The trial of Jefferson County Courthouse shooter Bartholomew Granger was pushed back to April 2 of next year in light of the capital murder indictment last week by a grand jury, and veteran prosecutor Ed Shettle said the death penalty will be on the table.
The trial was slated to begin on Aug. 20.
Granger, 41, is accused of killing Minnie Seabolt, 79, of Deweyville, on March 14 when he opened fire with a semi-automatic Beretta CX4 assault rifle during a break in his own sexual assault trial. Granger has been accused of sexually assaulting his daughter. He shot his daughter Samantha Jackson and ex-wife Claudia Jackson in the courthouse parking lot. He then ran his daughter over with the 2001 GMC pickup he was driving. His daughter survived, but innocent bystander Seabolt was killed.
Granger pleaded not guilty to murder in April. A grand jury has since amended the charges, making him eligible for the death penalty.
The capital murder trial will be held in Galveston County, said Bob Wortham, the judge presiding over the case. John Stevens, Jefferson Criminal District Court judge, was presiding over the sexual assault case. Wortham, who cannot comment on any specifics in the case, said the trial was being moved to Galveston because of a Texas law that doesn’t allow for jurors to “view” the crime scene. And that would be nearly impossible to prevent considering the courthouse is the crime scene, so a change of venue was necessary.
Neither the prosecution nor Granger’s court-appointed attorney, veteran defense attorney Sonny Cribbs, objected to the venue change.
Ed Shettle, first assistant of the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office who has prosecuted “six or seven” capital murder cases in his 24 years as a prosecutor, said it’s “doubtful” that given what happened and how Granger perceives how things happened, that a plea deal is possible.
Shettle, who last prosecuted a capital murder case that ended with a death penalty sentence in 1992, said it’s “very unlikely” that the death penalty would be waived.
“I just don’t see that happening,” Shettle said.
Incidentally, that death penalty conviction in 1992 was of Marvin Wilson, who was put to death on Tuesday, Aug. 7. The Granger trial will be the first capital murder trial with the possibility of death tried by the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office since the Keneisha Berry trial in 2004. Berry was sentenced to death for killing her baby in 1998. However, an appeals court later overturned that conviction and gave her life with the possibility of parole.
“We used to try these capital murder cases a lot before life without parole was available,” said Shettle, “so there’s been a gap, but that’s not a bad thing.”
The preparation for a capital murder trial is intense, and he said it’s a team effort when working on a case that’s gained as much local and national attention as the courthouse shooting prompted.
“You have to be extremely careful about the jury selection,” said Shettle. “I’ve had federal prosecutors call me and ask me if there’s any kind of questions you ask the potential jurors, and I just laugh and say there’s no kind of ‘form’ questions you ask them; you just have to go in there and have a conversation with them.”
Mark Diaz, who practices law in Houston and Galveston, is a defense attorney with 14 years of experience and has defended in four capital murder trials. He agreed with Shettle that the preparation for a capital murder trial can be exhausting, not to mention there’s added stress for a defense attorney because defendants are allowed an automatic appeal in death penalty cases, so defense attorneys want to make sure they do everything correctly and thoroughly because an appellate attorney will be looking to see what they did wrong.
Diaz, who recently defended a Texas City man who was charged with capital murder for killing his father-in-law execution-style and killing another man in a struggle at the same location, used that trial as an example of how laborious a capital murder trial can be.
“That case went from basically 9 to 5, and when it was over, I didn’t get to pack up and go home,” said Diaz. “You’re done in court, but you go to your office and listen to witness statements from that day, prepare for the witnesses you know are coming tomorrow. It’s so intense in terms of preparation, and you don’t want the appellate lawyer coming and saying, ‘Well, trial counsel didn’t do this or didn’t do that, they should’ve done this, should’ve done that.’ That’s why it’s so taxing, but that goes for both sides.”
Diaz, who said he heard about the shooting at the courthouse but didn’t know a lot about the specifics of the case, said it’s important that if it’s not a question of guilt or innocence, then it’s up to the defense attorney to look at what went into the person reacting the way they did and what might have led to the offense.
“The defense attorney or attorneys will be searching to find out everything they can about this guy since childhood,” said Diaz. “Was he abused as a child, did he come from an abusive household? That kind of stuff. If the defendant has priors, it’s not just enough for the state to tell you he was arrested for robbery in 1982; you have to go back and make sure it was valid.”
Ultimately, Shettle said this trial isn’t going to come down to guilt or innocence, but rather what the punishment will be for the man responsible for one of the most infamous criminal acts in Jefferson County history.
“It’s not like this is a whodunit,” said Shettle. “It’s does he deserve to die or not.”