Defense expert testifies inmate facing death penalty has abnormal brain

Tracy appears before Judge Lockhart Jan. 8, 2016 (photo by Field Walsh)

NEW BOSTON, Texas: A medical expert testified Thursday for the defense that inmate Billy Joel Tracy has an abnormal brain.

Tracy, 39, is facing a possible death sentence for beating Correctional Officer Timothy Davison to death July 15, 2015, at the Barry Telford Unit in New Boston. A Bowie County jury convicted Tracy of capital murder and is now hearing evidence in the sentencing phase of his trial.

The defense began calling witnesses Thursday morning. Neuroradiologist Travis Snyder of Las Vegas, Nevada, testified that Tracy has abnormalities in the temporal lobe of his brain in an area which controls emotions and inhibitions, under questioning from defense attorney Mac Cobb of Mount Pleasant. Snyder said the abnormality is significant and could account for Tracy’s problems though not all people with abnormal brain scans are violent criminals.

Cobb called clinical and forensic psychologist Mark Cunningham to testify about the effects of solitary confinement. Cunningham said those who are isolated from support groups, human contact and external stimulation for long periods tend to suffer emotionally and often “become a savage or sink into despair.”

Cunningham testified that prisoners and correctional officers in a setting such as administrative segregation, where Tracy has been housed since 2005, may develop a “trench warfare” atmosphere which is negative for all involved. Cunningham said officers may become “callous and cynical” and that inmates may become more and more retaliatory in administrative segregation.

Assistant District Attorney Kelley Crisp sparred with Cunningham over his description of Davison’s death as a “tragedy” and asked if he was blaming TDCJ for his murder. Crisp showed Cunningham a photo of Kasey Kuhn taken when she was 16 and in the hospital after being assaulted, taken from her bedroom and dragged into a wooded area in a Rockwall, Texas, park in 1998.

“He had never been in administrative segregation when he did this,” Crisp said.

Tracy was sentenced to two life sentences plus 20 years for assaulting Kuhn, burglarizing a house and assaulting a police officer by a jury in Rockwall in 1998. He has been in prison ever since.

A childhood friend of Tracy’s testified that he is a “kind” person who looked out for her when the two were in middle school, under questions from Texarkana defense attorney Jeff Harrelson. Dawn Monti testified that Tracy’s mother and father were not good parents and that they committed him to a psychiatric hospital when he was in the seventh grade.

TDCJ inmate Courtney Shepherd testified that Tracy encouraged him to conform to prison rules while the two were both housed in administrative segregation at the Robertson Unit. Shepherd said he was often a “cell warrior” meaning he would make noise, yell and otherwise disrupt, while in his one-man cell. Shepherd described his time in administrative segregation as frustrating and said, “you’re always looking for something to do.”

Shepherd, who is serving a life sentence for murder, said he and Tracy would talk together when both were outside in recreation yards at the same time. He said Tracy read and edited his poetry and talked to him about using his time for positive pursuits. Shepherd said he is now housed at a different unit in general population and gives Tracy credit for helping him move to a lower security level that allows him more freedom.

More testimony from witnesses for the defense is scheduled for Friday morning at the Bowie County courthouse in New Boston before 102nd District Judge Bobby Lockhart.

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