Courts - Texas Death sentence tossed for convicted murderer Man was convicted for killing mother and unborn child

By Michael Graczyk

Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON (AP) -- The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Wednesday threw out the death sentence of a former San Antonio youth pastor condemned three years ago of murdering his teenage girlfriend and their unborn child.

The state's highest criminal court said jurors who decided Adrian Estrada should die for killing 17-year-old Stephanie Sanchez and her unborn child had incorrect information from a prosecution witness regarding prison restrictions on capital murder convicts who are given life without parole rather than a death sentence.

A jury in Bexar County had those sentencing choices after convicting Estrada of capital murder.

The court upheld his conviction but Estrada, 26, now returns to a Bexar County court for a new punishment trial.

At the time of his conviction, prosecutors said they believed Estrada's case was the first in Texas where someone was sentenced to die for killing an unborn child. He specifically was charged with capital murder for a multiple killing -- the young woman and her unborn baby. A medical examiner testified at Estrada's trial there was nothing wrong with the child to cause death except that the mother was dead.

In 2003, Texas legislators amended the definition of the word "individual" under the law to include an "unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth."

Sanchez was three months pregnant on Dec. 12, 2005, when she was found dead in her family's home. She had been stabbed 13 times with a butcher knife and choked. During the trial, DNA evidence was presented to show Estrada was the father of the child.

Evidence showed he had impregnated Sanchez three times, that she got an abortion once, had a miscarriage, then decided with the third pregnancy to have the child. Court documents show Estrada did not tell her he also was having sex with another underage girl in his youth group at the El Sendero Assembly of God church.

Estrada's lawyers raised 44 challenges to his 2007 conviction and sentence. The appeals court denied all but one on punishment regarding inmate classification in prison.

Prosecutors acknowledged in legal briefs to the appeals court that "in the interest of justice" Estrada was entitled to a new punishment hearing.

The Bexar County District Attorney's Office did not immediately respond Wednesday to a message from The Associated Press seeking comment on the ruling.

Estrada contended testimony from A.P. Merillat, who investigates prison crimes for the state and has testified for prosecutors at death penalty trials, was incorrect when he said a convict sentenced to life without parole after 10 years could become eligible for the lowest classification level within the prison system, meaning he'd be eligible for less restriction on things like housing, jobs, commissary and recreation time.

The issue was raised by jurors in a note sent to the judge during deliberations.

The appeals court said that while both prosecutors and Estrada's lawyers seemed to agree the incorrect testimony was not intentional, Estrada's attorneys believed the testimony violated their client's constitutional rights and could have influenced the jury's punishment decision.

"There is a fair probability that (Estrada's) death sentence was based upon Merillat's incorrect testimony as evidence by the jury's notes," the appeals court said. "We believe that the Supreme Court would find this to be constitutionally intolerable."

Court records show the underage girl who also was having sex with Estrada testified he told her about two weeks before the slaying that he wished he could kill Sanchez.

Estrada told police he killed the young woman after she attacked him with a knife and that he stabbed her because she wasn't dying when he choked her. He also told detectives Sanchez was ruining his life, according to court documents.

In a second death penalty case Wednesday, the appeals court upheld the conviction and sentence of Selwyn Davis, 28, who was condemned for the August 2006 slaying of his ex-girlfriend's mother at her apartment in Austin. Evidence showed Regina Lara, 57, was beaten and stabbed.

Published: Fri, Jun 18, 2010

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