Waco judge admonishes defense mitigator in potential death penalty case
Pamela Stites said all she was trying to do is save Robert Chavira
She admits that she might have misspoken. However, she denies multiple
allegations from family members of Espinosas alleged victim that she lied
to them, misrepresented who she was and overstepped her duties as a
court-appointed mitigation specialist.
Espinosa, 29, was indicted on a capital murder charge in June in a May 11
incident in which he reportedly beat his wife, Rosario Moreno, to death
with a hammer in front of their 2 children at a home on Proctor Avenue.
The district attorneys office has not determined whether it will seek the
death penalty against Epinosa if he is convicted of capital murder.
However, 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother appointed Stites, a
$75-an-hour social worker and former parole officer from Dripping Springs,
at the request of defense attorney Russ Hunt to work with him and attorney
Richard Ferguson as a mitigation specialist.
The role of a mitigation specialist, as Stites told Strother during a
hearing this week called by the judge, is to help save the life of a
defendant facing the death penalty. Mitigation specialists are not
appointed in cases in which the death penalty is not being sought.
However, Hunt said he could not wait to begin preparing his case until
McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest and his prosecutors Edward
Vallejo and Lytza Rojas make their intentions known.
"If they had decided early on that they were not going to seek the death
penalty, then Pam doesn't get hired in this case," Hunt said. "I can't
tell you the reason for the delay, except I know that prior to (Vallejo)
getting the case, he was working with another prosecutor whose position
was that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst.
"If that is the case, I don't think they should seek the death penalty in
this case because Robert is a sick guy with a history of mental problems,
and in the middle of one of those episodes, this happened. In my mind,
this is not a death penalty case," he said.
For a jury to recommend a death sentence, it must find that the defendant
will be a continuing danger to others and that there are not mitigating
factors that would make a life sentence more appropriate. That second
question is where mitigators such as Stites come in, searching a
defendant's background, talking to teachers and family members, probing
Strother summoned Stites to court to explain allegations that she upset
Moreno's family members by misrepresenting who she was working for and for
trying to improperly broker a plea bargain that would spare Espinosa's
life and put him in prison for 40 years.
2 of Moreno's family members, one of whom did not speak English, told the
judge that even after 2 visits from Stites last week, they still were
unclear about who she is or her role in the case. They said she told them
initially that she represented both sides of the family. Later, she told
them that she represented the children, they said.
Finally, after asking a 3rd time, Stites told them only that she worked
for Hunt. Stites later told the judge that she mishandled the situation,
mainly because she mistakenly assumed the family knows who Hunt is. She
said she finally made it clear to them that she is part of Espinosa's
Vallejo produced a letter that was addressed to him that Stites had shown
to the family. The letter had a place for signatures and said that the
family didn't want to go through the distress of a long trial, didnt want
Espinosa to get the death penalty and expressed their agreement for a
40-year prison term in the case.
In 2 places that mention prison time, 40 years was marked through and 60
years was penciled in above it.
Stites disputed Vallejo's characterization that the document was a letter
and said it was merely her working notes. She said she never strayed from
American Bar Association guidelines that outline the role of mitigation
She admitted, however, that if the family had signed the letter, she would
have given it to Hunt, who would have presented it to Vallejo as the
family's wishes. If they had said they wanted him to get the death
penalty, the defense team would not have mentioned that to prosecutors,
Stites and Hunt said.
Moreno's sister, Elena Moreno, said the family wants "whatever is the
worst" for Espinosa.
After the 2 women and Stites testified, Vallejo asked that Stites be taken
off the case, held in contempt of court and ordered not to approach
Morenos family again.
"I believe that misrepresentations have been made, and a line has been
crossed," Strother said. "My dilemma is what to do about it."
Hunt argued that much of the misunderstanding could be attributed to a
language barrier, although Moreno's sister-in-law, Marie Salazar, speaks
fluent English. He said if the state ends up seeking the death penalty and
the judge removes Stites, he will have to ask for another mitigation
specialist to be appointed, the Jan. 19 trial date may have to be
postponed and county funds needlessly will have been expended.
Strother allowed Stites to stay on the case but ordered her to stay away
from the Moreno family.
"And if you ever want to work another case in this county, you will never
engage in this type of conduct that was reported here today again,"
So was it a waste of money to hire Stites if prosecutors ultimately decide
not to seek the death penalty against Espinosa? Not necessarily, said
Hunt, adding that Stites provided invaluable help to him in his defense of
death-row inmate Carroll Joe Parr in 2004.
There are currently 6 pending capital murder cases in McLennan County, an
unusually high number for any given time period, county officials say. Is
it taking Segrest and his staff too long to decide whether to seek the
death penalty in these cases?
Of the 6 cases, 1 defendant is a juvenile and is not eligible for the
death penalty, and the state said this week that it won't be seeking the
death penalty against Manuel Louis Robinson in the June 2008 shooting
death of Charles Dwayne White.
The state has made no declarations in the other 4 cases.
Segrest said death penalty decisions are among the hardest and most
complex that he faces as the county's top prosecutor. Factors such as the
details of the killing and its impact on the community, the strength of
the evidence, a defendant's background, the defendants mental state and
criminal past, the wishes of the victim's family and myriad other things
are all parts of the equation, Segrest said.
"It would be nice if this were an easy question," Segrest said. "But if
you are called upon to decide if the state of Texas is going to use its
power to take the life of a human being, you don't take those decisions
A law change in 2005 that provides for mandatory life without parole in
capital murder convictions in which the death penalty is not sought has
made some of those decisions easier, Segrest said. It also has cut down on
the number of death penalty cases and, on some occasions, has made it more
palatable for crime victims to accept the decision not to seek the death
penalty, Segrest said.
(source: Waco Tribune)