By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The first U.S. execution of 2017 is set to be held on Wednesday with Texas scheduled to execute a man convicted of killing two people in a revenge plot after one had tricked him in a $20 drug deal.
Christopher Wilkins, 48, is set to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. at the state's death chamber in Huntsville. If the execution is carried out, it would be the 539th in Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the most of any state.
The planned lethal injection comes as the number of U.S. executions fell to a quarter-century low in 2016 due to factors including high costs of prosecutions, sales bans on lethal injections drugs and increased use by juries of life without parole as a sentence.
Lawyer for Wilkins had filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to halt the execution, arguing he had ineffective counsel and was unlawfully denied funding necessary for an adequate defense.
But about three hours ahead of the scheduled execution time, the court rejected the appeal.
Wilkins was convicted in the 2005 killing of Willie Freeman, 40, and Mike Silva, 33, in the Fort Worth area and dumping their bodies.
Prosecutors contended Wilkins paid $20 for crack cocaine and Freeman gave him a piece of gravel instead. Freeman laughed at Wilkins, told him it was a joke and gave him drugs to make amends.
Wilkins, incensed by being tricked, took revenge on Freeman, according to court documents, adding Wilkins said he killed Silva because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A few weeks later, Wilkins met Freeman and they got into a car with Silva on what Wilkins said was a trip for a deal to acquire illicit goods, the documents said.
Wilkins shot Freeman in the back of the head. Silva stopped the car and tried to get out but became entangled in the seatbelt. Wilkins shot him three times, they said.
At trial in 2008, Wilkins admitted to a string of crimes, that included the killings. He also told a jury he did not care if he lived or died, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported at the time.
"The evidence indicating Wilkins’ guilt was simply overwhelming," Texas said in its legal filings, adding there was abundant evidence that linked Wilkins to the crime.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by James Dalgleish)