Appeals court upholds death penalty in 1980 Williamson County murder


Highlights

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said evidence proved Steven Thomas left a fingerprint when victim killed.

Court also said evidence showed Thomas left DNA on tape on Mildred McKinney’s finger when she was killed.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of killing a 73-year-old Williamson County woman in 1980.

A Williamson County jury convicted Steven Thomas in October 2014 and sentenced him to death for the capital murder of Mildred McKinney, who was sexually assaulted and strangled in her home. Thomas’ lawyer raised 17 points of error in the case and the Court of Criminal Appeals found them all to be without merit, according to the opinion issued by the court Wednesday.

Thomas’ fingerprint was found on the back of an alarm clock in McKinney’s bedroom in her home on Sherbourne Street, in what was then southwestern Williamson County.

His defense lawyer, Ariel Payan, said at a hearing before the appeals court last year that it could have been there because Thomas worked for a pesticide company that had been to McKinney’s house.

RELATED: Steven Thomas guilty of capital murder in 1980 slaying

Thomas’ sperm also was found on a piece of medical tape wrapped around the thumb of the 73-year-old McKinney. Payan said that did not prove he sexually assaulted her because she also had DNA inside of her from three other unknown men and there was other male DNA on the medical tape, Payan said.

The court said in its opinion Wednesday that based on the evidence, a jury could have inferred that Thomas “deposited his thumb print on the alarm clock during the violent assault on McKinney that night in her bedroom.”

The clock was found on McKinney’s bloody bed next to an unplugged telephone base, the opinion said. McKinney had been bound with the telephone cord. “This evidence supported a finding that a violent bloody struggle had occurred on or near the bed and the clock was moved at that time,” the court’s opinion said.

The court also concluded that the medical tape with Thomas’ sperm on it around McKinney’s thumb also was evidence he was present when she died because she had been bound with several ligatures, including the tape around her thumb.

RELATED: Appeals court hears arguments in Williamson County death penalty case

“The fact that the appellant’s sperm came into contact with one of the ligatures tied to McKinney under these circumstances anchors the jury’s finding that the appellant intended to promote or assist in the offense’s commission and that he was at least a party to this transaction,” the opinion said.

Payan had also said during his argument before the court last year that the testimony of a jailhouse snitch during Thomas’ trial could not prove that Thomas killed McKinney and was not reliable. The inmate, Steven Shockey, testified in front of a jury that Thomas told him about being high on cocaine, breaking into a house and having to restrain a woman before she got out of bed and that Thomas took money and jewelry.

The law requires that if a jailhouse informant testifies about a statement a defendant made that is against the defendant’s interests, that testimony must be corroborated by some other evidence, the opinion from the Court of Criminal Appeals said.

The record of Thomas’ trial shows there was strong corroborating evidence connecting Thomas to McKinney’s death, including Thomas’ fingerprint found on the clock and his DNA found on the medical tape, the opinion said.

McKinney’s murder baffled authorities for 32 years until DNA tests led to Thomas’ arrest in July 2012. Other suspects, including serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and his partner Ottis Toole, were ruled out because there was never any scientific evidence linking them to the scene.

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