Sentenced to death: The death penalty in Central Louisiana - KALB-TV News Channel 5 & CBS 2

Sentenced to death: The death penalty in Central Louisiana

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RAPIDES PARISH, La. (KALB News Channel 5) -- Next month, Thomas Steven Sanders is set to stand trial at federal court in Alexandria for a murder case that could carry a death penalty sentence if convicted.

Sanders is accused of "interstate kidnapping" and the "death of a person through the use of a firearm," stemming from an incident that occurred Labor Day weekend 2010.

That incident involved a mother, Suellen Roberts, who Sanders had dated. And, her 12-year-old daughter, Lexis, both from Las Vegas.

Sanders is accused of shooting and killing Suellen in Arizona, then driving Lexis to Catahoula Parish, where police say he shot her, slit her throat, then dumped her in the woods.

In a strange twist, Sanders had been declared legally dead by his family years prior.

Death penalty cases in our area are rare. So, in preparation for this case, News Channel 5's Brooke Buford (Twitter: @brookebuford) took a look at the last death penalty case to take place here.

This one involved a mass murder in Poland, and the killer sentenced to death for the crime, Darrell James Robinson.

"I don't want to be mad," said Doris Foster, a relative to the family that was murdered. "But, I think it's wrong that they have let him live this long when my family is all dead and buried."

It's been more than a dozen years since Darrell James Robinson was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1996 murders of Doris Foster's cousin, Billy Lambert, his sister Carol Hooper, Hooper's daughter Maureen Kelley, and Kelley's baby Nicholas.

Robinson shot them each in the head at Billy's home in Poland. Foster found their lifeless bodies.

"When I pushed open the door, I saw Carol Ann laying in the living room, I didn't think she was dead," said Foster. "Then, I looked to the side and Billy was dead. Maureen was in front of the TV dead."

Robinson's youngest victim, 10-month-old Nicholas, was shot to death by the door.

Foster managed to escape before Robinson found her. She sped to the gas station to call 911. Rapides Parish deputies arrived, but Robinson was gone.

"In my 43 years of law enforcement, I've seen an awful lot," said Sheriff William Earl Hilton of RPSO. "I've seen a lot of homicides. I've seen a lot of suicides. But, when you see a baby, when a baby is the victim of a crime...shot right in the top of the head."

Robinson met Billy Lambert in rehab for alcohol abuse. Lambert invited him to stay with the family for the week. He had been there eight days before the murders on May 28, 1996.

After the shootings, he stole Lambert's truck and sped off before being found by police shortly after.

Rapides Parish Assistant District Attorney Mike Shannon was assigned to the case. He recommended the death penalty.

"When you have a 1st degree case, just because of the nature of the beast, it takes much longer to resolve the case because with the death penalty involved, you have a lot more motions to file," said Shannon.

Shannon says he recommended the death penalty because the four murders "shock the conscience." From the beginning, he says the case was tough to prosecute because the murder weapon was never found.

"All the evidence was circumstantial evidence," said Shannon. "Therefore you had to build a bunch of little things to build up to the big picture."

On the other side of the courtroom was defense attorney Mike Small, known now for defending high profile clients like Governor Edwin Edwards and Amanda Gutweiler. He took the case pro bono.

"I think most lawyers who defend death penalty cases, myself included, are strongly opposed to the death penalty," said Small. "I'm opposed to it in all circumstances. Indeed, that opposition is the very thing that motives, I think, most attorneys to defend death penalty cases."

Small says there's two parts to a death penalty trial, the "guilt or innocence" stage and the "penalty" stage. He represented Robinson for the first part.

"If he allows the jury to think of the accused as some mad dog killer, as the prosecutor will no doubt seek to portray him, he'll lose what I call the trial for life," said Small. "The penalty phase is literally a trial for life."

Ultimately, Robinson lost that "trial for life" on March 14, 2001. He was sentenced to death and to spend his last days at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Robinson's death penalty conviction is still under appeal. Therefore, no date of execution has been set. 

Meanwhile, Thomas Steven Sanders' federal trial is expected to start August 18.

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