HOUSTON (AP) — A man on death row for abducting a sheriff's deputy, keeping him handcuffed inside a patrol car trunk while demanding money from a bank and then killing the officer will serve life in prison instead after Texas' highest criminal court reduced his sentence Wednesday.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said executing 55-year-old Pedro Solis Sosa for the 1983 slaying would carry "an unacceptable risk" that his punishment would be unconstitutionally cruel because of his intellectual disabilities.
A life sentence for a 1983 capital murder means the defendant is eligible for parole after 20 years. It will be up to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to decide whether Sosa ever is paroled.
"It's been a long, hard-fought and contentious case," Gerald Goldstein, one of Sosa's attorneys, said. "It had terrible facts, but I think one of the real issues is that Texas seemed to be a state intent upon taking another life."
Sosa's trial court also recommended earlier that the sentence be reduced, and the appeals court in its decision Wednesday cited a March ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in another Texas death row mental disability case. The appeals court's presiding judge, Sharon Keller, dissented and another judge, Kevin Yeary, did not participate in Sosa's case.
The Supreme Court held in 2002 that people convicted of murder who are intellectually disabled can't be executed but gave states some discretion to decide how to determine intellectual disability. Since then, the justices have wrestled in several more recent cases about how much discretion to allow.
In March, the Supreme Court voted 5-3 in the case of Texas inmate Bobby James Moore, ruling that the Court of Criminal Appeals ignored current medical standards and required use of outdated criteria when it decided Moore isn't mentally disabled.
Sosa's lawyers also contended he was innocent in the November 1983 shooting death of 55-year-old Ollie Childress Jr., a deputy in South Texas' Wilson County. The appeals court and the trial court both rejected that claim, however.
Sosa has been on death row since 1985 and has had at least three execution dates, most recently in 2006. Texas capital-case jurors didn't get the sentencing option of life without parole until 2005.
Court records show Sosa and a nephew, Leroy Sosa Jr., abducted Childress on Nov. 4, 1983. They threw the handcuffed deputy into the trunk of his patrol car and drove to a bank where they demanded money. The men warned bank tellers that the deputy was in the trunk and would be killed if they failed to cooperate, according to the court records.
Sosa and his nephew fled with more than $51,000, and Childress was shot in the neck with his own .44-caliber pistol when the robbers switched cars, court records show.
After leaving in their own car, the pair returned to the wounded deputy's car to wipe it clean of prints and found Childress still alive. At that point, the deputy was shot a second time in the neck, according to court records.
Pedro Sosa was arrested three months later. Leroy Sosa testified against his uncle, received a life term and remains in prison.
Pedro Sosa has said he was working at a San Antonio construction site at the time of the killing and that a confession to authorities was coerced.
"I couldn't read or write," he told The Associated Press in a 1999 interview. "All I can tell you is they forced me to sign a confession.
"I felt sorry for (the victim) but what can I do? I didn't do it."