By Sara Martin
As part of a summer internship, I had the opportunity to attend a capital murder trial in a small town in East Texas. The defendant was convicted, but the victory left a sour taste in my mouth.
A husband and wife robbed the house of the wife’s former employer, taking guns and jewelry. Mindful of the problems live witnesses can cause, the husband beat the woman almost to death (indeed, he intended to leave her for dead). She lived, identified her assailants, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the two robbers. Two days later, on the run and out of money, the husband shot three people at close range in a small motel in another county because the couple’s car had broken down, and they needed it to continue their run from the police. One of the victims died. The other two miraculously survived, both having been shot in the head.
The two were apprehended and charged with capital murder and aggravated assault. They were tried separately, and the D.A. elected not to seek the death penalty for either (trying a death penalty case is incredibly resource intensive). The husband, whose trial I did not witness, was found guilty of capital murder and aggravated assault for the shooting of three people. For him, I have no sympathy. He got precisely what he deserved. He shot three people at close range, in cold blood, because he wanted a car to continue his run from the police (who were after him on an aggravated assault charge). He is a repeat felon, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, and showed no remorse for what he did. The mandatory sentence for capital murder when the death penalty is not sought is life without parole. He will spend the rest of his miserable life right where he belongs—locked in a cage, away from society.
So will his wife. But her case is troubling from a moral standpoint. She has no criminal history, and an incredibly meek demeanor, and a hodgepodge of mental problems. She was raised in a very conservative environment, and by all accounts would never have stood up to her husband. She had a history of drug use, but did not come across as a violent individual in any way. That is not to say she was a saint. The series of crimes that eventually led to the couple going on the run involved the burglary of several homes of people she had worked for. She was at least complicit in those crimes, if not the principal actor. Nevertheless, no evidence came out that she ever hit anyone, held a gun to anyone, or shot anyone. There was no evidence that she was in the room when people were shot. What the evidence did show was that she was all in with her husband. What he told her to do, she did without question or comment, and without resistance. She sold stolen jewelry, dumped damning evidence over a bridge, and helped find the keys to the car they stole after shooting the hotel staff. She never ran, never called the police, and, despite having access to and use of phone, never once asked anyone to help her escape him. He planned to run, and she went with him, leaving her children and family behind her.
A few points on Texas law are critical to understanding what happened in this case. First, absent duress, a spouse’s orders or persuasion is no defense to liability for any crime. Second, the law of parties (Texas penal code §7.02) states, in relevant part, that a person is criminally responsible for an offense committed by another if “ acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense, he solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense.” Furthermore, Texas’ conspiracy law states that “If, in the attempt to carry out a conspiracy to commit one felony, another felony is committed by one of the conspirators, all conspirators are guilty of the felony actually committed, though having no intent to commit it, if the offense was committed in furtherance of the unlawful purpose and was one that should have been anticipated as a result of the carrying out of the conspiracy.”
To make a long story short, the evidence was sufficient to show that she intended to assist or encouraged the stealing the vehicle, and that the theft of the vehicle was in furtherance of carrying out the conspiracy to continue to run from the police (and possibly commit more robberies or burglaries). Though she didn’t intend anyone end up dead, she was involved in the conspiracy to commit felony theft of the vehicle. Though the shooting was likely not intended by her, it was the felony actually committed (in addition to the theft), and was reasonably foreseeable given her husband’s violent history and the fact that he was armed with a stolen gun. She was convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to life without parole (again, the D.A. did not seek the death penalty).
What troubled me about the case was not that she was convicted of a crime. Certainly, she was involved, and may have aided in the commission of some or all of the offenses. However, any person looking at the woman and her husband side by side would not hesitate to identify the husband as the more dangerous, more morally culpable of the two. He was the driving force behind the violence, and the only one of the two to act violently. She, on the other hand, is meek, submissive, and has no history of violent behavior of any kind. Did she make bad choices? Without a doubt. Should she be punished for the role she played? Absolutely. But is she such a threat to society that she should be locked up for the rest of her life like her violent, seemingly soulless loose-cannon of a husband? Probably not. With him out of the picture, she doesn’t seem to present much of a threat.
However, the law of parties and mandatory sentencing in capital murder cases offer no room for the judge, jury, or prosecutors (after any pleas have been rejected) to ask for a lesser sentence, as they are able to do in most cases. With death off the table, the choices are convict and give life without parole, or acquit and let her off Scott-free. The jury found her guilty, but they weren’t happy about it. Neither, in all honesty, was I.
Punishment is meted out in our system for a variety of reasons: retribution, “justice,” rehabilitation, and deterrence are the most commonly cited. In Texas, punishment is a separate phase of most trials where mitigating and inculpating factors are weighed in determining how much time a convict will do. We ask the jury not only whether the defendant is guilty, but also, in a sense, how guilty. I would venture to say the woman in this case was guilty, but she was less guilty than her husband. Mandatory sentencing erases that distinction, and I believe erroneously so. The harsh consequences of the Texas felony murder rule, coupled with co-conspirator liability, have a place in our system, particularly in the drug trade. However, mandatory sentencing in such situations should be reconsidered. If we are to extend party liability so far, we ought also extend discretion in punishment, not to show leniency where leniency is not warranted, but to prevent undue harshness in punishment where justice dictates otherwise.
**Note: Though this was a public trial, out of respect for my current employer and position, I have not included any links to the case or articles reviewing the case, and have deliberately avoided using party names. This is done out of professional discretion, and is not mere oversight.**