Despite his youthful appearance and age -- he was 17 when he killed Eakin on Sept. 29, 1998 -- prosecutors sought the death penalty. Jurors gave it after six hours of deliberations.
State District Judge Ted Poe branded the teen a "street terrorist," prosecutors talked of a life of crime that began at age 11 and, perhaps befitting his age, Lopez pitched a childlike fit in court after the sentencing. When the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reviewed the case in October, one of the judges commented to appellate attorney Stanley Schneider, "Your client is a mean little guy."
Of that, even Schneider concedes, there is little doubt.
But, like other death penalty foes, Schneider also argues that Lopez is too young to be put to death and that Texas' law on capital punishment is unconstitutional as it applies to 17-year-olds, who are considered adults in such cases.
Nationwide, among people who otherwise believe in capital punishment, just 26 percent said they would support executing someone who was a juvenile at the time of offense. Support was even weaker in Harris County, where just one in four respondents approved of executing juveniles. The poll did not define whether a 17-year-old is considered a juvenile.
Nevertheless, the only poll that counted for Lopez was the vote of 12 that occurred in Poe's jury room in 1999. Schneider said the case should never have reached that point.
"(Lopez) is just a kid," Schneider said recently, as he awaited a ruling from the state's highest criminal appeals court. "If you look at his record and look at him, there are some real questions about his maturity and home life. There are questions about the opportunities this kid has had and whether he ever had a chance."
These are questions Texas law is not prepared to deal with, Schneider said.
Most Texas laws designate 18 as the year of adulthood, Schneider argues, and 17-year-olds are considered children in more than 300 Texas statutes.
At 17, Texans cannot vote, join the Army on their own or drink legally. A 17-year-old girl is not considered mature enough to choose to have an abortion without parental permission unless a judge consents, Schneider said.
"But a 17-year-old commits a crime and they're thought to be mature enough to face the death penalty," Schneider said. "We all know 17-year-olds, many of them don't have the sense to come in out of the rain. We all know that 17-year-olds are mature one moment and act as children in the next. They don't understand the nature of their conduct.
"At what point does a child become an adult? Is it by virtue of their birthday?"
Schneider says Texas should have maturity hearings, change the age of criminal responsibility to 18 or, at the least, have judges specifically tell jurors that they may consider the victim's youth a mitigating factor when considering whether to give a life sentence.
In Lopez's case, his trial lawyers pleaded for his life by pointing out his youth and his lack of support and love from his family. The age issue often pops up in such criminal cases.
"This is a question of someone being executed or someone living," Schneider said. "This is a debate that's been going on for a long time, and executing juveniles puts us in a great group of countries -- Iraq, Somalia."
Michael Lopez about 9 months before the crime
- (from a family photo)
Lopez Jr. # 999318
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