34, is one of at least eight Texas prisoners with execution dates in the coming months. Another inmate is set to die in two weeks.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 11 refused to review Freeman's case and his attorney, Don Vernay, doesn't expect any new appeals attempting to block the lethal injection. The high court wouldn't look at Freeman's appeals that lower courts had rejected. The appeals argued Freeman had deficient legal help at his 2008 trial.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles turned down a clemency request from Freeman on Monday.
Vernay said Freeman's lack of a previous criminal record should have influenced jurors he didn't deserve the death penalty, which in Texas requires a jury to find a capital murder offender would be a continuing threat.
"This is a troublesome case," the appeals lawyer said. "He never did anything wrong in his life other than a DUI. This kid was not a future danger, he was just a loser. ... He got drunk and got in a shooting."
A psychologist testifying at the trial said Freeman told him he drank about nine beers while watching a football game at his home in Lissie and then decided to drive around and shoot snakes and birds that night — something he enjoyed doing.
Court records showed Freeman panicked and drove off when a game warden who'd been investigating reports of illegal nighttime hunting approached him. Investigators later determined a shot from Freeman "had killed a possum," according to the court records.
His trial lawyer, Stanley Schneider, said heavy alcohol use and severe depression led the unemployed welder to try to commit "suicide by cop" in his confrontation with officers.
Prosecutors convinced jurors that Freeman had an uncontrollable and unpredictable temper. He was on probation after being convicted of driving while intoxicated, and it was about to be revoked because he had failed to comply with the terms, court records showed.
Eighteen Texas game wardens, including Hurst, have died in the line of duty since game wardens began enforcing conservation laws in 1895. Hurst, who was married and had a 4-month-old child, had been with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for 12 years. The last five were as a game warden.
"He was very passionate in his role concerning the state's resources and protecting those resources," Steve Lightfoot, an agency spokesman who knew Hurst, said.
Hurst was an alligator and waterfowl specialist before working in law enforcement. A state wildlife management area where he once worked in Brazoria County and about 60 miles south of Houston now carries his name.