The 411 State District Courtroom in the San Jacinto County Courthouse fell silent on Thursday as accused killer Francisco Oropeza was escorted in by Sheriff Greg Capers for his first hearing on five capital murder charges before the Honorable Judge John Wells III.
Represented by Houston-based attorneys Anthony Osso and Lisa Andrews, Oropeza quietly stood before Judge Wells as his attorneys discussed his case with SJC District Attorney Todd Dillon. They talked about the DA’s tentative plans to seek the death penalty for Oropeza, accused of the April 29, 2023, shooting deaths of five people, including a 9-year-old boy, at a home in Trails End Subdivision near Cleveland.
Despite the gravity of the situation, there were no protestors outside and it appeared that nobody showed up to support the accused, a Mexican National who has entered the United States illegally after being deported four or more times.
Due to the massive manhunt that followed the shooting deaths, which involved more than 220 law enforcement officers and a dozen agencies, the volume of documents and evidence likely to be part of the case intake is mind-boggling. All bodycam videos and written reports must be submitted in order for the DA’s office to move forward first with the indictment against Oropeza. Dillon said he expects Oropeza will be indicted by his next court date on Aug. 10.
To seek the death penalty, the DA’s office has to be able to prove that capital murder was committed in a willful, deliberate and premeditated way, along with an aggravated circumstance such as a victim being younger than 10 years of age, having multiple victims or the murders being committed in the commission of another crime. There are other aggravated circumstances, but Dillon is confident he can prove those three.
Dillon said nothing is for certain as mitigating circumstances could change his mind about seeking the death penalty.
“One of the mitigating circumstances could be a deficiency in IQ,” said Dillon. “After reviewing all the information, we may look at the case and say, ‘Hey, if we go to trial with this, the jury may not be likely to give him the death penalty.’ What we might get instead is death by prison sentence instead of death by needle. We are not there yet though. Once we get all the information in, we are first going to have to become experts on Mr. Oropeza.”
Death may be more costly than life sentence
Death penalty cases are expensive to prosecute, which generally deters most small, rural counties like San Jacinto County from seeking a death penalty. However, because of the horrific nature of the crimes allegedly committed by Oropeza, it has risen to the level of a death penalty case for the DA’s office.
Capital murder cases are very complicated, taking longer to go to trial, requiring numerous experts for forensic evidence and mental health, and additional security. In most capital murder cases, defendants require court-appointed attorneys. They also receive an automatic appeal, if convicted and sentenced to death row, meaning a whole new set of appellate attorneys will be assigned for the appeal. Most of these costs come at the taxpayers’ expense.
“One of the partial funding sources is a grant through the Governor’s Public Safety Office-Criminal Justice Division. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission also is able to make payments for situations like this,” Dillon said.
Multiple murder cases still need to be tried
Since October 2022, San Jacinto County has eight murders, according to Dillon. In addition to Oropeza, a couple of defendants in other murder cases appeared in court on Thursday.
David Fulcher, the Coldspring defendant in the October 2022 shooting death of his sister, received an August trial date, though Dillon said it is too early to tell if that case will be ready to actually go to trial on that date.
“There is some plea bargaining going on in that case,” Dillon said.
In the case of Thoron and Daniel Keepers, the Cleveland area father and son accused of murdering an 18-year-old Onalaska woman in December 2022, Dillon said they were just recently indicted.
A third, more-recent murder case involves defendant Joshua Escobar. He is accused of the March 2023 shooting of the new boyfriend of his former girlfriend. Like the Keepers’ cases, the prosecution of Escobar is well into the future.
Unlike many larger counties, San Jacinto County has a shared District Attorney and County Attorney, meaning that not only does the DA’s office prosecute felony cases, they handle all misdemeanor cases, while also advising county government officials on contracts and other matters.
It is a heavy load for Dillon and his two prosecutors, Rob Freyer and Tony Dodson. Freyer and Dillon also serve as protem prosecutors in counties where the DAs have to recuse themselves from certain cases. Freyer has two upcoming cases in Liberty County as a protem prosecutor and Dillon has four cases, scattered among Polk, Nacogdoches and Houston counties.