Police stunned after acquittal
The acquittal of Justin Tiger Thomas blindsided Lt. J. D. Newlin and Police Chief Thomas Harris, both of whom testified at the three-day trial.
Two other Bryan men whom police believe were Thomas' accomplices in the Sunny's robbery and the Nov. 3 holdup of Gill's Stop-N-Go had already been convicted of aggravated robbery and received prison terms last year.
Larry Johnson, 25, received a 25-year term after he was found guilty in a jury trial.
Damion Jackson, 23, turned state's evidence and testified against both Thomas and Johnson. He drew a 15-year sentence.
'Burden of proof'
"We're really at a loss to explain it," Police Chief Harris said. "We thought we had a strong case. We did have a strong case."
Newlin said police and Prosecutor Lesley Whitten believed they had shown shoes worn by a suspect during the Sunny's robbery, and visible on surveillance video, were the same shoes worn by Thomas when he was arrested in College Station the day after the Sunny's robbery.
The jury didn't buy it. Clyde Chandler of Cameron, defense attorney, said the state did not prove its case and praised the jury for "having the courage to hold the state to its burden of proof."
"We don't want to in any way put down the service and the dedication of people who serve on juries," Harris said. "That's the basis of our criminal justice system. It couldn't exist if people weren't willing to serve. And I know it puts a lot of pressure on the average person when they all of a sudden are asked to decide if someone should give up their freedom."
"But we feel like some juries need to have some common sense," Harris said. "When the prosecution questioned some of the jurors after the trial they said we should have had DNA from the shoes, too, and even that we should have had everything in the suspects' car tested for DNA. That's just not realistic."
The state had sur veillance film of the Sunny's holdup that showed the shoes being worn by one perpetrator.
A Brazos County officer produced a photo he had taken of what the state maintained was the same pair of shoes being worn by Thomas when he was involved in a College Station traffic accident with his co-defendants the day after the Sunny's robbery.
"The officer testified the photo was of Thomas," Harris said. "The defense maintained since it was not a photo which showed the person's face it could have been anyone wearing those shoes. For the jury to have disregarded that evidence you've got to conclude they just didn't believe the offi- cer."
Police also wonder why Jackson's testimony did not carry enough weight to get a conviction of Thomas.
"He (Jackson) admitted his part in the holdup and he went to jail," Harris said. "He testified Johnson had a part in it and Johnson went to jail. He testified Thomas had a part in it and Thomas goes free!"
In January, 2008, Harris and Newlin told The Reporter they were becoming concerned some Milam County juries had unrealistic expectations of what evidence to expect in criminal cases due to the prolifiation of "high tech" television shows such as CSI.
"Then we actually have DNA evidence in this one and it doesn't result in a conviction," Harris said. "A DNA expert testified Thomas' DNA was on the gloves which were in the glove compartment of the car along with some 'doo rags' like the ones worn in the robbery."
Harris and Newlin believe the jury also thought the state's case was hurt somewhat because the female store clerk held up at Sunny's was in the hospital and unable to appear in person at the trial. Her statement was entered into evidence.
"The defense told the jury that deprived the defendant of his right to confront his accuser," Harris said.
Armed holdups On Nov. 3, 2006, witnesses told police two men holding "doorags" over their faces pointed a pistol at three male clerks and a female clerk in Gill's, plus some store customers, and made off with about $1,500.
Three days later w itnesses at Sunny's told much the same story, that two men holding rags over their faces pointed a pistol at a female clerk and some customers and got away with about $4,000.
One of the persons who saw what was believed to be the getaway car at Sunny's was Newlin, who was off duty at the time and responded to the scene.
One day after the Sunny's robbery, Thomas, Jackson and Johnson were detained when their car, which was being pursued by Brazos County Constable Archie Clark, was involved in a threevehicle collision at a busy College Station intersection.
Thomas is still under indictment for the Gill's holdup and it will be up to the prosecutor's office to decide whether to proceed with those charges.
In December, 2008, Thomas was convicted of "terroristic threat against a public servant," a misdemeanor, in Brazos County and was assessed a 250-day term in the Brazos County Jail.
"I guess the bottom line is that in our court system the state doesn't necessarily have to answer every single question and concern that a jury might come up with," Harris said. "It does have to prove someone's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And I believe we did that in the case of Mr. Thomas."