A Mobile County man sentenced to death for capital murder plans to represent himself at a retrial next year after an appellate court overturned his conviction in 2016 because prosecutors improperly introduced evidence at his initial trial.
Derek Tyler Horton was 18 when he was arrested for the 2010 murder of Jeanette Romprey, a 59-year-old Grand Bay resident whose body was found in her burned trailer home with two gunshot wounds to the head. Indicating a robbery, several items from inside Romprey’s home were scattered at the edge of a nearby lake and her car was missing.
The same day Horton was found walking along Interstate 65 not far from the Brewton exit where Romprey’s missing PT Cruiser was eventually located. Horton quickly became the prime suspect in the South Mobile County murder and, after a trial, was found guilty and recommended for the death penalty by a unanimous jury in 2012.
That’s when the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) got involved. A nonprofit organization, EJI provides legal representation to defendants believed to have been denied a fair trial. After reviewing Horton’s case, EJI filed an appeal based on some of the evidence presented at trial.
Specifically challenged were disclosures that Horton had been investigated for an alleged domestic assault on his mother as well as testimony from his girlfriend, who told jurors he’d violently assaulted her and used cocaine in the past. Prosecutors also presented additional testimony suggesting Horton used marijuana and sold drugs.
According to EJI, introducing those types of “collateral bad acts” is prohibited in criminal trials to prevent “convictions based on a jury’s belief that the defendant is a ‘bad’ person’ or ‘prone to commit criminal acts.’”
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that the introduction of those “collateral acts” was prejudicial to Horton and likely contributed to the jury’s decision to convict and sentence him to death. In a unanimous opinion last March, Judge J. Elizabeth Kellum wrote that the evidence presented against Horton at trial “was not ironclad, or even overwhelming.”
Arguably, the most compelling pieces of physical evidence were Horton’s palm print and DNA, which were recovered from Romprey’s car. However, prosecutors produced no witnesses or direct evidence placing Horton at Romprey’s home at the time of her murder, and his fingerprints weren’t detected on a number of items found near her vehicle, including the murder weapon.
“To buttress its weak case, the state presented substantial evidence regarding multiple collateral crimes and acts that, as already noted, painted Horton as a drug-using, drug-dealing, violent criminal,” Kellum wrote. “The state then emphasized some of that evidence during opening statements and closing arguments, even arguing that Horton’s strange behavior was ‘not unusual for criminals.’”
The court concluded there was “no doubt” the improper admission of those collateral acts had “an almost irreversible impact on the minds of the jurors,” distracting them from facts presented during the trial and most likely tainting their impression of Horton.
EJI, which takes a heightened interest in death penalty cases, posted a press release announcing its successful appeal of Horton’s conviction in March 2016, but that’s about all the organization did for Horton. Emails asking EJI about its involvement with clients following an overturned conviction did not receive an immediate response.
Headed for a second capital murder trial in 2018, Horton appears to literally be on his own after telling the court at the status hearing last week he intends to act as his own attorney at trial — something Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter strongly and repeatedly advised against.
Horton told Youngpeter he’d discussed the pros and cons of self-representation with Carlos Edward Kennedy, whose 2013 conviction and death sentence for sexually assaulting and beating a Mobile woman to death with a clawhammer was overturned because he initially was prevented from acting as his own attorney.
At a retrial last year, Kennedy — acting as his own attorney — called no witnesses, presented no evidence and spoke only a few times to say “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” He was convicted of capital murder a second time but avoided the death penalty. Kennedy was also charged with indecent exposure after exposing his genitals to a female corrections officers at Mobile Metro Jail after he’d been transferred there for his retrial.
Addressing the court, Horton said he’d discussed self-representation with Kennedy, though he didn’t specify how that communication took place. He said Kennedy was provided a thumb drive containing all the court files from his case so he could prepare — something retired prosecutor Jo Beth Murphree agreed to do for Horton as well.
Though Horton has no legal experience, Youngpeter determined after a brief evaluation that he was competent and familiar enough with his case and appeal to represent himself going forward. Youngpeter also denied Horton’s request for bond so he could prepare his defense.
Murphree is retired from the Mobile County District Attorney’s office but still takes on cases to assist the office from time to time. While she was the lead prosecutor in Horton’s original trial, she said that wasn’t a motivating factor for taking on his retrial as much as it just made sense.
Calls to District Attorney Ashley Rich seeking comment about the state’s second attempt to convict Horton weren’t immediately returned, though Youngpeter indicated during last week’s hearing that prosecutors would again seek the death penalty if Horton is convicted in April.