Prosecutors in Tarrant County buck trend | Many jurisdictions no longer seek to send killers to death row

FORT WORTH, Texas - Billy Jack Crutsinger was convicted of capital murder for fatally stabbing an 89-year-old Fort Worth mother and her 71-year-old daughter in 2003.

In September, Crutsinger, 64, died by lethal injection, one of nine Texas executions in 2019.

Crutsinger is the only death row inmate from Tarrant County to have been executed this year. Texas authorities had planned for more executions of Tarrant County inmates in 2019, but juries, courts and judges changed some of those plans.

While Tarrant County was adding to the number of death row inmates in Texas, death penalty sentences in the state continued to decline, according to a recently released report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"I have questions about why Tarrant County prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty while the rest of Texas is moving away from the death penalty," Kristin Houle, coalition executive director, said.

"Every murder is a tragic event and a heinous crime that needs to be punished, but the vast majority of these cases are resolved without the death penalty, and Tarrant County exemplifies a statewide trend where juries are rejecting the death penalty cases by 50 percent," Houle said.

Juries are asking questions about the imposition of the death penalty, Houle said. When other remedies exist that are not so irrevocable as putting someone to death, why continue to pursue the death penalty as a sentencing option?

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson argues that the ultimate penalty should only be meted out to a few.

"The death penalty is, and should be, reserved for the most heinous of cases - the worst of the worst," Wilson said. "In the most recent case to receive the death penalty in Tarrant County, the defendant decapitated one victim and dismembered the other.

"As society changes, juries change, and their judgment as to what crimes meet their standards for the death penalty continues to evolve. Some cases that may have received the death penalty from a jury a decade ago may not reach that same bar for a jury today.

"It is always critical that each case be considered on its individual facts."

Crutsinger flew into an alcohol-fueled fit of rage when he discovered that the work he offered to do for Pearl Magouirk, 89, and her daughter, Patricia Syren, would not pay much.

Magouirk was stabbed at least seven times, while her daughter was stabbed at least nine times. Authorities say Crutsinger stole Syren's car and credit card before driving to a Galveston bar 300 miles away where he was arrested.

Texas was the national leader in executions in 2019, supplying 41% of the 22 people executed in the United States, according to the coalition report.

Since 1982 to the present, 42 death row inmates from Tarrant County have been executed, while Harris County has supplied the death chamber with 130 inmates and Dallas County accounted for 61 executions, the report said.

In the past five years, 17 Texas counties have imposed death sentences, but only four - Harris, Tarrant, Smith and Walker - have imposed more than one, the report said. As of Monday, seven executions had been scheduled for next year.

John William Hummel, a Kennedale man convicted of fatally stabbing his wife and then beating his daughter and father-in-law with a baseball bat before burning down the family home in 2009, is scheduled to die in March.

Texas juries rejected half of the cases where prosecutors sought the death penalty, according to the report. Tarrant County mirrored that trend, Houle said.

On Nov. 12, a Tarrant County jury rejected the death penalty and sentenced Burnches Mitchell to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mitchell was convicted of the shooting death of Khrystophir Scott during a robbery in January 2017. It was the third time a Tarrant County jury has rejected the death penalty since 2015, the report said.

Another Tarrant County jury sentenced Hector Acosta to death in November after he was found guilty of killing two people in Arlington in 2017. Prosecutors said Acosta was a Mexican drug cartel hit man who beheaded one of his victims and then mutilated both his victims with a machete and a two-by-four.

Prosecutors painted Mitchell as a repeat offender who spent time in Texas Youth Commission facilities and then prison after he fatally stabbed a man when he was 13. Mitchell became more violent as he aged and prosecutors argued that time would not fix him.

But Mitchell's mother told authorities that her son stabbed the man she was living with in order to protect her from being abused. Mitchell also suffers from an anti-social personality disorder for which he has been prescribed medication, according to his attorneys.

"Not all murderers need to be executed," said Brett Boone, one of Mitchell's attorneys. "When you grow up in a war zone, it changes the way you think. Burnches is going to die in the penitentiary - we just ask you to let God decide when."

Prosecutor Tim Rodgers said Acosta claimed to have committed murders, kidnappings and torture for Cartel Del Noreste and that he had a "sickness to kill people."

He showed an interest in gang life from as early as age 7, prosecutors said.

"At a young age, his parents tried everything they could to help him," Rodgers said. "But at an early age he wanted to be a gangster."

Bill Ray and fellow defense attorney Gary Smart told jurors Acosta had grown up surrounded by violence in Monterrey, Mexico, and his world came crashing down just months before the 2017 killings when his parents died and his wife took their children to Arkansas.

"We're not here to tell you that there were any justifications for what Hector did," Smart said. "He's a human being. We can save a life here."

Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against Rodolfo "Rudy" Arellano for the 2016 kidnapping and murder of Elizabeth Pule Arellano, with whom he had four children.

They had been preparing for a spring trial in January when Arellano's defense attorneys said their client was willing to plead guilty to capital murder in exchange for life in prison without the chance of parole.

Authorities found Elizabeth Arellanos' body in Lake Worth with a rope tied around her neck that was attached to a 119-pound piece of concrete that encased part of a wooden fence post.

"The vast majority of murders are resolved without imposing the death penalty," Houle said.

There are legitimate reasons why the use of the death penalty continues to decline, Houle said. The way the death penalty has been implemented in the United States is arbitrary, biased and unfair, Houle said.

Houle argues that our system is not very good at picking out people who should die.

"Flaws in death penalty cases are frequently identified on the eve of scheduled executions, highlighting the fact that the system is still unreliable and fraught with error," Houle said in the coalition report's conclusion. "Individuals facing this most irrevocable punishment often have few resources to bring attention to these flaws in the underlying trials and appellate review until the eleventh hour."