BELTON — The defense in the Rico Doyle capital murder case went from arguing for their client’s freedom to pleading for his life as the sentencing phase of the trial ended Thursday.
It worked because after more than five hours of deliberation, the court returned a verdict of life in prison without the chance of parole instead of the death penalty, which was sought by the state.
After a day of testimony on Doyle’s behalf and by Doyle himself, the jury went into closed chambers Thursday just after 4 p.m. to decide the fate of Doyle, 38, who was found guilty Tuesday of fatally shooting two women at a Killeen apartment on April 21, 2015.
"The jury was able to determine that Doyle was a future danger to others but they were unable to agree on the second question about whether there were mitigating circumstances that would warrant life in prison over the death penalty," said Henry Garza, Bell County District Attorney, Thursday night.
"When that occurs the judge orders the sentence to be life in prison without the chance of parole," Garza said.
The jury was tasked with considering two questions when deciding Doyle’s fate: whether he is a danger to others in the future and whether there were mitigating circumstances that would decrease his “blameworthiness.”
On Wednesday, family members of victims Deanna Buster and Kysha Edmond-Gray spoke, and on Thursday, it was the defense’s turn to call character witnesses in an effort to demonstrate mitigating circumstances.
“It would be easy to say, let’s strike revenge on Rico Doyle: he shot five people and killed two of them,” said his attorney, John Donahue. “But you can’t impose the death penalty to send a message.”
Paul McWilliams, first assistant district attorney, argued the rule of law provides a procedure by which people are either given life in prison without parole or the death penalty.
“The facts of the crime itself proves he will continue to be a threat to society,” McWilliams said. “Is he a person prone to violence? No question. From age 16 he’s been waving guns at people.”
Earlier in the day, Doyle had taken the stand, along with his mother, sister and friends, to argue for his life.
“He absolutely was remorseful,” Donahue said.
Doyle also addressed victims’ family members while on the stand.
“It took a lot of guts to get up there and acknowledge the families and (express) remorse,” Donahue said.
Also on the stand, Doyle told the court he was on K2, a form of synthetic marijuana, and thought demons were after him.
“But think about how well-placed his shots were,” McWilliams said. “They weren’t the shots of someone in a K2 haze, and he wasn’t randomly firing a .45-caliber pistol.”
McWilliams said many of the victims’ injuries were in the face.
“After Deanna (Buster) was shot in the arm, he walked over and shot her in the cheek from around 3 feet away,” McWilliams said. He also said Doyle’s behavior after the crime was of someone attempting to flee.
Doyle’s defense lawyers invoked religious leaders.
“Martin Luther King Jr. said we cannot drive out darkness with darkness,” Donahue said.
Defense witnesses also included two Bell County Sheriff’s Department personnel who testified they have never had trouble with Doyle as an inmate, despite disciplinary records with an incident just three weeks ago.
Bell County Jail correctional officer April Johnson said Doyle is the only inmate who has participated in the department’s “180” program that aims to help at-risk kids by showing them what life is like in prison.
Doyle has met with between 80 to 100 kids as part of the program, Johnson said. “He tries to mentor them by telling them what life is like in jail,” she said. Johnson said she has gotten positive feedback from parents about the program and their children's interactions with Doyle.
McWilliams said in response that Doyle is able to control himself in certain circumstances, such as during the 180 program, but "that anger is always there."
For both sides, closure was the goal.
“If you talk to any victim’s family, they’ll tell you that closure is a nice word but you never get it once your loved one is underground. You just don’t,” McWilliams said.