Throughout a five-day retrial, a man once sentenced to death for murdering a 59-year-old woman in her Grand Bay home managed to convince a jury his life should be spared.
On Thursday, 25-year-old Derek Tyler Horton was convicted of capital murder for his role in the death of Jeanette Romprey, who was found deceased from two gunshot wounds to the head in her burned down home in April 2010.
After six years on death row, Horton’s original conviction was overturned because prosecutors improperly introduced into evidence “prior bad acts” he committed. It was one of a handful of local cases that have been overturned with assistance from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
Though he strongly encouraged him not to, Judge Michael Youngpeter granted Horton’s request to act as his own attorney last October. Ultimately, court-appointed shadow council Glenn Davidson handled most of the testimony.
At trial, Davidson asked witnesses a few questions at Horton’s direction, including some about Romprey’s activity before she was murdered. None of the answers the defense received provided much information, and some of state’s forensic experts were not cross examined at all.
According to those witnesses for the prosecution, Horton’s palmprint was detected on the driver’s door of a PT Cruiser stolen from Romprey’s house the night she was murdered. The car was later found, with an empty gas tank, on the side of Interstate 65.
Investigators also found “a lot” of Horton’s DNA on the steering wheel, which they say was likely from sweating, and a toboggan he often wore was found with his blood on it nearby. DNA evidence recovered from the weapon used to kill Romprey was not sufficient enough to make a match.
One of things highlighted in the state’s case was Horton’s behavior before and after Romprey’s murder. Sarah Adams, his girlfriend at the time, said she’d planned to stay with Horton that weekend, but he disappeared without warning and was gone for two days.
Adams said she nor his family heard from him until he called from Evergreen. Because he’d not previously had a car, Adams said she was curious how’d gotten there. When she asked, Horton allegedly told her he’d just “gotten a car driven it until he ran out of gas.”
“He said angels carried him the rest of the way [to Evergreen],” Adams added in her testimony.
Over the next few days, Adams said Hoton exhibited very strange behavior, focusing on God and telling her several times that God wanted him to bring judgement on people. She also said he built a fire at his house, which he made her stand near for a long time reading the Bible.
According to Adams’ testimony, Horton stayed up all night to keep the fire from dying, and the next day, a Tuesday, was insistent that she and his mother go to church.
“He forced me to pray, but I didn’t do it right,” Adams said. “I prayed like a thought I was supposed to pray. I was being sincere, but to him it wasn’t sincere. I couldn’t get him to understand I was praying … you can’t make me be no more sincere than praying.”
The next day, police took Horton to the Mobile County Metro Jail, where he made several phone calls to Adams that prosecutors also played for the jury this week. Most of the conversations centered around Horton asking Adams for the money he needed for bond.
When Adams told him that she’d have trouble getting the money together, he got angry.
“I don’t have anybody to give me $500 when I’m on the run from a f*cking murder charge,” he said in one of the record phone conversations. “I swear to God, everybody who said they gave a f*ck, I’m shooting them and I’m burning their f*cking house down.”
The jury only spent around two hours deliberating before they unanimously convicted Horton on three capital murder charges.
Afterward, Horton gave the indication that he wasn’t much interested in his sentence. He said in court that he planned to appeal his second conviction.
Horton also briefly addressed the members of the jury, telling them they’d “made a mistake” and “I forgive you.” He also asked them to look at his family members, many of whom were in the courtroom throughout most of the trial.
The defense argued that Horton had only just turned 18 at the time of the murder and was suffering from an extreme mental and emotional disturbance — one Davidson told the jury “probably persists to this day based on the way we’ve seen this trial happen.”
After about 30 minutes in the jury room, seven jurors recommended sentencing Horton to life without the possibility of parole, which beat the five who wanted to sentence him to death for a second time. Alabama judges are no longer allowed to overrule a jury’s recommendation to enforce the death penalty, so it’s likely that sentence will stand.
A formal sentencing hearing for Horton will be held June 28 in Mobile.
After the verdict, retired prosecutor Jo Beth Murphree — who, along with the family, was wearing Romprey’s favorite color, purple — said they respected the jury’s decision even though they’d sought a second death sentence for Horton.
“Life without parole means just that,” Murphree said. “He will spend the rest of his life in prison, and we’re very grateful for that.”
When asked about their strategy for the retrial, Murphree acknowledged the prosecution has been meticulous to make sure they didn’t run afoul of anything that caused Horton’s first conviction to be overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
Specifically, the first conviction because prosecutors introduced prior crimes and allegations against Horton to the jury, which the court said was improper because “collateral acts” or “prior bad acts” cannot be used against criminal defendants to bolster a case against them.
“Even though I disagreed with some of those grounds, we did not touch any of those issues in this case,” Murphree added. “Anything they said was a reversible error, of course, we weren’t going to bring up in this case, and the jury convicted nonetheless.”
Murphree even took a small shot at the appeals court’s 2016 ruling, telling reporters she “felt like evidence we presented was more than “minimally sufficient,” using a phrase Judge J. Elizabeth Kellum wrote about the first prosecution’s evidence in the 2016 reversal.