How a purse snatcher got life in prison
The prosecution's video shows Lorenzo Thompson sitting in an SAPD interrogation room hours after his arrest in April 2010. As detectives quietly monitor him from another room, he slips his cuffed hands from back to front, reaches for the nearby phone and dials. Rattled, he tells someone on the other end, "They're trying to charge me with capital murder. I didn't fucking …," he pauses. "It ain't no capital murder. I didn't willfully kill anybody. … That shit carries a life sentence. Life or the fucking needle."
Three days earlier a bizarre set of circumstances led to the tragic death of 25-year-old Air Force basic training graduate Vanessa Pitts. After casing a West Side Exxon gas station off U.S. 90 in a stolen black pickup truck, Thompson parked next to Pitts and, as she looked away, he ran to her car, reached inside an open passenger-seat window and swiped her purse. In the moments that followed Pitts rushed and clung to Thompson's truck as he sped off. Emotional witnesses in court recalled hearing Pitts' loud, hair-raising scream. Roughly 500 feet down the access road Thompson swerved, hit another vehicle, and Pitts flew from the truck. Thompson fled the scene as Pitts lay dying in the middle of the road.
Last week Bexar County prosecutors swayed a jury to convict Thompson of capital murder, arguing he intentionally tried to kill Pitts by swerving and aiming for another car to peel or brush her off his truck as she clung on. The jury rejected a possible death sentence Friday, meaning Thompson will serve life in prison without parole.
"The law says that if you commit murder during the course and commission of a robbery, then that's capital murder," explained first Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg last week. "It was an intentional act that is clearly dangerous to human life, and it caused death." Thompson's defenders in the case, attorneys Michael Gross and Joseph Esparza, called no witnesses of their own and maintained throughout the trial that the death, while tragic, wasn't intentional. "You don't have evidence that he wanted her to die," Esparza argued. "We have no evidence of intent, and murder was not his intent."
Pitts' parents sat in the courtroom throughout the trial, and as the prosecution played Thompson's recorded interview they shook their heads and fought back tears. During his questioning with SAPD homicide detective Kim Bower, shown during trial, Thompson repeatedly states he didn't mean to kill Pitts. If he had any remorse, it was buried beneath concern for his own fate during the interview, and in subsequent recorded phone calls he glibly tells family and friends how maybe this was God's plan to set him straight, and that he'd try to beat the capital murder charge.
"We're not talking about you pulling out a gun and shooting someone, you're not that kind of person," Bower tells him during the interview. "I think if you intended to do that you would have just pulled out a gun and shot her," she says. When Thompson pleads to know whether the case fits the bill of capital murder, Bower responds: "It sounds like a really bad accident."
It's tough distinction in this case, said University of Texas law professor George Dix. The Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas has interpreted Sec. 19.03(a)(2) of the penal code as saying a crime can be tagged capital murder when you kill "in the course of committing or attempting to commit" a number of given felonies, like robbery, on the stipulation that the state proves "specific intent to kill." By contrast, Sec. 19.02(b)(3), Dix said, defines non-capital murder as someone who commits or attempts to commit a felony and in the process "commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death on an individual," like the charge felony murder, he said, punishable by five years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. At the end of trial testimony, the jury in Thompson's case was allowed to consider a felony murder charge but rejected it. "In a horrendous case like this, for the jury to make those very fine distinctions, distinctions that criminal law professors and philosophers tend to draw, that may be unrealistic," Dix said. "I'd hate to be in that situation."
ICE lawsuit over DREAM-like deferral
On August 15 immigrant rights groups and undocumented students across the country cheered as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began taking applications for the long-awaited deferred action program President Obama and his Department of Homeland Security announced in June. Under the measure, a DREAM Act-like directive, undocumented immigrants brought into the country before they were 16 could apply for a two-year deportation deferral, provided they have a high school education or military service and no criminal record. By last week, with a filing in a Dallas federal court, Kris Kobach, architect of Arizona's controversial "papers please" anti-immigration law, sought to have the program stopped. On behalf of 10 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, including one in Texas, Kobach filed suit against ICE and DHS last week, claiming Obama's directive, a process known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, violates the Immigration and Nationality Act. The lawsuit seeks to have a federal judge strike down the directive. The lawsuit also names as a plaintiff Chris Crane, who heads the National ICE Council, the union representing agents that has in the past issued a vote of no confidence in ICE director John Morton for his 2010 directive to focus ICE enforcement and deportation on undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.
Many from the GOP wing, including Texas' own U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, have derided the program as "backdoor amnesty." Kobach, Kansas' Secretary of State, has dipped his foot in Texas before when it comes to immigration. In addition to helping draft Arizona's SB 1070, Kobach, an informal immigration advisor to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, authored a Farmers Branch ordinance aimed at keeping undocumented immigrants from renting apartments or houses within city limits.