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Sentence upheld for habitual offender who spat at police during domestic violence arrest

In World
June 10, 2024

Justices with the 7th Court of Appeals Texas have upheld a Lubbock jury’s highly debated 70-year sentence handed in April 2023 to a violent repeat offender who spat on police officers arresting him in connection with a domestic assault investigation.

The opinion was issued May 15 and was one of two Lubbock County cases involving lengthy prison sentences that the appellate court ruled on this year.

Appellate attorneys for Larry Pearson argued the trial court judge allowed prosecutors to present evidence during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial that prejudiced the jury against him.

Pearson stood trial on two counts of harassment of a public official stemming from an April 2, 2022, arrest during which, court records state he spat on multiple police officers who responded to the scene. However, only two officers were listed as victims in the indictment.

The police response resulted after a Lubbock patrol officer traveling in the 200 block of Zenith Avenue pulled over a vehicle after it veered in front of him.

Lubbock County Sheriff's Deputies escort Larry Pearson out of the 140th District Court on Wednesday where a jury sentenced him to 70 years in prison after finding him guilty of harassment of a public servant.

Lubbock County Sheriff’s Deputies escort Larry Pearson out of the 140th District Court on Wednesday where a jury sentenced him to 70 years in prison after finding him guilty of harassment of a public servant.

Pearson’s girlfriend at the time was the driver and the officer described her as “visibly distraught.” She was crying and injured.

She told the officer that Pearson was armed. Officers later found a weapon that turned out to be an air pistol.

The officer called for back up and Pearson refused to obey commands to exit the vehicle. Nearly a dozen officers arrived at the scene to pull Pearson from the vehicle, restrained him and placed him in a patrol vehicle.

Pearson was in the vehicle for about an hour and repeatedly complaining about the tightness of his restraints. His frustration boiled over and he began kicking the patrol vehicles window, leading to another struggle with officers during which Pearson spat and berated them.

One of the indicted victims was spat on three times and was struck in the face.

Another officer who Pearson spat on was struck in the eye and lip. The officer told jurors that after she was struck Pearson told her, “***** that’s what you deserve.”

Officers ultimately restrained Pearson to a backboard, placed him in a paddy wagon and he was taken to the county jail.

Court records show Pearson’s spitting was so persistent officers placed a spit hood on him.

However, during the trip to the jail, Pearson managed to undo the spit hood and immediately resumed spitting when officers opened the paddy wagon doors.

Pearson’s girlfriend was ordered to testify at the trial under subpoena but did not appear.

Presenting video evidence at trial

However, prosecutors, under defense attorneys’ objections, presented a portion of footage from a responding officer’s body-worn camera that showed jurors that the domestic assault was the reason for the police response.

Defense attorneys at trial objected to the evidence, saying it violated Pearson’s right to confront witnesses as the alleged victim of the assault did not testify.

District Judge Douglas Freitag of the 140th District Court admitted the video evidence, though he made it clear to jurors that the weapon found on Pearson wasn’t a firearm.

Evidence of the defendant’s previous crimes or other bad acts are normally inadmissible during the guilt-innocence phase of a trial. However, a court can admit the evidence if prosecutors aim to use it to provide context to explain why a defendant was charged or arrested.

State appellate attorneys argued the video evidence met the context exception for the rule.

“Criminal offenses do not happen in a vacuum,” the state’s brief states. “The jury was entitled to know why law enforcement approached (Pearson) in the first instance. To avoid the nature of the callout would likely have left the jury with more questions than it had answers. And, it was clear from the State’s argument for admission of the evidence that the purpose of the testimony was to give the jury context, not for purposes of character conformity.”

The justices agreed, saying the video evidence was admitted to provide context for the encounter with police.

“Without this contextual evidence, jurors would not have any information regarding why (Pearson) had any interaction with police officers, why the vehicle in which (Pearson) was a passenger was parked in the middle of the street, and why police promptly responded to the scene with guns drawn,” the opinion, written by Justice Larry Doss, states. “As such, no abuse of discretion is shown.”

A lengthy prison sentence

Pearson’s appellate attorneys also argued the lengthy prison sentence was grossly disproportionate and therefore violated his Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

Harassment of a public servant is a third-degree felony that normally carries a punishment of two to 10 years in prison.

Pearson’s criminal history, which included two prison sentences, enhanced his punishment range to 25 years to life in prison. His previous convictions also disqualified him from probation.

In his appeal, Pearson’s attorney argued the 70-year sentence, though within the statutory range, was grossly disproportionate and unconstitutionally high compared to similar cases.

In this case, none of the officers were permanently injured by Pearson’s actions or required medical intervention, Pearson’s appeal states.

At trial, Pearson’s attorney told jurors in his closing argument that the officers failed to deescalate the situation that drove his client to act the way he did.

“Police officers routinely encounter individuals and situations that could be construed as harassing,” Pearson’s appeal states. “While this is an unfortunate reality for our law enforcement, it is also the nature of the occupation. If every person who offended a police officer spent seventy years in prison, the already minimal amount of prison space in this State would be completely obliterated. As such, this Court must conclude that the punishment assessed is grossly disproportionate to the offenses committed.”

Included in the brief was a list of cases of harassment of a public servant filed since 2008 in Lubbock County that resulted in sentences ranging from probation to 15 days in jail to 10 years in prison.

“No sentence in the data comes close to the seventy years that (Pearson) received for this offense,” the brief states.

Justice Larry Doss, who wrote the opinion, stated that the justices couldn’t rule on the issue since Pearson’s trial attorney didn’t preserve the issue because he didn’t object to it at the time.

However, the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office argued that, had the issue been preserved for appeal, the record shows Pearson’s punishment wasn’t grossly disproportionate.

The apellate attorney for the DA’s office argued in her brief that the scope of punisment trials go beyond the offense for which defendants were on trial.

In Texas, jury trials are split in two phases, the guilt-innocence phase and the punishment phase, which typically happen back-to-back.

In the second phase, prosecutors often tell jurors that they aren’t just punishing defendants, particularly repeat offenders, for the charged offense but for their character, prior convictions and criminal acts that tend to show a propensity for committing crimes, reminding them the purposes for punishment include deterring future crimes, promoting respect for the law and protecting society.

In Pearson’s case, jurors were presented with his criminal history which included convictions for domestic assault, a class A misdemeanor, three times from 2014 to 2018. Class A misdemeanors carry a punishment of up to a year in jail.

In 2010 he pleaded guilty in Lubbock County to a first degree felony count of aggravated robbery and was placed on deferred adjudication for 10 years. However, he was sentenced to five years in prison after his probation was revoked.

In 2019, he was convicted of continuous family violence and sentenced to two years in prison.

Court records show that while Pearson was in jail for the harassment of a police officer charge, a protective order was issued prohibiting him from contacting his girlfriend or coming within 200 feet of her home.

Pearson violated that protective order by calling her from the jail and then going to her home and fighting her about two weeks after he was released on bond. He was arrested and booked into the jail where he remained until his trial.

Prosecutor’s appellate attorney argued that Pearson’s conduct during the arrest, his criminal history and his behavior during the trial and while in jail were severe enough to justify the unusually lengthy prison sentence.

“Here, the victims, two law enforcement officers, did nothing more than attempt to detain (Pearson) to investigate an ongoing disturbance,” the state’s appellate brief states. “In return, (Pearson) verbally harassed officers, attempted to damage police property, and repeatedly spit at officers. This was conduct that the jury was not willing to accept as acceptable.”

Further appeal being pursued

Meanwhile, Pearson also made multiple outbursts during the trial, which included hurling expletives at a prosecutor as she delivered her closing argument, telling her to “keep my name out your mouth, (expletive).”

While in jail, court records show in the year Pearson has been waiting for his trial, he racked up about 30 disciplinary reports that included being uncooperative and hostile to jail staff, exposing himself to jailers and possessing contraband.

“The jury was tasked with evaluating the appropriate punishment not just for the conduct of harassment of a public servant, but for a habitualized offender with multiple prior convictions,” the state’s appellate brief states. “Given Appellant’s history, the jury’s sentence was not a punishment that fell outside of the legislatively prescribed range and was based upon the sentencer’s informed normative judgment.”

Pearson’s appellate attorney has asked the Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court on criminal matters, to review the case.

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Lengthy prison sentences upheld in two Lubbock County cases

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