Thursday’s arraignment of Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old man accused of gunning down 22 people in a Walmart here on Aug. 3, is the first step in what will likely be a lengthy case.
“I would be very shocked if the trial starts before a year from the shooting,” said Brian Owsley, a professor of law at the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law.
Crusius’ defense team will want to be “slow and methodical” Owsley said, as they work to determine the best defense to put forth on behalf of their client.
Crusius entered a not guilty plea Thursday to the charge of capital murder of multiple persons, a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison without parole or the death penalty.
El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza said his office will seek the death penalty against Crusius.
In a case like this, the goal of the defense is to try to save the defendant’s life, said Gerald Reamey, a professor of law at San Antonio’s St. Mary’s School of Law.
“The number one priority is to try to make sure the defendant isn’t ultimately executed.”
Here are some legal issues to look for over the next few months:
Will the case stay in El Paso?
Legal experts say the defense could file a change of venue motion to move the case outside El Paso.
“No matter how serious of a crime you are accused of, you have the right to a fair trial,” said Brian Serr, a professor of law at Baylor University.
The defense could determine this could be difficult if the case stays in El Paso County given the broad impact the shooting has had and the significant media coverage the case has received.
“There’s a preference for letting the community that felt the impact be the one from which the jury is chosen that is going to decide guilt or innocence and impose a sentence, but that preference can be overcome when there is evidence that the community has pre-judged the case against a particular defendant,” Serr said.
When asked Thursday about a possible change of venue, Mark Stevens of San Antonio, one of Crusius’ attorneys, said “We don’t know nearly enough about the case to know that.”
Will the judge remain on the case?
409th state District Judge Sam Medrano Jr. is the second judge to be randomly assigned the case. The case was moved to his court after 346th state District Judge Angie Juárez Barill recused herself days after the case landed in her courtroom because she knew one of the victims.
While the defense could seek to have Medrano removed from the case, that would be an odd move, Owsley said.
A motion for recusal is filed when there is a belief that the judge could not be impartial.
Living within the community where the crime occurred isn’t sufficient grounds for recusal, Owsley said, but the judge potentially having had a member of his family who was at the Walmart at the time of the shooting could be.
Will Patrick Crusius undergo a competency screening?
Either prosecutors for the district attorney’s office or the defense attorneys will likely file a motion seeking to have Crusius undergo a mental competency evaluation to determine whether he can understand and participate in the court process.
The judge himself might also order for a mental health screening to be done regardless of motions by the state or the defense, Reamey said. Such screenings are often done in anticipation of a possible plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Under Texas law, the insanity defense requires the defendant to provide evidence that she or he had a “mental disease or defect” at the time of the crime that made it impossible to know right from wrong.
“In Texas law, insanity is very difficult to show and almost never succeeds,” Reamey said.
Will the defense try to reach a plea deal?
Some of the first motions the defense may file following the arraignment will be to attempt to suppress pieces of evidence so it cannot be shown at trial, such as any statements Crusius made to police, Reamey said.
Depending on the admissible evidence, the defense may not contest Crusius’ guilt so much as challenge whether he lives or dies.
This could lead the defense to try to negotiate an agreement by which Crusius pleads guilty to the killings in exchange for the DA’s office withdrawing the death penalty.
Joe Spencer, the other attorney representing Crusius, said he and Stevens are morally opposed to the death penalty.
“Mark and I will use every breath we have to try to save Patrick’s life.”
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