No trial; life without parole
Death penalty murder trial proceedings came to a quick and final end in a busy few hours last Wednesday afternoon when 21-year-old Brandon Charles Cotton accepted a life-without-parole sentence in the 2011 murder of 50-year-old Sandra Phillips.
Cotton, who immediately began serving his life sentence, also waived his right to an appeal, according to Prosecutor Bill Torrey.
The capital murder trial is canceled.
Torrey said the movement in the case, which had fallen behind in a laborious jury selection process, occurred between 12-noon and 5 p.m. after the defendant decided to accept a life-without parole offer from the prosecution.
“We understood that he (Cotton) had been saying the one thing he did not want to have happen, out of all this, was for his mother to have to visit him on death row,” Torrey said.
Torrey said the plea bargain was offered with the consent of Mrs. Phillips’ husband, Michael, and the Phillips family.
MORE JURORS—Torrey said the life without parole offer had been previously made but was turned down by Cotton through his attorneys.
“We heard that Cotton might be weakening (in his opposition to taking the plea bargain) Torrey said. “When that turned out to be the case we wanted to get it done quickly, and that’s what we did on Wednesday afternoon.”
Torrey said the prosecutorial team contacted Mrs. Phillips’ husband and daughter, who agreed the plea bargain would be a “reasonable outcome” for the case.
The offer was formally made in court and accepted by Cotton. Judge John Youngblood then issued the sentence.
Jury selection had begun Oct. 14 when 210 persons, from a call of 500, came to the Williams Civic Center in Cameron.
On Nov. 4 attorneys for both sides began choosing jurors, a process that involves “challenges” by the state and defense and detailed examination of potential jurors’ views of the death penalty.
But things weren’t going quickly.
“ That pool (from which the jurors and alternates will be selected) needs to be 50,” Torrey said. “As of Wednesday it was only at 18 and we had another jury call of 200 set for Monday (Nov. 18).”
That call was canceled after last Wednesday’s events.
CLOSURE—Torrey said the anticipated length of a death penalty case, including the prospect of years of appeals, was a factor in the decision to offer the life-without-parole plea.
“It’s a tremendously involved process in a death penalty case,” Torrey said. “Even if a defendant is found guilty, just one juror finding there are what’s called in the law ‘mitigating circumstances,’ something that in their opinion should prohibit the person from being executed, that would stop it (execution).”
Torrey said another major factor was the effects on the Phillips family of a prolonged trial and appellate process.
“Mr. (Michael) Phillips is just an outstanding individual, a former policeman in (Ithaca) New York and understands the situation,” Torrey said. “And their daughter, who is currently six months pregnant, lives in England and would have had to go back and forth for the trial over the next four or five months.”
“Then, assuming a conviction and a death penalty sentence, the appeals would start. Those could be both state and federal and it might be another five years, maybe 10, before there would be a resolution,” he said.
“We thought it would be better to do this and let this family have some closure,” Torrey added.
COSTS SAVED— Last Wednesday’s move also alleviated Milam County taxpayers from footing the bill for a death penalty case which was to be the most expensive in the county’s history.
County budget planners, working for more than two years, had accounted for almost $1 million to cover expenses of the trial.
Torrey said any district attorney would always consider costs in such a situation but that no county official had ever brought up the costs in a manner related to any legal decisions he might make regarding the Cotton case.
“We would have moved forward (with the trial) if this plea bargain agreement had not happened,” he said.
VENUE CHANGE—Many observers wondered if a change of venue—moving the trial to another county—would be raised by the defense in light of the extensive publicity generated by the case.
Torrey said a change of venue motion had already been filed but was “sealed” by Judge Youngblood to be discussed further along in the proceedings.
At last week’s county commissioners session, in response to a question on possible change of venue, County Judge Dave Barkemeyer said such a change would increase Milam County’s expenses, noting that Milam would have to pay for the jury selection process already completed, plus a completely new procedure in a new county.
BAKER TRIAL—Next task for Torrey is to decide how to proceed on the case of Tanner Aaron Baker, 20, also charged with capital murder in connection with Mrs. Phillips’ death.
Torrey said he has not made a decision on how to proceed in that case but will come to a conclusion over the next few weeks.
Investigators said they believe the death occurred as both men participated in a home invasion robbery of the Phillips’ FM 486 residence on April 25, 2011.
Cotton admitted to shooting Mrs. Phillips twice with a shotgun. The crime qualifies as capital murder because it was committed in the process of another felony.
If the death penalty is not sought for Baker, the proceedings are envisioned as a trial much like others in 20th District Court.
Sheriff David Greene said Mrs. Phillips’ body was discovered by her husband when he returned home after working in Rockdale.
Greene said the house had been burglarized and Mrs. Phillips’ white Ford Mustang had been driven away.
Rockdale police stopped a vehicle matching that description minutes later at the Rockdale CEFCO and arrested Baker.
Cotton was identified as the other suspect and was taken into custody by the sheriff’s department at Sunny’s convenience store in Rockdale.
Both defendants were Rockdale High School dropouts.
Investigators theorized theft of the Mustang was the motive for the incident and said neither defendant knew Mrs. Phillips.
EXECUTION—Death penalty cases are rare in the Milam County justice system but they do occur, the last one ending with an execution 20 years ago last week.
On Nov. 10, 1993, Anthony Quinn Cook, 34, was executed in connection with the murder of law student David Van Tassel in a roadside park north of Cameron.
Robert Brian Moore is serving a 50-year sentence in connection with that crime.
Van Tassel, 35, was abducted from an Austin hotel where he had just completed a review for a State Bar of Texas exam.
He was a student at the University of Texas Law School.
Van Tassel was driven to the small park, just inside the Milam County line, and shot four times in the head.