NEW BOSTON, Texas—A Bowie County jury wasted no time Thursday in returning a guilty verdict and sentence of life without parole for a man accused of preying on at-risk young girls for decades.
The seven men and five women tasked with deciding the fate of 51-year-old Todd Peck deliberated about five minutes in the guilt/innocence phase of trial and for about the same amount of time in determining his punishment. The jury also slapped Peck with a maximum $10,000 fine. There is no parole from any term given for continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14.
"I don't know if they were trying to send a message, but every single member of the jury signed their name to the verdict form," 102nd District Judge Bobby Lockhart said after the guilty verdict was announced and the jury was out of the courtroom.
The verdict form requires only the signature of the jury foreman. Peck's jury listened with pained expressions Wednesday as five witnesses, ranging in age from 14 to 24, took the stand and tearfully described systematic sexual abuse by Peck in graphic detail.
Peck was found guilty Thursday of misconduct involving the youngest victim to testify in Peck's trial in Bowie County. Similar charges involving the other witnesses are pending in Harris County, Texas, where Peck lived before setting up house in the Liberty-Eylau community.
Assistant District Attorneys Kelley Crisp and Lauren Richards argued that Peck carefully selected vulnerable young girls with tumultuous family circumstances. The witnesses testified that Peck used their friendships and trust of one another to entice even more children into his home, where he sexually abused them individually, in pairs and in groups. When they rebuffed his advances, Peck punished them by withdrawing affection, food and other rewards.
"Today is the time to punish him. Reward him with life," Richards argued. "If he never walks another free day, that will be a reward for those girls."
Crisp said Peck is beyond rehabilitation.
"We're looking for retribution. Other criminals are morally superior to him," Crisp argued. "Mothers not paying attention have fallen prey again and again. You all will stop him today."
The state rested its case Wednesday afternoon. Thursday, defense lawyers Deborah Moore and Clayton Haas of the Bowie County Public Defenders Office told Lockhart that Peck was choosing to take the stand against their advice.
Also discussed was the possible testimony of Peck's former wife, Heather White. Crisp said she believes White should be warned of her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself before testifying under oath. White did not take the stand, but her 26-year-old daughter did testify in Peck's defense.
Peck denied ever abusing any of his accusers and claimed his 14-year-old victim was angry because of something he'd said about her brother and upset because he'd confiscated her cellphone, under questioning from Moore. As Crisp confronted Peck with disturbing, specific allegations, several of the witnesses who testified Wednesday became overcome with emotion and stepped out of the courtroom.
Peck said he and White divorced in 2004 but reconciled in 2010 and plan to remarry.
While Peck dismissed the sexual abuse allegations against him as lies, he was forced to admit that claims he'd made about the 14-year-old victim being cast in an upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie were complete fabrications. Peck casually described the ruse, which included pictures of the girl supposedly waiting to audition in other states which had been taken in a local hospital waiting room, as an "elaborate joke."
"Isn't that Air Force One," Crisp asked of a photo of a commercial jet parked on an airport tarmac which Peck posted on Facebook along with claims he and the victim were on their way to Hollywood.
Posts and comments about the fake movie role were made by Heather White, who was teaching at the 14-year-old's middle school at the time. Crisp argued that Peck's real motive to create the story was to keep the victim's mother at bay.
Alexandria White testified that Peck never sexually abused her during her childhood and denying seeing him ever inappropriately touch any of the other girls in their home.
The state called only one witness during the punishment phase. Bowie County Sheriff's Office Investigator David Biggar, who led the investigation, testified that Peck's $100,000 bond was revoked after he failed to appear in court or notify his bondsman of his whereabouts.
After the final verdict was announced, several of the witnesses gave emotional victim impact statements during which they lamented Peck's theft of their innocence.
"You have the rest of your life to think about that," one witness said.
Two male jury members returned to the courtroom after being released from service to offer their prayers and good wishes to the witnesses who testified about being sexually abused.
"Both sides (prosecution and defense) did a good job. He got a fair trial," the jurors said. "The testimony was horrendous. I think justice was served."
"Todd Peck's egregious sexual deviance is exceeded only by his voracious pursuit of additional victims. Five victims of his sexual assaults confronted him in the courtroom and the District Attorney's Office received credible information that several more victims exist," Crisp said. "We are grateful that the jury chose to spare our neighbors and fellow citizens of Bowie County from additional harm by justly sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole."