A man whose death sentence was overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to life in prison Thursday in exchange for Dallas County prosecutors not seeking to execute him. The plea bargain likely means LaRoyce Smith will die in prison.
District Attorney Craig Watkins had said as recently as 11 months ago that he would seek the death penalty against Mr. Smith after the high court overturned his sentence for a second time. The Supreme Court overturned the sentence – but not the conviction – because it ruled that the jury at Mr. Smith's trial was not allowed to consider his low IQ of 78 and that he was a 19-year-old ninth-grader as mitigating factors.
Mr. Smith's plea deal comes one week after a special prosecutor made a plea bargain with a man whose Dallas County conviction and death sentence were overturned by the Supreme Court because of racial bias in jury selection. In that case, Thomas Joe Miller-El pleaded guilty to murder and aggravated robbery, and prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.
In Mr. Smith's case, Dallas County prosecutors David Alex and Kim Schaefer said they offered the plea bargain because even if a jury again sentenced Mr. Smith to death, they would be in court for years litigating issues of mental retardation. The prosecutors said they also would have faced federal court litigation over matters dealing with the guilt/innocence portion of Mr. Smith's original trial.
As part of the plea deal, Mr. Smith, 37, agreed to drop those issues in court.
"Let's say we tried him again and got a death sentence," Mr. Alex said. "They wouldn't have killed him. They would have relitigated those issues."
Mr. Smith's attorneys declined to comment. Mr. Smith's family also said they did not want to talk.
Mr. Smith was convicted in the 1991 shooting and stabbing of Jennifer Soto, the 19-year-old night manager at a DeSoto Taco Bell where he also worked.
If the case had gone back to trial and Mr. Smith was given a life sentence, he would be eligible for parole after serving 15 years because of the law at the time. Those who commit capital murder today and are given a life sentence are not eligible for parole.
He also pleaded guilty to aggravated kidnapping, burglary of a building and retaliation. His sentences for those crimes of 99 years, 20 years and eight years, respectively, will each be served consecutively to the life sentence. Under Thursday's plea bargain, it is possible – though unlikely – for Mr. Smith to become eligible for parole after serving 37 years.
Ms. Schaefer said the law regarding mitigating factors changed as the district attorney's office was litigating Mr. Smith's case.
"It's hard to look the [victim's] family in the eye and tell them the system failed them," she said.
Ms. Soto's mother, Brenda Soto, said after the hearing that it was difficult for her to approve the plea agreement but did so to avoid future hearings and trials. She said that though the legal battle is over, she will do whatever she can to make sure Mr. Smith isn't granted parole.
"I went along with it to put an end to it. I was tired," she said. "There will always be someone to speak in her behalf. There will always be a voice for her somewhere."
Mr. Smith apologized to the Soto family in court by saying he was sorry for "the actions" and "the events."
"He never said he was sorry for killing Jennifer," Brenda Soto said. "I don't know if he's truly sorry."
As part of the plea agreement, Mr. Smith, who has been in prison since his 1991 conviction, must meet with the Soto family if they choose. Brenda Soto said she likely will meet her daughter's killer because, "I've got 17 years worth of questions bottled up in me."
At the time of Mr. Smith's conviction, jurors had to answer two questions when deciding if a defendant deserved a death sentence. Was the conduct deliberate? Did the defendant still pose a threat? Answering yes to both questions meant death.
In 1991, the state Legislature added a third question that allowed jurors to consider mitigating evidence that could lead to a life sentence.
The Supreme Court first threw out Mr. Smith's death sentence in 2004 on a 7-2 vote and ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to take action. The state appeals court upheld the conviction in an 8-1 vote.
The Supreme Court then voted 5-4 last year to once again toss Mr. Smith's sentence, leading to Thursday's plea bargain.
Not surprising with the Sorry Dallas DA.