By Bruce Selcraig San Antonio Express-News
JOURDANTON, Texas — A jury deadlocked Friday over a possible death sentence for convicted cop killer Shaun Puente, so state District Judge Donna Rayes sentenced him to life in prison without parole for the 2013 killing of San Antonio Police Department officer Robert Deckard.
The decision was automatic under state law. The Atascosa County jury had deliberated Thursday afternoon and Friday morning and could not agree on either sentence, the only two allowable for capital murder. The jurors left the courthouse looking exhausted, not speaking to news media or attorneys.
“I’m not heartbroken about this,” said Fred Williams, an uncle of the slain officer. “Puente can’t be a menace to society any longer. Even if he had gotten the death penalty there would not have been any closure. That’s a comfort word. We all have to move on with our lives, but I will never call it closure.”
District Attorney Audrey Louis had told jurors early Thursday that Puente, 36, deserved to die for shooting Deckard by repeatedly firing a pistol out the back window of a car as police chased him in Atascosa County after midnight on Dec. 8, 2013.
Puente had robbed four small businesses in San Antonio at gunpoint in the space of two weeks and had a history of violence toward two former wives, testimony showed. Police said his girlfriend, Jenevieve Ramos, was driving the getaway car and also was charged with capital murder.
As Ramos and Puente — both dressed in a black mask, black jacket, pants and body armor — led the chase at at speeds over 100 mph south on Interstate 37 around 2 a.m., Puente leaned back in the passenger seat of their Mitsubishi Lancer and fired some 36 rounds of his 9 mm semi-automatic pistol at Deckard’s SAPD vehicle.
A ballistics expert testified that a “one in a million shot” struck Deckard in the forehead. Jurors watched an eerie dashcam video from his Chevy Tahoe as the SUV veered quickly into a wooded median, out of control, until it hit a tree.
Deckard, 31, died 13 days later, leaving a wife and two children. Fellow police officers and family members described him as a loving father who had the name of his daughter, Cheyenne, tattooed on his forearm.
“I take Cheyenne out to Bobby’s gravesite,” her mother, SAPD officer Tammy Ayala, said in the five-week trial’s last day of testimony. “She tells him how she’s doing in school. She asks more questions now about what happened. I know the pain won’t go away.”
When Deckard would come to family gatherings, testified another uncle, Eddie Williams, “you could hear the kids squealing, ‘Bobby’s here! Bobby’s here.’ He loved children, and they loved him.”
Prosecutors did not immediately comment on what effect Friday’s sentence would have on their plans to try Ramos, who remains jailed in Wilson County, where she and Puente were finally captured. She is represented by San Antonio attorney Joel Perez and has a pre-trial hearing scheduled in Atascosa County next week.
Defense attorney Anna Jimenez wiped away tears as she spoke about the verdict.
“First and foremost, my condolences go out to the Deckard family for all that they have gone through,” said Jimenez, a public defender who has worked on more than a dozen death penalty cases. “We appreciate what the jury has done. They were not going to move on their personal decisions, and I respect that.”
Jimenez speculated, without having spoken to the jurors, that they might have had difficulty getting past the first of three issues the judge instructed them to decide before they could reach a death penalty — would Puente pose a continuing threat to society if ever released?
Defense lawyers had offered witnesses to document Puente’s childhood of poverty, abuse and neglect and his adulthood as a low-functioning 6th grade dropout and methamphetamine addict. His jailers acknowledged Puente became cooperative and stopped violently resisting authority after his incarceration prevented further drug use.
Jimenez said Puente cried in a conference room after being sentenced, realizing he would not be put to death.
“He didn’t say much,” she said. “He was just processing what it all meant. He was thanking God and thanking us.”
District court officials said Puente will likely be transferred to a state prison facility within about 10 days. He reserves the right to appeal his conviction, but it is not an automatic, constitutionally-required appeal as occurs with all death penalty sentences, a process that often takes a decade or longer in Texas before a convicted murderer is executed.
Ironically, in a state that leads the nation in executions, juries throughout Texas have dramatically turned from the death penalty since about 2005, when then-Gov. Rick Perry signed a law giving juries the option to sentence capital murder defendants to life in prison without parole.
Legal experts say some juries take that option because of Texas’ other unique distinction – leading the nation in the number of wrongful convictions. Small rural counties are also often reluctant to embark on expensive, multi-year capital murder cases that can cost nearly $1 million for legally-required indigent defense attorneys, investigators and experts.
Atascosa County, which had not had a death penalty trial since 1996, avoided that expense in the Puente case, having joined some 175 other Texas counties in contracting with a Lubbock-based organization called the Regional Public Defenders Office, which offers “murder insurance” to provide a defense team.
At a trial recess, Judge Rayes remarked that attorneys on both sides of the often emotional and contentious trial handled it “with the utmost civility and professionalism.” That was tested before the trial even started, when the defense unsuccessfully sought a change of venue because Louis had sent a list of potential jurors to county law enforcement officers and asked them, in a signed email, to help her identify those “who won’t be afraid to kill this guy.”
Louis, a prosecutor under former Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed, said afterwards she saw nothing wrong with the practice and would do it again.
Outside the courthouse, Eddie Williams, speaking for the Deckard family, said, “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we do feel we got justice for Bobby Deckard.”
An unsigned statement by Deckard’s family, released by SAPD officials, echoed that sentiment, and thanked the department, prosecutors, Atascosa County deputies and courthouse workers and the San Antonio community for “unwavering support … over the past four plus years.”
“Bobby had a passion for helping people,” it said. “Please help us continue honoring his memory by also helping others in need.”
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