The death penalty case of Kent Sprouse has been the only death penalty case Ellis County District Attorney Patrick Wilson has had in his career so far.
In the days up to Thursday’s execution in Huntsville, the trial and defending the death penalty in court has weighed heavily on the Ellis County prosecutor’s heart, he said. It’s easy for people to shout eye-for-an-eye behind a newscast on a TV screen, or a link on social media, but that’s not the case in the courtroom and it should never be, he said. Sprouse was the fifth execution for the state of Texas this year, and the 523rd person executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.
Wilson delivered closing arguments after Don Maxfield, the now retired Ellis County chief felony prosecutor fell “seriously ill” just days before Sprouse’s trial. The argument ultimately helped the jury find Sprouse guilty of killing Ferris police officer Harry Marvin “Marty” Steinfeldt III on Oct. 6, 2002, according to documents. Sprouse was also charged but not tried for the murder of Pedro Moreno, according to an article by the Associated Press. Maxfield returned just in time for the punishment phase, Wilson said.
“I remember my closing arguments because a family member remarked — I did some dramatics with Sprouse’s shotgun, the murder weapon,” Wilson said. “I re-enacted the shooting, and I audibly did the sound of a shotgun and I can remember, one of the rules as a prosecutor, when you have a demonstration like that, you never point it at the jurors. But, I can remember that it was in such close confines that it was difficult to try to find a spot where the gun was not pointing at someone.”
Wilson, who received his license in November 1997 and is in his 18th year as a prosecutor, was the youngest and least experienced member of the trial team on the case when it came about in 2004, he said. Sprouse’s capital murder trial was held in a doublewide trailer stitched together with decking at the time, because the current Ellis County courthouse was under construction, he said.
Wilson has been with the Ellis County District Attorney’s office since 1999, and current district attorney since 2011 and was not involved with the decision to seek the death penalty originally. But, as an eager, young attorney, he asked to help with the case, he said.
“It was very intense. It was a dark environment, and there were no windows. There was only a sliver of light coming in through a door, which let onto a covered patio,” he said, adding everyone came in and out of the same door. “You can imagine the emotion in that kind of a trial — it’s very tense, it’s very exhausting. You’re just in a closely confined, fluorescent-lit environment. The tables were tiny little round tables that we would all have to huddle around, and as I recall the jury box, I could sit out and touch it with my left arm. The jurors were almost on top of you, so you would have to huddle very quietly.”
The moment he most recalled was immediately after the trial, he said. Wilson was single at the time, having just gone through a divorce, and so immediately after the trial, he went to visit his parents.
“I can remember sitting in their living room, and remarking to them that it was just kind of a surreal feeling,” he said. “That, yes, I was struck by the gravity of what had just happened, and we all talked about it. I think they were relieved to know that I had some sort of emotion about that, not that they would suggest otherwise. We talked about it, and we all agreed that it was pretty heavy stuff. I’m still struck by that; it’s still surreal in some respect. I do recall sitting in their living room and I’ve got a good relationship with my parents, and just saying, ‘It’s kind of crazy that I just, in effect, stood up in court and said this man needs to die.’”
He even still thinks about a moment during the pre-trial, where Sprouse’s family came up and introduced themselves to Wilson in a kind way. He said in that moment, there’s nothing anyone can really say in response because it’s difficult to imagine what the family is going through in that moment.
“I actually went to high school with Kent Sprouse. I did not know him in high school. I had no relationship with him whatsoever, but I recall early on in that process, probably not too long after the offense itself, someone in the office had a copy of a Waxahachie High School yearbook and was flipping through it,” he said. “I happened to walk by and peer over someone’s shoulder and saw Sprouse’s picture, and said ‘Hey, I know that guy.’ Somebody then said something to the affect of, ‘That’s the guy that just did the murder. That’s the death penalty guy,’ or ‘that’s the guy from the Ferris case.’ It was surreal.”
With those memories in mind, Wilson said people need to know prosecuting isn’t about the number of cases a lawyer has tried and won. He faces that stereotype daily and he is constantly thinking about the life he’s holding in his hands, he said, and he talks with his fellow attorneys of that on a daily basis even if that’s simply related to plea negotiations on a full court docket.
“People will dismiss it when I cite to it, but I do firmly believe in what the law requires of us,” he said. “That it is my job to see that justice is done, not to seek convictions. The weight of what I do, the weight of what we do in this office weighs on me daily. Let’s talk about plea negotiations taking place on a massive docket. Fifty people are on the docket, the prosecutors and defense attorneys are all in there, trying to make as many of these cases go away as possible because there’s not enough resources to try them all. So, there is negotiation back and forth. And sometimes, to this day, I get struck by the fact that these numbers we’re talking about here are people’s lives. Someone may throw out 10, someone may throw out 15 or 20, or 5, or whatever and you realize, ‘Wow, those are human lives we’re talking about here. It’s not a car. It’s a life.’ I sometimes have to remind prosecutors of those things, to not forget that.”
So, instead, he and his colleagues will work with other attorneys in other offices to tackle the workload efficiently, without dismissing the gravity of each case, he said. Wilson wasn’t asked to view Sprouse’s execution, but he decided to go out of obligation to those involved, he said. And he’s seen daily how people immediately respond on social media to a news story about a person’s upcoming execution, or even a crime with a punishment less than that, he said.
“It’s very easy for us to sit at home in our easy chairs and watch the news and see a picture of somebody who’s been arrested and charged with child molestation, and we go, ‘Oh my gosh, that person is wicked, mean, evil and nasty and they should be buried under the jail or executed,’” Wilson said. “Everybody loves to say that. It’s easy to say that, but the reality of it is, those same people when they’re called to jury duty, and they are asked to make those decisions, they realize it’s a flesh and blood human being, not a 3-inch by 5-inch book-in photo on their TV screen. It’s a person with a mother, with a wife, with children and the people that love that person. It brings the gravity home to them. That’s not to say people don’t deserve the punishment they get, but it brings home the reality of the fact that it’s not an easy decision. A death penalty case is no different.”
Sprouse was executed by lethal injection a little after 6 p.m. Thursday. The process took 22 minutes to work within his system. With his dying words, Sprouse said he was sorry:
“I would like to apologize to the Moreno family and the Steinfeldt family for all of the trouble I have caused them,” he said. “I would like to apologize to my family for all of the trouble I have caused them. I would also like to thank my family for all of their support. I guess that’s it.”
As for Wilson, he is currently beginning work on his second possible death penalty case.