Death Watch: Meth, Madness, and Death

Capital case tests limits of insanity defense

Death Watch: Meth, Madness, and Death

Those closest to him would say that Kent Sprouse had been acting differently of late – that he'd begun seeing and hearing things that weren't there. People were "out to get him," one friend would testify. "People in camouflage with glowing eyes and guns were hiding behind the trees watching him." He'd grown paranoid, possibly schizophrenic. Frightened, upset, and easily agitated.

Those imbalances came to a head on Oct. 6, 2002, in Sprouse's hometown of Ferris, Texas, when Sprouse, still reeling from the effects of methamphetamine, pulled into the Ferris Food Mart with a shotgun in his car. He purchased a soda and some cigarettes, then returned to his car and had some trouble starting it. He asked a man standing nearby to help him, who declined, so Sprouse shot and killed that man, Pedro Moreno. Police responded almost immediately. A shootout ensued (Sprouse suffered injuries to his chest, leg, and hand), that resulted in the responding officer – Officer Marty Steinfeldt – being shot to death, as well. In the ambulance after the shootout, Sprouse told an attending officer that he believed both his victims were cops.

"Y'all think I didn't know it, but he was an undercover officer," Sprouse, then 30, said of Moreno. "And I shot the officer that was in uniform."

Kent Sprouse
Kent Sprouse

An Ellis County jury spent 35 minutes deliberating and concluding Sprouse's guilt (as well as reviewing claims that he was clinically insane), before taking another two hours and 25 minutes to sentence him to death. A direct appeal was promptly denied, as have been all other subsequent appeals; Sprouse is scheduled to be executed on Thursday, April 9.

Efforts to save Sprouse have hinged on a number of issues relating to both ineffective counsel at trial and questions concerning Sprouse's potential as a "future danger" (the state responds that it took 30 years for Sprouse to kill Moreno, and only two minutes and 19 seconds to kill Ofc. Steinfeldt, though Sprouse previously had no criminal record). Mostly, however, attorneys Clinton Broden and John Helms have argued that the court erred when it allowed members of the trial jury to be instructed that they should not consider voluntary intoxication as a basis for temporary insanity. They say that instruction violated Sprouse's Eighth and Fourteenth Amend­ment rights.

Courts denying Sprouse's appeals have noted that he had an opportunity to contest those instructions throughout the course of his trial and his counsel chose not to do so. Further, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals noted in an April 2014 ruling, the jury determined there stood a great probability that Sprouse was a continuing threat to society, and that there was not sufficient mitigating evidence to warrant a life sentence. In Novem­ber, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, without comment. He received his execution date on Jan. 9.

Sprouse, now 42, nearly received a brief reprieve last month, while the Texas Department of Criminal Justice scrambled for more pentobarbital, the lethal injection drug it uses to kill Death Row inmates. Had the state killed Randall Mays on March 18 (and not subsequently acquired enough pentobarbital to move forward with the four scheduled April executions), Texas' death chamber wouldn't have had enough juice to kill Sprouse next Thursday. Alas, on Wed­nes­day, March 25, TDCJ acquired its additional death serum.

Should Sprouse be executed April 9, he'll be the fifth Texan executed this year under Governor Greg Abbott and the 523rd since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

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Capital punishment, Kent Sprouse, insanity defense, pentobarbitol, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

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