HUNTSVILLE – It was a chilly night in Huntsville on Wednesday when condemned cop killer Robert Mitchell Jennings took his last, fluttering breath.
Inside the red brick prison, his partner of four years cried quietly as she gazed at the gurney and watched the drugs take hold.
Outside on the street, dozens of uniformed police gathered and revved their motorcycle engines, sending up a noise that echoed into the death chamber.
July 19th 1988, respect wasn't given in the execution of an Officer on the floor of a bookstore. January 30st 2019, respect was given in the execution of his killer. #justiceserved the Harley's roared to signal the juices flowing. #HPD #elstonhoward #huntsville #bringbacksparky pic.twitter.com/xk4TuG3p21
— Barney Miller (@ho_roper) February 1, 2019
At 6:33 p.m. – more than 30 years after he shot to death a Houston vice officer during a botched robbery of an adult bookstore – Jennings became the Lone Star State’s first execution of 2019.
“The day is here,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters before entering the death house, just two days after five of his officers were injured in a shootout while trying to raid a suspected drug house.
“The day of reckoning is here.”
The execution drew a gaggle of protesters with bullhorns, as well as union officials, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and former prosecutor Lynn Hardaway.
Before the death drugs entered his body, Jennings addressed the witnesses on the other side of the glass.
“Just briefly,” he said, stopping to sigh, “to my friends and family, it was a nice journey. To the family of the police officer, I hope this finds you peace, and be well and stay safe. Enjoy life’s moments because we never get them back.”
He paused, then called out in a sing-song voice to his partner: “Lifemate, see you at the crossroads.”
Afterward, he exhaled heavily and fell silent.
In his final weeks, Jennings had decided he didn’t even want a reprieve. He barely slept the night before. He’d rather be dead, he told a loved one, than stuck on death row indefinitely, no end in sight.
“You get to a point where you accept whatever happens,” his partner, Evelyn Staus, told the Houston Chronicle, “and he’s at that point.”
With less than an hour to go before his scheduled death, the condemned man lost out on his last-ditch appeals pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. In one, he argued that he suffered “an improbable succession of bad lawyering.” In another, he asked for a stay because the jury didn’t properly consider reasons to give him a lesser sentence – things like his low IQ and show of remorse.
It started on the night of July 19, 1988, when Jennings stopped by his friend’s place in Gulfton for some beer. The pair went to the nearby Stop-N-Go and bought a six-pack, then cracked it open and drank as they tooled around the southeast part of the city in their gray Monte Carlo.
At the time, Jennings was still on parole, just two months out of prison from his second aggravated robbery bid. But the 30-year-old and his friend – David Lee Harvell – wanted a night on the town, so they drove to a nearby strip club.
With no IDs, the pair got turned away, according to court records. Instead, they decided to rob a seedy bookstore.
Cruising by the Empire Bookstore, they thought the place looked quiet. But minutes later, when Jennings burst through the front door, guns blazing, the first thing he spotted was a cop.
It was vice officer Elston Howard, who was standing at the counter, filling out paperwork. He and his undercover partner had just busted the store owner for showing pornographic films without a permit. The 24-year-old lawman was waiting for a squad car to take the new arrestee downtown to booking when Jennings flew in and pulled out a gun.
Two bullets hit Howard in the neck. He tried to flee but collapsed, according to court records.
Jennings shot him two more times as he lay face down.
Afterward, he demanded money, and the clerk handed over his wallet and cash from the register.
Jennings ran outside and hopped in the getaway car, shoving the gun between the seats before telling Harvell that he’d just shot a “security guard.”
At first, Harvell didn’t believe him. But then he got a look at the gun and spotted four spent shells.
“I was pretty upset,” he told the Chronicle in 2016. “I took him down the street and tried to get him out of the car. He didn’t know whether he had shot a cop or not. He’s never been all that sharp.”
When Jennings refused to leave, Harvell turned and shot him in the hand. The wounded man dove out the car window and got himself to a hospital, where he was arrested and offered a written confession.
“I shot him in the back two times,” he wrote. “After I shot him, the dude went to the ground between my legs, and he was still holding me by my legs, and I had to push him all the way down to the floor, and I then stepped over his body, and I went directly to the cash register.”
Harvell was arrested later, when police tracked him down at his mother’s home in the Fort Worth area. He was eventually convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to 55 years behind bars.
He has since been released.
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