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Billie Wayne COBLE






Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Revenge
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: August 29, 1989
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: September 9, 1948
Victims profile: His estranged wife's parents, Robert and Zelda Vicha, and her brother, Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: McLennan County, Texas, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on June 14, 1990. Death sentence overturned in 2007

United States Court of Appeals
For the Fifth Circuit

opinion 01-50010

Billie Wayne Coble
was having marital problems and separated from his wife, Karen Vicha, not long before the murders. Coble kidnapped Karen Vicha at knife-point. He attempted to convince her not to divorce him, but eventually released her unharmed.

Several weeks later, Coble was seen driving around the area where Karen Vicha and her parents lived. That afternoon, he was waiting at his wife’s house when her daughters returned from school. Coble handcuffed and tied up her three children and one of their cousins.

Next, Coble cut the phone lines to the house and went down the street to the house of his brother-in-law, Bobby Vicha. Coble and Bobby Vicha struggled, and Coble ultimately shot Bobby Vicha in the neck.

He returned to Karen Vicha’s house for a period of time and then went across the street to the Vicha family home. Coble fatally shot Karen Vicha’s parents, Zelda Vicha and Robert Vicha. He cut the phone lines to the Vicha family home as well.

When Karen Vicha arrived home from work, Coble was waiting for her. He admitted to killing her parents and brother and told her that Bobby Vicha had shot him.

He then handcuffed her and drove her out to a rural area in her car. Karen Vicha later testified that Coble assaulted her during the drive. Coble was eventually apprehended after a brief high-speed pursuit, which ended when Coble crashed into a parked car.

At the hospital where Coble and Karen Vicha were taken for treatment, Coble spontaneously told various hospital personnel and police officers that he had killed three people. Coble was subsequently convicted of capital murder.


Court overturns Billie Wayne Coble's death sentence

By Tommy Witherspoon - Tribune-Herald staff writer

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A year after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution for Billie Wayne Coble and 18 years after he reportedly bragged about killing three people in Axtell, the New Orleans-based appeals court has overturned Coble's death sentence and awarded him a new trial.

In a 28-page opinion issued Tuesday afternoon, the judges of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the two special issues that Coble's McLennan County jury had to answer for the death penalty to be assessed — whether he commited murder deliberately and would be a future danger to society — were unconstitutional as they were applied to him.

The special issues posed to the jury came from instructions under the Texas death penalty statute at the time. The 5th Circuit's ruling reflects changes made since then that limit the scope of the death penalty and allow a life sentence to be imposed if Texas juries believe there is sufficient mitigating evidence to preclude the imposition of the death penalty.

Coble, now 58, has been on death row since his 1990 conviction in the August 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged wife's parents, Robert and Zelda Vicha, of Axtell, and her brother, Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha.

The court rejected Coble's claims he was the victim of ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. However, it reversed the death sentence because the judges said Coble's jury was not allowed to give proper weight to mitigating factors that could have changed their answer to the future dangerousness issue.

Coble was represented at trial by Ken Ables, who has since died, and Hoagie Karels.

"It has been a very long time, but finally the courts have agreed that the instructions given, which Ken Ables and I objected to at trial, were in error," Karels said. "And now, with a new trial and a new jury, the jury can render a verdict proper under the facts and the correct instructions."

Ralph Strother, now 19th State District judge, prosecuted the case with former McLennan County District Attorney Paul Gartner, who also has since died.

"I am just appalled and shocked and stunned and sickened at the busting of a death penalty case on these types of technicalities," Strother said. "I defy anyone to fully understand what they are saying. It makes no legal sense, no moral sense.


"It is just clear that they didn't want to impose the death penalty in this case. They are substituting their judgment for that of the jury and engaging in fanciful might-have-beens or what the jury might have done when the jury clearly had the facts before them and made the decision based on those facts," he said.

Strother said jurors in Coble's case were given the same instructions as jurors in Clydell Coleman's case. Those instructions were upheld and Coleman was executed in May 1999 in the February 1989 beating death of 87-year-old Waco resident Leteisha Joe.

"Here you have this vermin who snuffed out three innocent lives like they were nothing more than a candle, and now he may get to live the rest of his natural life," Strother said.

Coble's appellate attorney, Richard Ellis of Mill Valley, Calif., did not return phone messages Tuesday.

Ted Vicha, Robert Vicha's brother, and his wife, Carolyn, took news of the court's action badly. They said there is no question of Coble's guilt, recalling testimony from his trial of a nurse who was treating Coble's wounds after he and his estranged wife, Karen Vicha Coble, were injured in a car crash in Bosque County while running from police. "Have you ever seen somebody who just killed three people?" Coble reportedly asked her.

'This don't make sense'

"When someone brags about killing three people, how in the world can anybody take pity on him?" Ted Vicha said. "This don't make sense one cotton-pickin' bit. I don't understand. We have been waiting 18 years, and it's costing taxpayers all this for nothing when he should have been buzzard bait a long time ago."

Coble, despondent over the breakup of his third marriage, drove to Axtell intending to convince his wife to give him another chance and to ask her to drop kidnapping charges against him for a separate incident after their separation, according to trial testimony.

He encountered Robert Vicha while looking for Karen, and shot the 64-year-old in the kitchen, according to trial testimony. Coble then went to Bobby Vicha's house, just down the lane, and ambushed him in the garage as the police sergeant parked his car.

Bobby Vicha put up a fight, apparently diving back into his car for his gun and wounding Coble in the right hand before Coble fatally shot him several times, according to the testimony.

Officials say Zelda Vicha was shot to death after she arrived home later that evening. Coble then went to Karen's home nearby, put toy handcuffs on Bobby Vicha's son, J.R. Vicha, and his three cousins and told Karen's three daughters to tell their mother goodbye.

He kidnapped Karen before getting into the high-speed chase and wrecking in Bosque County, according to testimony.

J.R. Vicha is now a prosecutor on McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest's staff.

State appeal expected

Segrest said Tuesday he expects the attorney general's office, which represents the state in federal death penalty appeals, to ask the 5th Circuit to reconsider its ruling.

Coble's attorneys offered testimony at trial about Coble's troubled childhood and his traumatic experiences in combat while in Vietnam.

5th Circuit Judge Emilio M. Garza wrote that the jury might have placed more relevance on those experiences if given the opportunity by the wording of the special issues.

"With respect to his mental illness, there was at least some evidence introduced at Coble's trial that his post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders were amenable to treatment," Garza wrote. "Based on this evidence, the jury might have concluded that Coble, if properly treated, would be less likely to commit criminal acts constituting a continuing threat to society.

"Similarly, the jury might have reasoned that as Coble aged and became more chronologically removed from his difficult childhood and traumatic experiences in Vietnam, his troubled background would exercise a lesser degree of influence over his actions, thereby rendering him less of a future danger."



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