The star blinked in ten-second increments to mark the anniversary of the Walmart shooting which left 23 dead.
El Paso Times
The criminal case against the man accused in the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an East Side Walmart is unlike anything El Paso has seen before and poses several difficult challenges, legal experts said.
Patrick Crusius is accused of fatally shooting 23 people and injuring nearly two dozen others.
As he sits in a cell in the Downtown El Paso County Jail, his federal and state criminal cases are slowly moving toward trial as defense lawyers and prosecutors begin tackling major legal issues.
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“It’s a first impression case, meaning it is something that has never been seen before,” El Paso lawyer Sergio Saldivar said. “There are so many legal issues that will come up as this case moves forward. At the end of day, it’s a bad deal for the city of El Paso, our community and the victims. The victims and their families want to get this behind them and heal, but they also want their day in court. They want justice to be served.”
According to law enforcement, the defendant confessed, saying that he targeted Mexicans in a racially motivated attack.
In federal court, he faces 23 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, 23 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence, 22 counts of hate crimes involving an attempt to kill and 22 counts of use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
In state court, he faces one count of capital murder of multiple persons and 22 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
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The legal issues in the case will be complicated, Saldivar and El Paso lawyer Justin Underwood said. Saldivar and Underwood are not involved in the case.
The two defense lawyers, who have been successful in dozens of high-profile murder and violent crime cases in El Paso, discussed the mass shooting case based off public court records, their trial experience and legal expertise.
The major issues in the case include the pursuit of the death penalty in state court, the suspect’s mental health, the possibility of moving the trial out of El Paso and the case moving toward trial simultaneously in federal and state courts.
“These are just some of the issues popping up right now or in the foreseeable future,” Underwood said. “There will be dozens and dozens more as it continues to move to trial in federal and state.”
Death penalty and mental health
El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza, who is retiring at the end of his term in January, announced immediately after the shooting that his office would seek the death penalty in the case.
His successor, Yvonne Rosales, who was elected DA in July, said she also plans to seek the death penalty.
“You have Jaime Esparza as DA now and then Yvonne Rosales is coming in,” Saldivar said. “Her strategy and efforts may be different than Esparza’s. She may do an entire office shuffle, where she will put different prosecutors to go after this case instead of the ones Esparza assigned.”
Rosales said she will decide which prosecutors will handle the case once she evaluates it.
In federal court, U.S. Attorney’s Office officials still are deciding whether they will seek the death penalty.
Defense lawyers are arguing that the defendant should not face the death penalty due to mental health issues.
His federal lawyer, David Lane, said the defense team has seen multiple “red flags” involving his behavior and mental health.
He said they include him being in a “psychotic state and treated with anti-psychotic medication” when taken to the El Paso County Jail after the shooting, his being “diagnosed with severe, lifelong neurological and mental disabilities” and his history of being in “special education for much of his schooling,” according a motion filed in federal court.
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Saldivar and Underwood agreed that the death penalty likely will be sought in federal and state courts.
A life sentence will not be enough for a community still mourning the loss of 23 of their own, Saldivar said.
“Also, the government is going to want to send a strong message that is going to be a deterrent, so people won’t repeat this type of offense,” Saldivar said. “They are going to send a strong message, ‘If this is what you want to do, if you walk in and kill people due to your racist beliefs or whatever caused you to do so, you are going to die. You will die.’ ”
El Paso attorney Sergio Saldivar says: “I think the lawyers will file a motion for a change of venue. They should do it for the defendant’s sake, but I don’t think it will be successful.” (Photo: Mark Lambie / El Paso Times)
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Mental health and intent
Mental health arguments will play a large role, Underwood said.
“Number one, obviously, is mental illness,” Underwood said. “One of the most important things in the United State and Texas is that it is unconstitutional to execute a mentally handicapped person, regardless of what they have done. I know it is unpopular by a lot of people, but the U.S. Supreme Court made that ruling and I agree with it. Society should have no part in that. I understand the anger; I have it, too. I am upset, heartbroken and angry, just like the rest of the El Paso community.”
Defense lawyers will find experts who will testify that the defendant suffers from mental illness and the state will rebut that with its own experts, the lawyers said.
“He will definitely go through mental evaluations multiple times,” Saldivar said. “They are obviously going to say he acted without the mental capacity to make those decisions. This is a case that will focus on intent. What was his intent? If he can’t form the mental intent because he is mentally deficient in some way, then they can’t assess the death penalty.”
Saldivar said, “Some people may see it as a defense strategy, and it may be, but in this case, I think since he drove from the Dallas area to El Paso, that is a lot of hours of road time to think and form that intent.
“It is also a lot of hours for him to change his mind. If he left with that intent, got here with that intent and executed with that intent, I think that is going to be a high burden to overcome,” Saldivar said. “The defense lawyers are free to raise that and they should. This is going to be an issue in both state and federal court.”
Both lawyers agreed that the case most likely will be tried first in federal court.
El Paso attorney Justin Underwood, center, says: “I am definitely expecting a motion to change venue by the defense. You are entitled to a fair trial and fair trial means unbiased jury. (Photo: RUDY GUTIERREZ/EL PASO TIMES)
Whether to go to trial in state and federal courts
If the defendant is convicted in federal court and sentenced to death, the state might choose not to pursue its own trial, which would incur a massive cost, Underwood and Saldivar said.
“It may be in the best interest of the District Attorney’s Office to not try the case again to eliminate any chances of an error he may have to complain about in state court,” Underwood said. “This limits him to only federal appeals.”
The federal appeals court system moves faster than the state appeals court system.
“Another thing is if you want this case to move forward faster and get the death penalty, you have to consider the appeals process and the line of people currently on death row,” Saldivar said. “The appeals process tends to be faster in federal court — that’s just the way it is.”
He added, “If he gets death in federal, that process will also move faster. Federal death row is about 70-plus inmates, while in the state of Texas, it is close to 200 or 300. If it is just tried in federal, he will be executed quicker and this will end faster.”
Motion to change venue
The defendant’s state defense lawyer, Joe Spencer, said he believes his client can get a fair trial in El Paso, but it is “way too early to determine” if a change of venue will be needed,
“I think the District Attorney’s Office, the judges and I as well feel the El Paso community can be fair,” Spencer said. “I think we will first try to pick a jury here and if we can’t, the judge will decide where we would move it to, but I think the El Paso community is a place where he should be tried. This is where the alleged offense occurred, so I think the trial and the merits of the case should be tried here in El Paso.”
Both Saldivar and Underwood said they believe the defense will seek a change in venue.
“I am definitely expecting a motion to change venue by the defense,” Underwood said. “You are entitled to a fair trial and fair trial means unbiased jury. … In a case like this, I would say 99.9% of the population of El Paso has heard about the case and heard the facts. I would say 90% of this community cannot be fair in this case because of the emotion the community went through. As great of a community as El Paso is and how fair juries are here, in this case it is going to be hard.”
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Underwood and Saldivar agreed finding a location where the trial could be held will be difficult due to the amount of media attention the mass shooting received nationally.
Saldivar said: “In a high-profile case like this, I don’t think you are going to get a fair trial anywhere. I don’t think they will move it, because it has been highly publicized across the nation and even internationally. Anywhere you take this case, it is going to have extremely high publicity. I think the lawyers will file a motion for a change of venue. They should do it for the defendant’s sake, but I don’t think it will be successful.”
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Aaron Martinez may be reached at 915-546-6249; email@example.com; @AMartinezEPT on Twitter.
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