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‘Sudden passion’ cited as Taylor’s murder charge, prison exposure are reduced

December 1, 2018

Elizabeth Taylor, the woman convicted of fatally shooting her abusive boyfriend, could serve as few as two years in prison after a judge, prosecutors and her defense attorneys agreed Friday that she acted out of “sudden passion.”

Taylor, 71, was sentenced to four years on a reduced charge of second-degree felony murder for shooting Larry Atwood, 58, as the pair were driving north on the Eastex Freeway near Beaumont’s Home Depot on Oct. 11, 2017. She will be eligible for parole consideration after two years.

She faced up to 99 years after a jury convicted her Thursday night of first-degree murder for intentionally causing bodily injury that led to Atwood’s death. She was not convicted on a second count of “intentionally and knowingly” killing him.

“I want you to know that I’m very sorry that this happened,” Taylor said Friday in some of the only public words over the course of the four-day trial. “I loved Larry very much and his sister can equate to that.”

Prosecutors and the defense reached an agreement that Taylor’s charge could be reduced to second-degree murder because she was found to have committed “a crime of passion,” state District Judge John Stevens said.

Both sides believed the arrangement was “fair, given the circumstances,” he said.

Taylor waived her right to a jury for the sentencing phase and, per the agreement, the right to appeal her sentence.

Video: Lumberton man names alleged shooter before death (graphic)

It’s “exceedingly rare” for a defendant to have a murder conviction reduced and a sentence meted out in the manslaughter punishment range, said Houston criminal defense attorney Neal Davis, who was not involved in the case but has expertise in cases involving battered spouses.

Davis applauded prosecutors for trying to do the right thing rather than “just trying to win.”

He said he believed Taylor was given an opportunity to “accept responsibility, learn from her experiences and hopefully have some life left to live.”

Texas law defines sudden passion as “passion directly caused by and arising out of provocation by the individual killed.” Court testimony showed that Atwood was slamming Taylor’s head into the dashboard while he was driving that Wednesday afternoon.

State law says a defendant may raise the issue of sudden passion only during a trial’s punishment stage.

Taylor’s attorneys cited “battered-spouse syndrome” throughout the defense and presented a psychiatrist who testified that Taylor showed classic signs of the syndrome, which he described as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Edward Gripon testified on Wednesday that it was likely Taylor stayed in a relationship with Atwood because she professed to love him and had a hope that he would not hurt her again.

In her brief statement on Friday near the end of the trial, Taylor said she remained true to Atwood even when he was in prison.

“I was waiting for him to come home and thought he’d be better,” she said. “ … Tell his sisters I’m sorry.”

In making her victim-impact statement, Atwood’s sisters Shirley Harris and Faye Simmons addressed Taylor directly.

“You took our brother away from us,” Simmons said. “It’s only you I blame because we haven’t got our brother to love and share. I hope you think about it every day for the rest of your life.”

Harris said that she was “satisfied” with the conviction verdict, which was read Thursday night as Atwood’s family members held hands on the front row of the state District Court.

Taylor’s granddaughter, Tasheia Rapp, said this week has been “very emotional.”

“There’s no good outcome to either side,” Rapp said. “Our main thing is to make sure domestic violence victims, women and men, reach out to someone.”

Taylor’s sister Carolyn Lompe said there was “so much abuse” in Atwood and Taylor’s relationship.

“It could’ve been her on that marble table,” she said.

Defense attorney Ryan Gertz said after Friday’s sentencing that perhaps focusing on technicalities, such as the definition of the word imminent, “might’ve played better to this jury than to a jury that might react emotionally.”

The nine women and three men deliberated for hours, examining the suspected murder weapon and reviewing Taylor’s hour-long interview with Beaumont police following her arrest.

After talking with a few jurors after the trial, Gertz said it appeared their decision hinged on “immediacy and the level of force versus whether or not it was right or wrong.”

“The challenge with jury trials is, you never know who the jurors really are,” he said.

Dustin Galmor, Taylor’s other attorney, began the defense’s closing argument on Thursday with a picture of his grandmother, who at the time of the photo was the same age as Taylor.

Galmor asked jurors to put themselves in Taylor’s shoes, “strapped to the seat” next to Atwood as he jerked Taylor by the hair on the back of the neck, repeatedly pounding her head into the dashboard and at one point grabbing her nose as if he was trying to break it or to suffocate her.

“I don’t think we regret the trial strategy we took,” Gertz said. “It just turned out not to be a successful strategy.”

“My concern about this verdict is that it says to people in Jefferson County that if you are being abused, if you are a woman being abused by a man, don’t defend yourself because you may go to prison,” Gertz said. “And that is a scary, scary message to be sending.”

Prosecutor Mike Laird declined to comment on Friday.

phoebe.suy@beaumontenterprise.com

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