Photo: Texas DOCJ
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Billie Wayne Coble’s son pounded on the execution chamber windows, cursing and shouting “no” as he watched his father die.
It was just after 6:20 p.m., and the 70-year-old triple killer was about to become the oldest Texan executed in the modern era of capital punishment.
The aging Vietnam veteran who murdered his in-laws in an apparent rash of vengeance offered a only a short final statement before he was pronounced dead, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“That will be five dollars,” he said. “I love you, I love you, and I love you.”
It’s not clear what he meant, though it could be a reference to his nickname: $5 Bill.
But as soon as he finished speaking, the witness room erupted into chaos.
Gordon Coble started banging on the glass, and his son Dalton joined in the furor. Both men – along with another relative – were removed from the room before the execution ended, and the two ended the night in the Walker County Jail, facing resisting arrest charges.
It was a dramatic and unexpected end to a decades-long saga.
Back in the summer of 1989, Coble was distraught over the disintegration of his third marriage when he kidnapped his estranged wife and killed her parents and brother before attempting to kill himself.
But the Waco man, now 70, had no priors and, as he racked up years of good behavior in prison, his attorneys argued that a pair of experts for the state got it wrong at trial when they offered testimony claiming he’d be a future danger even behind bars.
“That Coble will be executed on such discredited testimony is unconscionable,” Brian Stull, an ACLU attorney who previously handled the case, wrote two days before the execution. “The example of his case already shows all who are willing to look why the death penalty is never justice, and why it should be abolished once and for all.”
Raised in an orphanage, Coble went on to serve in Vietnam as a machine gunner involved in combat. Afterward, his sister said he came back “different,” according to court records, and he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder.
He married Karen Vicha the summer before the murders. But after a bizarre and violent outburst when Coble hid in the woman’s trunk and then kidnapped her, Vicha pressed charges and their marriage began to fall apart.
A few days after he made bail, Coble showed up at Vicha’s house. She wasn’t home, so Coble handcuffed her kids and tied them up, then left to ambush the rest of the family, according to court records.
He shot to death Robert and Zelda Vicha, as well as their son Bobby, a local police officer.
“Karen, I’ve killed your momma and your daddy and your brother,” he boasted to his wife when she returned. “They are all dead, and nobody is going to come help you now.”
After letting the woman kiss her children goodbye, Coble kidnapped her, pistol-whipped her till she bled, and drove to a deserted field where he threatened to rape her, according to court records.
As he left the field, a sheriff’s patrol car started following them. Coble began stabbing Vicha’s chin and face as he was driving, then rammed into a parked car in an apparent effort to kill himself, saying he didn’t want to die in prison.
He was arrested at the scene of the wreck and sentenced to death by a McLennan County jury the following year.
Over the course of three decades of appeals, Coble and his lawyers raised claims of everything from unreliable expert testimony and the use of hearsay to bad lawyering and prosecutorial misconduct.
In 2007, he won a retrial over questions about jury instructions rscegarding mitigating circumstances. He went back to court for a new punishment phrase of trial in 2008, but was re-sentenced – again to death – when a jury still found him a future danger despite nearly two decades of good behavior behind bars.
But during his 2008 resentencing, a state expert testified about Coble’s future dangerousness – and his defense team later challenged that finding by arguing that the testimony was “junk science.”
The expert – Austin psychiatrist Dr. Richard E. Coons – had testified in 1990 that Coble would commit future acts of violence in prison. But instead he behaved on death row, seemingly refuting the professional prediction. Yet in 2008, prosecutors called him to testify again.
“Dr. Coons admitted that his methodology could not be traced to a particular textbook or professional journal, nor could he cite even one authority or article that supported it,” his legal team wrote. “Coons had never gone back to check prison records of those he had testified against to see if his predictions were accurate, and consequently had no idea of his own accuracy rate.”
The state also at one point relied on testimony from A.P. Merillat, who told jurors about the violence in prisons and how it would be impossible to make sure he wasn’t a future danger there. An appeals court later determined that parts of Merillat’s testimony were fabricated.
But still, courts agreed with prosecutors who argued that even without the questionable testimony, there was enough evidence of future danger to net a death sentence.
This year, Coble’s lawyer filed a plea for clemency.
“He is now 70 years old, in poor health, and has an almost blemish-free prison record for the past 30 years,” attorney Richard Ellis wrote. “His execution would serve no valid purpose.”
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles turned his request down on Tuesday, leaving him with a final appeal in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that claim, Coble’s attorney argued that the Waco man’s trial attorneys shouldn’t have admitted his guilt because Coble asked them not to. Last year, the same concern came up in a Louisiana case – and the high court sided with the condemned prisoner. In Coble’s case they did not.
“It’s disappointing,” Ellis said. “He was executed on the basis of junk science and perjury.”
Coble was the second man executed in Texas in 2019. There are five more executions on the calendar, including a May death date for Harris County killer Dexter Johnson.
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