Robert Gray Jr.’s fate was decided Thursday evening when jurors found him guilty of the murder of 15-year-old Brandon White and sentenced him to 90 years in prison.
Jurors also found Gray’s crime was not one of sudden passion and that he did use a deadly weapon to kill Brandon White.
During the course of the trial, jurors were shown evidence that Gray had gagged, hogtied, and beat Brandon White, the son of his live-in girlfriend Holli White. At the time, the boy was suffering withdrawal from the psychotropic drugs he took to manage the rages symptomatic of the diseases he endured. Denison firefighters found Brandon White dead on the living room floor of his family’s Denison home on Jan. 7, 2013.
At 9:22 a.m., Judge James R. Fry read the murder verdict to the Court as Gray, sitting at the defense table, slowly shook his head. The guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial was over, but the jury still had to determine Gray’s punishment; meaning more evidence, testimonies and arguments.
Prosecutor Britton Brooks started off his opening statement by encouraging the jury to not be lenient on Gray, saying that Gray is a “violent, violent man with a criminal past.” Gray is looking to avoid a life sentence, Brooks said.
“Give Robert Gray life (in prison) the way he took Brandon White’s life,” he said.
Defense attorney John Hunter Smith told jurors that he respected their verdict, but strongly argued that Gray’s actions the night of Jan. 7, 2013 were a result of “sudden passion.” He pointed out that even the prosecutors had said that Gray “snapped” when he hogtied and gagged Brandon White. Gray is not a violent person, Smith said, and therefore should not get life in prison.
The prosecutors played as evidence a video of an interview between Gray and Detective Kyle Mackay of the Denison Police Department. During the interview, Gray described his criminal past. He admitted to having used cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin several years ago. He recounted an incident when, while living in California in 1991, he held a knife to a man’s throat and robbed him of his wallet. He told Detective Mackay that, while in California, he violated his parole and “just ran.”
Next, prosecutors called Michelle Baker, a former security guard for the Grayson County Jail. Baker testified that in December of last year she had seen Gray involved in a fistfight with another inmate. Gray threw “several” punches at the other inmate, however Baker did not know who threw the first punch.
Smith said the other inmate in the altercation was Kenneth Barnes, a “violent sexual predator” who he had represented before. Smith suggested that it would have been more likely that Barnes initiated the fight, not Gray.
The last of the prosecution’s witnesses was District Attorney’s Office Investigator Dennis Michael. Michael, a fingerprint expert, confirmed that the fingerprints on the “pen packs” from Gray’s prison time in California matched Gray’s fingerprints taken at the Grayson County Jail.
The defense then called several character witnesses to testify about what they had observed of Gray’s behavior. Gray’s former landlord and boss James Burt said he had never had any trouble with Gray and found him reliable. This would be a similar theme throughout the testimonies of the next few witnesses.
Holli White and Gray’s former pastor James Branscun testified that he often had Gray do odd jobs for him around the church and also found Gray to be reliable and trustworthy. He said Gray and Brandon White had a loving relationship and that, often, Gray was the only family member who could get Brandon to calm down. Branscun said, before Gray moved to California to finish his parole, Holli White had told him that she did not know what she would do to control Brandon while Gray was gone.
Upon being cross-examined by the prosecution, Branscun admitted that he did not know of Gray hogtying and gagging Brandon.
Edwin Shaw, also Gray’s former landlord and boss, described Gray as “quiet” and “soft-spoken.” Shaw, too, said Gray was a good employee and tenant.
While acting as the family’s landlord, Shaw had often interacted with them and had seen Brandon have “outbursts.” In these situations, Gray would often hug Brandon, and that would calm the boy down. Brandon would then come sit in Gray’s lap.
Brooks asked Shaw if he was aware of Gray’s criminal history. Shaw said that he knew of it, but did not know many details.
“Robert struck me as a man who was trying to reform,” he said.
Dr. Charles Keenan then took the stand and described a psychological assessment he had administered to Gray. The assessment showed that Gray was not psychotic, not depressed and was often passive. Keenan deduced from this that Gray often suppresses his feelings, and when put into severely stressful situations may “blow up,” because he does not know how to deal with it in more effective ways.
When questioned by Brooks, Keenan said that Gray understands the repercussions of his actions. He also agreed with Brooks that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
Smith opened his closing arguments by saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog — and I’m going to keep fighting.”
Smith reiterated that Gray was a “passive” and “quiet” individual who simply “snapped” when too much stress was placed on him the night of Jan. 7, 2013. He told jurors that enhancing Gray’s charge would give him more time in prison and less possibility of parole. He reiterated that, by doing so, the jury would “take away someone’s liberty and someone’s life in a penal institution.”
Johnson delivered the closing arguments for the prosecution. Gray is a “cold-blooded killer, who is asking for mercy,” Johnson said. He said that Gray did not give Brandon White mercy. The evidence, Johnson said, shows that Gray is a violent criminal who deserves life in prison.
“The jury is the barbed wire between wolves and lambs,” Johnson said. He held up a picture of Brandon White before his death to the jury, “This is your lamb,” he said. Johnson then showed jurors a picture of Gray, shirtless and back turned to the camera, showing a number of tattoos on his arms and back. “This is your wolf,” he said, and rested the state’s case.
After two hours of deliberation, the jury reached the verdict that Gray did not act in sudden passion and that he did use a deadly weapon. The jury sentenced Gray to 90 years in prison.
Smith announced to Fry that the defense will be filing for a new trial on Monday.
“This was one of the worst murders we’ve had in a long time. So it was a long two weeks,” Johnson said after the trial. “And we’re certainly happy with the result and that it’s over.”
Brooks echoed Johnson’s statement.
“Special needs kids deserve extra love, extra care, extra protection,” Brooks said. “What happened here was terrible. Brandon White was a victim, and today, this jury made a statement to Grayson County.”