Mississippi man appeals death sentence for girl's killing

AP News
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Posted: Dec 29, 2015 1:15 PM

A Mississippi man who was declared dead more than a decade before his arrest on charges of kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl in Louisiana is appealing his conviction and death sentence.

Thomas Sanders' attorneys filed a notice of appeal Monday, asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review his case.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Alexandria rejected Sanders' bid for a new trial. Sanders' lawyers claimed a prosecutor improperly encouraged jurors to speculate on whether Sanders sexually abused the girl, Lexis Roberts, before her death.

After leaving his Mississippi family in 1987, Sanders' relatives had him declared dead in 1994. He remained missing until his arrest in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 2010, a month after hunters discovered the girl's body in a wooded area of Catahoula Parish, Louisiana.

Authorities said Sanders confessed to killing Lexis Roberts and her mother, Suellen Roberts, after they took a trip to a wildlife park in Arizona. Sanders had been living in Las Vegas and had a relationship with the mother.

After shooting the mother in the head and leaving her body in the desert, Sanders drove the woman's daughter from Arizona to northeast Louisiana, where he shot her three times in the head and once in the chest before cutting her throat, prosecutors said.

"She didn't deserve to spend three or four days in the car with her mother's murderer not knowing what was coming next. We don't know what other horrors she endured," a prosecutor said during closing arguments for the penalty phase of Sanders' trial last year.

Sanders' attorneys argued that those remarks were "improper, inflammatory and thoroughly calculated" and weren't supported by any evidence in the case.

U.S. District Judge Dee Drell said in a Dec. 14 ruling that the prosecutor's statements "were not the sort of severely prejudicial remarks which merit a new trial."

"The other evidence upon which the jury based its findings was, in this court's view, overwhelming," Drell wrote.

Sanders wasn't charged in Louisiana with killing Suellen Roberts.