A defense lawyer told a Travis County jury Wednesday that convenience store clerk Juan Romero legally killed a beer thief in 2009 under Texas' property defense laws. But prosecutor Rob Drummond argued that Romero shot Jorge Vielma out of anger.
Romero, 24, was frustrated that the South Austin store where he had worked had fallen victim repeatedly to people who took beer and ran out the door without paying, and he was frustrated that the police did nothing about it, Drummond said.
"This had nothing to do with the 12-pack that Jorge Vielma dropped," Drummond said, "and everything to do with anger in that man's heart."
Drummond spoke during closing arguments of Romero's murder and tampering with evidence trial in state District Judge Julie Kocurek's court. When he was done, the jury deliberated for about two hours without reaching a verdict. They will return today to continue deliberating.
Romero's defense lawyers argued that he had the right to use deadly force to recover the beer that Vielma, 22, had taken from the store on the southeast corner of Ben White Boulevard and South First Street shortly before midnight on Aug. 15, 2009.
"It's real simple," defense lawyer Pat McNelis argued. "You're allowed to protect your property in the state of Texas."
He cited a Texas property defense statute that states that a person may kill if he "reasonably believes" the force is necessary to prevent someone from escaping immediately after stealing from the person during the nighttime. The shooter also must believe that the property cannot be protected by other means and that he would be at risk by trying to get the property back using less than deadly force.
Defense lawyer Thomas Fagerberg said the lack of previous police attention to crimes at the store led Romero to believe that there was no other way to recover property.
Romero is free on bail and working at a Johnson City convenience store owned by the same man who owns the Ben White store. He did not testify at the trial but told police the day after the shooting that he began bringing a gun to work because of the thefts and had previously fired warning shots at people at the store but didn't have the guts to shoot them.
In a recorded video interview played for the jury Tuesday, Romero told a detective that he did not verbally warn Vielma and saw no weapon in Vielma's hand, but that he believed he had the right to shoot because it was at night.
Romero said he fired a warning shot and then fired at the man, who dropped the beer. He said he fired 16 rounds in all and picked up the beer the man dropped and the spent shell casings afterward but did not call police.
Romero said he later thought to himself that "I (expletive) someone over over $12" but that "it was his decision."
Vielma was found dead in a friend's car about two hours after the shooting. A deputy medical examiner said he died from a single gunshot wound to the back that severed a vein.
Romero faces up to life in prison on the murder charge. He is also charged with tampering with evidence, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence. That charge accuses him of concealing shell casings and surveillance video. Because he has never been convicted of a felony, Romero could receive probation if convicted.
Romero told police he deleted surveillance video taken during the shooting, but police recovered it from a store computer, and it was played for the jury Wednesday.
The video showed Romero running out of the store after a man who was carrying beer. Three cameras caught part of the incident, but none captured the shooting. One video showed that Romero was apparently smiling while returning to the store after the shooting.
Drummond, the prosecutor, said during his closing argument that normal people don't smile after shooting someone in defense of property. Drummond said that Romero also chuckled while police interviewed him.
"You saw from his demeanor ... from his look that this was about anger; it was not about defending property," Drummond said. "Under the law of the State of Texas, ... that's murder."