death penalty news—-TEXAS

March 21


Man won't face death in Plano slaying of ex-wife—-DA reassesses case
before trial begins next month

Curtis Armstrong's life has been spared.

The Collin County district attorney recently made an about-face and
decided not to seek the death penalty against the Houston-area man accused
of killing his ex-wife in her Plano apartment last summer.

Mr. Armstrong, 38, has been charged with fatally stabbing and beating
Jennifer McCallum, a Plano nurse. His capital murder trial is scheduled to
begin April 7. Instead of death, the maximum punishment Mr. Armstrong now
faces if convicted is life in prison without the opportunity for parole.

Richard Franklin, Mr. Armstrong's attorney, has long complained about
prosecutors' original decision to seek a death sentence for his client
because he said the facts of the case did not warrant it.

Collin County District Attorney John Roach said this month that "there was
nothing in particular" that led his office to take the death penalty off
the table for Mr. Armstrong.

"Mainly it was a reassessment. Once there is an indictment, the Police
Department does not stop sending information, and we continue to evaluate
all the evidence," he said.

Last year after Mr. Roach announced that his office was seeking the death
penalty in Mr. Armstrong's case, the district attorney talked at length
about the circumstances that help determine whether a case qualifies for
the death penalty.

He said prosecutors look at the egregiousness of the offense, the terror
inflicted and the likelihood that the defendant will be a continued danger
to society. They also consider whether they have a case in which a jury
will grant the death penalty.

"It has to do with the credibility of the office and the credibility of
the death penalty. If you sought it and didn't get it, there's something
wrong there," Mr. Roach said last year.

"We just don't take any old case because it is technically a capital
murder. It has to be one in which the death penalty is warranted."

Death penalty cases require more than proof that a murder occurred. The
murder must have been committed during the commission of another offense,
such as kidnapping, robbery, burglary, retaliation, arson, terroristic
threat or another murder. It also applies to the murder of a police
officer, jail employee, or a child younger than 6.

Ms. McCallum did not pick up their daughter from school in May 2007, and
Plano police went to her apartment to check on her. When officers arrived,
they found blood on the stairs leading to her upstairs apartment unit,
according to the arrest warrant affidavit for Mr. Armstrong.

When Plano police found Mr. Armstrong later the same day, they discovered
blood in the bed of his pickup and on the bumper. He was arrested and
charged in Ms. McCallum's death.

More than a week later, Plano police said Mr. Armstrong passed a jailer a
note describing where to find his ex-wife's body just outside of
Fairfield in a grassy median of Interstate 45 nearly an hour from Dallas.

Originally prosecutors claimed Mr. Armstrong burglarized Ms. McCallum's
apartment. There was a broken window.

Mr. Armstrong and Ms. McCallum had been having disagreements over custody
of their then-6-year-old daughter, according to court records. The girl is
now living with her maternal grandparents in Plano.

Ms. McCallum had accused Mr. Armstrong of having a "history … of
physical abuse" with one of his stepchildren. And Mr. Armstrong asked a
judge to change the custody agreement to make him the primary caretaker of
his and Ms. McCallum's child.

Mr. Franklin said he does not know why prosecutors decided against the
death penalty for his client but he's glad they changed their minds.

"I never believed this was death-penalty-worthy, because it was basically
a domestic dispute," Mr. Franklin said.

But John Steven Gardner apparently was not as fortunate as Mr. Armstrong.
Mr. Gardner was convicted of capital murder in November 2006 for driving
from Mississippi to Westminster to kill his estranged wife. A Collin
County jury sentenced him to death.

The Gardner case qualified for the death penalty because prosecutors said
he broke into the house and fatally shot her in the head in retaliation
for trying to divorce him.

But Bob Hultkrantz, Mr. Gardner's attorney, said Collin County prosecutors
never had any evidence that another felony had been committed, so the
death penalty should not have applied. The verdict is being appealed.

"I have faith in the judicial system," Mr. Hultkrantz said. "But I also
know that there are certain areas of the country that are more apt to
issue the death penalty than others.

"I think Collin County is one."

(source: Dallas Morning News)