Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Capital murder case a “matter of life and death”

Prosecutor questions juror panel of 500

All property rights are much safer in the hands of courts than of jurors. Every lawyer who represents the poor avoids a trial by the court. - Clarence Darrow, “Esquire Magazine,” 1936, “How to pick a jury”
Jury duty is important in any situation, and it is particularly important in a case of this nature, which literally is a life-and-death situation.” - Judge Ralph T. Strother, 19th State District Court

Waco – Lakewood Villas is upside down and under water in a riverside neighborhood that is suddenly very valuable due a shortage of student housing and a planned development of a glittering new multimillion dollar football stadium just down the street from its 1601 Spring St. address, just off Martin Luther King Blvd.

The owners and a managing general partnership called PPA Real Estate Group out of Austin have agreed to sell short.

The 2012 asking price of $3 million matches the acquisition price financed in 2007; it is far less than the amount investors have placed in their total investment. They claim they have spent $1.2 million in improvements of new appliances and air conditioning systems.

The equity financing contributor, Avant Capital Partners, now refuses to spend any more on renovating the structure, which everyone in a position of authority from city officials to real estate experts praises for its brick walls and sound architecture, while out of the other sides of their mouths they criticize the property for its East Waco location made undesirable by high crime related to drug use and sales, for which – naturally - the police have no hard and fast numbers or reports.

Classified information in the land of milk and honey is extremely difficult to come by. All requests must first be reviewed by the City Attorney – litigation or its potential, you see.

Tut. Tut.

Did we mention the rundown appearance, complete with broken windows and boarded-up vacancies?

There is a dividing line between have and have not, and it's the meandering course of the muddy old Brazos River. On its opposite bank, the movers and shakers of the Southern Baptist Convention – captains of agriculture and industry, finance, law, medicine, and education - send their kids to learn the ways of managing the plantations and mill towns.

With all due apologies to the keepers of the facts and the gatekeepers of the annals of truth, 1601 Spring St. is a heavily subsidized profit center for corporate welfare, its owners providing a service for a system that long ago made its tenants redundant in a world that no longer plants, cultivates, weeds and picks King Cotton by hand.

A cursory financial chronology printed in a local newspaper brings the legend into stark relief:

Built 40 years ago, the complex became so drug-infested and crime-ridden that the City of Waco shut it down in 1992 as a hazard to public safety.

The City of Waco loaned a new investor $370,000 in 1993 in a scheme that saw the grant of a federal housing tax credit. Pecan Gardens reopened as Lakewood Villas in 1995. Under those terms, the government requires that all the units must be rented to tenants who make less than 60 percent of the median income, and the restriction remains in place until 2024.

Our story:

RICKY CUMMINGS is a tall, extremly dark-featured young man with an erect posture and, in the setting of the court where he is on trial for his life as an accused capital murderer, a reserved manner made more severe by his costume of a clean and freshly pressed charcoal black suit and a white shirt with French cuffs.

He has been in jail since April 1, 2011, charged with two counts of attempted capital murder in connection with other offenses and capital murder of multiple victims.

All eyes in the courtroom suddenly focused on him when the prosecutor asked a prospective juror named Mr. S___ if he was aware that a “living, breathing human being” could be strapped down on a gurney, a needle pushed into his vein, and his life taken by the executioner.

The choices for veniremen are stark. Mr. Cummings is either guilty, or not guilty. If convicted in the state's case in chief, he is eligible for the death penalty if jurors make the first of one of three findings they will be asked to determine during the punishement phase of the trial.

Is there a probability the defendant woud commit further acts that would present a threat to society?

The lead prosecutor in the case on Tuesday afternoon explained to Mr. S____ that “society” includes the people who are locked away in penitentiaries, as well as the corrections officers, visitors, and civilian staff members.

Asked if he agreed those individuals deserve the protection of the State of Texas, he readily agreed.

He said, “Yes,” vigorously nodding his head and grinning broadly, his forked goatee bobbing up and down.

Could he apply the facts and evidence presented during the sentencing hearing to make a determination that would lead him to answer “No” on the verdict form if he finds that there is any indication that Mr. Cummings does not, in fact, present a threat to society?

Mr. S___ is an extremely agreeable young man. He was dressed for work as an electrician, wearing worn blue jeans and a t-shirt. He appeared somewhat confused by the intricacy of the question.

The prosecutor asked, “What do you think about prison? Do you think of prison as part of society?”

Mr. S___ became more withdrawn. His happy face froze; he suddenly averted his gaze downward, inspecting the railing of the witness box with grave intent.

The prosecutor helped him out a little more. He asked, “Could you wait until you have heard all the evidence before you answer that question?”

On defense motions, the Court has summoned a special venire numbering nearly 500 prospective jurors to hear the facts in a case of what appears to have been a pre-meditated, armed confrontation between Mr. Cummings and his associates that left two young men shot to death and a two others wounded in March 2011.

“Today, it's almost like it never happened...We don't seem to be having any impacts today,” gushed Glenn Gonzales, president of PPA Real Estate Group. He admitted to a reporter for the local daily that some residents broke their leases to move away, the company hired a security firm, and the management felt compelled to evict some of its tenants.

He further explained it's not like a project his firm manages across town where the occupancy rate is nearly 100 percent.
It will take anywhere from a fortnight to a month to seat a jury panel in the trial, the first of a series for the group accused of gunning down the occupants of a car in the parking lot of Lakewood Villas one dark night in the spring of 2011.

Veniremen were asked to fill out a 19-page questionnaire last Friday. It covers each element of the charge of capital murder. The prosecutor hit only the high spots, the areas Mr. S____ neglected to fill out.

The venireman said, with his grin and bobbing head, his agreeable laughter punctuating his comments, that he was seated next to a left-handed person who kept elbowing him in the ribs as he tried to write his answers.

Is he aware that pre-meditation can be instantaneous, that the moment one decides to aim a firearm and pull the trigger is considered enough of a pre-meditation to reach a verdict of guilty?


Is he aware that killing two or more people is automatic grounds for the charge of capital murder and a sentence of death?

Asked for his attitude about that, he answered, repeatedly, “Whether it's one or five, what's the difference?”

The prosecutor answered, “You have to call your legislator to get the answer to that.” He grinned heartily, a good old boy chuckle in his voice.

Mr. S___ countered, “I don't know why it is, but sitting up here, I'm really nervous.”

He had left blank the two subsequent questions veniremen are asked to answer regarding the distinction between a verdict of death or life without possibility of parole.

On the questions of culpability and mititgation, Mr. S____ said, “I guess I'm really not sure what you're saying...I guess I'm still lost.”

When the prosecutor tried it again, he said, tentatively, in an uncertain tone, “I think it's asking if imprisonment is fair enough?”

Judge Ralph T. Strother, a seasoned ex-prosecutor, finally told the Assistant DA handling the questioning, “You're going to have to ask that again. I don't think he understood you.”

Could he consider sufficient mitigating circumstances that would warrant a sentence of of life without possibility of parole?

There was more confusion, and the prosecutor rephrased the question in several different ways, all of them designed to determine if the prospective juror has an equal comfort level with assesssing evidence that would lead him to believe that a death sentence is appropriate, or if there are mitigating factors that would make a life sentence the right choice.

When the defense cousel, Walter Reaves, got his chance, he reminded Mr. S___ that “It's our job to make you think about it...You were in a crowded room for a reason; there are a lot of people who just aren't qualified to do this because they can't do it.”

The young man became even more noncommital.

When the two attorneys finally agreed they had no more questions,
the judge made a few cursory remarks, then sent him into the corridor to await the decision of the attorneys.

The prosecutor said he wanted to admit him to the jury.

The defense counsel said he wished to strike him for cause.

“That's denied,” said Judge Strother, his nostrils flaring, his eyes flashing fire.

Mr. Reaves chose to change his strike to a peremptory challenge, one of 15 allowed in a capital murder trial in which the defendant is being tried alone.

When he was called back into the courtroom, Mr. S____ stood before the Judge and heard him thank him for doing his civic duty. He bobbed his torso and head up and down vigorously, grinning, when he was told he would not be chosen as a juror. He backed out of the swinging door, nipped nimbly down the two little half steps, and bounded across the rotunda, loping for the elevator.

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